Political

Happy COVID Autumn.

I used to enjoy living in Wisconsin. But it's not been the most peaceful of places just now.

I don't have any answers or any ideas and I'm actually kind of tired of listening to people who think they do. So, it's back to avoidance of life through reading, and friends, I EXCEL at that sport.

So what I have been reading?

First up: the Agatha Raisin cozy mystery series by M.C. Beaton. I was never really into Beaton before now, but then I watched the fantastic series Agatha Raisin, starring the always-underappreciated Ashley Jensen.

The mysteries are terrible, beyond simplistic, but I LOVE Ashley Jensen as Agatha Raisin, and it turns out in the books that I just love Agatha Raisin for all her middle-aged prickliness (which hides a soft gooey center of kindness and insecurity). I'm in the early part of the series still, before Beaton started to phone them in (I've read a few later entries and yes, they get a little more slapdash), so that's good stuff.

I also polished off a few illustrated biographies/histories by an author named Ted Rall, who I really enjoy. Previously I have read his biography of Edward Snowden*, titled simply Snowden, but this month I tackled Francis: The People's Pope and Political Suicide: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party, which was a fantastic American history book no matter what your politics.** I would highly recommend Ted Rall, and, as a special treat for these troubled, disjointed times, they are very quick reads.

Last but not least, for most of the summer I dipped into and out of Paula vW. Dáil's superlative Hard Living in America's Heartland: Rural Poverty in the 21st Century Midwest, which, no kidding, is a meaty buy for your library or for you at $29.95. If you are at all confused about what it's like living in rural America today, this book will lay it out for you with research, personal interviews, and economic numbers that will make a lot of things very, very clear. I'm from the rural Midwest, and I loved this book for the many ways it was right on, and for the many ways it pointed out how rural people who know things are continually screwed in our country, and also the pros and cons of their rural communities (and how they live within them). It's not easy to find a scholarly book that isn't condescending, but this one isn't, and I was endlessly grateful for that. I won't lie--it can get dry--but wow, I sure kept reading it. I would highly recommend it.

So. What have YOU been reading?

*The only piece of news I've seen for months that really made me happy was this one: Edward Snowden has been given permanent residency in Russia. I'm sad because this means I'll probably never be able to vote for him for president, but I can also stop worrying every three years (that was how often they had been renewing his visa or whatever he had for staying there) that he'll be returned to this country and executed just for being a decent, thinking human being.

**Okay, Republicans probably won't like it, but I'm a Nothing (politically, socially, professionally) and I enjoyed it.


Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio.

This week I got the best thing ever in the mail: a book present from a friend.*

The book in question is Derf Backderf's new book Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, and it is a nonfiction graphic novel about the events of May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio. That was when the National Guard was called in to restore order to the campus in the face of protests, and ended up firing into the crowd and killing four people (and injuring nine more). To this day nobody knows who gave the order to fire or why, and nobody knows who specifically did the shooting. If you don't know the story, you should immediately read this book, or read this to start with.

Kent stateAs my friend said, she hoped I enjoyed the book, although she felt that "enjoy" (considering the subject matter) was not really the right word to use.

The book is unbelievable. I'm not a huge graphic novel reader, but I find I enjoy graphic novel nonfiction in graphic form, particularly for historical or science stories that are interesting to me but on which I don't have the time to read a regular nonfiction book. What is perhaps the most stunning is the section of notes and bibliographical material; Backderf provides sources and information for every picture and page he draws, and it is fascinating to learn just how difficult it is to find the truth of this one story. History is anything but dry; excavating the layers upon layers of trying to find the facts of this story in different accounts and photos must have been quite a job.

I read the book in one breathless run (yes, I ignored the children, and the meals, and the house, and other work--you just have to do that sometimes). It also led me to do a little bit of poking around on YouTube to see what else I can find, and one thing I found was Glenn Frank's impassioned plea to the students to just leave the protest so they all wouldn't get shot. Frank was a professor at Kent State and you have got to go watch this recording of his scream. I've thought about this book (and that clip) a lot, this week.

This is what everyone should scream in the face of any violence: "Jesus Christ, I don't want to be a part of this."

Buy, and read, this book.

And thank you to my friend who sent it. You're right, "enjoy" was the wrong word. But it was the right book for me at the right time.

*Okay, we all know the best things to get in the mail are checks. Preferably large ones. But that doesn't happen very often, and actually, book gifts are so FUN they might even beat checks.


I still like Meghan Daum.

The problem with everythingI've said it before, Meghan Daum is one of my favorite essayists.

