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

Archive for the ‘What I’ve Read’ Category

Review: HOW TO BE LESS STUPID ABOUT RACE by Crystal M. Fleming

A bit of background. I met my first person of color at the age of 17, my freshman year of college in 1965. She was a classmate from Philadelphia. I also had my first experience of blatant racism that same year, as my cousin and I boarded in the home of an Irish cop whose opinions of the African Americans he was supposed to protect and serve were appalling.

And I knew they were appalling, even though I’d never had any real education in racism. The trouble was, I was a child of the ‘50s, where children were to be seen and not heard and criticizing one’s elders was as beyond the realm of possibility as flying. That kind of relationship dynamic isn’t as universal as it used to be, but it still exists; and it’s going to be one of the hardest obstacles to putting Dr. Fleming’s ideas in process.

I pre-ordered a copy of Dr. Fleming’s book after reading a review of it on Black Agenda Report. I wasn’t disappointed. It didn’t hurt that, like me, she belatedly came to understand just how pervasive racism—and its attendants sexism, ageism, classism, genderism, and ableism—is in our modern world. And for basically the same reason, in that she, too, grew up insulated from the reality in which just shy of 15% of the country’s population lives.

Note that I didn’t limit the field of view to the US, although that’s Dr. Fleming’s focus. That’s important because racism isn’t a geographical but a cultural problem. It exists everywhere, for the simple reason a majority holding all the power will inevitably deny power to the minorities in its sphere.

“‘Race’,” says Dr. Fleming in her introduction, “is a fundamentally stupid idea that refers to the belief in visible, permanent, hierarchical differences between human groups defined in terms of biology, physical appearance, or ancestry.” Studies show over and over there are no actual differences among human beings, yet the idea that one’s complexion or other characteristic provides innate superiority persists. Of all the -isms, though, racism is the most pervasive.

“Much of the racial stupidity we encounter in everyday life derives from the fact that people think of racism as individual prejudice rather than a broader system and structure of power.”

Dr. Fleming goes on to support her statement with enough information only someone determined to hide behind “colorblindness” and consider the job done could ignore. Which isn’t to say they won’t, since confirmation bias is as hard to eradicate as athlete’s foot.

“One of the sad ironies of oppression is that it’s completely possible to grow up in a society ravaged by multiple forms of domination and not know that your society is ravaged by multiple forms of domination, especially when our educational system manufactures feel-good histories and progress narratives.”

Now that I’ve learned more of the real history of the United States, I can see exactly what she means. And I studied American history fifty years ago. The Holocaust was basically “The Nazis killed six million Jews.” The early labor movement was “people went on strike and eventually won better working conditions.” Even women’s suffrage was “woman protested until they won the vote.” There was no mention of the six million other people who died in the death camps—the Serbs and Poles and Rom and the disabled. The name “Haymarket” never came up. And I didn’t learn the true depth of the suffrage struggle until quite recently.

As for any discussion of Jim Crow and lynching and all the other horrors visited on African Americans, not just in the South but everywhere, it was a subject never deemed appropriate for the tender young minds of high school students when I walked among them. From what I’ve heard while observing the ongoing effort to privatize education, and the watering down of subject matter that goes with it, that’s likely gotten worse rather than better. This book is valuable, along with a number of others written in the last decade or so, in filling in the huge gaps.

But Dr. Fleming’s power-packed little book isn’t just an analysis of rampant racism. It also calls upon every one of us to look deep into our soul and locate the racism many of us have absorbed all unconsciously. Then, she says, have the courage to confront it wherever it appears, whenever it appears. It will not be easy. To assist, her final chapter outlines ten steps we can all take to begin breaking through the wall of denial that racism and its colluding systems of domination aren’t going away until we kill them. And that’s going to happen one person at a time.

Read this book. Even if you’re positive you haven’t a microgram of racism in your entire body, read this book. Then brace yourself to have the courage to address the problem when it arises, whether it be blatant or subtle.

Review: Rendezvous with Oblivion by Thomas Frank

Rendezvous_OblivionRendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society is a collection of essays from 2011 to the present that provides a travelogue of the downward journey of the US. Not that it starts at the top of the hill, because for the bulk of the population that’s been forbidden territory for several decades—only the nobility gets to occupy the castles.

That’s sort of the metaphor used in title of the first set of essays, “Many Vibrant Mansions,” and the subject of the second piece, “The Architecture of Inequality.” Describing his trek through the world of the McMansion, he observes they are “houses that seemed to have been designed by Stanford White after a debilitating brain injury.”

