“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” ― Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

Archive for May, 2017

Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

SeeWhatIHaveDone

See What I Have Done
by Sarah Schmidt
Release date: Aug 01,

I’ll begin with two points. First, this review is based on an advance reader copy provided by the publisher. Second, although I have tried mightily to enjoy what’s referred to as “literary fiction” for most of my reading life, I rarely succeed. I’ll explain why as we proceed.

Ms. Schmidt has opted to do a take on one of the most notorious dysfunctional families in US history, one that is the source of a mystery that can still initiate heated discussions among those fascinated by it.

On a hot August afternoon in 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts, local businessman Andrew Jackson Borden and his second wife, Abby, had their heads staved in with an axe or some similar implement. Several days later, his younger daughter Lizzie was arrested for murder. Twenty months after that, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of all charges by an all-male jury, that being the only sort there was in those days.

Ms. Schmidt has opted to have us view those events from the perspective of four characters—three of them actual people, the fourth a fictional character. One of the first three is, of course, Lizzie Borden herself. The other two are her older sister Emma and the family’s Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan. The fourth character is a raging psychopath named Benjamin, who is hired by the sisters’ uncle John Morse to “have words” with Andrew Borden regarding how he treated his daughters.

All of which is fine, and could make for an interesting exploration of another alternative to the whodunit that is the Lizzie Borden story. Unfortunately, the things about literary fiction that make its fans shiver with delight are the very ones that, in the end, usually put me off what might be an otherwise excellent story.

The most egregious element of too much literary fiction, for me, is what those who enjoy it consider “wordsmithing.” That is, the author manipulates the language in ways that are unique and colorful. That’s fine, unless their manipulation is so intrusive I end up being thrown out of the tale. That happened quite a bit in the first two-thirds of this novel. I’m as fond of clever use of the language as anyone, but not when I find myself thinking “Wow, that was clever.”

There is, that gripe notwithstanding, a lot to like in this novel, although there’s a thread that’s left dangling. I’d have preferred that not have happened. Others’ mileage may vary. Ms. Schmidt does an excellent job of making us understand the inner workings of someone like Lizzie Borden once she gets down to business, and one early on becomes more than empathetic toward poor Emma. This being one of those stories so often told everyone knows the details, her choice to keep us in the thoughts of those involved instead is a good one.

I can, therefore, recommend this book to those who enjoy literary fiction, and to those who are fascinated by the entire Borden saga with the caveats noted. I will also warn you that you may never want to eat pears again by the time you’re finished.

Review: Chasing Embers by James Bennett

Let me preface this by noting that Jim and I have known each other for more than a decade, and I have, in fact, published his superb psychological thriller, written as James Nightingale, Unrequited. So, thChasing-Embersose who wish to ignore my glowing review on that basis are free to do so.

That revealed, I was very much looking forward to this book, and it didn’t disappoint. If you love dragons (Does anyone not?), be prepared for a whole new take on the species and a protagonist you’ll probably want to knock upside the head now and again. Which, as we know, is exactly what the best writers manage to do—get us so involved we feel as if we’re watching a friend—in this case a slightly dysfunctional one—stagger through success and failure knowing we have to let them do it their own way.

This being the first in a series, there are the requisite loose ends, but the rich tapestry of mythology and fantasy Jim has woven is going to have you waiting as eagerly as I am for the next installment. Yet despite the clearly broad research he has to have done to build his world, that knowledge never intrudes. I encourage you to grab a copy of Chasing Embers at the earliest opportunity because in the world of fantasy fiction, it definitely meets the Monty Python criterion—”And now for something completely different.”

Review: The Wrecking Crew by Thomas Frank

The corporate media would have the US citizenry believe Donald Trump and his regime of destruction are an anomaly in the history of our government. Thomas Frank knows otWrecking Crewherwise—Trump is merely the perhaps inevitable culmination of decades of conservative politics. That he is also a perfect stalking horse to keep the public distracted while the neoliberals in both parties gut the republic is serendipity at its finest.

“Believing effective government to be somewhere between impossible and undesirable, conservatism takes steps to ensure its impotence,” Franks writes on page 130. In other words, conservatives want government jobs held by people whose politics are right rather than by people who are competent and committed to doing those jobs well. By that standard, Donald Trump’s lack of experience in government is a feature for his GOP colleagues, not a bug. Nor should anyone be surprised that the first three months of the current administration has resulted in the elimination of many, many experienced people from all levels of government.

“Putting federal operations under the direction of people who are hostile to those operations’ existence is the second main tactic of conservative governance…Since the parts of government that conservatism most despises are often supported by the public, this strategy avoids the tactlessness of repealing or abolishing agencies while achieving the same result.” (p.156)

Of course, when Frank wrote that, there were still checks and balances in effect; those vanished with the wholesale takeover of all three branches of government by one party. And make no mistake, they and their real constituency—the plutocrats and corporations—have done just that.

If you didn’t know better, you would think (or like to think might be more to the point) that Frank’s analysis of how conservatism and neoliberalism are turning the US federal republic into a neo-feudal plutocratic oligarchy is dystopian fiction. That you do know better, reading it is the stuff of nightmares, especially given it seems they have achieved their goal. If you want to see what our new overlords have in mind for us, be sure to read chapter 9 carefully.

The first step in understanding libertarian conservatism, as with most things, is to learn the vocabulary.

“In 1990 [libertarian pundit Doug Bandow] published an entire book on the subject [of corruption], The Politics of Plunder, in which he attacked ‘legalized larceny’ (farm programs), ‘mass transit robbery’ (public transportation), and ‘consumer fraud’ (the FTC and FDA).”

One of my personal favorite favorites is when fossil fuel corporations demand the right to poison us on the grounds they are “creating jobs and contributing to the American economy.” That’s conservative-speak for “there are millions of dollars’-worth of X in the ground, and we don’t care who we kill to get it.”

There is plenty of blame to go around for the looming apocalypse we as a nation are facing, not least that we the voters have turned blind eyes and deaf ears to decades of corruption because (a) it didn’t really affect us and (b) we were busy with other, more important stuff. We also became brainwashed by media who kept telling us to trust them while they covered up the fact we were being sold down the river by those who were supposed to be working on our behalf. Anyone wishing to change that direction can definitely benefit from reading this book, because in addition to tracking the history we were all ignoring it makes clear just how badly we have been bamboozled.

I commented on a friend’s Facebook Timeline recently, based on this book and many of the others I’ve been reading and reviewing, that the goal of those currently running the US government is to replace the US Constitution with an updated version of the old Articles of Confederation. When you add what Frank has presented to a thorough grasp of the goals of neoliberal economics, that becomes clear. What makes this particular book more useful to beginners on the road to reawakening is Frank’s ironic voice and style, which will offend those who think “small government” is utopia and appeal to those who understand the alternative is the destruction of government by, of and for all the people.