Character is destiny, and politicians usually get the scandals they deserve, with a sense of inevitability about them.
TOMORROW: My Book World: Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki
My Book World
Tribe, Laurence, and Joshua Matz. To
End a Presidency: The Power of
Impeachment. New York, Basic,
This eminently readable book explicates a complex subject, one worthy of study during a period when the term “impeachment” is bandied about in the media with incredible ease. The authors do a commendable job of, first of all, discussing the laws governing impeachment of a president and how they sprang to life in the first place as part of the US Constitution.
On the other hand, Tribe and Matz help readers to understand that nothing about impeachment is simple. They limn the intricacies of the laws, how the proceedings must begin in the House of Representatives and can conclude only in the Senate. They tell us about how difficult it is to obtain a two-thirds majority vote (under normal times, let alone now with such great partisan divides) in either house to advance impeachment. They explain which offenses are impeachable and which are not and why, that it is not a matter of removing a president from office because he is a boor. He must have committed a crime or misdemeanor. Even with those parameters, it is never a simple matter for Congress to decide.
Ultimately, the authors rule against impeaching our current president, largely because of the disruption it would cause in our society. Under normal circumstances, the executive and judicial branches of the government would help to reign in the abuses of a president. Even now, during times that do not seem normal to those of us of a certain age, the other two branches are doing their job. The House will be governed, beginning in January, 2019, by Democrats, who can begin to call the actions of President 45 into question. Even the Supreme Court, which has now been loaded with conservatives, could surprise the president. The two men whom he seated owe him absolutely nothing. The president cannot remove them from their seats if they should rule against him. And if they do favor him in ways that are questionable, they themselves could be subject to impeachment . . . theoretically. As the authors say in conclusion:
“We must abandon fantasies that the impeachment power will swoop in and save us from destruction. It can’t and it won’t. When our democracy is threatened from within, we must save it ourselves. Maybe impeachment should play a role in that process; maybe it will only make things worse. Either way, reversing the rot in our political system will require creative and heroic efforts throughout American life. And at the heart of those efforts will be the struggle to transcend our deepest divisions in search of common purpose and mutual understanding” (240-1).
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-36 Vermont
My Book World
Anderson, Carol. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of
Our Racial Divide. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.
Unspoken indeed. Professor Anderson takes readers through the long yet decisive history of White Rage. It is a history that has lain directly beneath the noses of all Americans but one that has been covered up, ignored, or outright distorted, as well. Anderson revives for readers the five primary events in US history which incite and keep alive White Rage.
First, following the Civil War, former Confederates refuse actually to take Reconstruction seriously, and the North ignores the South’s refusal. Two, as a direct result of this action, freed African-Americans migrate north, only to find they are no more welcome there than they have been in the South. In places, rejection is even more hostile, more vitriolic. Three, White Rage is incited with the Brown vs. Topekadecision to integrate American schools, and at least two decades are spent in fighting or rolling back provisions of this decision—making most school districts as segregated as they ever were. Four, the author delineates how Ronald Reagan’s white-rage leadership reverses, insidiously, the Civil Rights gains of the 1960s and 1970s. And last, Anderson reiterates what contemporary readers have witnessed for themselves, how the election of an African-American president, Barack Obama, once again incites White Rage, a backlash that results in the questionable election of Donald Trump.
Anderson’s book reinforces the recent writings of other black authors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, for one. She doesn’t mention reparations, but my thinking is that our country will never be at rest, can never truly hold its head up among nations until it has, in more than a symbolic manner, attempted to make reparations to the descendants of slavery. It won’t be difficult to determine who qualifies. The government will be able to use the same visible trait it used to discriminate, and that is the color of one’s skin. Anyone with African-American lineage should qualify for funding for free education, help with daily living expenses until one is independent. Not only that, but the trillions of dollars that were accrued by this nation during slavery off the backs of black men and women, should be multiplied to, in some manner, make it up to our dark-skinned brethren. Their ancestors were captured on their native soil, mauled, maligned—treated more harshly than work animals—and the surviving generations of victims of White Rage deserve recompense. The one percent will have to pay their fair share to ensure that this happens, along with the rest of us, but it must be done. And it must be done with an amount of good will and love. The fires of White Rage must be quelled forever. Only then can we heal.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-32 North Carolina
My Book World
Clements, Brian, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader, eds., with an introduction by Colum McCann. Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence. Boston: Beacon, 2017.
There would nothing wrong with presenting a book-length collection of anti-gun poetry by itself, but Bullets into Bells increases its power by pairing each poem with a response written by a person who has been deeply affected by such violence. Note the eloquence of these lines from “Heal the Cracks in the Bell of the World,” by poet, Martín Espada.
Now the bells speak with their tongues of bronze.
There are too many fine poems and too many strong responses to them to list here. Just buy the book and READ them for yourselves. Words alone may not solve this problem of gun violence but they can certainly articulate its many problems.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-25 Michigan — October 17, 2018
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-22 New Mexico
My Book World
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. We Were Eight Years
in Power: An American Tragedy. New
York:One World, 2017.
Of necessity this book is a sad one. It tells a truth, or many truths, really, that white people in our country must come to grips with—namely that our white ancestors committed crimes against black slaves and that, as descendants, we have failed and continue to fail to atone for their sins.
“If you see black identity as you see southern identity, or Irish identity, or Italian identity—not as a separate trunk, but as a branch of the American tree, with roots in the broader experience—then you understand that the particulars of black culture are inseparable from the particulars of the country” (54).
One point, among many, that Coates makes resoundingly is that the great wealth that has been with this country from the beginning was made off the backs of black slaves, free labor. If poor white families had had to harvest all that cotton themselves such wealth would never have been accumulated. And that’s why some citizens of places like Mississippi are still embittered today: “In 1860 there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the country” (183). Those individuals may feel that their legacy was stolen from them, but they fail to think of the legacy stolen from black slaves: their lives and the lives of their descendants.
