“We live not for today, but for the ages yet to come, and the children yet unborn.” — Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

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.

Which it does. Always. Without exception. Any time the opportunity to discuss sexual assault, and our culture that vocally condemns it while refusing to do anything to mitigate it, arises. Instead, the conversation invariably diverges from the real root of the problem — power and the privilege it gives — to sex. Don’t take my word for it. Take the time to review the matter and watch it happen.

The real cause of sexual assault and rape culture is simply this: a society that encourages anyone with a degree of power to view anyone not of their own power level as personal property.

The basis of this goes bone deep, and is ingrained from childhood by child-rearing methods that allow parents to not only dictate how their children are to behave but still, in what is supposed to be a civilized society, allows them to beat their children when they don’t. Despite our much-vaunted insistence on our having a “moral compass,” that compass seems to be too easily deflected by a concept of individuality that has become what can only be described as a religion.

As a result, the next generation, barring enlightenment, has absorbed the idea that anyone in a superior position of authority is entitled to treat those of lesser authority as objects.

There are even bodies of law to protect a parent’s right to do to their child what any other adult would be arrested and jailed for. It echoes the idea that one can do as one likes with one’s property.

How often do you hear of an upper-middle class family having their children removed because of abuse? Could that be because our body of law is written to mainly protect the property of those with the wherewithal to own property? Or are we to believe that only poor people are lousy parents?

Well, yes, based on observation, we are supposed to believe only poor people are lousy parents, despite ample evidence to the contrary. The misdeeds of children of privilege—and by that I do not mean the advantages of being White, which is a rant for another time—make it into the media every now and then, lest they be accused of class bias. Incidents of abuse among the lower classes, though, are regularly reported, and the first response by the system always seems to be removing the children from their home.

Don’t get me wrong. I fully believe any child in a dangerous situation needs protection. However, there seems to be no distinction made between situations where the danger arises from a complete lack of support for the parent(s) and those where the parents are themselves the danger. In the former instance, one might suggest the children are being treated not as people with feelings but objects—property—that can be shifted from one shelf to another with no regard for how that might impact them.

Even cursory research shows that most abusive situations, regardless of income level, have one big thing in common: they result when parents view children as they would a pet, i.e., property. That is, they see child-rearing not as encouraging their children, as small people, to become individuals but rather as training them to obey and conform to whatever the familial boundaries are.

There’s an active movement to bring back the concept of “free-range” child-rearing. That is, of allowing children to explore their world and interact in ways that kids used to do as the natural order of things. It’s in opposition to several fairly recent developments, the two most insidious of which are the ideas that the world is a dangerous place, and that unsupervised children are being neglected by their parents. “Helicopter parents” are a subject of scorn, yet our entire culture not just encourages but even demands that kind of constant, hovering supervision.

Human beings don’t handle constant supervision well. It’s dehumanizing, because it implies we aren’t intelligent creatures capable of making decisions and grasping the meaning of the results. It suggests that, absent that watchful eye, we might behave in some manner outside the subscribed boundaries. Might I suggest the operative term for that is “slavery”? And slaves are—wait for it—property.

So, having seemed to wander a bit from the original topic, I will wander back. Observe the various reports of sexual assault since the rise of the #metoo movement. At least, observe them up to the point where the discussion diverges from the point where all the unrepentant perpetrators are clearly people in positions where they manipulated the lives of others on a daily basis.

Now consider that most cultures train us to admire those in power. How many times have you heard that we should respect X because he or she occupies some such position of power? Respect the boss, or lose your job. Respect your parents, because they’re your parents. Even if they’re toxic or even brutal, we’re told they deserve some respect because of the label they wear and the position they occupy in the system.

That’s why the reporting process is such anathema to many victims of sexual assault. It’s constructed such that whether one is believed depends on what level of the power structure one occupies. Add in the dynamic that bad things only happen to bad people that permeates most cultures, and where is the incentive to tell the truth?

So, the victim decides to just let the incident go, because no one will listen anyway. Years pass. Personalities grow and change, for good or ill. An opportunity to finally report the incident arises, and the victim gathers courage and does. Only to be told that, by waiting so long, he or she can’t be believed because there’s no evidence. Which brings up another matter for consideration.

Might it be argued that the difficulty of providing decent evidence long after the fact is the reason why the system makes it so hard for victims to come forward? Those in charge know the longer they can prevent an accusation from being made, the less likely it can every be proved. In other words, again, victims aren’t people, just objects to be moved about to keep the status quo firmly in place.

So, they are property, this time of the so-called “justice” system. The victim becomes the only evidence, and evidence is sealed into bags and tucked into boxes to be set on shelves in storage rooms.

If we truly want to end rape culture, we have to stop allowing the Power People to change the subject, to prevent them from making sexual assault and harassment about sex and gender dynamics instead of the real root cause. And we need to stop allowing them to use it as a weapon in political conflicts before we reach a point where even highly qualified, ethical individuals are blocked from office solely on the basis of an allegation. Do we really want someone’s lifelong sexual history to become the most important criterion for their ability to perform an important public office?

That would be just another way those in power would be able to screw the rest of us over.

(The opinions expressed as A Piece of My Mind are my own, and should not be considered those of Zumaya Publications or its authors. They are also subject to change in light of new evidence. Should you wish to contest any of them, please do so like an intelligent human being using supported facts.)

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.