Current Affairs

Matt Taibbi Week: Day 5

Well, I certainly hope you've enjoyed Matt Taibbi Week. Today, just a quick rundown of his books and his author bio for you. Do give him a try sometime. I know he gave me a lot to smile about this week.*

Taibbi's first book is titled The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia (co-authored with Mark Ames), and is about his years spent in Russia, much of it editing an independent periodical called eXile. This is the only book of his I haven't read.

Then there's Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season, a campaign diary of sorts from the 2004 election.

Next, Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire, another collection of political and cultural essays.

In 2008 he published The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire, about his experiments going undercover in various religious and political subcultures. Promoting this book is when he did the great Daily Show segment about casting out the demon of anal fissures. (I liked this book a lot too.)

And then there was 2010's Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History, one of my favorite books of the year and a truly depressing read. You should still read it, though.

Now check out one of the guy's author bios. I'm sorry, you've just got to like a guy with a bio like this (although this is an early one, and some info is outdated): "Matt Taibbi is a columnist for New York Press and a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. He worked for ten years as a journalist in Russia, where he edited the satirical magazine The eXile. He has also played baseball for the Red Army and professional basketball in Mongolia."

Come on. Professional basketball in Mongolia? I love this guy.

*A friend of mine once opined that she saw him speak at some sort of program and she was disturbed by how chipper he was. As in, how can a guy who knows all this and writes such seemingly cynical things about politics, culture, and finance possibly be chipper? Well, that just made me like him better. (I think he recently got married too, and if that's making him chipper, well, that's just too cute for words.) That reminds me of when Stephen Colbert was interviewing the great William Langewiesche about his book The Atomic Bazaar, and Colbert asked him how he could sleep (knowing what he knows about the inevitability of everyone, even nations that aren't the U.S.--gasp--getting nuclear weapons). Langewiesche didn't bat an eyelash as he answered, "I sleep very well." I don't know why I find that comforting but I do.


Matt Taibbi Week: Day 4

For the last few weeks, I've had the good fortune to actually get back to doing some reading. Mr. CR is aces about looking after CRjr, so lately I've grabbed a few minutes when they're having quality pop-and-son time to read a bit. Imagine my disappointment when I kept reading things that were okay, but weren't exactly had to put down, either. Until I got Matt Taibbi's Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire.

Elephants This book is another collection of political essays, with a few others on such topics as Hurricane Katrina (the essay on that subject is UNBELIEVABLE) and the teaching of intelligent design in schools thrown in for good measure. Published in 2007, it's amazing how long ago some of these stories seem. Jack Abramoff? Does anyone even remember Jack Abramoff? (We should--man, that guy pulled a lot of shit.) And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same:

"Both sides were right, obviously, which made for the usual perfect comedy of American politics: two entrenched camps determined not to communicate, but still engaged in an extravagantly violent public waste of time and money, with no resolution visible, or even imaginable." (p. 92.)

Sounds like a paragraph about the current debt ceiling fight, doesn't it? It's actually about the 2005 legal case Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District et al. and the teaching of intelligent design.

And, anybody miss George W. Bush? This is how Taibbi sums up Bush's 2005 tour to announce victory in Iraq:

"God bless George Bush. The Middle East is in flames and how does he answer the call? He rolls up to the side entrance of a four-star Washington hotel, slips unobserved into a select gathering of the richest fatheads in his dad's Rolodex, spends a few tortured minutes exposing his half-assed policies like a campus flasher, and then ducks back into his rabbit hole while he waits for his next speech to be written by paid liars. If that isn't leadership, what is?" (p. 108.)

I enjoyed his previous book about the 2004 election cycle, Spanking the Donkey, but I think I liked this one even better. And I haven't even told you yet about his masterful essays explaining how Congress (doesn't) work and every idea you have about how bills and amendments get passed is laughably wrong--those are titled "Four Amendments and a Funeral" and "The Worst Congress Ever" and you just plain simply have to read them for yourselves.


Matt Taibbi Week: Day 3, or Happy Birthday, Thomas Friedman, you pig.

Today, a word about who might enjoy reading Matt Taibbi's books.

Taibbi is a political and cultural reporter who is not shy about sharing his opinions. But the great thing about Matt Taibbi is not so much that he shares his actual political opinions; rather, it is that he is not afraid to say opinionated things about all political candidates and many other figures in the news, including head finance honchos and other people in power (as well as his fellow journalists). This makes him, in my mind, one of the few actually "objective" reporters out there. I don't actually know who Matt Taibbi would vote for, or if he even votes, although he did seem rather fond of Dennis Kucinich in his book Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season. A few guidelines, then, for offering Matt Taibbi in reader's advisory situations, or when recommending books to friends:

1. Do not give him to true believer Republicans. That's not going to work.

2. Do not give him to true believer Democrats. That's not going to work either, although he probably does hew more closely in personal politics to what would be Democratic principles, if Democrats had any principles.

3. Do not give him to readers who can't stand swearing. This is the man who called Alan Greenspan a "one in a billion asshole," after all.

4. Do give him to people who have voted for candidates like Kucinich, Ron Paul, Ralph Nader, etc. Any candidate who the media brands as someone who doesn't stand a chance, in short.

