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

Archive for the ‘What I’ve Read’ Category

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.

Review: Unequal Protection by Thom Hartmann

It’s probablyunequal-protection-hartmann-199x300 unnecessary to note that, for at least the last decade, we US residents no longer live in a democratic republic. Thanks to a series of business-friendly Supreme Court decisions, our representative government is now filled with employees of a plutocratic oligarchy. And, as of November 2016, the political party their employers co-opted completely in 2009 own all three branches of government. The checks and balances established by those who wrote the Constitution to ensure We the People remain free and independent are the victim of corporate raiders.

Thom Hartmann’s book, first in 2004, emerged at a time when the above was a threat observed mostly by independent journalists and those who were awake to the danger. The second edition, updated in 2009 when Charles and David Koch held the first of their semi-annual “conferences” that gave birth to the Tea Party and consolidated the GOP into their weapon of choice for the destruction of government as we know it. That the government hadn’t been what most people believed for at least 30 years and probably longer is a testament to what happens when people’s traditional source of information—the mainstream media—has been debased into a corporate propaganda.

Mr. Hartmann’s book traces the history of the corporate takeover of the US government from the triggering event, the 1886 SCOTUS decision Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, to the pivotal 2010 Citizens United decision that opened the previously controlled floodgates of cash from billionaires and corporations into our election process. On the way, he discusses the relationship of the country to corporations, making clear the Founding Fathers were, with some exceptions, opposed to their having any hand in the government process. Ironically, one of those who thought otherwise is the protagonist of a current musical much beloved by the Democratic liberal establishment—Alexander Hamilton. That Hamilton firmly believed the rich and powerful should be in charge of the US government tends to get lost in translation.

This isn’t an easy book to read, which is as it should be when you’re trying to educate people unaware of the subject in a way that will enable them to both understand the problem and begin what has become an increasingly difficult fight to correct it. I don’t recommend trying to read it quickly, even if you’re one like me who can do so if need be. This is important information anyone willing to pick up the gauntlet and take back the country needs to not just understand but know well enough to persuade those who still don’t understand. My copy is studded with pink Post-It flags so I can find the bits I consider most telling, and that might be the best way to read it.

Eight years ago, the situation was bad; it has since become dire. There is no question the only way to bring down the neo-feudalism taking over the country is to amend the Constitution so corporations are once again reduced to the artificial constructs they are. There is another irony that isn’t addressed in the book, since it’s of recent birth, which is that the same billionaires responsible for the corporate takeover are now paying to convene a Constitutional Convention of the states for the alleged purpose of passing a balanced budget amendment but which will actually be open to becoming a Wild West aggregation of right-wing zealots whose actual goal is likely to gut the document entirely.

Unequal Protection is an important book for those who refuse to sit still in the face of a plutocratic revolution to overthrow the republic. It needs to be on bookshelves right next to Mayer’s Dark Money and Klein’s Shock Doctrine.

Book Review: Wars, Spies, and Bobby Sox by Libby Fischer Hellmann

Bobbysox-cover-368As usual, despite having received a copy of this collection for advance review, life interfered so I’m late doing said review.

The first novella in this triad of tales—two novellas and a short story—set in the World War II era is “The Incidental Spy,” which is reviewed elsewhere. It sets the tone for the rest of the book, which is about how war affects even those living far from combat and danger. It’s also about women who, in an era when independence wasn’t encouraged, are forced to become so when they are often unprepared to make the choices independence requires.

“The Incidental Spy” features a single mother forced to commit treason against the country she thought would protect her from the dangers of her homeland. “P.O.W” could have been yet another syrupy tale of love between those supposed to be enemies. It isn’t, and while I could probably say more without spoilers, I’m not going to because it needs to be read with no expectations.

The final offering, “The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared,” is yet another take on the underlying theme of the collection, this time from the viewpoint of a young man from a privileged background who too early must confront the realization that what might seem like adventure has consequences beyond his experience.

