The trouble with trying to review one of Ms. Hillier’s novels is that it’s extremely difficult to do so without spoilers. The latest is no exception, but I’m stubborn.
First, although I wanted to be empathetic with the protagonist, Marin Machado, the simple fact is that she’s not terribly likable. Of course, one suspects as the plot resolution approaches that’s how we’re supposed to feel, but it could just be me. Ms. Hillier’s characters are always painfully human, so it’s logical to react to them as if we were meeting them at a party and drawing our conclusions on short acquaintance.
Marin is doing some last-minute Christmas shopping at a crowded farmer’s market with her 4-year-old son Sebastian when she receives a text from her former lover and trusted best friend Sal. She lets go her son’s hand to respond—and he’s gone.
This is, as we’re reminded many times as the book progresses, is every mother’s nightmare. Marin’s guilt at having let go of a small child in a crowd is certainly justified. Her reaction to it is to essentially become the center of a universe in which anyone who doesn’t display an emotional level equal to her own is dismissed, never mind that her perception of those reactions is entirely narcissistic. No one can possibly suffer as much as she does.
The somewhat predictable effect of this nearly a year and a half after Sebastian’s abduction slowly evolves into a web of lies and betrayals that Ms. Hillier is so adept at weaving. Nothing—and no one—is what we think it is, and yet as the story advances one begins to suspect. Whether those suspicions are correct you’ll have to read to the end to discover.
I suspect many people will have a different reaction to Marin, and that’s why Ms. Hillier’s fiction is so compelling. Far too often in genre fiction the themes and tropes are so well-known we simply react on reflex. That’s not possible with Small Secrets, and that makes all the difference between a good book and a compelling one.
This is an important book on two levels. First, it explains the various economic ideas most people do their best to avoid dealing with in a way accessible even for those of us whose eyes tend to glaze over at mere mention of the subject. Second, it provides information for those only just learning about the mess neoclassical/neoliberal economics has created—a field guide, if you will, to how we got here, and who drove the bus everyone except the 1% has been systematically thrown under.
It’s become common wisdom to blame the paralyzing level of wealth inequality on the Republican—i.e., “conservative”—party, in particular because of Grover Norquest’s infamous “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” that intended to “make the government small enough to drown in a bathtub”.
The man usually given credit for moving the US economy into neoliberalism is Milton Friedman. However, while he is unquestionably the progenitor of modern free-market capitalism, it was his colleague George Stigler who introduced the rabid anti-regulatory element that’s created the modern oligarchy, a position even Stigler’s most important apostle, Sam Peltzman, referred to as “propaganda”.
It was Stiglitz who tilled the soil in the hallowed halls of Congress and the Oval Office that left the federal, and later state, government amenable to the gospel message that competition is superior to regulation for controlling market behavior. The message took hold just as Ronald Reagan took office. The result, unfortunately, we saw too clearly in 2008*.
The problem with neoclassical/neoliberal economics, this excellent and easy-to-read history of the movement suggests, isn’t that the theory doesn’t work. On a limited level, it does. However, the moment it became married to politics, in a country where profit is sought at any cost, it became more like religious dogma, and so not subject to question. Academic certainty became academic arrogance as the Chicago School economists went from being high on ideas to being drunk on power, refusing to accept any data that refuted their fixed beliefs.
They had the right audience, given our culture defines success solely in terms of material wealth. As a result, the converts adhere to the basic tenets of neoliberalism—limit money, cut taxes and government spending to the bone, limit or preferably eliminate regulation, support free trade and unrestricted investment, limit inflation to no more than 2% by manipulating interest rates—despite there being no only no evidence such a system is sustainable but in the face of mounting evidence it’s driving us to disaster.
And why not? It’s a system that works perfectly from those in a position to benefit from it. It’s as though a gang of thieves announced stealing was the only way to run the economy then eliminated all the laws against stealing except the ones that prevent the majority of the non-thief population from doing so.