Those unfamiliar with Mr. Frank’s work should consider reading his earlier books The Wrecking Crew and Listen, Liberal! before joining him on this trip. The former answers the question many who only became politically involved during the 2016 election keep asking, which is “What are the Republicans doing?” The latter explains that it isn’t just the Republicans, and why.

In politics, of course, the scam and the fib are as old as the earth itself. Even so, the past decade has been a time of extraordinary innovation in the field…Millions of Americans came to believe that everything was political and that therefore everything was faked; that everyone was a false accuser so why not accuse people falsely; than any complaint or objection could ultimately be confounded by some clever meme; that they or their TV heroes had discovered the made-up argument by which they could drown out that still small voice of reality.

So, the first part describes how we came to accept escalating inequality, encouraged by politicians on both sides of the aisle who lied and obfuscated to ensure we stayed convinced there was really nothing wrong. That if the benefits of the tax cuts and the trade deals and the bank deregulation somehow missed us…well, it was our fault for not working hard enough, or for making bad choices, or not getting the proper education. Supported by news media and TV and movies that bombarded us with the message that the billionaires were the above-mentioned heroes we must needs struggle to emulate.

Meanwhile, the first African-American president, who promised us hope and change, saved the banks and the Wall Streeters while millions of the middle-class lost their homes and/or their retirement funds.

The one percent got the of both [“a brief experience with deficit spending” then President Obama’s “famous turn to austerity”]: not only were they bailed out, but the also chalked up some of their best years ever under Barack Obama, taking home 95 percent of the nation’s income growth during the recovery.

And speaking of not getting the proper education, that’s the topic of Part 2: “Too Smart to Fail.” This section covers the encroachment of neoliberalism on campus, which has led to a decrease in the number of tenured professors and an increase in the number of adjuncts most of whom can’t live on what they’re paid and don’t know from one week to the next if they’ll even have a job. In fact, a writer I know who works as an adjunct had a class he was counting on to pay his living expenses cancelled four days before it was scheduled to start, with no compensation.

And then there is soaring tuition, which more and more goes to pay inflated salaries for legions of unnecessary administrators while services (and those tenured professors) are cut back. Four-year college graduates are re-entering the world carrying a massive load of debt, which is not just stressful but a major drain on the economy both because wages and salaries have stagnated or actually declined in the last four decades and because money that goes into the vaults of lenders isn’t being spent in the economy.

[E]very democratic movement from the Civil War to the 1960s aimed to bring higher ed to an ever widening circle, to make it more affordable. Ours is the generation that stood by gawking while a handful of parasites and billionaires smashed it for their own benefit.

Part 3, “The Poverty of Centrism,” traces the path by which, beginning in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan and continued unabated by those administrations that followed him, the rich got filthy rich and the 90% were tricked into believing keeping them that way was good for us

To a Washington notable of the pre-Trump era, a team of rivals was a glorious thing: it meant that elections had virtually no consequences for members of the consensus. No one was sentenced to political exile because he or she was on the wrong side; the presidency changed hands, but all the players still got a seat at the table.

The only ones left out of this warm bipartisan circle of friendship were the voters, who woke up one fine day to discover what they thought they’d rejected wasn’t rejected in the least.

In this section, Mr. Frank also talks about the role the news media have played in enabling this mess. I don’t share his admiration for the Washington Post, but I have to wonder if his informal analysis of the way they undermined Sen. Bernie Sanders during the 2016 primaries wasn’t a bit painful. Or even disillusioning. He also seems unwilling to admit the collusion between the DNC and the Clinton campaign and the news media to achieve that goal; he avoids referring to the email leaks that revealed just that, and sadly, he seems to at least partly believe the so-far unsupported insistence on “Russian influence.”

Even so, his criticism of the Democrats was apparently sufficient to get him blackballed by those major news media he tries hard not to accuse of bias.

The final section, “The Explosion” addresses the why of the election of Donald Trump and why it was the direct result of the Democrat Party’s refusal to accept that they could no longer take their traditional working-class and minority base for granted. Which brings us to this year.

Trump succeeded by pretending to be the heir of populists past, acting the role of a rough-hewn reformer who detested the powerful and cared about working-class people. Now it is the turn of Democrats to take it back from him. They may have to fire their consultants.