5. Do give him to fans of Hunter S. Thompson (Taibbi also makes reference to his own personal drug use, which I don't particularly need but for which I don't particularly blame him). Readers who enjoy Joe Bageant may like him as well.

6. Do give him to readers who enjoy learning about the media; Taibbi always gives great behind-the-scenes information about how journalism really works (or doesn't).

7. Do give him to any readers who are tired of the political choices in America, and who need a laugh. Give him to anyone who might agree with this statement of his, made in Spanking the Donkey: "I believe America's greatest problem is its incivility, its intolerance to new ideas, its remorseless hatred of weakness and failure, and the willingness of its individual citizens to submerge their individual cowardice within the vicious commerce-driven standards of our national self-image." (p. 144.)

7. Last but not least, do not give him to fans of Thomas Friedman. Taibbi is not a fan. And I'm particularly happy to post those links today, on Thomas Friedman's birthday. Happy Birthday, and many more to you, Thomas Friedman!

So there you have it, with only one short birthday wishes digression, a handy-dandy guide to Reader's Advisory involving Matt Taibbi.


Matt Taibbi Week: Day 2

A long time ago, after he did a hilarious interview on The Daily Show to promote it, I read Matt Taibbi's book The Great Derangement, and enjoyed it very much. He also blew me away last year with his title Griftopia, which was the first book I read that really helped me understand the financial events of the last few years. So last week when I wanted to read some more of his books, I picked up Smells like Dead Elephants and Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season from the library.

Today's quote comes from Spanking the Donkey, a compilation of some of his journalism pieces published during the years 2003 to 2004 (in Rolling Stone, The Nation, and New York Press, among others). This is not my favorite book of Taibbi's, but the following quote IS one of my favorite paragraphs of his of all time:

"As it stands, the Republicans are tougher than the Democrats because they will not hesitate to bomb the hell out of anyone, provided that the target cannot meaningfully fight back. But here's the thing: the Republicans are not interested in ruling other countries, any more than they are interested in ruling the United States. All they really want to do is make money. They only use military force insofar as it is necessary to (a) extract another country's resources, and (b) ensure that these countries become and remain markets for American products. Beyond those parameters, they're amazingly squeamish about using the military." (p. 135.)

I hear ringing. I think it's the ring of truth.

Now, a word to the wise: just because that paragraph admirably sums up the Republicans, don't assume that Taibbi agrees with the Democrats either. More tomorrow on who might enjoy reading Matt Taibbi, and more on this book later in the week.


Matt Taibbi Week: Day 1

I have been having a cranky summer.

There is no good reason for this. My life is better than I deserve and than I have any right to expect. But still, I seem to be having more and longer periods of funk. A lot of this is personal and a lot of it is my own laziness, but some of it also comes from listening to NPR while CRjr and I eat our meals. I try not to pay any attention to politics anymore, but the more I hear things like the Republicans sticking to their line on not raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy, in order to "encourage the economy" (yeah right), the more I want to puke. And here's something else I know: the Democrats are no better. I always feel toward the Democrats the way Everybody Loves Raymond's Debra often felt about her husband Ray: "Idiots."

And then, like a sparkling little beam of sunshine, into my funk came Matt Taibbi.

For weeks I've been reading nonfiction that didn't particularly set my world on fire. I've been reading a lot of okay books, but I keep finding myself about 100 to 200 pages in and not particularly needing to finish the book. This is not a good sign. So, because I knew I liked Matt Taibbi, I requested some of his earlier books from the library to (hopefully) give myself a reading treat. It worked! I've been reading Taibbi all week and let me just say, I LOVE the guy. I want Matt Taibbi to run for president, except Matt Taibbi would be too smart to run for president.

So all this week, you're just going to have to bear with me as I share some of my favorite Taibbi quotes. In the meantime, make sure you're reading his blog, too.


Alternative titles for Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Imagine the Most Boring Woman You Know Telling You about Her Two Gifted and Talented Children

A Bunch of Stereotypes, Followed By a Bunch of Disclaimers, Followed By No Story At All

Parent This Way, Except It Didn't Work for Me 50% of The Time

People Will Buy Any Kind of Shit Book On Parenting, So Here You Go

Tiger I honestly don't know why this Amy Chua' book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother became a bestseller, or why it's gotten such a huge media barrage. I got to page 60, was bored, read the end, was bored, and was annoyed by whatever extra bits I read in the middle. Let me nutshell it for you: Pushy woman, in the name of being a "Chinese parent," pushes her kids to be their best at academics and music. Except she's not really a Chinese parent (which is just a convenient label for provoking outrage in the media; she says "I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish, and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise," p. 4), which is why she "lets" her second, rebellious daughter ease up a bit on the violin. (Her first daughter's personality was more amenable to being pushed, evidently, as she never really rebelled.) Seriously. That's the arc of the story.

I don't know. Maybe I'm just not in the mood for a book about these sort of rich people problems (Gasp! My child wants to take tennis rather than violin!) I know I don't have the time to read about some woman who needs her children to be the best at everything to do--and I certainly don't want to stop and think about the days when CRjr has to go to school and I might have to interact with parents like this. It's too depressing for words. Back to the library with this one.


