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

Posts tagged ‘book review’

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: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

SeeWhatIHaveDone

See What I Have Done
by Sarah Schmidt
Release date: Aug 01,

I’ll begin with two points. First, this review is based on an advance reader copy provided by the publisher. Second, although I have tried mightily to enjoy what’s referred to as “literary fiction” for most of my reading life, I rarely succeed. I’ll explain why as we proceed.

Ms. Schmidt has opted to do a take on one of the most notorious dysfunctional families in US history, one that is the source of a mystery that can still initiate heated discussions among those fascinated by it.

On a hot August afternoon in 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts, local businessman Andrew Jackson Borden and his second wife, Abby, had their heads staved in with an axe or some similar implement. Several days later, his younger daughter Lizzie was arrested for murder. Twenty months after that, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of all charges by an all-male jury, that being the only sort there was in those days.

Ms. Schmidt has opted to have us view those events from the perspective of four characters—three of them actual people, the fourth a fictional character. One of the first three is, of course, Lizzie Borden herself. The other two are her older sister Emma and the family’s Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan. The fourth character is a raging psychopath named Benjamin, who is hired by the sisters’ uncle John Morse to “have words” with Andrew Borden regarding how he treated his daughters.

All of which is fine, and could make for an interesting exploration of another alternative to the whodunit that is the Lizzie Borden story. Unfortunately, the things about literary fiction that make its fans shiver with delight are the very ones that, in the end, usually put me off what might be an otherwise excellent story.

The most egregious element of too much literary fiction, for me, is what those who enjoy it consider “wordsmithing.” That is, the author manipulates the language in ways that are unique and colorful. That’s fine, unless their manipulation is so intrusive I end up being thrown out of the tale. That happened quite a bit in the first two-thirds of this novel. I’m as fond of clever use of the language as anyone, but not when I find myself thinking “Wow, that was clever.”

There is, that gripe notwithstanding, a lot to like in this novel, although there’s a thread that’s left dangling. I’d have preferred that not have happened. Others’ mileage may vary. Ms. Schmidt does an excellent job of making us understand the inner workings of someone like Lizzie Borden once she gets down to business, and one early on becomes more than empathetic toward poor Emma. This being one of those stories so often told everyone knows the details, her choice to keep us in the thoughts of those involved instead is a good one.

I can, therefore, recommend this book to those who enjoy literary fiction, and to those who are fascinated by the entire Borden saga with the caveats noted. I will also warn you that you may never want to eat pears again by the time you’re finished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Guise of Another by Allen Eskens

Guise_coverFans of Dan Brown will probably find a lot to like about this novel. Those who prefer realistic characters probably not so much.

The first problem I had was identifying the main character. We start off with one who seems to fill that capacity but may not be, and the one who may be shows up about three chapters in. It’s a telling point that it’s all but impossible to critique said original main character without spoilers, which I will not do. Suffice to say I didn’t care for the way he was used.

Then there’s the villain, who is an Eastern European cliché straight out of every cop show in movies or TV. Ditto for the underlying villainous corporation for whom he works. Within two or three chapters, his behavior becomes so predictable the plot becomes a matter of waiting to see how his opposition responds.

What put me off most, though, was an underlying thread of misogyny wherein women are either cheating spouses, manipulative gold diggers, or impending murder victims. Again, one can’t go into detail without spoilers, and I know that’s frustrating. It’s also possible no one else will concur, but I tend to see patterns. The one I saw here was off-putting. I’ll also note in passing Mr. Eskens seems to have an aversion to pronouns.

All that said, the plot isn’t bad, with lots of twists and turns that may or may not have been intentional, as after the first few I couldn’t help feeling the author may have, from time to time, gotten bored with the way things were going and gone looking for something new to play with.

Think “action movie,” and you may find this book to your liking. If you like a bit more depth of character, this may not be as entertaining.

Book Review: The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

ShockDoctrineIf you’re part of the 1%, you’ll hate this book. If, on the other hand, you’re wondering how it is that the rich are getting richer while the middle class gets poorer, this is the place to start.

The Shock Doctrine is an historical review of how the brand of no-holds-barred free-market capitalism advocated by economist Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics, with the able assistance of the CIA, the IMF and the World Bank, have systematically destroyed budding democracies worldwide, brutally murdering and torturing those who would challenge them, in the name of profit.

“Some of the most infamous human rights violations of this era, which have tended to be viewed as sadistic acts carried out by anti-democratic regimes, were in fact either committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public or actively harnessed to prepare the ground for the introduction of radical free-market reforms.” (Page 11)

From the 1950s, when the CIA overthrew the democratically elected president of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 on false pretenses, the steady erosion of democracy both in the US and worldwide has brought us to the present situation where 1% of the world’s population controls half of its wealth. To aid in this imperialist campaign, the CIA has trained hundreds of well-paid “revolutionaries” in the methods of torture the world got a firsthand look at with the exposure of Abu Ghraib. The official story was this was a case of over-zealousness. It wasn’t. It’s standard procedure. It’s happening right now at Guantanamo and likely in any number of “black sites” in distant and not so distant places.

As we speak, a group of billionaires, including Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and the Waltons, are spending millions to destroy free public education. The GOP and neoliberal Democrats have been trying to privatize Social Security for decades. This isn’t just ideology. It’s a well-planned agenda for eliminating all government-supported programs.

