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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.

Review: Unequal Protection by Thom Hartmann

It’s probablyunequal-protection-hartmann-199x300 unnecessary to note that, for at least the last decade, we US residents no longer live in a democratic republic. Thanks to a series of business-friendly Supreme Court decisions, our representative government is now filled with employees of a plutocratic oligarchy. And, as of November 2016, the political party their employers co-opted completely in 2009 own all three branches of government. The checks and balances established by those who wrote the Constitution to ensure We the People remain free and independent are the victim of corporate raiders.

Thom Hartmann’s book, first in 2004, emerged at a time when the above was a threat observed mostly by independent journalists and those who were awake to the danger. The second edition, updated in 2009 when Charles and David Koch held the first of their semi-annual “conferences” that gave birth to the Tea Party and consolidated the GOP into their weapon of choice for the destruction of government as we know it. That the government hadn’t been what most people believed for at least 30 years and probably longer is a testament to what happens when people’s traditional source of information—the mainstream media—has been debased into a corporate propaganda.

Mr. Hartmann’s book traces the history of the corporate takeover of the US government from the triggering event, the 1886 SCOTUS decision Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, to the pivotal 2010 Citizens United decision that opened the previously controlled floodgates of cash from billionaires and corporations into our election process. On the way, he discusses the relationship of the country to corporations, making clear the Founding Fathers were, with some exceptions, opposed to their having any hand in the government process. Ironically, one of those who thought otherwise is the protagonist of a current musical much beloved by the Democratic liberal establishment—Alexander Hamilton. That Hamilton firmly believed the rich and powerful should be in charge of the US government tends to get lost in translation.

This isn’t an easy book to read, which is as it should be when you’re trying to educate people unaware of the subject in a way that will enable them to both understand the problem and begin what has become an increasingly difficult fight to correct it. I don’t recommend trying to read it quickly, even if you’re one like me who can do so if need be. This is important information anyone willing to pick up the gauntlet and take back the country needs to not just understand but know well enough to persuade those who still don’t understand. My copy is studded with pink Post-It flags so I can find the bits I consider most telling, and that might be the best way to read it.

Eight years ago, the situation was bad; it has since become dire. There is no question the only way to bring down the neo-feudalism taking over the country is to amend the Constitution so corporations are once again reduced to the artificial constructs they are. There is another irony that isn’t addressed in the book, since it’s of recent birth, which is that the same billionaires responsible for the corporate takeover are now paying to convene a Constitutional Convention of the states for the alleged purpose of passing a balanced budget amendment but which will actually be open to becoming a Wild West aggregation of right-wing zealots whose actual goal is likely to gut the document entirely.

Unequal Protection is an important book for those who refuse to sit still in the face of a plutocratic revolution to overthrow the republic. It needs to be on bookshelves right next to Mayer’s Dark Money and Klein’s Shock Doctrine.

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.