*For an excellent, if slightly more technical, analysis of how this happened, I recommend ECONned by Yves Smith.
Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of The Economists’ Hour from the publisher, which I found very flattering since I hadn’t requested it. I’m pleased I can unequivocally recommend it.
Reviewing a book about the Hillary Clinton Campaign only a few months before the primaries to select the candidate for the 2020 Presidential campaign begin might seem to qualify for the Day Late Dollar Short Award. However, in the run-up to those primaries the Democrat Party establishment is repeating many of the same talking points they used against Sen. Bernie Sanders during the 2016 event. Perhaps more important, the Party seems determined to repeat the mistakes it made then. That makes this book quite timely as a reference.
Both the authors make no pretense they didn’t prefer Ms. Clinton over Sen. Sanders, and they work for Politico and The Hill, neither of which is particularly friendly to progressive ideas. However, they are able to get past it for the most part and report the facts instead of justifying or glossing them over. That said, they still can’t refrain from using the kind of violent terms the Clinton campaign applied to the Sanders campaign, words like “rage” and “attack” that in no way describe the way he talked about and to his opposition. Instead, he’s portrayed as a disruptive wannabe unqualified to challenge someone with Clinton’s credentials, which tends to get irritating to anyone who actually paid attention.
What they reveal, perhaps without meaning to, is the simple fact that Clinton, whether because ambition replaced her common sense or simply because of a high level of self-entitlement, comes across as a woman both uncomfortable outside her personal circle of selected friends and arrogantly dismissive of opinions that countered her own.
That her campaign staff acted like eager courtiers willing to do anything to win a moment of their monarch’s attention likely wasn’t helpful when it came to dealing with a hardcore experienced showman like Donald Trump. It’s no wonder people who voted for Obama flipped to vote for The Donald—they’re hypersensitive to precisely the kind of superior attitude Hillary Clinton exuded, and they rejected it.
One of the biggest points of contention during the primaries was Ms. Clinton’s refusal to publish the texts of her well-paid speeches to various Wall Street corporations, speeches her team apparently begged her not to make. According to the authors, she considered them irrelevant. That was her attitude toward her party’s traditional voter base, blue-collar working people, as well. It’s telling that even when, at the end, her husband warned her she was making a mistake to ignore them, she couldn’t bring herself to hobnob with the hoi polloi. She sent Bernie instead.
Ironically, in their efforts to present their subject, the authors seem equally unaware how ruthless and arrogant she comes to appear, qualities they try to convince us are strength and determination. What is also clear is that Ms. Clinton was extremely uncomfortable with large crowds of the sort her primary opponent drew, usually limiting her “rallies” to carefully limited gatherings. That was one of the reasons offered as to why she became convinced she could win by relying on data instead of politicking.
Now, going on four years later, it appears the Democrats are prepared to implement the same strategy they used in 2016, albeit making a broader effort at a pretense of progressivism. It’s as if they convinced themselves Sanders voters were simply enthusiasts who would lose interest in the changes Sanders proposed once the reality of a Trump administration set in. It’s precisely the same kind of mistake they made before, if the story in Shattered is a reflection of the truth.
Historian Howard Zinn (1922-2010) qualifies as a cultural icon, and as is usually the case that means there are likely as many people who hate him as consider him a hero. His nonconformist overview of American history, A People’s History of the United States, and its sequel, A Young People’s History of the United States, is either considered desperately needed to counter the accepted narrative on the subject or distorted and misleading propaganda, depending on whom you talk to.
“In the nearly forty years since the first edition of A People’s History of the United States appeared, Zinn’s critics have tried to sandbag him,” says author Ray Suarez in his foreword. “Some complain that his iconoclasm, his tearing down of long-revered heroes, and his corrections to the record leave only a dreary slog through centuries of oppression, struggle, and suffering. Well, a historian’s job is to find out what actually happened.”