Whites could do with a healthy dose of walk-a-mile-in-my-shoes kind of empathy. Coates quotes one man: “‘When they tore down the projects here, they left the high-rises and came to the neighborhood with that gang mentality. You don’t have nothing, so you going to take something, even if it’s not real. You don’t have no street, but in your mind it’s yours’” (195).
In Coates’s introduction he makes clear that the eight years he is talking about—Obama’s eight years in power—are shadowed or echoed by an earlier period in the late nineteenth century, when black citizens, as part of Reconstruction, ran the state of South Carolina. Eight years only because whites took that away from them. Each of the eight essays in this book is a championing statement that clarifies the history of African-Americans: “The Legacy of Malcolm X,” “The Case for Reparations,” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” “My President Was Black” concludes this book which must be required reading for all Americans.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-18 Arkansas
This past week, I came to a decision I had been mulling over for at least eighteen months, when a foreign nation used Facebook to try and skew the election of 2016. I deleted my Facebook account. It was a decision I did not arrive at easily. After all, I had established lines of communications with high school, college, and childhood friends, as well as former students of mine, and contemporary acquaintances of all kinds.
However, I believe until Facebook cleans up its act and can secure our personal data in the way that our credit card companies and banks do, I'm wary of participating. I also believe FB must shore up its advertising scheme. When I was attempting to sell my book with ads on FB, I figured into their algorithms every English-speaking country in the world. Mistake. It invited all kinds of mayhem—people around the world desperate for attention—and virtually no sales. Many of the parties who searched me had a "ru" following the dot in their URL.
There are also practices of FB that I could no longer tolerate. The idea of establishing algorithms that prey on our buying patterns, our political choices, and a host of other preferences, appalls me. Algorithms dictating that we only see the posts of a certain twenty-five friends! Why? It is the epitome of Big Brother watching us every minute, and it is intolerable. And get this, Instagram and other apps are owned by FB, so I shall never be using their services, either. I am considering dropping my Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google + accounts, as well because they have many of the same problems as FB.
Sooooo . . . until FB can get its sh** together, I choose not to participate. I will miss seeing what's happening with my friends, both close ones, and those whom I confirmed because we happened to know someone in common or because we met a long, long time ago. I am certain I do NOT have over 250 friends in my non-cyber life. If you do, congratulations. And if in the future FB, or some emerging social media outlet, should be able to set up a platform that is safe and secure, I'll see you there!
Until then, reach me here at my Web site on my Home page where there is a contact box. And I'll gladly respond. That's what friends do.
NEXT TIME: Defeating A Fib at Last-4 (final installment)
My Book World
Corn, David and Michael Isikoff. Russian
Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s
War on America and the Election of
Donald Trump. New York: Hachette,
This book is a hot read, mostly because these two journalists have taken the patchwork of daily news that we all read every day and transformed all that information into a seamless narrative that is easy to understand. And important, easy to appreciate. If Americans aren’t concerned about the Russia investigation, they aren’t very concerned about the survival of their country.
“Putin had once called the collapse of the Soviet Union the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.’ He was a Russian nationalist to his core. H wanted to extend Russian power, restoring its spheres of influence. He was an autocrat in the long tradition of Russian strongmen and had little interest in joining the club of Western liberal democracies—or winning its approval” (31).
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-12 Virginia
My Book World
Tur, Katy. Unbelievable: My Front-Row
Seat to the Craziest Campaign in
American History. New York: Morrow,
This engrossing book seems to be made up of at least three strands: 1) MSNBC reporter Katy Tur’s narrative of her assignment to follow then candidate Donald Trump throughout the entirety of the 2016 presidential campaign. 2) In doing so she shares a great deal about what it’s like to be a reporter placed in such a position, the great moments, the uncomfortable moments, the shortchanging of her personal life. 3) And speaking of that, Tur interweaves bits of her personal life—including her childhood and youth, her love life, and her travels—into the weft of her fascinating storytelling.
With regard to 1) she has mixed feelings about leaving her assignment which places her in London, England. Accepting it means moving to New York, giving up her flat in London, her friends there, a boyfriend in Paris, I believe. Turning it down would mean giving up the opportunity to cover one of the most controversial presidential candidates in history, and might also mean squelching her career by not playing ball with the producers at MSNBC.
Katy Tur shares with the reader the details of her travels with DT: flying coach, packing economically yet in a way that allows her to appear fresh on camera (dry shampoo?); a significant lack of sleep because she can be wakened at any moment to be given an assignment; keeping up with tens of thousands of work-related emails, many of which she winds up dumping. Sad, sad meals grabbed here and there, the lack of exercise on any given day or week. But most of all, we see what it feels like to be on camera nation-wide:
“Hardball wants me live. I take a deep breath, stand up, put in my earpiece, and hook back into MSNBC’s live coverage.
Finally, Tur’s personal history adds a tantalizing touch to her career. It seems that her parents, Bob and Marika Tur begin in the 1970s a helicopter service in which they cover in Los Angeles such happenings as “fires, shootings, and most unforgettably, police pursuits. Their first big get was Madonna’s 1985 wedding to Sean Penn” (108).
From her parents, especially, father, she learns the thrill of the hunt. As a child, she goes up with her dad in his ‘copter, and one point she, without benefit of a harness, hangs out the cockpit a bit too far. Her dad says little but apparently turns white. At thirty-two or -three Tur must feel jaded in some sense, as anyone who’s been in a business for a decade must, but she’s got a long career ahead of her if she can sustain this kind of reporting and writing—if she can continue to hang out there without a harness.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-6 Illinois
My Book World
Andreas, Peter. Rebel Mother: My
Childhood Chasing the Revolution. New
York: Simon and Schuster, 2017.