I like her because she's smart but not pointlessly intellectual (I'm looking at you, David Shields), thoughtful but not sentimental. As per usual, I enjoyed her latest collection, The Problem with Everything: My Journey through the New Culture Wars. It's an essay collection that started out as a treatise on feminism and the perhaps unintended directions it has traveled. In short, feminism in the 2010s bothered her:

"What bothered me was the way the prototypical young feminist had adopted the sort of swaggering, wise-ass persona you see most often in people who deep down might not be all that swaggering or wise.* This young feminist frequently referred to herself as a badass." (p. xiii.)

I enjoyed that because I particularly hate women calling each other and their daughters "warriors," like being a wager of war is a good thing.

But then she got distracted because Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election: "But the way things turned out, there was no subtlety to be found. There was no room left for left-on-left critique of any variety." (p. xiii.)

Well, if that doesn't just sum it up, I don't know what does.

Daum is also balm to my Gen X soul, because we're roughly contemporaries in age (although our lives diverge wildly in the fact that she is successful and skilled). This entire essay spoke to the way I feel lately, like I'm old even though I'm not that old. It also becomes increasingly clear to me that I am not very good at interacting with millennials (and god help us if I'm trying to communicate with anyone even younger, including my own small children) and, here's the rub, I'm not particularly interested in interacting with millennials.** Or, as Daum puts it, much more elegantly:

"Meanwhile, the pace at which the digital revolution was moving had me feeling old before my time, even physically dizzy*** on a near-daily basis. At my computer, the tweets and memes and hot takes scrolled down my screen so fast I could scarcely comprehend a fraction of them...This book still has a lot to do with the conflicted and tortured state of liberalism generally and feminism in particular. But it's now also a personal story of feeling existentially unmoored against the backdrop of a country falling apart. It's a story about aging and feeling obsolete as the world spins madly--and maddeningly--on. It's also, by dint of my age, about the particular experience of Generation Xers, the last cohort to have experienced both the analog and the digital world as adults."

I didn't love the whole book, but I read it and appreciated (as always) Daum's skill with words. It made me feel a little less alone and lonely, missing not only the pre-Covid world of routines**** but also the 1990s world of the movie Crossing Delancey, with a less-angry New York City and the idea that a smart beautiful woman could make it in Manhattan while working in a bookstore. I'm just so sad, y'all.

But I am thinking of you. Have a good weekend.

*In other words: men.

**This seems to me to be the beginnings of the cranky old person mentality of someone who can't be charmed by younger people, and I really don't want to be that cranky old person.

***Well, actually, if she's at all like me in her forties, maybe this is perimenopause. Still annoying.

****Although I'll be the first to tell you that I feel the routines of our pre-Covid world were largely bullshit and led directly to our Covid world, and we should strive to do better in the future.


Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon.

As previously noted, I am fascinated by whistleblowers.

And you can only read about whistleblowers for so long before you bump up against another person who loomed large in twentieth-century culture and history: Ralph Nader.

I knew his name, of course, but I really knew very little about Ralph Nader before I tracked down a 1972 publication of his: Whistle Blowing: The Report of the Conference on Professional Responsibility. It's actually a compilation of presentations given at a conference Nader sponsored in January of 1971. It's a fascinating read in its own right, and it proves that there was a lot of corruption and bullshit going on in the 1960s and 1970s, which should prove once again that there is no such thing as "the good old days." The more you read about whistleblowers and corruption, as a matter of fact, the more you see the human race's overwhelming contributions to the world: corrupt institutions and bureaucracies that may or may not be corrupt but which are still bumbling (at best) and evil (at worst). Well done, humans!

But I digress. I wanted to learn more about Ralph Nader. So, because I am lazy and because my clunky right eye continues to make it difficult for me to churn through books the way I used to, I went and watched the documentary An Unreasonable Man:

You must go watch this movie.

And then, because I was still fascinated, I went and got the book Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon. And it's really, really interesting. Regardless of how you feel about Nader (particularly his contentious run for president in 2000), it's a good biography. The author himself admits that he had no shortage of material: most people, particularly those who have worked with him, have strong opinions about Nader. Here's how the author describes his research work for this book:

"My job became easy. All I really had to do was say, 'I understand you know Ralph Nader' and then sit back and listen. What I gleaned most of all from these interviews was that in speaking so expansively, so candidly, so fervently, people were working to deliver up whole the complex story of someone who had played an incredibly important role in their lives and in the country's history. They wanted to do justice to a true original." (p. xv.)

Just like it was pleasurable to spend time with Edward Snowden, I found it very pleasurable to learn more about this unique (and complex, and more than just a little difficult) person.


Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud.

I've got more to say about David Simon and The Corner, but I have to interrupt that thought to tell you that I am in the middle of Tom Mueller's Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud, and it is spectacular. More later.

