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

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?

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.

Sea_Peoples_StirlingI’ve fallen behind on the Change novels, and have clearly missed some important happenings. On the other hand, it’s a good test of a writer’s skill if a reader can pick up the narrative after a few episodes and not be confused. I’m pleased to say Mr. Stirling’s talent for writing a long, complicated series continues unabated.

I try not to include a lot a plot details when I review a book, mostly because no matter how hard one tries, there will be spoilers. So, long story short, The Sea Peoples has one major and one minor plotline, which will be familiar to those who follow this series. The major story line involves a surreal rescue of Prince John Arminger Mackenzie; the minor continues a previous one in which Crown Princess Órlaith Arminger Mackenzie aids her new friend, the Japanese Empress Reiko, battle the Korean hordes. The evil power that has driven most of the villainy in the series hovers in the shadows, this time embodied in the theme of Robert Chambers’s The King in Yellow.

For battle fans, there are plenty of those, both on land and at sea. Not all the enemies are human. That’s all I’m going to say on that score.As someone who has written a fantasy trilogy, I’m very familiar with the difficulty of keeping a multitude of characters, story lines, backstory, history, geography, culture and mythology straight. As someone who has read more than a few longer-running series, I always find it a pleasure when Mr. Stirling takes me back to the world of the Change. Unlike far too many others, he never pads the narrative, leaving the action for the last hundred or so pages, just to drag the conclusion further down the line.

This new episode is no exception. The action is nonstop, and liberally seasoned with humor. The underlying theme of the entire series—that humanity has a huge capacity for survival through cooperation—is one we truly need to hear in these times of chaos when powerful forces seek to divide us into warring tribes.

My one criticism is that the repetition of events from the previous book rather got out of hand. It’s not a good sign when a reader finds herself saying “I got it, already. Move on.” Information is important; redundancy is irksome. Fortunately, most of that happens in the first few chapters, and once we get down to business there’s no stopping for anything except maybe bathroom breaks. Maybe not even those.

The best part of this book for me was the rescue team’s journey through an alternate world slowly being corrupted by a cult of the King in Yellow. There, we observe the development from the villain not from the outside, or even in his own point of view but through the “eyes” of Prince John, whose consciousness travels inside the man’s head. That kind of up close and personal is exceedingly creepy.

Fans of the series won’t be disappointed. Newcomers to the post-Change world should be able to enjoy this book even if they aren’t familiar with what’s gone before and may risk addiction by the time they’re finished. The inevitable unresolved issues at the end, as always, leave the reader anxiously waiting to see what happens next. I may manage to catch up on what I missed by then.

I would personally, as writer and editor, like to thank Mr. Stirling for not referring to the smell of blood as “coppery.” I don’t know who is responsible for starting that particular cliché, but it has become a crutch for far too many writers who apparently don’t have contact with the real thing. And if the reader is a Trek fan, it’s nearly impossible not to wonder whether the dead person was a Vulcan in disguise. But I digress.

The Sea Peoples is another excellent tale from an extremely talented writer who has created a world that looks increasingly enticing to anyone stressed out by the real one. You should buy it. Or ask your local library to buy it.

Standard disclaimer: This review is based on an advanced review copy of the book provided for me by the publisher.

 

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.

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.

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)

Charlottesville

If you haven’t seen this documentary from Vice News about Charlottesville, take the time to do so.

However, try to do so with an open mind, which I know is asking a lot under the circumstances. Much is being made of the fact the supremacists came prepared for battle. As much as I detest them and all their works, and stating unequivocally that the terrorist act the left one dead and many injured, in both body and mind, is unacceptable, I also have to note that there are places where I can’t tell one faction from the other.

There is scientific support for the statement that nonviolence is a stronger method of protest and has longer-lasting positive effects than violence. Yes, the neo-Nazis came prepared for battle, but why did those opposing them have to provide it?

Please withhold your outrage for just another moment. That is in no way, shape, or form to be understood as a condemnation of all those brave souls who stood in opposition to the terrorist rally being held in their midst and against their wishes. It’s an expression of my fear, based on what I saw in the ’60s and ’70s, that this movement, too, will be co-opted to violence. If that happens, we’ve lost, and the country we were taught to love for its freedoms and honor will be lost as well.

The fact is, the states that are falling in line to pass open-carry laws are aiding and abetting the thugs and racists, and given most of them are run by the GOP it’s almost impossible not to believe that action is deliberate. They WANT us to react in anger and outrage, and we just can’t give them what they want.

While we were watching the video of the car slamming into protestors, the White House issued an order elevating the US Cybercommand Unit to independent status, and may separate it entirely from the NSA. The purpose of the unit, said Reuters, is “to develop cyber weapons, punish intruders and tackle adversaries.” In the past week, the CEO of Blackwater petitioned the White House to turn most of the military activities in Afghanistan over to private “security” companies. Which have private armies. And private air forces. And the same weapons as our official military.

If you can consider that and not be terrified, then we really have no basis for discussion.

Self-defense requires an actual, physical threat of bodily harm, not the fear of it. The urge to attack when you’ve suffered years and decades and lifetimes of evil is overwhelming, but we live in a culture that is being operated behind the scenes by people much more dangerous than the Wizard of Oz. It’s up to us to decide whether we’ll allow them to pull our strings and use us to further their goal of turning the US into a neo-feudal plutocratic oligarchy by becoming those we hate. It’s up to us to refuse to be turned into those we despise.

Yes, we are at war. We have been for a long time; we just weren’t aware of it because the enemy was using guerilla tactics. If we resort to using their playbook, we’ve already lost, because they already have their private armies in place to put down resistance. All it needs is one order from their employees in DC declaring martial law, and I don’t doubt for a moment they would get it.

There is a new narrative being propagated whenever the request for nonviolence arises, one that’s targeted at young people. It purports to show that nonviolence alone isn’t enough by citing the violence in India that occurred while Gandhi was protesting, and the Black Panthers during Martin Luther King’s. The narrative is carefully constructed to seem sensible, but it takes both those examples and any others it uses out of historical context and ignores facts that counter the message that sometimes you have to fight with the weapons the enemy uses.

No, you don’t.

There are a great many people who are gearing up to prevent the alt-right/white nationalist/neo-Nazi groups from having a forum to spew their rancid bigotry. That, too, is a natural reaction. It’s perhaps even more so given that so few people seem to understand that free speech doesn’t mean “as long as I agree with/like what you say.” Blocking them completely is the last thing we should do. So long as they’re spewing their poison in public, we know who they are and where they stand. We can peacefully speak up to counter their narrative. Silence them, and they will simply crawl into their lairs and distill their poison in the dark.