This book is one of those that drew me in and would not let me go until I had finished it. I made not a single annotation or underline because the narrative was so compelling that I didn’t wish to stop and write.
Carol Andreas is raised as a Mennonite in North Newton, Kansas, and in the 1950s she marries another Mennonite seven years her elder. From this marriage she gives birth to three sons, one of whom is author, Peter Andreas, the youngest. As the Andreas family lives in suburban Detroit, Michigan, Carol eventually earns a PhD and radicalizes her political thinking. Against her husband’s wishes (he refuses to grant her a divorce), she packs up all three sons and moves to Berkeley, California, the epicenter of 1960s and 1970s radical politics.
As part of her radicalization, Carol Andreas abdicates her traditional role as mother and allows her three sons to make many of their own decisions, for example, whether they want to attend school on a particular day. However, when she decides to move to South America to aid the revolution there, she takes eight-year-old Peter with her—partly to spite her husband, partly because the child is too young to care for himself, but mostly so that she can mold his socio-political views. The other two sons prefer to remain in California and reside in the commune where they’ve all been living.
The heart of the book is about the years that Carol and Peter spend in three different South American countries. Instead thriving in the warmth of a middle-class Michigan home, Peter lives a rather deprived life. He is subject to the harshest living conditions as his mother does what is necessary to aid others in their political goals. He witnesses her many different boyfriends, sometimes having to sleep in the same room with them as they make love.
In one situation, his hair is infested with head lice. Worse yet, his mother places him in adult situations, “assignments” he accepts because they make him feel grown up. He even participates in his own kidnappings from Michigan schools, after his father has been awarded custody so that he can live with his mother in South America. His allegiances to each parent are probably stretched even tighter than most children of divorce, because his parents represent two different extremes and because both are set on having their way.
However, the narrative illustrates the strength of a love that can develop between parent and child. Carol Andreas makes many mistakes, yet even so, son Peter never stops loving his mother. At one point, as he reaches college, he does realize he will never be like his mother, nor like his father. He must become his own person, and he informs each parent of his desires. If Peter has learned anything from his mother it is that he is responsible for his own life, his own happiness, and as he matures he begins to pursue the one he wants. Today, he is the author of ten books and John Hay Professor of International Studies at Brown University. His childhood must in no small way inform his adult life.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017
My Book World
Each weekend I try to view selected portions of C-SPAN’s Book-TV, forty-eight hours of recorded author readings of nonfiction now hitting the shelves, and sometimes six-hour segments covering book festivals around the U.S. C-SPAN is supported by most cable and satellite TV providers, so check your listings. You can view any reading at Book-TV’s Web site. And if you do wish to tune in, you can download and print a copy of the weekend’s schedule off the Web site. Below I profile an August 7, 2017 presentation I found very compelling.
Eisinger, Jesse. The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives. New York: Simon, 2017.
I’m always a sucker for a provocative title, but I’m particularly drawn in when the content of the book delivers on the title’s punch. In a recent C-SPAN Book-TV presentation of his Chickenshit Club, Eisinger takes readers into the bowels of the 2008 financial meltdown and explains why neither the CEOs nor the corporations they headed were ever prosecuted, why individuals responsible for such bad deeds never went to prison. Not to give away too much, Eisinger’s explanation is at once simple and complex.
Simply, Department of Justice officials are afraid of certain aspects, for example, so-called collateral consequences, in which innocent employees lose their jobs when a corporation is put out of business. To explore the complexities, Eisenger lays out the history of why our country has arrived at this point where the financial-sector tail is wagging the law. He concludes that without individual accountability reforms are meaningless. Hedge fund managers and CEOs continue their heinous practices knowing they have an excellent chance of not going to prision.
In a perfect world the author would recommend, one, paying prosecutors much more money so they will have the incentive to work as hard as they would for private law firms that can pay more. Two, he recommends diversity in hiring, not merely more women and persons of color, but individuals from different parts of the country, who have graduated from a variety of law schools, not just the elite ones. Also, he would hire older, esteemed attorneys with a track record and a wider vision of the world, as well as those who have experience in consumer protections. Eisinger’s book expounds on what Matt Taibbi introduces in his excellent book, The Divide. Read both if you’re concerned about the fragile yet powerful world of finance.
NEXT TIME: My Book World
My Book World
Frank, Barney. Frank: A Life in Politics
from the Great Society to Same-
SexMarriage. New York: Farrar, 2015.
In this tersely written memoir (yet verbose in places), Frank memorializes his forty years of public service. Though I find the word “service” can have a false ring with people in the US Congress who, over time, increase their wealth considerably, such a word rings strong and true with regard to Barney Frank. For four decades he serves, in one capacity or another, the people of Boston, Massachusetts—but also many citizens from coast to coast. During his tenure as congress member, he evolves into an ace legislator who is instrumental in getting landmark legislation through Congress: undoing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, strengthening laws that govern Wall Street (Dodd-Frank) after 2008, and any number of LGBTQ issues. He has a way of stating the truth that only stings if you are the guilty party:
“If every issue is always on the active agenda, if an issue that was already disposed of by a majority can be reopened whenever the side that lost regains an advantage, instability infects not just the body that made that decision but also the society that it is governed by. It is the explicit rejection of that principle by the Tea Party Republicans that contributes heavily to political gridlock. A representative or senator’s effectiveness thus is based on his or her ability to deal with a very wide range of issues, with never enough time, and with little guidance from others” (73).