I am not a Republican or a Democrat, but one of my pet peeves is when people lament to me what an American hero Barack Obama was and how much better off we were when he was the president. In the future, when they do that, I am going to read them this paragraph from Mueller's book:

"After years of endless war and institutionalized financial fraud had destabilized America, Barack Obama took office promising change, yet proceeded, through both acquiescence and action, to normalize the abuses Bush had introduced as wartime exigencies, and add a few of his own. He confirmed the de facto role of Wall Street as the rule of the US economy, and war as America's default condition. He staunchly defended Bush's torturers, kidnappers and other war criminals from prosecution, or even from opprobrium. He endorsed extralegal drone assassinations as an appropriate policy of a nation of laws, and mass surveillance of innocent US citizens as the right and the duty of the US government. And throughout, he attacked, relentlessly and vindictively, the few national security insiders (and several journalists) who questioned his betrayals of the Constitution and the people." (p. 838, large print edition.)

Boom. That's what I'm going to say when I have to offer proof for why I believe Obama was a terrible person, and Bush was a terrible person, and Clinton was a terrible person, and the first Bush was a terrible person, and so on and so forth, back to, I don't know, maybe Abraham Lincoln.

Awesome book, if you want to read a book and cry every time you're done reading a chapter.*

*Or, as Mr. CR says, "Reading more depressing nonfiction, are we? Of course you are."


Reading notes from February 2017.

I read or skim-read a few interesting books last week, but none of them really seemed to warrant their own review. So here we go with a few quick impressions.

Really good dayI got Ayelet Waldman's A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. I've always kind of gotten a kick out of Ayelet, but there wasn't enough here to keep me reading. Basically she read somewhere about how microdoses of LSD can help with mood disorders (as well as studies about how use of mushrooms, for their psilocybins, increased peoples' sense of well-being), and tried out microdoses for a month. This is her diary of that month. It did improve many factors of her life, but at the end of the day, she had to stop the regimen because LSD is illegal and she only got her original stash from a friend of a friend who had a bit left from running his own experiment. I skim-read the first 100 pages, then skipped to the last couple of chapters and called it good. A few things: not sure a whole book was necessary here. And, as long as she wrote the whole book, it needs an index; it references enough scientific and historical information that an index might have been helpful (and would have been fairly easy and cost-effective to prepare; her book is not long or complex).

I did enjoy her honesty concerning her marriage, her children, her work, and other facets of her life. Particularly noteworthy was her stream-of-consciousness fantasizing about getting divorced, in which she ruminates on how she's priced small apartments in the area so she and her husband could split but simply co-parent ("bird-nesting") while letting the kids stay in the house all the time. Seeing as Ayelet is a woman who's largely famous for declaring that she loves her husband more than she loves her kids, that made me feel better about having similar fantasies.

Our lady of birth controlI also read the graphic novel Our Lady of Birth Control: A Cartoonist's Encounter with Margaret Sanger, by Sabrina Jones. It was all right. It was an interesting book but it is hard for me to get too excited about a book when I am no fan of the book's subject. I get what she was trying to do and I am sympathetic to the desire (particularly in the era when Sanger was working, when women regularly had double digit-numbers of pregnancies, miscarriages, and births) to control one's reproductive destiny, but the simple fact of the matter is that I think Planned Parenthood and the birth control industry still disproportionately place the burden of birth control on women. When Planned Parenthod a.) pushes to develop and market a viable birth control pill for men, and b.) runs a massive campaign to tell men to wear condoms whether they "like to" or not (the poor dears), I will have no time for Planned Parenthood.

I did appreciate that the author of this graphic novel addressed some of the controversies and charges that have sprung up against Sanger in past years, including the fact that she was a proponent of the eugenics movement. I'm not satisfied by Jones's conclusion that a lot of smart people were interested in eugenics, so it wasn't really that bad, but her awareness of some of the complexities of Sanger's legacy was nice to see.

ThreadbareAnother graphic novel that I mainly made it through was Anne Elizabeth Moore's Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking. Mr. CR saw this one laying around the house and said, really? Where do you keep FINDING these depressing books? To which my only defense was, I don't know, they keep finding ME. This was another interesting graphic novel, but it was a collection of comics by different illustrators, which I never like: I find it too jarring to go from one visual style to another.

I think this is an important book and well worth a look--particularly for its early chapters on the links between "fast fashion" and clothing waste and slavery worldwide--but at times the links it made between fashion, the apparel industry, and human trafficking were too complex for me to follow. Right now. I'm scattered even on my best days lately, and last week we all had killer colds in my house, so I definitely wasn't myself while reading this. But take my word for it: you might want to check it out. Also? Shop less. Evidently apparel companies and retail outlets now change their offerings every few weeks, rather than every season--wasting a lot of material and wearing out a lot of workers just so people can "see something new" every time they go to the mall. Uck.