It was the wrong time for me to read this book.

I try not to go crazy with the capital-letters-and-period style, but I can't help it here. I hated Maira Kalman's And the Pursuit of Happiness SO. MUCH.

Happiness I'll give it this: it's a very different book. It's big (470 pages) and heavy and a pseudo-graphic novel in that it contains numerous illustrations. It's Kalman's take on American history, in chapters organized by the months of the year ("January: The Inauguration. At Last." "February: In Love with A. Lincoln."), although it also includes anecdotes from more current affairs.

It didn't help that the book starts with Kalman traveling to President Obama's inauguration. She doesn't tell a straightforward story; she sprinkles some text with drawings on each page: "The angels are singing on this glorious day," followed by an illustration of an angel, followed by "And we mortals, driving down to Washington, passing white mountains and black mountains of unidentified industrial stuff, listen to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing words from a Bach cantata...'Now is the time of grace.' The heart is racing. And all I can say is hallelujah." (pp. 4-7.)

And all I can say is, calm down, lady, you're just going to the inauguration of another shithead politician. Who actually may be worse than other politicians because he seemed to promise something better, but has turned out to be more aggressively just like every other shithead politician than even I, in all my cynicism, thought he was going to be.

As you can see, it was just the WAY wrong time for me to be reading this book.

There's also lots of stuff in it about the Founding Fathers, particularly Jefferson, and those parts of the book are vaguely interesting and informative. But everything else about this book, including the fact that most pages have just a few words of text or one drawing (seems wasteful to me), simply annoyed the hell out of me. Friends who liked it have told me they enjoyed the whimsy of it, but I guess my current mood is just beyond whimsy. Ugh. Rarely have I appreciated more the words of Dorothy Parker, who once reviewed a book and said something to the effect that she "didn't want to put it down...I wanted to throw it across the room." I would throw this one across the room, and hard, but I don't want to put a dent in my wall. Gah.


A word from Wisconsin.

For those of you who watch the news, you've probably been seeing some stories about my home state and our governor's bid to, hell, I don't even know what he's all trying to do. Take away collective bargaining rights from state worker unions, and also privatize the state's power plants (read Matt Taibbi's Griftopia if you want to see how that sort of thing turns out), etc. etc. Here's how I'm going to nutshell it: he wants to pull a whole bunch of shit that he acts like will save the state money, when we all know it won't, and it'll all probably end up costing more money, and he's just a big jerk politician like all the rest of them, looking to hook up his friends with sweet gigs and maybe get a little national publicity for himself.

I'm not going to get into it any further, as this is not a political blog, and I don't know enough about anything that's going on to comment.* The older I get the more I see the wisdom of Matt Groening's Life Is Hell cartoon books, in which someone is always saying "mistakes were made." This is largely how I feel about politics these days, and our country in general. Mistakes have been made, by unions and management and state and national governments and individuals alike.**

Already this is too long a lead-in to what I really want to talk about: Paul Clemens's quiet little book Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant.

I love Paul Clemens, and have ever since I stumbled across his superlative memoir, Made in Detroit. So when I saw this new book, I got super excited, because my favorite nonfiction authors only write so many books, and a new one is always exciting. (Come on, William Langewiesche and Tom Bissell--get writing!) I also thought this one was going to be an investigative work on actually working in a closing auto plant, and was eager to read Clemens's take on the labor situation.

What I got was something much different. And this post is too long already, so let's adjourn until next week--I'll actually try to get the book itself reviewed for Monday's post. In the meantime, do your homework: watch this clip of Clemens talking on The Daily Show.

*I try to be informed--as a former librarian, of course, my work almost always depended on government largesse--so I've read some articles, and I've read enough books now to have a pretty good idea of what's going on nationally. But still: the more I learn, the less I realize I know, and the less I want to shout out what little I know. Hence my ambivalence toward the protests.***

**Actually, my favorite article about the whole fiasco has been the one in which it was pointed out that no one knows how much all the extra cop hours are going to cost, and who's going to pay them. Now THAT's how democracy works, baby!

***Don't yell at me. I've protested in my time, and it never goes well. Personally or in the larger scope of things.


Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: Working in the Shadows

I know. One of these nonfiction gift choices should be a lighter read. I'll find one somewhere, eventually. But this year all the really good books seemed to be the more serious reads. (At least that's what I found.) And Gabriel Thompson's Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do was one of the best books of the year.

Working Thompson spent a year doing the back-breaking and cheap labor jobs that, as of now, are chiefly performed in our society by new legal and illegal immigrants. Along the way he worked cutting lettuce, butchering, and as a delivery man for a New York City restaurant. Along the way he learned that these jobs are poorly paid, demoralizing, and hell on the body. So what, you say, Barbara Ehrenreich did the same thing in her bestselling book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America.

Well, nothing against Ehrenreich, but this book is better. It makes you think about the big picture--not only the workers who are killing themselves for eight bucks an hour and change, but also what it says about us as a society; namely, that we are willing make people work themselves to death so we can have cheap food and goods.