Frank is able to articulate the why and wherefores of legislation and government, as in this statement justifying taxation:
“In a civilized society that needs a profit-driven private sector and a tax-funded public sector, it is all the people’s money. The task facing sensible people is to distinguish between the personal or family needs and wants best fulfilled by individual spending choices and those societal goals that can be achieved only if we pool our resources to buy collective goods” (171-2).
Frank speaks to how our country can dovetail capitalism with democracy:
“Representative government in a capitalist society involves the coexistence of two systems—an economic one, in which a person’s influence necessarily increases with his or her wealth, and a political one, in which every citizen is supposed to have an equal say. If the mechanisms of the free market are going to work, that is, if they are going to increase productivity through incentives and allocate resources efficiently, money must drive decisions. For democracy to fulfill its moral promise, everyone’s vote should have the same weight in making the rules by which we govern ourselves” (183). Hallelujah, he should be teaching civics in high school!
Frank is blunt about the issues that Democrats face:
“Democrats will regain a fighting chance to win majority support among working- and middle-class white men only when we demonstrate the will—and capacity—to respond to the economic distress inflicted on them” (187).
One only hopes that new Democrats now filling slots in Congress are half as dedicated, knowledgeable, honest, and generous as Barney Frank. In the coming months and years we’re going to need such people to face the issues that plague citizens across this country.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017
My Book World
Each weekend I try to view selected portions of C-SPAN’s Book-TV, forty-eight straight hours of recorded author readings of nonfiction now hitting the shelves, and sometimes six- or eight-hour segments covering book festivals around the US. C-SPAN, by the way, is supported by most cable and satellite TV providers, so check your listings. You can also view at any time any reading at Book-TV’s Web site. And if you do wish to tune in, you can view, download, and print a copy of the weekend’s schedule off the Web site. Please find below a presentation I believe to be of interest to a broad audience.
Dean Baker. Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the
Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer.
Washington DC: Center for Economic and Policy Research,
In this book Baker “argues that government policies, not globalization or the natural workings of the free market, have led to the upward redistribution of wealth seen around the world over the past four decades.” His logical and comprehensive lecture offers one of the most compelling arguments I’ve ever heard on the subject. First aired January 17, 2107.
Click here to view Baker's presentation at C-SPAN's Book-TV.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017
Packing It Out is Good
I get aggravated enough when I’m in urban areas and see trash strewn all over the place. With the winds we have in West Texas, a piece of trash always seems to be lodged in our bushes. You don’t know whether to leave it there and let the wind blow . . . I’m kidding. I usually can’t stand it and do a trash run to the dumpster. I’ve picked up Sonic cups, KFC boxes, some kid’s schoolwork, plastic grocery sacks (one hung up high in our cherry laurel tree until it finally disappeared), even an individual’s county HIV test results (negative, thankfully). But when I’m out hiking in nature, I especially loathe seeing someone else’s trash.
In perusing the March/April issue of Sierra Magazine, I see that I’m not alone. I’ve attached the short feature so you can read it for yourselves, but the gist of it is that hiker Seth Orme has formed an organization called Packing It Out, in which he and his friends might hike for miles, and on their way they pick up trash and haul it out of the park or whatever wilderness they happen to be in. The story should inspire all of us to pack it out: not just our own debris, but a piece or twenty that someone else has left behind. Maybe the action would inspire others. We can only hope. According to Sierra, “Each U.S. resident generates an average of 4.4 pounds of trash a day; all together that’s 728,000 tons, or enough to fill 63,000 garbage trucks” (25). To state the obvious: that’s too much!
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017
My Book World
Each weekend I try to view selected portions of C-SPAN’s Book-TV, forty-eight straight hours of recorded author readings of nonfiction now hitting the shelves, and sometimes six- or eight-hour segments covering book festivals around the US. C-SPAN, by the way, is supported by most cable and satellite TV providers, so check your listings. You can also view at any time any reading at Book-TV’s Web site. And if you do wish to tune in, you can view, download, and print a copy of the weekend’s schedule off the Web site. Please find below one presentation that recently piqued my interest.
Daniel Connolly. The Book of Isaias: A Child of Hispanic Immigrants Seeks His Own America. New York: St. Martin's, 2016.
This panel presentation was part of the Tucson Festival of Books, in which author Connolly speaks of the status of children of undocumented immigrants. In the book that takes five years to research and write, he says that the vast majority of these children are citizens, yet they are often not only mistreated but when their parents are deported they have no lifeline. He states that enforcement of immigration laws varies from region to region. For example, in Arizona there are guards and walls. In Memphis, Tennessee, where he lives, the workforce depends heavily on immigrants, and the laws are not always adhered to. A fascinating discussion, and it looks like a fine read—on my wish list, for sure. He shares the stage with Julissa Arce, author of My (Underground) American Dream: My True Story as an Undocumented Immigrant Who Became a Wall Street Executive.
Daniel Connolly's Book-TV Presentation
NEXT TIME: Earth Day 2017
My Book World
Each weekend I try to view selected portions of C-SPAN’s Book-TV, forty-eight straight hours of recorded author readings of nonfiction now hitting the shelves, and sometimes six- or eight-hour segments covering book festivals around the US. C-SPAN, by the way, is supported by most cable and satellite TV providers, so check your listings. You can also view at any time any reading at Book-TV’s Web site. And if you do wish to tune in, you can view, download, and print a copy of the weekend’s schedule off the Web site. Please find below two presentations that recently piqued my interest.
Maureen Dowd. The Year of Voting Dangerously: The Derangement of American Politics. New York: Twelve, 2016.
