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

Archive for the ‘What I’ve Read’ Category

Book Review: White Trash by Nancy Eisenberg

“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.

 

Book Review: Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier

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.

 

Book Review: Redemption by David Baldacci

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.

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.