Okay, maybe you don't give book gifts to make people think about the big picture. But maybe that is something we should be doing. Don't look on it as trying to bum people out; look at it as helping to educate others so we can all try and make the world a little better for each other. Isn't that part of what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown?

So, who might like this book?

Anyone who likes current event or investigative works like those by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Anyone who likes "stunt journalism," wherein an author does something for a year or so and then reports back on it.

Anyone who has shown an interest in learning more about labor history, American society and politics, or our food sources.


Obit shockers.

I'm not quite old enough (just yet) to scan the obituaries on a daily basis, but today I bought the Sunday paper just for something a bit different to read, and did a cursory glance over the obits. Wherein I was shocked to see that a high school classmate of mine has died from cancer. Which is lousy. Considering that this particular classmate, although he was good-looking, smart, and athletically talented, was also completely offbeat and thoroughly nice. (The percentage of high school boys who match that description, by my estimation, is roughly .000005% of that population.) This is not fair--I'll bet all the assholes from my high school class (who comprised 98.5% of the population) are still living. 

My local newspaper is now also including short obituaries "of note," which is actually kind of a helpful journalistic feature, and is where I learned that Chalmers Johnson, age 79, has also died. For those of you who have never read him, Johnson is best known for his master nonfiction work titled Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, in which he posited that--get this--America's increasingly imperial and military actions worldwide might increasingly foster anti-American sentiment and retaliations ("blowback.")* Two more volumes in the "Blowback Trilogy" are The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (American Empire Project) and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (American Empire Project). All three are fascinating reads, but if you're looking for a place to start (and some well-written nonfiction prose, to boot), I wouldn't look any further than Blowback.

So, gah. I think I'm off buying Sunday papers for a while; evidently I AM at an age where I should be reading the obituaries, and I don't want to.

*He wrote this before 9/11, mind you.


Small-town life: is it for you?

Somewhere in the fog of our first few weeks with CRjr I read a nifty little book titled Habits of the Heartland: Smalltown Life in Modern America by Lyn C. Macgregor. I really enjoyed it, but as I read it in bits and pieces, primarily around 3 and 6 a.m., and with only the amount of attention left over after worrying about the baby (Is he eating right? Is he gaining weight? Who is the genius who gave me a tiny little frail thing to care for?), you'll forgive me if I can't remember much of it.

It's more of a sociological treatise* than it is a recreational read, and it's published by the Cornell University Press, so it may not be for everyone who likes their nonfiction more drenched in narrative. But it was fascinating, and very accessible to read. Macgregor spent a fair amount of time living and working in the small-town community of Viroqua, Wisconsin** (population 4000 and change), and reports back on the very different social groups she found interacting there--from the "Alternatives" who consciously chose Viroqua for its small-town values and its Waldorf school, to the "Regulars," long-time Viroqua families and residents who live there because they have always lived there.

Anyone with an interest in community life and how groups of people REALLY interact might find a lot to consider here. It was also interesting enough to take my mind off pressing issues like baby poo colors and the efficacy of varying swaddling techniques, which I must say I appreciated.

*You know you're a total nerd for sociological treatises when you find yourself reading books like this and recognizing text references by author names alone--"Hm, Putnam, I wonder if she means his book Bowling Alone." Yes, she did. I LOVE sociological treatises.

**Another reason for my interest. You don't find a whole lot of book-length sociological nonfiction about Wisconsin.


The Wars We Inherit.

I have never, ever read anything like Lori E. Amy's The Wars We Inherit: Military Life, Gender Violence, and Memory.

I placed it on hold during one of my monthly trolls through the New Nonfiction list my friendly local library publishes, simply because I often do read titles about the military. But whatever I was expecting, it wasn't this. I only read it this past weekend because it's coming up due, and I thought, I should at least see what it's about. I wasn't particularly in the mood to start it, or feeling like a book about the military or violence. Although I could put it down after I started it, I found myself reading it again the morning after I first picked it up--at five a.m., when I couldn't sleep.

I don't know what I was expecting, from the title, but I wasn't expecting a mix of memoir and scholarly dissertation on the nature of violence in our world and in all of our lives. Amy opens the narrative with several chapters about her own child- and young adulthood, describing in particular her relationship with her father Frank, and his relationship with her mother and his other children. Raised as an army brat, while Frank served in both Korea and Vietnam (and then on various bases throughout the country), Amy tells a (sometimes horrific) tale of sexual and psychological abuse. She doesn't go into great detail, choosing instead to focus on how she went about remembering her childhood, and talking with her other sisters and brothers to piece together the stories of their family life.

So, you say, it's an abuse memoir--there's (so sadly) tons of those. No. Where Amy takes this book into new territory is her use of her own history, including her marriage as a young woman to a Navy officer, to "illuminate the relationship between the violence that we experience in our homes and the ways that we organize our culture." (p. 1.) In the second half of the book, Amy continues to explore not only her own family dynamic--and the dynamics of her sisters' families--but she also, ambitiously, takes on broader issues of militarization, gender roles, and violence in all aspects of our society.