In this in-depth interview, done just prior to Mr. Zinn’s death in 2010 and scheduled for release in September 2019, Suarez delves into how the historian believes his take on the subject has affected the trajectory of the US, and whether that influence is important.
For those not familiar with Mr. Zinn’s work, he views the events we all heard about in school from the standpoint of not the generals, politicians, and plutocrats but the common people. “[Y]es, let’s have heroes,” Mr. Zinn tells Suarez, “but let’s look for them in different places than on high in the seats of power where the heroism very often consists of exploiting other people or invading other people or taking advantage of other people.”
Now, as a tiny handful of progressive politicians are rallying the working class to confront the system that has done that for literal centuries, a book like Mr. Zinn’s, showing again and again how ordinary people have challenged powers and institutions seemingly unconquerable, and won, is vital. Again and again, the new wave of rebels is told they can’t possibly succeed, that the policies they demand are impossible, that they should be “realistic” and accept what the “more informed” people in power tell them.
Worse, they skillfully turn those who should be working together against one another.
“It’s a very common thing in history that people who are victims will turn upon one another”, Mr. Zinn says. “They can’t reach the people who are really responsible for their plight, so they turn on those who are closest to them.”
In those two sentences, Mr. Zinn likely explained the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s election. Even now, on social media, the tactic of turning the victims against one another occurs on a daily basis. Likewise, the corporate news media are masters at generating outrage, replacing one incident or individual—preferably both—with a new one as the emotional level declines.
This is an important book for those familiar with Mr. Zinn’s work but not the man, and Suarez has done a magnificent job of ensuring we never stray far from the latter. His questions elicit details those of us not privileged to have met Howard Zinn can use to more deeply understand him and, by extension, his work.
“The idea that people make history and can alter its course, that institutions have human origins and can be changed by humans, is truly subversive—and is a central reason [A People’s History of the United States] has drawn the ire of so many censors and would-be censors,” writes Anthony Arnove in his introduction to the 35th Anniversary edition of the book (Harper Perennial Classics, 2015). “Fundamentally, Howard had a confidence in people’s ability to work together and change their circumstances.”
Do get a copy of Truth Has A Power of Its Own when it comes out. Meantime, if you’re part of the New Revolution and haven’t read Mr. Zinn’s histories—and I confess I’m among you—get those and discover the history you didn’t hear about. As the battle for the future of both the US and the planet advances toward November 2020, the stories the books tell of success in the face of overwhelming odds will become increasingly necessary for inspiration. Or, as Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, who is one of the few individuals mentioned by Mr. Zinn, said:
“Some day we will have the courage to rise up and strike back at these great ‘giants’ of industry, and then we will see they weren’t ‘giants’ after all—they only seemed to because we were on our knees and they towered above us.”
NOTE: I obtained this book as an advance review copy from the publisher.
“Upward mobility”. It’s a phrase that’s as American as baseball, apple pie, and ousting the democratically elected heads of state of various foreign countries. From childhood, we’re told anyone can grow up to be President of the United States—or work their way out of poverty and join the Rich and Famous. The United States, we’re told, overcame the rigid class structures of Europe and became the first truly classless society. There’s only one problem.
It’s a lie.
In this excellently researched, if someone unnecessarily repetitive, exploration of the role of class in US society, Ms. Isenberg exposes the myth that “all men are created equal”, at least in the eyes of the moneyed and powerful who launched it 400 years ago. By dangling the carrot of upward mobility in front of the working class and the poor, the power brokers have maintained their control and exploited it to the fullest.
Although it’s no longer politically correct to say so, and for good reason, the first slaves in the northern reaches of the New World settled by British noblemen were White. They were the poor and the criminal, scooped up and shoved onto ships to be sold as indentured servants kept hard at work with the promise they would eventually work off the cost of passage they never asked for to begin with. They were replaced by the institution of African slavery, in no small part because poor White people couldn’t be as easily controlled as terrified Black people torn from their native homes and thrust into a totally alien world.