I might just have to find a little something lighter to read for March. Any suggestions?


J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy.

I am decidedly undecided about J.D. Vance's memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

Hillbilly elegyOn the one hand, it's straightforward, an easy read, and it was tough to put down. What is it about trainwrecks, either culturally or personally, that we can't look away from them? Because Vance describes a childhood that was surrounded by trainwrecks: a mother with substance abuse problems and a willingness to bring any sort of boyfriend or new husband into her house with her children; "hillbilly" grandparents who could be downright scary in their willingness to exact their own brutal vengeance on people they viewed as enemies; a school and culture and economic surroundings that largely did not encourage anyone to try or succeed (why bother, if no jobs were waiting for them at the end of their educations?). So this is a stark, personal, succinct (257 pages) read. Here's how Vance starts, in the introduction:

"I was one of those kids with a grim future. I almost failed out of high school. I nearly gave in to the deep anger and resentment harbored by everyone around me. Today people look at me, at my job and my Ivy League credentials, and assume that I'm some sort of genius, that only a truly extraordinary person could have made it to where I am today. With all due respect to those people, I think that theory is a load of bullshit. Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me." (p. 2)

It is emphatically a memoir; Vance admits early on that it is not an academic or sociological study. And that's fine. As a memoir I think the book worked. So why am I not more enthusiastic?

I don't know why, really. Vance's story is an inspiring one (man from impoverished childhood eventually graduates from Ivy League law school and marries one of his fellow students), but perhaps that's the problem. I'm really not much of a reader for inspiration. And there's something about his tone that just bugs me. You can tell by reading this book that he is no real fan of government programs or social justice laws.* He says a lot of things like this about his hometown of Jackson:

"The truth is hard, and the hardest truths for hill people are the ones they must tell about themselves. Jackson is undoubtedly full of the nicest people in the world; it is also full of drug addicts and at least one man who can find the time to make eight children but can't find the time to support them. It is unquestionably beautiful, but its beauty is obscured by the environmental waste and loose trash that scatters the countryside. Its people are hardworking, except of course for the many food stamp recipients who show little interest in honest work. Jackson, like the Blanton men, is full of contradictions." (p. 21.)

Okay. I know that government programs are not the whole answer. I know that lots of people don't want to work long hours or at physically demanding jobs. But Vance's tone sounds a little too much like "okay, people, pull yourself up by your bootstraps" for me. Just once in this country I'd like to see this argument NOT phrased as either/or: how about we expect people to try a little harder, but still try and implement common-sense government or social or charitable programs that would provide the most help where it is the most needed? Particularly since Vance making this argument seems a bit distasteful, as it does seem that he relied on his grandmother and some other family members for his work ethic and some help. Does he just want to write off everyone who had a troublesome mother, like his own, but who maybe wasn't lucky enough to have a kind and hard-working grandmother? That begins to smack of George W. Bush disease: Born on Third Base, Think You Hit a Triple.**

Anyone else read this one? What did you think? Can't decide if you want to read it? Here's a couple more reviews if you're interested.

*At one point he rails against legislation to try and cut down on payday lenders and their over-the-top interest rates, arguing that for people in poverty sometimes just a little bit of cash can get you through or past big problems. I understand that. I have an appreciation for how a couple of hundred bucks can sometimes make all the difference. But I think what he's missing is that maybe the payday lenders don't have to make a gazillion dollars off someone else's short-term financial need. Again: what about some moderation?

**Although of course George W. Bush was born into a family with a gazillion more dollars than Vance's family had. Still, you get my point.


Oh, Russell Brand, what are we going to do with you?

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.

Let's break down the case. There's this: when Russell Brand is funny, he's really, really funny. Also: he is not a believer in voting, and I can go along with that.*

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.


It's probably a good thing time is finite.

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).


A bit more about George Packer's The Unwinding.

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.


Are we unwinding?

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.)

Other reviews: The Guardian | Christian Science Monitor | Huffington Post


Tuesday Article: Taibbi does it again.

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.


Downer Book Week: Nothing to Envy

The year it was published, Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea was the rage of all the book reviewers and "Best Nonfiction of the Year" lists.

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).


Downer Book Week: Down the Up Escalator

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).


Holy downer book, Batman.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco
Powells.com

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).


Another shameless "I heart Matt Taibbi" post.

I know, I know, you're probably a bit tired of hearing me bang on about how much I love Matt Taibbi.

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.


For your viewing pleasure.*

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!

http://billmoyers.com/segment/matt-taibbi-and-chrystia-freeland-on-the-one-percents-power-and-privileges/

*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.


Friday Article: Remarkable Republicans.

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.