I’ve viewed both of these presentations, one held at the Miami Book Fair and the other at the Tucson Festival of Books. In the first one, shortly after the 2016 election of our forty-fifth president, she speaks directly to her book, how, after covering 45 for over thirty years, she’s arrived at some conclusions as to how he won the election. In the second video, she is questioned by host, Peter Slen, of C-SPAN’s Book-TV, a fine interviewer, who speaks to her about not only the book but her entire career. In both events the New York Times columnist from Washington, DC, is quite candid and astute in her assessment of President 45. She says we’re in for quite a ride. Tune into to one or both talks to find out why!
Maureen Dowd at the Miami Book Fair
Maureen Dowd at the Tucson Festival of Books
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017
My Book World
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four.
New York: Harcourt, 1949.
For summer reading in 1966, I was required to peruse Nineteen Eighty-Four for my first college humanities class, along with Huxley’s Brave New World and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Sometimes a book begs to be re-read because it whispers to you. Yes, as I pass by my bookshelf words like HATE WEEK (two minutes of hate is rather like 140 characters of venom) and BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU carry a familiar ring, yet as if for the first time making sense. Other Orwellian terms spring from this novel: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, a language called NEWSPEAK in which words are deliberately manipulated by the government to control people’s thoughts. When I first read this book at eighteen, I did not stop to realize that the character Winston Smith, by Orwell’s own calendar, was born in 1945, a few years before me, his girlfriend Julia, in 1957. At the time, 1984 didn’t seem like eighteen years away; it seemed like FOREVER.
Now one has to wonder. Like citizens of Orwell’s London with telescreens in every room (two-way cameras), we can be hunted down at any moment by way of our cell phones, the GPS systems in our cars, the fact that a certain G entity has photographed every one of our houses and connected them to our addresses so that anyone in the world—whether a relative or an assassin—can locate us within minutes. That the government can record our telephone calls at will or monitor our Internet use are ubiquitous realities that have become invisible to us. And how much does Orwell’s term DOUBLETHINK smack of 45’s ALTERNATE FACTS, DUCKSPEAK OF #TRUMPSPEAK?
“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy” (80).
And how is this for Orwell’s prescient definition of DOUBLETHINK:
“the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”? (214).
Upon my first reading years ago, I rather shrugged off Orwell’s dystopian depiction of life in the future. I wasn’t overly upset by Winston Smith’s treatment in the end, where he is severely punished physically and mentally for not believing in Big Brother because, to Smith, it is all make believe. Yet, in spite of the novel’s ugliness, Orwell does manage to limn the purity of human love, how Winston and Julia fall for one another but must hide their love, how the glass paperweight with a colorful piece of coral embedded inside is an extended metaphor for their hidden relationship, how in the end the paperweight is shattered like their love is shattered once they are discovered. In spite of the State’s efforts to “change” the two individuals, to erase their thoughts and make them party members, the State really doesn’t quite succeed, for in the end Winston sheds tears of love for who else, but Big Brother himself.
I purposely omit plot elements because many of you will already have read the novel, and if you haven’t, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. It would not be a waste of time to work it into your schedule at some point. If around today, characters Winston and Julia would be about seventy-one and sixty, yet it's hard to believe, given their plight in the novel, that they would be much more than folds of skin with hair.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017
My Book World
Each weekend I try to view selected portions of C-SPAN’s Book-TV, forty-eight straight hours of recorded author readings of nonfiction now hitting the shelves, and sometimes six-hour segments covering book festivals around the US. C-SPAN, by the way, is supported by most all cable and satellite TV providers, so check your listings. You can also view at any time any reading at Book-TV’s Web site. And if you do wish to tune in, you can view, download, and print a copy of the weekend’s schedule off the Web site. Below I list a presentation I recently found interesting.
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney. People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy. New York: Nation Books, 2016.
In spite of the apocalyptic title, authors McChesney and Nichols lay out for the reader what to expect in the future and perhaps ways to deal with it. From Amazon’s blurb: “The consequences of the technological revolution are about to hit hard: unemployment will spike as new technologies replace labor in the manufacturing, service, and professional sectors of an economy that is already struggling. The end of work as we know it will hit at the worst moment imaginable: as capitalism fosters permanent stagnation, when the labor market is in decrepit shape, with declining wages, expanding poverty, and scorching inequality. Only the dramatic democratization of our economy can address the existential challenges we now face. Yet, the US political process is so dominated by billionaires and corporate special interests, by corruption and monopoly, that it stymies not just democracy but progress.”
In his portion of this discussion held at the Tucson Festival of Books, John Nichols gives everyone a reason to grasp where we are in history and come to grips with it. Click on this link to view the entire presentation, about an hour in length.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017
Something to Think About on Presidents' Day
For more than five years I have blogged mostly about literary issues because I find the act pleasing—from time to time veering over to other subjects that interest me, travel and the like. Today's post is decidedly political, but it is straight from the heart. On this Presidents' Day I ask you to think about #45.
First 45 comes for the women because they are the many (51%) and vocal and on the right side of history, and we do not speak out because many of us are not women and some who are women also have good reason to be afraid.
Then 45 and his followers come for the Muslims because they are easy prey, and we do not speak out because many of us are not Muslim.
Then 45 and his followers come for the Mexicans because they have little power and must hide, and we do not speak out because many of us are not Mexican.
Then 45 and his followers come for black people because these descendants of slaves are ready for the fight; will we not join that fight because we are not African-American?
Then 45 and his followers come for the LGBTQs by way of the rest room issue—and do we not speak out because a large majority of us are not Lesbian or Gay or Bisexual or Transgendered or Queer?
Finally, will we believe 45 and his followers when they say they are in support of Israel, or are the Jews safe because surely no one would come after them again?
My thoughts are adapted from the words of Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a Protestant minister who openly criticized Hitler and spent many years in concentration camps for speaking out. Consider his writing:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Niemöller’s style, not to mention that last line, is more eloquent than mine, but nonetheless the gigantic slice of history to which he refers is one we cannot afford to repeat. In fact, the parallels to events and peoples in our time are chilling.