As I said earlier, I wouldn’t recommend this as an introduction to Thomas Frank’s work. The broad scope of the subject matter is easier to take in context if one has a background in what he’s written at length. For those familiar with that body of writing, these essays are sharp-tongued snippets of the history of the last seven years, with reference to those that preceded them. They do require personal honesty, in that we who allowed this mess to come as far as it has must take the responsibility for not paying attention and staying informed.

Well done, Mr. Frank. May we please have some more?

Review: Jack Frost by Christopher Greyson

Available from all the usual suspects

It’s always a little difficult reviewing a book from a series you haven’t previously experienced. On the other hand, it allows one to see how well the author handles backstory without interrupting the flow of the story.

So, Jack Frost is the eighth adventure in Mr. Greyson’s Jack Stratton series about a PI who’s both a veteran suffering from PTSD (a trope that has been popular of late but is coming to border on cliché) and a former police officer. Jack is also an orphan (another popular trope) who spent many of his formative years in foster care, and his fianceé, Alice Campbell, likewise. One of the subplots, which reaches a degree of culmination in this book, is her search for the truth about the accident that wiped out her parents and younger brother.

The book also includes a mysterious Asian woman of dubious career who nevertheless has an unbreakable bond of loyalty to Jack and, by extension, Alice. So, all the standards of what the mainstream publishers seem to consider necessary in current popuar mystery fiction are met. And yes, I am being a bit sarcastic, but only because I find it disappointing talented writers seem to be stuck writing to those criteria instead of developing characters that don’t rely on the same elements over and over.

Anyway, in this tale, Jack is hired by an insurance company to go undercover on Planet Survival, an ultra-challenge reality TV show set on the top of a mountain to find out whether there’s anything nefarious going on. This because one of the crew died in an avalanche, the pilot of the helicopter that allegedly started said avalanche later died in a climbing accident, and now someone is painting threatening graffiti all over the mountainside.

Jack Frost is an entertaining thriller with a well-executed twist ending and an entire school of red herrings. It’s definitely plot-driven, but the characters are well-developed; in some cases, Mr. Greyson takes what could be a stereotype and skillfully adds touches that not only avoid that pitfall but creates someone one wishes had a larger role. He has also achieved the preferred goal of having a series book that, if it’s the first one read, may entice the reader to go back and catch up on history. If you enjoy Clive Custler, you’ll probably enjoy Christopher Greyson as well.

Review: The Seventh Decimate by Stephen R. Donaldson

 

SeventhDecimate_Cover-ArtI have a sort of love/hate relationship with Mr. Donaldson. I read the first Thomas Covenant books, and they grew on me; I still have to investigate the follow-up, but given my current TBR pile is such I’ll be reading twenty years after I’m dead, that may take a while. Then he did an SF series, that totally turned me off for reasons I won’t go into.

However, I decided I’d renew our “acquaintance” when I had the chance to obtain an advance copy of the first book in his new series from the publisher, and I fear I’m going to be adding more to that TBR pile, willy-nilly.

To compress the story into a nugget that doesn’t begin to do it justice, The Seventh Decimate is essentially a quest novel. Anyone familiar with Mr. Donaldson’s work will hear the unspoken “with multiple nuances.” Prince Bifalt is a man reared to be a warrior, the eldest son of the ruler of Belleger, which has been at war with its neighbor Amika so long no one really remembers what started it. There are stories, of course, and Bifalt has his preference as to which is most likely true, but that’s not the same as really knowing why your country is being destroyed.

The most devastating weapon in this endless war has been magic. Theurgists able to control lightning and earth and pestilence from afar cut down soldiers in horrific ways, and Bifalt hates them even while he uses them.

“Prince Bifalt believed all sorcery was dishonorable; worse than unfair or dishonest. A Magister could conceal himself in perfect safety while he killed…The plight of his people made nagging questions of honor meaningless.”

However, Belleger develops another powerful weapon: rifles. If they can be used to kill Amika’s mages, they may be what’s needed to finally end the slaughter. So, accompanied by the best shots in the Bellegeran army, Bifalt battles his way to within range of where the Amikan Magisters hide…and is killed by lightning.

Except he doesn’t die, and as he falls into darkness a voice in his head demands Are you ready?

Two years later, Belleger is in deep trouble. Manufacturing the rifles requires magic, and suddenly, for no discernible reason, all of its Magisters have lost theirs. Convinced the deed was done by the Amikans, Bifalt swallows his hatred of magic and undertakes a journey into the wilderness in search of a book that will allegedly allow the Bellegerans to do the same.