“The ultimate goal for the corporations at the center of the complex is to bring the model of for-profit government, which advances so rapidly in extraordinary circumstances, into the ordinary and day-to-day functioning of the state – in effect, to privatize the government.” (Page 15)

That agenda is moving forward using “… The policy Trinity – the elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations and skeletal social spending…” (Page 18)

With each incursion into eliminating the possibility that people who have suffered under one form of colonialism or another for centuries will manage to take ownership of their own countries, the Friedmanites who ousted the Keynesians responsible for the New Deal and the development of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have replaced popularly elected governments with well-financed thugs willing to sell their countries’ assets to the highest bidder. If a few thousand peasants die or are murdered in the process, that’s of no concern to anyone involved. As long as the corporate shills follow the rules, they can live in sybaritic luxury as long as there are wire transfers and suitcases full of cash to be had.

“First, governments must remove all rules and regulations standing in the way of the accumulation of profits. Second, they should sell off any assets they own the corporations could be running at a profit. And third, they should dramatically cut back funding of social programs…. Taxes when they must exist, should be low, and rich and poor should be taxed at the same flat rate. Corporation should be free to sell their products anywhere in the world, and government should make no effort to protect local industries or local ownership. All prices, including the price of labor, should be determined by the market. There should be no minimum wage. For privatization, Friedman offered up healthcare, the post office, education, retirement pensions, even national parks.” (Page 69)

This book came highly recommended by several people, and if the current disaster that US democracy is becoming matters, it’s essential one read this book to understand the mindset of those seeking to destroy it. Where the neoliberal agenda has been imposed, the only ones to benefit are the corporations, the wealthy, and the thugs they recruit to carry out their plans. Most frightening, much of the logistical functions of the US military have been handed over to private corporations like Halliburton and Blackwater, which are training enough mercenaries to create private armies with the full cooperation of Congress and, apparently, the judicial and executive branches of the US government.

I never studied economics, and while I’ve broadened my knowledge base in that area a fair amount recently, I still appreciate when an author can present important and necessary information in a way that’s accessible to the amateur. Ms. Klein does that very well, and having finished her book, I can only hope it’s not too late to save ourselves from the plutocrats who want to turn the world into a corporate oligarchy.

Review: The Pirate Hunter by Richard Zacks

Pirate HunterIn the annals of piratical history, the name of William Kidd is prominent next to those of Edward Teach and Anne Bonney. In this excellent piece of investigative history, Richard Zacks makes it clear that, for all his faults, Captain Kidd got a bad rap, whereas a contemporary who was an unrepentant gangster of the high seas thrived.

Hired by four British noblemen at the instigation of a hustler named Robert Livingston to sail to the Indian Ocean to hunt pirates, Kidd wasn’t even out of the Atlantic before he ran afoul of one of the worst examples of a British naval officer, who promptly (and with the eager support of the East India Company) declared him a pirate. When, months later, Kidd’s crew mutinied and joined the aforementioned unrepentant gangster for a real campaign of piracy, Kidd’s subsequent actions to survive were interpreted by everyone in authority as further evidence of his crimes.

Mr. Zacks has a thorough grasp of both the history and the cultures in which his vindication of William Kidd takes place, referring to it in one instance as “a time of much religion and little charity.” He describes the world in which social position and money were as great an advantage as they are today with detail that is at once excruciating and as fascinating as the proverbial train wreck.

That Kidd’s story could be said to parallel that of any number of possibly innocent men currently held in our own prison at Guantanamo is telling. Held incommunicado, the proof of his innocence “misfiled” and not found until two hundred years later, his very hanging botched, Kidd still managed to cling to his honor and his dignity (with one or two lapses) in the face of political machinations and royal ass-covering. If you love history, and especially if you’re fascinated by the world of pirates, this is a book that belongs on your shelf.

Review: The Incidental Spy by Libby Fischer Hellmann

First, I must apologize to Ms. Hellmann for the lateness of this review. I can only plead work and conventions. And laundry.

When it comes to the plight of Jewish refugees during the Second World War, the focus tends to be on their escape or attempts to do so. In Ms. Hellmann’s new novella from The Red Herring Press, Lena Bentheim has reached safety in Chicago, but at the cost of the rest of her family and her beloved Josef. Through a combination of luck and determination, she lands a job as a secretary in the U. of Chicago physics department, falls in love and has a son.

The department has taken on a new top-secret project, and Lena’s husband is in the front row of scientists working on it. Then, Karl dies in a traffic accident, and Lena must return to work. The department welcomes her back. Life is a struggle, but she’ll do what she must for her son, Max.

Until the night Max goes missing. Suddenly, Lena is forced to spy on her coworkers, supplying the Nazi regime with information on the experiments in atomic fission that will become known as the Manhattan Project.

It’s impossible not to want to jump in and help Lena. A stranger in a country where her religion and her country of origin are suspect, where she has no one she can trust or turn to, and where the life of her child hangs on choices she must make against her will and her conscience, she is a character one can embrace without a qualm. Ms. Hellmann places her in a seemingly impossible situation where she must either find the courage to battle her blackmailers or accept the treason they demand she perform for them. The suspense in this superb novella is more truly in that internal struggle than in the outer one of spies and traitors.

The Incidental Spy is available in print and, shortly, in ebook on Amazon. I received an advance review copy from Ms. Hellmann for review purposes. I’m delighted I did.