We must speak out in a variety of ways, even if we’re afraid, even if we’re persecuted for doing so.
All who are NOT in support of 45 (56% disapproval rate) have an opportunity, perhaps an obligation, to help.
What We Can Do:
Select one group or one cause and support it with small monthly donations—I’m talking $5 to $25 a month. Look at what such a practice did for the Bernie Sanders campaign; there is great power in the many consolidating resources.
Or short on money? Let's give of our talents (verbal, physical, philosophical, musical, artistic).
A social person? Let's go to the local office of our favorite political party and donate our time working for a cause we believe in. Demonstrate. Act up. Occupy.
Most of all, old or young, let's speak out! Today, with social media outlets, we have the same opportunity as Mr. 45 to put out a message and engage in dialogue.
Now that I’ve dismounted my high horse, I shall return to my study and write, but forget me, and just do something.
NEXT TIME: NEW YORKER FICTION 2017
My Book World
Smith, Chris. The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History As Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests. With a foreword by Jon Stewart. New York: Grand Central, 2016.
For those who watched Comedy Central’s The Daily Show for many years, this book is a joy to read. It allows one to revel in its hallmark moments, following the script as you remember watching it. As the title suggests, a panoply of people, in short bursts, tell this story. Smith has done an admirable job (à la George Plimpton in his biographies of Edie Sedgwick and Truman Capote) of threading together this massive narrative by way of individual recollections, sometimes contradicting or engaging one another, as one might do at a table reading of a script. Below I list but a few nuggets gleaned from the text.
Rory Albanese (executive producer):
A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
Ahead of her Time or Too Late?
Warren, Elizabeth. A Fighting Chance. New York: Metropolitan, 2014.
This book is full of acronyms: AFSCME=American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFR=Americans for Financial Reform, ARM=adjustable rate mortgage, CDO=collateralized debt obligations, CFPB=Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, CRL=Center for Responsible Lending, COP=Congressional Oversight Panel, TBTF=Too Big to Fail, TARP=Troubled Asset Relief Program, and many others. I learned that I’d better memorize them or keep a key beside me because to understand them is to understand a lot of Elizabeth Warren’s story.
This memoir by Warren is largely about her stance on how finance is handled in America. At the same time, her autobiography is threaded throughout the book, from her truly humble beginnings in Oklahoma to her much-heralded run for US Senate in Massachusetts in 2012—at which point her opponent, Scott Brown, accuses her of misrepresenting her Native American roots. Through her struggle the reader sees his or her own. She may be the least political politician currently in office. Many of her ideas appeal to Progressives, as well as Tea Party members. Repeatedly she says, “The system is rigged.” It is rigged in favor of corporate interests, which have eroded and continue to erode middle-class life in America.
One way to fight back: “When you have no real power, go public—really public. The public is where the real power is” (126). And this is the kind of action she takes all throughout her career. When before a crowd or audience, she speaks plainly and easily about complex problems, sounding much like the law school professor she has been for many years. Now instead of educating law students, she’s educating the public.
Warren, of course, is reviled by the financial community (Wall Street), but that is because she’s on the side of the middle and working class families, whose incomes have been diluted over the last thirty years. Her run for the Senate begins when someone makes a video of her speaking in someone’s home. I’m paraphrasing her words: No one in this country makes it alone. People who succeed in business must work hard—that’s a given—but they must use roads and other forms of infrastructure that our taxes pay for; and the more heavy-duty their business is the harder they are on this infrastructure, yet they feel entitled to pay less in taxes than their secretaries. I would add that local, state, and federal laws combine to give corporations all kinds of breaks, the large oil companies receiving government subsidies being one of many examples.
Warren lays all this all out in prose that is simple yet artful. She threads her words with figurative language that demonstrates further what she is saying to her audience. I believe Warren when she ways she’s not running for president. I believe her goal is to spend the rest of her life leveling the playing field, so that the middle and working classes might again have the opportunities they once had. So that young people might attend college for reasonable prices and finance it through loans at rates that are no higher than what banks have to pay for money. Yet, everywhere she goes, she creates energy, energy that is contagious. Might she just be drafted to run for president? Might she give another woman a run for her money?
Out of the Past, They Determine the Future
In the past few years, since Charles and David have made their political will so well known, they are either exalted or reviled, depending on which camp one belongs. Schulman seems to remain quite objective, neither favoring them nor shielding them from criticism. Readers certainly discover more about the Koch brothers than they ever thought they might learn.
The four brothers’ father, Fred Koch, for example, originally hailed from Quanah, Texas, making Wichita more or less a place of happenstance for the brothers. Fred is a cold and tyrannical father, yet all but one of the sons sets out to try and please their father, that is, emulate him and his maniacal competitiveness in every way. Only one, Frederick, Junior, chooses to follow his own path. Rather than taking his millions and establishing his own dynasty, he prefers the life of the arts: living in a lush place in Manhattan (and in Europe) and attending musical and visual arts productions, purchasing expensive art as if it’s going out of existence. Throughout their lives, the brothers will sue one another for various reasons, until some time in the 1990s, they decide to call a truce—although there still exist deep suspicions among some of the brothers for each other to this very day. Charles and David, though eight years apart, seem to share the most concerning political beliefs and set out to change the country through their activism. They’re just as fervent as their father was, when he served as one of the founding members of the John Birch Society. When all the facts are laid out, one can see how the Koch brothers have become the men they have. It still doesn’t make some like their political stands, but at least one does understand how perhaps they became the men they did, wanting and fighting for completely unfettered freedom to earn as much money as they want without governmental interference. That, they believe, is the salvation for everyone. If you have the utter freedom to earn as much money as you want, you will be happy, and everything will turn out well in the end. Funny what drives some people, when it would be so easy for them to wrap themselves in their billions, like a cocoon, and waste away inside. This they do not do.