Redneck. Cracker. Hillbilly. There have been any number of similar slurs—and make no mistake, that’s what they are—applied to poor White trash in the last four centuries. Like those applied to Blacks, or on the basis of ethnic origin, the labels are meant to differentiate between those too lazy, worthless, and morally corrupt to be socially acceptable and “good people.” That the “good people” are almost always at least reasonably wealthy, college-educated, and White says all that needs to be said.
It’s also how those “good people” have made racism a systemic disease. “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man,” said Lyndon B. Johnson, “he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll even empty his pockets for you.”
More to the point of Ms. Isenberg’s book, you can also prevent him from realizing he has more in common with the people he’s been taught to hate and despise than he does those doing the teaching. Over and over, she recounts how the American aristocracy has overtly and covertly manipulated class warfare into race warfare, setting two groups who have the most in common against each other.
There’s much more to this history of how the citizens of a highly stratified society were and continue to be convinced there are no strata than how the fairy tale was used to keep the lower ones in their place. However, it’s the history I found particularly interesting, because none of it was in the history books I read in school. That, by itself, is indicative of how we still have to deal with rabid racism and unconscionable levels of poverty in what those power brokers keeping most of us in our place love to call “the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth”.
White Trash is an easy-to-read journey into the depths of a myth, and one that in the current economic climate of gaping inequality should be taken by anyone who can’t understand how and why Donald Trump became President. Or why so many working-class people rejected the candidate the power brokers were certain would win. After all, she was one of the “good people”.
Essentially, White Trash exposes the reality that the “American dream” is and always was a fiction designed to keep the working class plugging away—a lottery on a few ever actually win. No matter who you voted for, or what your political persuasion, this is an important book that reveals the root of the why a crude-talking snake-oil salesman defeated the cultured rich woman her peers thought couldn’t lose. Rather than, as have other recent books on the subject, seeking to reinforce the false message the poor and the working class, who all too often are the same thing, are evil, uneducated, racist, misogynistic, homophobic idiots. You’ll understand once you’ve read it.
It’s a good thing I didn’t know this thriller was centered around a serial killer. I’m so burned out on serial-killer mysteries/thrillers/police procedurals I’ve begun avoiding them across the board. Fortunately, Ms. Hillier has done what I thought impossible—written a serial-killer novel that’s entirely original.
For 19 years, Georgina Shaw harbored a horrible secret—one drunken night in her junior year of high school she helped bury her murdered best friend. Then the dismembered body of Angela Wong is discovered in the woods near her home, and the man who killed Angela, Calvin James, is charged with the murder of three more people.The arresting officer is Kaiser Brody, her other best friend in high school, who loved her then and is forced to admit he still does.
Angela Wong was the poor little rich girl, beautiful and with the kind of charisma that led everyone to ignore her darker side. When her body is found and Geo’s part in her death is revealed, that darker side is erased; and Geo’s carefully constructed life of denial is over.
Geo is compelled to admit what she saw and did that night or spend the rest of her life in prison as an accessory; she is sentenced to five years. Calvin is convicted, but shortly afterwards escapes and disappears. Then, within days of Geo’s release the bodies of a woman and a toddler are found in almost the same spot where Angela was buried. And then another woman and child. Kaiser has no doubt Calvin is back. His partner, and erstwhile lover, isn’t as sure.
The title references a Mason jar of cinnamon hearts Calvin gave Geo. She disliked the candy, and he ended up eating them, emptying the jar the last time she saw him. The night he raped her.
It will seem to some I’ve just done what I swear never to do, which is write a review containing spoilers. You’d be wrong. If, however, you’re gotten a sense this is a story infinitely more complex than the standard fare, you win the prize.
Ms. Hillier has a new book coming out shortly, so I’m embarrassed I’m more than a year late posting this review of her first one. Which, per requirements, I’ll note I read as an advance review copy provided by the publisher. I swear I’ll try to be faster reviewing #2.
