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

Posts tagged ‘books’

Book Review: Truth Has A Power of Its Own by Ray Suarez

Historian Howard Zinn (1922-2010) qualifies as a cultural icon, and as is usually the case that means there are likely as many people who hate him as consider him a hero. His nonconformist overview of American history, A People’s History of the United States, and its sequel, A Young People’s History of the United States, is either considered desperately needed to counter the accepted narrative on the subject or distorted and misleading propaganda, depending on whom you talk to.

“In the nearly forty years since the first edition of A People’s History of the United States appeared, Zinn’s critics have tried to sandbag him,” says author Ray Suarez in his foreword. “Some complain that his iconoclasm, his tearing down of long-revered heroes, and his corrections to the record leave only a dreary slog through centuries of oppression, struggle, and suffering. Well, a historian’s job is to find out what actually happened.”

In this in-depth interview, done just prior to Mr. Zinn’s death in 2010 and scheduled for release in September 2019,  Suarez delves into how the historian believes his take on the subject has affected the trajectory of the US, and whether that influence is important.

For those not familiar with Mr. Zinn’s work, he views the events we all heard about in school from the standpoint of not the generals, politicians, and plutocrats but the common people. “[Y]es, let’s have heroes,” Mr. Zinn tells Suarez, “but let’s look for them in different places than on high in the seats of power where the heroism very often consists of exploiting other people or invading other people or taking advantage of other people.”

Now, as a tiny handful of progressive politicians are rallying the working class to confront the system that has done that for literal centuries, a book like Mr. Zinn’s, showing again and again how ordinary people have challenged powers and institutions seemingly unconquerable, and won, is vital. Again and again, the new wave of rebels is told they can’t possibly succeed, that the policies they demand are impossible, that they should be “realistic” and accept what the “more informed” people in power tell them.

Worse, they skillfully turn those who should be working together against one another.

“It’s a very common thing in history that people who are victims will turn upon one another”, Mr. Zinn says. “They can’t reach the people who are really responsible for their plight, so they turn on those who are closest to them.”

In those two sentences, Mr. Zinn likely explained the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s election. Even now, on social media, the tactic of turning the victims against one another occurs on a daily basis. Likewise, the corporate news media are masters at generating outrage, replacing one incident or individual—preferably both—with a new one as the emotional level declines.

This is an important book for those familiar with Mr. Zinn’s work but not the man, and Suarez has done a magnificent job of ensuring we never stray far from the latter. His questions elicit details those of us not privileged to have met Howard Zinn can use to more deeply understand him and, by extension, his work.

“The idea that people make history and can alter its course, that institutions have human origins and can be changed by humans, is truly subversive—and is a central reason [A People’s History of the United States] has drawn the ire of so many censors and would-be censors,” writes Anthony Arnove in his introduction to the 35th Anniversary edition of the book (Harper Perennial Classics, 2015). “Fundamentally, Howard had a confidence in people’s ability to work together and change their circumstances.”

Do get a copy of Truth Has A Power of Its Own when it comes out. Meantime, if you’re part of the New Revolution and haven’t read Mr. Zinn’s histories—and I confess I’m among you—get those and discover the history you didn’t hear about. As the battle for the future of both the US and the planet advances toward November 2020, the stories the books tell of success in the face of overwhelming odds will become increasingly necessary for inspiration. Or, as Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, who is one of the few individuals mentioned by Mr. Zinn, said:

“Some day we will have the courage to rise up and strike back at these great ‘giants’ of industry, and then we will see they weren’t ‘giants’ after all—they only seemed to because we were on our knees and they towered above us.”

NOTE: I obtained this book as an advance review copy from the publisher.

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: 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?

Book 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.

Book Review: Queen of the Flowers by Kerry Greenwood

Original Edition

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

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

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

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

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

Yet.

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

Book 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)