It's a work you have to take as a whole, and at 189 pages, it should be taken as a whole. But there is one part I can't resist quoting, as the author remembers an experience she had while she was teaching school in 1991:

"I heard about it during third period--that Todd's stepfather had come back from Kuwait, where his reserve unit had been deployed during the Persian Gulf War, with pictures. He has these pictures displayed in the auditorium, and studnets have been going in all day to look at them. Photographs of dead Iraqis--limbs missing, blood everywhere. I can't believe the high school principal let him bring these pictures to school, set up a public display. I can't believe this school is sending students in to look, with pride, at pictures of dead Iraqis. The boys come back from the auditorium, euphoric, happy, proud...What are we doing to these boys? They are children--fourteen, fifteen, sixteen--they don't even shave! And these words are coming out of their mouths, dehumanizations, obscenities. They are learning to forget that these are human beings they are looking at...

I told my students: This is wrong. This war, these deaths, these things are cause for grief, for mourning, not for celebration. I told the principal these pictures should not be displayed. I had my students watch the news, explained to them the history of the 1980s, when the United States was funding Saddam Hussein and building his army. I tried to give them some of the historical context of which they were completely ignorant--about the Shah of Iran, the revolution and the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, the Iran-Iraq war. My students told their parents what I told them. Their parents compalined to the principal. The principal told me not to talk about the war anymore.

Amnesia. Denial. A blind patriotism that, in its blindness, loves killing." (pp. 122-123.)

I repeat: This is an extraordinary book. It is a university press book, but it belongs in every public library. Book groups should read it. Even if you don't agree with what the author is saying, I think you would have to agree that she is trying to be thoughtful and fair while she is saying it. In fact, speaking of high school, it should be required reading, along with Tom Bissell's The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam (Vintage Departures) and Theodore Nadelson's Trained to Kill: Soldiers at War.


Quick review of a book I DID read, but can't much remember.

It's always a bad sign when I read a nonfiction book and can't remember much of anything about it. This ist he case with Lee Eisenberg's Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep On Buying No Matter What.

ShoptimismI was really excited to get this one, too, because as much as I hate actually shopping, that's how much I love reading books about shopping, retail, and consumerism. Eisenberg is best known for his bestselling nonfiction title The Number, which was a book about retirement goals and attitudes (he's also a former editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine). He's a serviceable writer, and although I read this whole book, I can quite honestly say that nothing in it particularly resonated (there's absolutely no bookmarks in it marking parts I want to revisit or quote) with me, and I can't for the life of me remember much of it. This is weird. Normally the nuances and plot points of nonfiction books are all I have a superhuman memory for.

I think what bothered me most about this book was how Eisenberg failed to follow through on his subtitle: I didn't really get an idea of WHY the American consumer will keep shopping no matter what, and that's what I was really interested in. The book is organized into two parts; the view from the side of people trying to sell you things (Eisenberg introduces this by letting the reader in on his own shopping tours and habits), and the view from the side of the people doing the shopping (that is, YOU). Each half is filled with anecdotes of Eisenberg's experiences as both a shopper and a shiller (he also was an executive vice president at Lands' End ), historical tidbits about shopping, and explanations of research about how people shop and buy.

But, for whatever reason? The text just never coalesced for me. I wasn't particularly interested in Eisenberg's efforts* to formulate his own "Unified Buy Theory," and even though his explanations about different types of buyers ("classic," "romantic," etc.) were interesting, I still didn't finish the book feeling that the American consumer would, in fact, "keep on buying no matter what." I think the current economic/retail climate would side with me on this one.

*I also found his tone sometimes, annoyingly, to resemble something I think of as "old annoying slick businessman who's done pretty well out of the system, although I'm not sure how or why." He reminded me of Thomas Friedman, just a bit, who I tend to sum up more succinctly: "smug."**

**Interestingly, Thomas Friedman's rich wife's family made her/their fortune in malls and real estate. It's a wacky world.


Quick reviews of books I haven't read.

Now that's the kind of expertise you visit Citizen Reader for, isn't it?

Hay Through no fault of my own, I'm coming up against all sorts of library due dates for books that I really wanted to read, but which I have to return before I get the chance. The first such book is Angela Miller's Hay Fever: How Chasing a Dream on a Vermont Farm Changed My Life. I did read the first few chapters of this one, which seems to be a completely typical "driven city person tackles life on farm" narrative. Miller is a literary agent who still works several days a week in New York City, but who has also been moonlighting as a farmer and goat cheese maker on her Vermont farm for the last several years. The writing was okay but nothing special (it's actually co-written with another author, Ralph Gardner Jr., which isn't often a very good sign) and I must admit that I'm getting a little weary of the "back to the land" genre. I was particularly annoyed by this title because I don't understand how a woman past the age of sixty could have the energy to commute four hours back and forth to NYC once a week, be a high-powered literary agent, and also farm on the side. Where do these people get all the drive?

I was also annoyed by this, on the jacket's front flap copy: "Angela Miller and her husband set their sites on a charming nineteenth-century farm in Vermont." I know that's not the author's fault, but still...hacky. I will not be getting this one back.