The stories all contain an element of the kind of excellent thriller for which Ms. Hellmann is known, but it’s a component, not the purpose. These are stories of people whose common, everyday lives are disrupted by war in places they consider safe. They remind us that innocence, for all we like to admire it, can be hazardous when it allows us to convince ourselves everything is or will be just fine if we ignore the moments that make us uncomfortable and dismiss them as our imagination running wild.

If you haven’t read Ms. Hellmann’s work before, this book is an excellent introduction. She is an expert at working what is clearly detailed research into the narrative, something many writers never manage to perfect. Most important, as with her two series, the characters are alive and breathing people the reader immediately feels as if they know intimately; and despite their bad choices and foolishness—or perhaps because of them—we can’t help but recognize something or ourselves in them.

Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

First, let me be clear I am aware this book was written in the mid-1980s. However, that doesnamusing‘t mitigate the opinion I developed after the first chapter, and didn’t change after reading the rest of the book, that this is a prime example of upper-middle class WASP academic male privilege in action. The author’s vision of the past he finds so glorious is colored by that privilege, and it’s that vision he holds up as the preferred lifestyle we are all being deprived of by the evils of television.

It also, one suspects, is the basis for his inability to consider that the evils that so horrify him aren’t a natural outcome of the medium he detests but rather a carefully designed propaganda machine utilized by a government-corporate oligarchy to cause the very “dumbing down” of the general population he insists television creates.

To refute all of the holes I found in his presentation would require another book. His alleged conclusions are often based on his personal, unsupported interpretation of another author’s commentary, which are presented with weasel-words like “we can assume” and “I feel justified in concluding.” For example, on page 71, he includes a quote by Daguerre defining the photograph then proceeds to tell the reader “what Daguerre meant.”

That’s not how an attack on an entire medium of communication is supposed to be done, and doing so flies in the face of his own oft-stated yearning for a return to the carefully designed discussions of yesteryear is ironic. His conclusion is further undermined by the 30 years that have passed since he wrote his book, especially his attack on Sesame Street as having no educational value and, in fact, being dangerous to the development of young minds.

In short, Mr. Postman’s argument, which is apparently revered by those like him as a dire warning that we’ve become (or at the very least are becoming) like the mind-numbed denizens of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, reveals to someone not of his world a great many gaping holes through which his conclusions sink. The condescending tone that escapes into his prose doesn’t help. In the end, though, my problem with the book is that Mr. Postman is blaming the tool for the problem instead of the wielder—blaming the hammer that’s been thrown through the window, if you will. Any medium, be it print or photography or TV or the internet, is constructive or destructive based on the intentions of those who are using it.

So, with shameless hindsight, I’ve only given this book three stars, because I’ve had those 30 years I mentioned to study television and so can fault some of the conclusions offered. However, I do recommend anyone interested in the effect a medium as pervasive as TV is can have on the population in general, and to initiate consideration of just how easily it has been used to channel narratives in directions other than might be good for us, read it and ponder.

Review: John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger

I went looking for a good book on John Quincy Adams after reading about various points in his history here and there. His unique position as the only US president to have continued his political career in Congress struck me as fascinating, and the fact that most of the positiadamsons he took during that career were extremely progressive, not just for his time but in ours, made him seem to me someone worth knowing more about.

Since I had absolutely no other guide, I relied on the reviews to select this particular biography. Well, that in the fact that the author based it mainly on an in-depth analysis of Mr. Adams’s own journals sounded like an excellent choice. I wasn’t disappointed. For any reader looking for an insightful and easy-to-read biography of one of our least known presidents, this is definitely the book to choose.

Perhaps the greatest irony in the career of this talented man is that despite spending his entire life from early adolescence on in politics he refused to be a politician. It was his firm belief that elected officials should become so only if they are the choice of the people they are to represent, and that therefore running for public office was dishonest. In other words, he abhorred political campaigns and refused to engage in them. If the voters wanted him, was his position, they would elect him without his having to ask.

Here is a man who was attacked by his fellow members of Congress for refusing to stay silent on the subject of slavery, and who for much of his career there cleverly managed to bypass their efforts to mute his voice using the one weapon he was willing to apply—the rules. He deserves to be brought out of the dismissive obscurity into which he’s been tossed and held up as the model to which all those seeking or planning to seek public office should aspire.