Bifalt is a soldier. It’s all he’s ever known how to be and do. Defending his father’s kingdom and his people is his life’s work. And, like many people with specialized training, he is hard-pressed to deal with anything that can’t be addressed by force of arms. His view of what’s acceptable is narrow and full of suspicion; he is full of outrage that his people are dying and teeters on the brink of murder every moment. And, of course, he hates magic to the depths of his soul.

So, then, not perhaps the ideal candidate to send on a quest for a book of magic, but doing his duty is a natural to Bifalt as breathing. And as he confronts not just new terrain but an entire world he really had no idea existed, given Belleger’s total isolation by geography and constant warfare, his concept of reality is, step by step, severely challenged.

It isn’t often I enjoy a book so much I can hardly wait for the sequel. The Seventh Decimate is one such book, and I am praying Mr. Donaldson won’t take as long to provide that sequel as George R. R. Martin does. I’m no longer young, and I really, really want to know how this tale ends. As with the Covenant books, his protagonist isn’t all that likeable, and there are times when the reader has the desire to knock him upside the head for being altogether too dense for his own good.

That, of course, it what makes this novel work. Even if one doesn’t like Bifalt, one has to admire him for what he is—devoted, honorable, dedicated to the welfare of his people and willing to do anything, including die, to achieve it. He’s not the least bit noble, which is refreshing given how tiresome noble people can be. He’s a man who does his job well when he can and to the best of his ability when he can’t. There is much to admire in that.

Review: Queen of the Flowers by Kerry Greenwood

Original Edition

Like a lot of readers in the U. S., I suspect, I first made the acquaintance of the Honorable Miss Phrynne Fisher by way of the Australian TV series The Miss Fisher Mysteries. It was with great delight, then, that I was able to get a copy of #14 in the book series from Poisoned Pen Press. I can now say without reservation the books are even better than the TV series, and the TV series is wonderful.

I mean, really. How can you not expect great things from a book the opening sentence of which is “The elephant was the last straw.”?

Miss Phrynne has been selected as the eponymous Queen of the Flowers in conjunction with the city’s annual Flower Parade. Simple enough? Right?

Not. Recall who we’re talking about. Nothing in which Miss Phrynne becomes involved is ever simple, and this seemingly innocuous event ends up leading to all kinds of nefarious doings. Even so, underneath the sometimes frenetic adventures runs a serious theme that, sadly, applies to the 21st century as much as to the second decade of the 20th.

I could go on and on about the ongoing characters (all wonderfully individual when they could so easily have been placeholders) and the labyrinthine plot (because in reality nothing is ever as simple as too many mysteries make it seem). I can’t compare this latest addition to the earlier books because I haven’t read them yet.

Yet.

So, I’ll just finish by saying if you’ve seen the TV series, you really need to read the books, because this is one of those rare times when even the adjustments necessary for adaptation haven’t ruined the spirit of the original. If you’ve read the previous books but haven’t gotten to this one yet, you’ll love it because it’s Miss Phrynne at her very best. And if you’ve done neither—well, for heaven’s sake, why are you just sitting there? Get on with it.

Review: Finks by Joel Whitney

These days, as the corporate media and, sadly, a fair share of the independent media are behaving as if the allegations of Russian state interference in the 2016 presidential elections are established fact (they aren’t), suggesting otherwise can earn the lone voice in the propaganda wilderness the label of Trump follower, Russian stooge, conspiracy nut or all of the above. I have literally had people who are shocked that I refuse to accept the word of that great patriotic organization the Central Intelligence Agency.

I was already aware of the CIA’s dirty fingers stirring the literary pot, not to mention journalism, film and TV. What this well-researched history provides is an in-depth review of one aspect of their meddling—their support in the creation of The Paris Review and its sister publications worldwide under the aegis of an agency front called the Congress for Cultural Freedom. They recruited George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen, among others, to head the editorial board, guided by investment counselor and dedicated CIA good buddy John Train.

The goal of the Paris Review and its ilk wasn’t overt propaganda. Rather, the idea was to offer carefully selected material that would (a) promote “the American way of life” and (b) do as much as possible to put the Soviet Union in a bad light. In other words, applying standard propaganda procedures in a literary, cultured way.