God The second book in question is Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter. I only read the Introduction of this one, but I totally want to get it back and read it someday. I think Prothero's a good writer about religion; knowledgeable and open and not necessarily connected to any one dogma; I particularly enjoyed his earlier title Religious Literacy. And I like no-nonsense paragraphs like this one:

"Yet we know in our bones that the world's religions are different from one another. As my colleague Adam Seligman has argued, the notion of religious tolerance assumes differences, since there is no need to tolerate a religion that is essentially the same as your own. We pretend these differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, or more moral. But pretending that the world's religions are the same does not make our world safer. Like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous." (p. 4.) Awesome.

The last book that has to go back is a novel, David Nicholls's One Day, a new novel by the British author of the novel A Question of Attraction (which I really enjoyed, and which was made into an equally enjoyable movie, titled Starter for Ten, starring James McAvoy). I really wanted to read this one, and now I'm just not in the mood for its love story, told over the course of twenty years. Perhaps some other time.


Community reading.

I have been thinking a lot about community since reading the book I spoke about yesterday, Peter Lovenheim's In the Neighborhood.*

I liked the book, but I think there were some other books I liked better, or at least made me think about community and neighborhoods in slightly different ways (other than feeling guilty that I don't know many--any--of my neighbors). They were:

Peter Kilborn's Next Stop, Reloville: Life Inside America's New Rootless Professional Class. Not a perfect book, but it should make you realize what we're up against in our culture, trying to form communities. Kilborn points out that a large portion of the population simply has to move where their jobs are, and they want to live in innocuous, safe, homogeneous suburbs when they get there.

Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. A classic work, if a little dry, about changing participation in civil and public activities in America. I'd actually like to re-read this one; lately I've been wondering where we're going to go, soon, just to be among other people, as I believe video stores, music stores, and book stores are all on their way out.

Sudhir Venkatesh's Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. Again, a bit sociological, a bit academic, but really interesting, and a good look at how people everywhere are still bartering and doing what they can to get by utilizing the resources nearest them.

I know there's more but I'm blanking on them right now. Anyone else have any suggestions? Either way, and regardless of where your community is, I hope you have a great weekend.

*Many thanks to Katharine, by the way, for suggesting this one.


In the neighborhood.

Lovenheim I honestly didn't know what to think about Peter Lovenheim's new nonfiction book In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. On the one hand, I thought it was a pretty neat little work of investigative and personal journalism (and I love that it came in at 238 pages, making it easily readable over a couple of nights); but on the other hand, I am too conflicted in my own feelings about neighbors, and what constitutes a community,* to wholeheartedly enjoy anything on the subject.

The impetus for Lovenheim's story came from an incident in his neighborhood in 2000, when a couple who lived just a few houses away from him died in a murder-suicide (the husband killed his wife and then himself). He was shocked to find how little he himself had known about them and their lives, and it got him thinking:

"What would it take, I wondered, to penetrate the barriers between us? I thought about childhood sleepovers and the insight I used to get from waking up inside a friend's home. More recently, my family and I had done summer house exchanges with families in Europe--they stayed in our house while we stayed in theirs. After living in these strangers' homes--waking in their beds, fixing meals in their kitchens, and walking in their neighborhoods--we had a strong sense of what their lives were about, something that would have been impossible to achieve just through conversation...But would my neighbors let me sleep over and write about their lives from inside their houses?" (pp. xvii-xviii.)

In fact, a bunch of his neighbors DID let him sleep over, and his descriptions of those experiences are the most interesting chapters in the book. I really did kind of enjoy it. Lovenheim's a skillful enough narrator, and the stories move right along--he gets to know an elderly neighbor, as well as a number of families, and another woman who is struggling with cancer. Along the way they do all become somewhat more involved in each other's lives--Lovenheim facilitates his older neighbor's desire to help individuals (rather than volunteering) by matching him up with the woman with cancer who needs help driving to some appointments, and he does become friends with many more people on his block.

I wouldn't say this book is a favorite, but it definitely was interesting (I felt the same way about the author's earlier title, Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf, which I read a million years ago and enjoyed but didn't love--and which I didn't realize was done by the same author until I read his bio on this book). Check it out if you're interested in the continuing cultural debate about communities, neighborhoods, and social preferences.

*And when I say conflicted, I mean I want nothing to do, personally, with any of my actual neighbors. Ask Mr. CR: when taking walks, I have been known to cross the street to avoid talking to any of my neighbors who might actually be out in their front yards. I know the names of the people in the houses on either side of me, but other than that I only know other neighbors by nicknames like "the bossy old lady in the house behind us." I know this is not right, but I can't seem to help it. I try to be a good citizen otherwise; I volunteer time for other causes, I take care to keep my house and lawn neat, and I have called the cops before when noticing suspicious behavior at other houses on my street. But that doesn't change the fact that we once went to a movie specifically because we knew our nearest neighbor was throwing a party designed to help all the neighbors meet each other, just so we wouldn't have to go. Part of this is because I have made the choice, along with other members of my family, to stick near them and in my hometown, so I feel like THEY are my community. If you have moved away from or don't get along with your family, I can see how the need for neighbors might be a very real one indeed.


