Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story by Ari Folman & David Polonsky

Paperback, 128 pages Pub February 17th 2009 by Metropolitan Books (first published 2008) ISBN13: 9780805088922

The 2008 animated documentary of the same name by Ari Folman and David Polonsky took four years to complete. The frames of this graphic novel may have come from the film itself, and the sense of the film is uncannily captured without the sound or movement. Both book and film are so powerful I could not make it through in one sitting. A tremendous sense of anxiety and foreboding is generated by white/brown/black monochrome washed with an acid, chemical yellow, the slavering wild dogs, and the dissociative reality of war on a beach.

For anyone who hasn’t seen this film or read the graphic novel, I urge you to put aside anything else you have on your plates the minute you obtain a copy of either. It probably won’t take more than an evening to read/watch this remarkable act of witnessing, and you will remember it for the rest of your lives. Folman was a nineteen-year old recruit in the Israeli army when he was sent to Lebanon in 1982 to stop PLO rocket attacks and to retaliate for an assassination attempt on the life of Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom.

At the time, many displaced Palestinians were living in refugee camps in southern Lebanon in permanent structures like houses. Their lives did not look temporary, but there was always agitation because their refugee status did not change. In Lebanon, the sectarian Christian leader Bashir Gemayel aggressively challenged (some might say crushed) the rights of Palestinians and Muslims, and shortly after he became president-elect in the 1982 presidential election in Lebanon, he was assassinated.

Gemayel’s party, the Christian Phalangists, took their revenge on two refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila. Israeli forces were slow to recognize and respond to an unfolding massacre. It appears they simply did not recognize the evil for what it was--it was too monstrous. The scars of those days left many men unable to understand what had actually happened in September 1982 and their role in it. Forman and Polonsky managed to show us that paralysis that comes over someone, even a group, when something bad is happening. The men protested up to their leaders, but not loudly, confidently, definitively enough. This phenomenon is not unknown. It may even have happened to us.

Much of the story is about the elusive nature of memory, and what scars the trauma of war leaves. The authors decided not to try and give voice to the other participants in this extraordinary event, but to just focus on the point of view of someone who was there but not directly implicated in the killing and who retained no memory of the time. We can forget these times of trauma, which is why the Holocaust is constantly referred to and memorialized. One must remember in order to forestall similar atrocities in the future.

The art in the film and the book is exceptional for its originality. The drawings are a certain kind of primitive and for that reason are all that we can project onto them. It may be the horror is something we bring because objectively speaking, until real photographs appear at the very end, events are only hinted at: we have the blank stares of the affected soldiers and the bizarrely horrible sudden deaths of soldiers playing on a beach—and this all from the point of view of what might be called the Israeli bystanders.

They were part of the army, and they had ordnance, but they had little passion for battle, the Israeli participants. The Phalangists were the actors in this case. I am reminded of Montaigne: "There is no hostility that exceeds Christian hostility." The whole record of the movie and the book should go down with oral histories of ancient battles not at all heroic but horrible and instructive and something forever to be avoided.

After making this film, Ari Folman said he no longer has interest in traditional filmmaking. There was something even more exciting to him about the art of David Polonsky, who tried using his non-dominant hand to draw so that the smoothness of caricatures did not distract from the roughness of the subject matter. Animation was a relatively new industry in Israel when they began, and since they had no infrastructure, they made decisions that more practiced and wealthier studios may not have made.

Both the film and the graphic novel are for grown-ups, or for people who want to be grown-ups.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Judas by Amos Oz, translated by Nicholas de Lange

Hardcover, 320 pages Pub Nov 8th 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published August 2014) ISBN13: 9780544464049 Literary Awards – Haus der Kulturen der Welt for Mirjam Pressler (2015), Man Booker Int'l Prize Nominee for Shortlist (2017)

This is the third outstanding work I’ve read by an Israeli in as many weeks, and I find myself falling under a spell of admiration again for a culture that fights back against the worst aspects of itself, interrogates itself relentlessly, and creates humor around the morose recognition of man’s fallibility. Into a novel describing three generations living together in a small Jerusalem house, Amos Oz weaves history, religion, and politics into a meditation on the why and how of Jewishness and the concept of a Jewish state.

Not for a moment do we believe the characters have a life beyond that of describing a conflict. The generous nature of Oz’s characters make us willing to suspend judgment and place our trust in his hands awhile, to hear what he has to say. In our modern world one is rarely willing or able to hear an opposite view, but this seems a safe place to examine ideas. In a review in the New York Times, Oz speaks of this novel as a piece of chamber music. A grouping of voices influence one another, each different than the other, three generations of Jews in Israel.

The time is late 1950s or early 1960s. A student Shmuel has found his thesis, “Jewish Views of Jesus,” not as unique as he’d imagined and less interesting than something he'd bumped up against in research: “Christian Views of Judas.” Shmuel discovers that without the traitor Judas Iscariot, there would be no Christianity. Jesus and his apostles were all Jews. Without the crucifixion, there may not have been a rift in beliefs.