NEXT TIME: More of MY BOOK WORLD
A WRITER’S WIT
My Book World
Robertson, Nan. The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and The New York Times. Lincoln NE: iUniverse, 1992, 2000.
Much of my nonfiction reading is informed by C-SPAN’s weekend Book TV, and most of what catches my eye are recent releases. However, on May 24 I watched an early 1990s interview with the late Nan Robertson, New York Times reporter and author of The Girls in the Balcony. I was so taken with her wit, her analysis of what had happened to her and other female reporters during her long tenure at the newspaper that it spurred me to buy a copy of her book—which is now published as a reprint by the Author’s Guild. It chronicles the turbulent history that women reporters had with the Times, and she begins with the setting for the title.
“The Board Room at the pinnacle of the New York Times Building is calculated to awe. It is a huge room, with a baronial fireplace sheathed in green marble at the far end. Set against carved mahogany paneling that reaches from floor to ceiling” (3).
Robertson goes on for a page and a half, describing the “baronial” room and the fact that until mid-twentieth-century, female employees cannot enter it except by way of the balcony, where, in reality, they are relegated to a near-elevator-sized space with no chairs. Unless situated correctly, the women cannot hear the proceedings, cannot participate in making the decisions about what is to be published and what isn’t. This situation is merely a symbol for their total inequality, which includes their salaries. Their research shows that the average woman is underpaid by at least $3,000 a year. Finally, in 1972, six women put their careers on the line and write a letter to the publisher concerning this issue, and fifty women sign it. Two months later, the publisher meets with the six women. One of them, Betsy Wade, chief copy editor of the foreign desk, speaks on their behalf:
“It’s all there,” Betsy said. “All of us are afraid in our pocketbooks. It hurts you over your lifetime earnings, it hurts you in your pension, it hurts every way. And of course, the individual woman can do little to remedy this. She goes to her boss or to her manager and she says, ‘Look, I’m turning the same turret lathe as the guy sitting here and I’m making less.’ And he says, ‘Well you just don’t turn the turret lathe quite so well’” (13).
The publisher must realize that if he is to rectify these discrepancies across the board it will cost the Times about $2 million dollars a year, and from his inaction, it is clear he doesn’t plan to help out. The women then go to court in 1974. In the long run, the women and the newspaper decide to settle, because to carry forward with a suit would ruin the paper (and the women’s careers). But what money the women receive is only a fraction of what they've earned. What is most notable about Robertson’s book—aside from her fine prose style, her impeccable choice of detail—is that she carefully delineates the battle these brave women fight on behalf of women reporters everywhere, including those who presently work for the Times. So often, the young (of any generation) take for granted their freedoms, as if they’ve always been present . . . and always will be. We must be reminded that women still make seventy-seven cents for every dollar a man makes, and what better way to remind us than Robertson's book.
NEXT TIME: PHOTOGRAPHS
A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
Carr, Cynthia. Fire in the Belly: the Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Long book (over 600 pages). Long post.
David Wojnarowiz (voyna-ROW-vich) was born in 1954. His father beat him, and he was sexually abused by older boys. He barely finished high school and did not attend college, yet in the 1980s he became, for a short time, an art sensation in New York. He didn't care about success, often living hand to mouth, and refused to take the next step that would ensure stability. That would have been selling out. Click here to view his work.
"David's work was full of sex and violence—politics expressed at the level of the body. He painted distress. Soldiers and bombers. Falling buildings and junkies. His images had the tension of some niceness opened up to its ruined heart. In the montages he began to develop, David would expose the Real Deal under the artifacts—wars and rumors of wars, industrial wastelands, mythological beasts, and the evolutionary spectrum from dinosaur to humanity's rough beast" (231).
David was gay but arrived at that place by way of a rather indirect route. He preferred the intimacy of a relationship but often turned to the anonymous sex prevalent in New York City until the AIDS crisis became a problem. In the late eighties, he and his longtime companion were tested and both came up HIV positive.
"David was beginning to consciously connect his family's pathology to a larger worldview. He added an anecdote in the Eye about watching a cop kick a dope-sick junkie while arresting him: 'And I'm feeling rage 'cause in the midst of my bad mood this cop is inadvertently reaching in with his tentacles and probing in ice-pick fashion some vulnerable area from years ago maybe when my dad took me down in the basement for another routine of dog chain and baseball bat beatings or when he killed my pet rabbit and made me eat it . . . blam . . . blam . . . blam'" (312).
The death of so many men may be one of the reasons why I continue to write. Not only must I do so in order to stay sane, alive, but I must do it for these people whose lives were cut short by a hateful and unrelenting disease—and a still indifferent culture. I'm surely not as gifted as David Wojnarowicz, but I must not waste the time given me. I participated in some of the same risky behaviors that many of my contemporaries did, and I was fortunate enough to emerge with a different roll of the dice. I must work to honor David and Tom. Would they still be together now? Would David have embraced his success? Would his burgeoning career have matured or fizzled out? Multiply his life times the hundreds or thousands of gifted gay men of that era who died. Their voices continue to shout at us from their discordant chorus. We owe a great debt to Cynthia Carr for allowing us to hear one of these voices loud and clear.
Click one of the links below to purchase a copy of Fire in the Belly.
Barnes and Noble
NEXT TIME: BACKYARD BIRDCAM PHOTOS
A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
To peruse my reading journal for 2013, click on 2013, or see Reading Journals above.
Bowden, Charles and Alice Leora Briggs. Dreamland: the Way Out of Juárez. Austin: University of Texas, 2010.