War nonfiction hiatus.

If American readers try to plead ignorance about how wars affect the soldiers who fight them, they're big fat liars. I have now officially read so many nonfiction narratives from American soldiers' points of view, or which tell their stories, that I can't read any more. I am done. I don't even know why I kept reading them in the first place; I keep thinking maybe at some point I'll understand our love for all things military in this country. But I never will.

Junger The latest entry in this canon was Sebastian Junger's War. It's been getting a lot of press attention, so I wanted to see it, but I should have quit reading last week when I was in the middle of it and couldn't tell you why I was still reading it. Junger is best known for his runaway bestseller The Perfect Storm, and he brings a lot of his skill in relating telling details, as well as for describing situations in which hope is pretty much lost, to this book. For a year (2007-2008) Junger was embedded with soldiers fighting in one of the most violent regions in Afghanistan, and this book is his account of, as the jacket copy exclaims, "what war actually feels like."

The book is divided into three sections: Fear, Killing, and Love. What I couldn't discern was how Junger was telling his story; anecdotes in the Love section, for example, seemed like they could just as easily have gone in Fear (etc.,) and I couldn't tell if the narrative was purely chronological, or what. Perhaps that was by design, proving how disconcerting war can be to your sense of time and continuity. Perhaps it was my fault, because I started reading the book pretty fast after page 100 or so. Either way, I couldn't keep hold of any sort of story arc.

What Junger does do well is share his personal observations on how the American soldiers withstand and actually come to love their ordeals. These are the tidbits that started to scare hell out of me after a while. Consider:

"War is a lot of things and it's useless to pretend that exciting isn't one of them. It's insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most excting things anyone engaged in war will ever know. Soldiers discuss that fact with each other and eventually with their chaplains and their shrinks and maybe even their spouses, but the public will never hear about it...In some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else. Combat isn't where you might die---though that does happen--it's where you find out whether you get to keep living. Don't underestimate the power of that revelation. Don't underestimate the things young men will wager in order to play that game one more time." (p. 144-145.)

"It's a stressful way to live but once it's blown out your levels almost everything else looks boring. O'Byrne knows himself: when he gets bored he starts drinking and getting into fights, and then it's only a matter of time until he's back in the system. If that's the case, he might as well stay in the system--a better one--and actually move upward...We are at one of the most exposed outposts in the entire U.S. military, and he's crawling out of his skin because there hasn't been a good firefight in a week. How do you bring a guy like that back into the world?" (p. 233.)

Cripes. This book saddened me like few have. Can't humans find larger meaning in anything except killing each other? Perhaps this book was just a little too much from the soldiers' point of view for me. If you'd like to read something on the subject, but not this book, I would highly recommend Theodore Nadelson's Trained to Kill: Soldiers at War, which was also depressing, but not quite as testosterone-soaked.


A book so good it actually put me off chicken.

Once again, it doesn't really sound right to say that I "enjoyed the hell out of" Gabriel Thompson's new book Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs [Most] Americans Won't Do, but that's really the only way to say it. The book is horrifying and depressing and stupendous.

Working Whether you call this type of work immersion journalism or "stunt lit," the style is becoming familiar: a journalist or a memoirist decides they are going to do something over the course of a set time period, and then write about it. One of the best known examples of this genre is Barbara Ehrenreich's now-classic title Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, in which she tried to live on the wages she could make as a waitress, cleaning person, and Wal-Mart employee. This book is very similar to Ehrenreich's, but for some reason it resonated with me more.

Thompson set out, not to live on the wages he could make, but simply to experience the types of jobs in this country that are often filled by immigrants and undocumented workers. He decided to spend two months each working in the agricultural field, a chicken processing plant, and the kitchens of New York City's restaurants. Each job is described over roughly a third of the book.

Let me tell you this right now: his first job, picking lettuce in Yuma, Arizona? One day of it would kill me.* Thompson joined workers who worked longer than eight-hour days, continually bending and cutting lettuce, all for $8.37 an hour. And his second job, at a chicken processing plant in Alabama, only got worse. Ehrenreich did a good job of describing the toll these types of jobs take on the human body, too, but for some reason, when Thompson was describing the pain and chronic conditions he was developing, I could actually feel how terrible he felt. The very fact that there was a vending machine of painkillers next to the pop and snacks machines at the chicken should indicate what workers are going through. 

This has been my favorite "eye-opening" book since John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. And I promise you, I've read many, many books about the horrors of chicken processing plants, but before now, I've gone the way of most Americans and tried not to think about where most of my food is coming from when I shop in the grocery store (although I also try to shop at markets and find alternative sources for my meat). But now? It'll probably wear off again, but even the thought of buying chicken breasts in the store makes me ill. What makes this book so different? Because of paragraphs like this (in Thompson's conclusion):

"At the moment, many of the issues being raised are centered on the consumer: Is the food safe for my children? How far did it travel to get to my grocery store? We should expand these concerns, demanding that the foods are produced in a way that is not only safe for consumers and environmentally sustainable, but also safe and sustainable for workers. This, in turn, demands that we rethink our notions of the benefits of cheap food, because much of the pressure driving down wages comes from companies in competition with each other for contracts with national chain...An order of twenty hot wings for less than $10 might seem like a great deal, but the hidden costs are borne by workers in places like Russellville." (p. 291.)