If my rating for this latest in the Amos Decker series seems a bit bipolar, it’s that my reasons for not enjoying it as much as its predecessors has nothing to do with the actual quality of the story and everything to do with politics.
I’ve noticed an annoying trend in thriller fiction I can’t mention in detail without it being a spoiler. Mr. Baldacci handles it with a bit more finesse than some, but the result, for me, still came off more like propaganda than good fiction. Other readers and fans of Mr. Baldacci and Amos won’t be bothered by it at all, and the overall plot is both an excellent mystery and a superb voyage into the protagonist’s history and its effect on his character. As the acronym says: YMMV.
I’m partial to this series because watching Amos Decker deal with his condition—which reminds me again our language lacks a decent word to describe those for whom a disability is also their best asset—and how Mr. Baldacci develops him is always a pleasure. Walking the fine line between empathy and sympathy is hard, but Mr. Baldacci manages it with skill. In this book, Amos returns home and interacts with those who were once his friends, enemies, and colleagues, in the process coming to grips with the tragedy that, despite everything, remains the center of his life.
So, yes, if you’re an Amos Decker/David Baldacci fan, you’ll definitely want to read this new installment. If you haven’t met Amos, I recommend reading the other four books first, beginning with the introductory Memory Man, for the simple reason that watching him emerge from his chrysalis of despair step by step is part of what makes this series unique.
I read an op-ed this morning in which the author said that despite the bumps in the road we’re currently experiencing, our federal democracy is nevertheless working as intended.
Sorry, but anyone who thinks government in the US is “working as intended” isn’t paying attention. If it were, one individual Senator would not be able to block every single bill his party objects to that was approved by the House from even reaching the Senate floor for discussion. If it were, Congress would not have, over the last three decades, handed more and more of its responsibility over to the Executive such that we now have a president with the ability to rule like an autocrat.
The author began by noting that being politically involved in the governing of our localities, states, and the federal government is a never-ending task. On that, we agree. There is no moment where the majority can sit back, prop its collective feet up, and assume everything will go on as desired. That is, in fact, the reason we now live in an oligarchy. As long as everyone was doing okay, being willing over-consumers, they had no desire to dip into the messy realm of politics, so they simply voted for whomever their party of choice put on offer. Those who weren’t doing okay gave up any hope of being heard, since they were told over and over it was their own fault they weren’t doing better. I’m the first to confess I wasn’t paying nearly enough attention for way too long.
Now, though, I am paying attention. I know that team-player mindset that afflicts the voting public isn’t an accident but something that has been carefully designed and nurtured to maintain status quo. That public education has been corrupted from a means by which people become informed and able to apply critical thinking skills to a system for churning out “employable consumers”. That the media supposed to ensure we know all that’s necessary to make informed choices is instead a megaphone for the narrative approved by those in power.
In other words, rather than a byproduct, the condition of the people you’re talking about is a feature, not a bug. Those in power consider the rest of us stupid and easily manipulated, and have been acting on that belief for at least the last 40 years and probably longer. It worked well, until a few people woke from their stupor and began asking questions.
We’re awake now. And we’re watching. And talking to each other. We know now how our small differences have been deliberately exaggerated to keep us divided when the problems we share are larger and more numerous. We’re shaking off the idea we can’t change anything, discovering as we do that the reason we thought that is we’ve been told it so often we came to believe it—Propaganda 101.
There will always be those who think the most complex issues can be rendered down to either/or, right/wrong, win/lose. Those people can be weaponized by the oligarchs to try silencing the voices of those who understand life and people are more complex than a game where all that matters is whose team wins. Like Martin Luther, we say “Here I stand, I can do no other”, and like Martin Luther King Jr., we believe “A man dies when he does not stand up for what is right.”
If it takes a Second American Revolution, so be it.