What follows Mr. Whitney’s description of the Review’s birth is a history of how the CIA manipulated such writers as Ernest Hemingway and Gabriel Garcia Márquez in the name of anti-Communism. In time, it expanded into Operation Mockingbird, during which at least one CIA operative may have been placed in all the country’s major newsrooms.

Similar operatives worked to undermine the anti-establishment press in the 1960s and 1970s. So, perhaps those of us who are no longer buying what the CIA et al. are selling will be forgiven if we don’t embrace without question the “news” involving the current incarnation of the anti-establishment press. Doubly so, given the news organ that essentially launched it is owned by a man who received a $600 million contract with the CIA not long after he purchased The Washington Post.

A relationship, one notes, that is never mentioned in those “Russia did it!” articles.

There is a belief among us in the United States that the CIA was, until last year, prohibited from acting within the country’s boundaries. Mr. Whitney, however, notes that in fact the act of Congress that established the CIA never actually put that prohibition in writing. It was nothing more than a “gentlemen’s agreement.” Of course, anyone able to apply the term “gentlemen” to the CIA is in serious need of therapy.

Another myth dispelled in these pages is the accepted history that Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda evolved from the mujahideen armed and trained by the CIA during the Reagan administration to combat the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. In point of fact, Mr. Whitney reveals, there was a CIA-sponsored cell of “academics” in the country at least by the mid-1960s.

Once one accepts the premise that anything we see or hear in the media or on our screens may have as its underlying agenda the propagation of the message the government—or whichever agency feels the need to tweak the national mindset—wants us to embrace, it’s all but impossible not to see how the sausage is made. Indeed, sometimes, as with the CBS-TV series Salvation, the presentation is so ham-handed any decent writer would refuse to have their name attached.

If you’re tired of being lied to, if you’re exhausted by the stress of being told there are enemies from all over the globe lurking in the shadows ready to pounce, I recommend you read this book. It can be a bit of a slog now and then, as the continuity of the narrative jumps back and forth, and there’s a bit more repetition of the material than necessary. Also, it won’t help much with the stress, but at least you’ll be looking at the right enemy.

(Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Greatest Writers by Joel Whitney; 2016 O/R Books; 978-1-94486-913-7 (hardcover), 978-1-94486-952-6 (trade paperback), ebook also available)

Review: The Beekeeper by Stewart Giles

One of the things I have come to dislike about police procedurals by US authors is the obsession with serial killers. It’s gotten a little better in recent years, but given the unassailable fact most people are killed by someone they know, the whole serial killer schtick has gotten really old.

It’s not a spoiler to say Mr. Giles’s quirky novel set in Cornwall avoids that obsession beautifully, because the joy of this book isn’t solving the problem but watching the characters struggle with puzzles both internal and external.

Briefly, this is about how Detective Harriet Taylor, who has transferred to Cornwall mostly because it’s the farthest she can get from her native Scotland and memories of her cheating late husband, figures out (eventually) who did in three elderly locals. In the process, she meets Alice Green, a local beekeeper whose best friend is the first victim. The second, discovered belatedly, is Alice’s husband Stanley; the third is Stanley’s best mate. If you’re seeing a pattern, you’ll understand why I said mentioning the “killed by someone they know” isn’t really a spoiler. You may also never see hollyhocks the same way again.

Like DC Tayler, Alice put up with a cheating husband for years. “As the years went by I soon developed a thick skin. It’s what we do—we women,” she tells Harriet. And then: “You know what, Detective Harriet Taylor? You and I have more in common than either of us realizes.”

What follows is a study in how we human beings, when we have an unhealed wound, can be drawn to trust others who share our experience of pain even absent any other element to support that trust. And how all too often that trust is horribly misplaced.

If you read mysteries and police procedurals solely for the pleasure of solving the crime, you may not find The Beekeeper to your liking. On the other hand, if you avoid this book for that reason, you’ll be missing out on a truly delightful reading experience. Mr. Giles combines the best elements of the genre with a character so superbly eccentric it’s hard to think of her as a cold-blooded killer.

Which is, of course, why instead of worrying about serial murderers, we might put out concern to better use watching out for Uncle Harry.

As an aside, this novel reminded me a great deal of the wonderful Cary Grant film of Arsenic and Old Lace, despite there being few if any actual parallels between the two. I wish I could say why, but there it is. Maybe it’s just the underlying theme that sometimes the deadliest among us are the ones we’d least expect.

In any case, I recommend you both read this book and watch the movie for a double-shot of entertainment.

(REQUIRED DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review.)