I read this book, illustrated by my friend Alice Briggs, in 2010, when it came out, but for some reason, I did not make a note of it in either my blog or my reading journals. Perhaps it is too disturbing. Perhaps I could not fully grasp what Bowden & Briggs have accomplished. Both Bowden and Briggs spent months, if not years, researching their book, exposing themselves to the same dangers that the residents of Juárez do every day. To get the story of the informant who murders a man while U.S. agents listen in and do nothing, to understand the dynamics of this and a thousand other stories, they both make themselves vulnerable to the ragged life on the border, where, because of a few political decisions made in the past, life is a constant battle between those who are selling drugs and those who would steal the contraband and/or the money it generates. It is a bloody war, one that the United States quietly participates in with its insatiable thirst for more and more illicit drugs. It is a war the U.S. ignores as well, for it is a war so deeply entrenched in the two countries’ economies, whose balance will be tipped if an “Immigration Policy” is ever brought to light. Bowden provides the illuminating prose, and Briggs the exquisite drawings that expand that which he cannot say with words.
The gist of Bowden’s entire narrative might be captured in the following passage:
“One of the early priests after the conquest of Mexico, Fray Durán, knew the old tongue and listened to the old men and wrote down their tales of what their world had been and what it had meant to them. They had been very rich and feared by other nations. They told the priest of the tribute once brought to their emperor: mantles of various designs and colors, gold, feathers, jewelry, cacao, every eighty days a million Indians trudged in bearing tribute and the list was so complete that even lice and fleas were brought and offered. The tribute collectors told the emperor, ‘O powerful lord, let not our arrival disturb your powerful heart and peaceful spirit, nor shall we be the cause of some sudden alarm that might provoke an illness for you. You well know that we are you vassals and in your presence we are nothing but rubbish and dirt.’ ¶ That was half a millennium ago and yet the rich still get tribute and the people who give them tribute feel as dirt and rubbish. ¶ For years and decades, for almost a century, people have looked at this system and sensed change or noticed hopes of change. And yet they all wait for change” (67).
Bowden is well aware that this journey the Mexican people make is one that started long ago and continues, for all we know, far into the future:
The combination of Bowden’s stunning and lyrical prose combined with Briggs’s dramatic but subtle sgraffito illustrations make a powerful statement of our problems on the border. No wonder some want to fortify the barriers that already exist there. It is an ugly world, and we certainly don’t want it spilling over into ours.
“In the Florentine Codex, a record of the Indians’ ways that Cortés crushed with his new empire, it is noted that men who die in war go to the house of the sun and then they become birds or butterflies and dance from flower to flower sucking honey. In the old tongue, flower is xochitl, death is miquiztli” (80).
Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. El Paso: Cinco Puntos, 2012.
The Kentucky Club is a bar on Avenida Juárez in Juárez, the twin city to El Paso, Texas. Most of these seven stories reference a number of things in each one: The Kentucky Club itself, bourbon (or some other strong liquor), stout coffee, fathers who fail their sons in a variety of big ways, and mostly men who fail each other in love.
Sáenz’s style is deceptively simple, strong on declarative sentences and plenty of pages with a lot of white space because his dialog is, if not terse, then spare, lean. Most of the characters, gay men of various ages, live in Sunset Heights, a neighborhood in El Paso, but plenty of them cross the bridge between the two cities, the two countries as easily as most of them switch from Spanish to English—as if they are two forms of the same language. That’s life on the border: with its own lingo, its own culture, like many of the men in these stories, crossing easily from one life to another, but not without a price.
And one must not construe that this is a "narrow" book of gay men’s fiction, many of which made their way onto the shelves in the late eighties because gay men were hungry to read about themselves. It is not one of those books. Some of the protagonists are straight, some gay, some are bisexual. Each one is his own person, whether he is yet whole or not.
In the final story, “The Hunting Game,” the main character, a high school counselor, speaks of one of his students, who has been abused all his life by his father. Sáenz’s metaphors, like his prose, are deceptively simple:
“We grabbed a bite to eat. He ate as if he’d never tasted a burger before. God, that boy had a hunger in him. It almost hurt to watch. ‘I’ll be eighteen in three months. And I’m going away. And he’ll never be able to find me’” (209).
The image is so simple, yet so profound, the hamburger that symbolizes a future that might just satisfy the boy’s hunger to be loved. It has little to do with food; it has to do with hunger, the hunger of the human spirit to find meaning.
On the same page, Sáenz demonstrates through “dream” how the paths of these two males (one older, one very young) will cross one another by virtue of the pain both have suffered at the hands of their fathers:
“I wanted to tell him that his father would always own a piece of him, that he would have dreams of his father chasing him, dreams of a father catching him and shoving him in a car and driving him back home, dreams where he could see every angry wrinkle on his father’s face as he held up the belt like a whip. He would find out on his own. He would have to learn how to save himself from everything he’d been through. Salvation existed in his own broken heart and he’d have to find a way to get at it. It all sucked, it sucked like hell. I didn’t know what to tell him so I lied to him again. ‘He’ll just be a bad memory one day.’ He nodded I don’t think he really believed me, but he wasn’t about to call me a liar” (209).
This PEN/Faulkner award winner has written seven striking stories I believe I should read again and again because I sense there is much I may have missed the first time around. This book is one that my friend Alice Leora Briggs gave me. For me, it is a bookend to the one she illustrated, Dreamland, profiled above. This one gives the reader yet another view of life along the border between Mexico and Texas.
Men in power can easily change borders on maps with the quick exchange of currency, but borders that exist in people’s hearts are much more difficult to traverse.
WEDNESDAY: LAS VEGAS PHOTO ESSAY
Richard Jespers is a writer living in Lubbock, Texas, USA.
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