That says it pretty plainly, doesn't it? Check this book out.** If it doesn't make you a. more thankful for whatever job you might have (and I know about hating jobs, believe you me, and I sympathize), and b. slightly more interested in food issues and immigration reform, I'll eat my made-in-China shirt.

*And I grew up on a farm, so I am not unfamiliar with long days and hard physical work.

**It's a great book for another reason: Thompson's stories of worker solidarity are weirdly and totally inspirational.


Really, Michael Pollan?

I am thoroughly disgusted with Michael Pollan's new book Food Rules: An Eater's Manual.

Rules This did not come as a complete surprise, as I have never been a huge Michael Pollan fan. I know many people who enjoyed The Omnivore's Dilemma, and I don't think it was a bad book, but (here's a surprise) it was too long for me. And In Defense of Food was one of those books that seemed redundant to me--if you were the kind of person to read In Defense of Food, I figured it was probably likely you were the type of person who least NEEDED to read In Defense of Food. (It is wrong to stereotype. But I figured most readers of that book were probably fairly well-off people, who get a charge out of going to farmers' markets and "getting to know their farmers," and who had the time and money to worry about the origins of their food.) But still, it wasn't a terrible book, and to each their own, although, for my money, I prefer books about agriculture and society by Wendell Berry, or cookbooks by Mark Bittman.

But Food Rules is nothing but a 140-page distillation of In Defense of Food (which the author himself summed up in only seven words: "Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants.") with a few other folksy bits thrown in. Divided into three parts (what should I eat?, what kind of food should I eat?, and how should I eat?), each "chapter" consists of a rule (in large type) and a short explanation, such as "Eat only foods that will eventually rot," followed by information like "the more processed a food is, the longer the shelf life, and the less nutritious it typically is." What's really annoying is when the rules start to resemble each other, particularly early on; on page 9 you find "avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry," and on page 17, you have "avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce." Hmm.

I have looked the book over and can't discern if any of the money from its publication is going to a charity or something, which would be the only excuse. Otherwise I am going to assume that Pollan was simply looking for a way to squeeze a few more bucks out of his fans. What really hurts me is the fact that all libraries probably had to purchase multiple copies of this little money-grab (as there is usually high demand for Pollan titles of any kind), and for each $11 copy they had to buy, they couldn't buy a different book that had something new or different or better to say. Bah!


War...what IS it good for?

Right now in my house there's more than 1500 pages of information and history about war waiting to be read, spread out over four different titles. I am not going to have the time to get all of those pages read, nor am I going to have the stomach for it, so I will have to pick and choose.

The first book is titled Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq, by Susan A. Brewer. This book looks interesting, and I have always been interested in the uses and effects of propaganda (it's the former Communication Arts major in me), but it's a more scholarly book and I'm just not up for it right now. I did read the introduction last night, and must say I lost interest after this sentence: "As we will see, propaganda can promote a legitimate war such as World War II or a flawed conflict such as Vietnam." (p. 7.) Now, "legitimate" is a better word than "good" or "valid," but I still think it itself constitutes propaganda, and, if thought about, only continues to stigmatize veterans of later, more "flawed" conflicts. People think I'm nuts when I say things like this: but can any war really be called "legitimate"? I just don't know.

Stripping The second book is a monster titled Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War, by Mark Danner, and it looks really fascinating. In fact, because I would probably never get through this one in the four weeks allotted me by the library, I have been thinking about buying it, just to have it around and to support Mark Danner, who has written several interesting books based on his reporting career. In this book his journalistic pieces from a number of the world's hot spot--Haiti, Sarajevo, Iraq, Afghanistan--were chosen to reflect what the book jacket promises: "it tells the grim and compelling tale of the true final years of the American Century, as the United States passed from the violent certainties of the late Cold War, to the ideological confusions of the post-Cold War world, to the pumped up and ruthless evangelism of the War on Terror and the Iraq War, and the ruins they have left behind." Please note this book's cover, which I find scary as hell.

No judgment yet on David Finkel's book The Good Soldiers, as I have been waiting for it on hold for a long, long time, and still hope to get it read before it has to go back to the library.

But will I be in the mood for that one when I'm done with Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death, by Jim Frederick? I don't know. I only started it yesterday, but it's pretty chilling. In this one, reporter Frederick describes the activities of one specific platoon of soldiers--the 1st Battalion of the 502nd Infantry Regiment the 101st Airborne Division--who were deployed in late 2005 to try and maintain order in the violent triangle between the Iraq cities of Mahmudiyah, Lutufiyah, and Yusufiyah (just south of Baghdad). Under ridiculous amounts of threats and stress, some of the soldiers in this unit engaged in war crimes that I really don't even want to describe, but which involve the murder of an Iraqi family. Atrocities were also perpetrated against them; this is the same unit from which several servicemen were taken, killed, and their bodies mutilated.

I may be ready for some lighter reading when I'm done with any of the above books.