Needing to ponder this theory further, Shmuel has left his thesis unfinished and has taken a job as evening companion to learned old Gershom Wald in exchange for room and board. The old man spends his days arguing vociferously on the telephone with friends and enemies, and is a strong supporter of David ben-Gurion’s Zionism. Wald’s daughter-in-law Aitalia holds an opposite and more radical view that reflects her own father, Shealtiel Abravanel’s opinion that the concept of nation states and ownership of land and resources is a faulty one.
"Aitalia’s father was one of those people who believe that every conflict is merely a misunderstanding: a spot of family counseling, and handful of group therapy, a drop or two of goodwill, and at once we shall all be brothers in heart and soul and the conflict will disappear. He was one of those people convinced that all that is required to resolve a conflict is for both parties to get to know each other, and immediately they will start to like each other…"
The novel is a multi-layered examination of the idea of ‘traitor,’ and whether or not it is, in fact, an enlightened state “which really ought to be seen as a badge of honor:”
"Anyone willing to change," Shmuel said, "will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change and are scared to death of change and don't understand it and loathe change…"
……Shmuel added in a hushed voice, as though afraid that strangers might hear: "After all, the kiss of Judas, the most famous kiss in history was surely not a traitor’s kiss…"
But old man Wald reminds us that it is the name Judas which has become a synonym for betrayal, and perhaps also a synonym for Jew.
"Millions of simple Christians think that every single Jew is infected with the virus of treachery…So long as each Christian baby learns with its mother’s milk that God-killers still tread the earth, or the offspring of God-killers, we [Jews] shall know no rest."
In a review for Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir Arab of the Future, I’d expressed some concern that Arab schoolchildren in the Middle East were learning religious hatreds early, never considering that North American Christians were of course learning religious hatreds at the same age.

Oz makes no secret of his own opinions in interviews, but in this work he makes us puzzle it all out. He gives us the old conundrums in new ways, making us want to take them up again for examination. We question everything from the ground up. This work reminds me why I love literature: Oz is able to layer complex motivations onto history and take a stab at trying to explain what man is and what we should expect of him.

The translation of this work into English by Nicholas de Lange from the Hebrew is especially easy to enjoy. The Blackstone audio production is excellent, the work narrated on ten discs (11 hours) by Jonathan Davis. The hardcover published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is useful to return to some ideas. Though the novel is not difficult to read, the ideas challenge readers and may require a second or third look to tie the threads together. This is great stuff. Oz is seventy-seven years old. He should be proud of himself, and we should be grateful.

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Hardcover, 352 pages Expected publication: April 18th 2017 by Doubleday ISBN13: 9780385534246

That we as a nation, less than one hundred years after the Osage Indian killings, have no collective memory of these events seems an intentional erasure. The truth of the killings would traumatize our school children and make every one of us search our souls, of that there is no doubt. David Grann shows us that the systematic killings of dozens of oil-wealthy Osage Indians were not simply the rogue deeds of a psychopath or two in a small town in Oklahoma.

The tentacles of guilt and the politics of fear extended to townspeople who earned their reputation as “successful” because they allowed these murders and thefts of property to go on, as well as implicated law enforcement. Grann outlines how the case was solved and brought to court by the persistence of FBI officer Tom White and his band, but Grann is not full-throated in his praise of Hoover's FBI. He leaves us feeling ambiguous, not about White, but about Hoover.

The Osage Indians once laid claim to much of the central part of what is now called the United States, “a territory that stretched from what is now Missouri and Kansas to Oklahoma and still farther west, all the way to the Rockies.” The tribe was physically imposing, described by Thomas Jefferson as “the finest men we have ever seen,” whose warriors typically stood over six feet tall. They were given land by Jefferson as part of their settlement to stop fighting the Indian Wars in the early 1700s.

Jefferson reneged on the agreement within four years, and ended up giving the once-mighty Osage a 50-by-125 mile area in southeastern Kansas to call their own. Gradually, however, white settlers found they liked that particular Kansas farmland and moved onto it anyway, killing anyone who challenged them, oftentimes the legal “owners”. The government then forced the Osage to sell the Kansas land and buy rocky, hilly land in Oklahoma, land no white man would want, where the Osage would be “safe” from encroachment. This was the late 1800s.

In the early 1900s oil was discovered on that ‘worthless’ Oklahoma land and because a representative of the Osage tribe was in Washington to defend Osage interests, he managed to include in the legal agreement of the allotment of Indian Territory “that the oil, gas, coal, or other minerals covered by the lands…are hereby reserved to the Osage Tribe.” Living Osage family members each were given a headright, or a share in the tribe’s mineral trust. The headrights could not be sold, they could only be inherited.

The Osage became immensely wealthy. The federal government expressed some concern (!) that the Osage were unable to manage their own wealth, and so ordered that local town professionals, white men, be appointed as guardians. One Indian WWI veteran complained he was not permitted to sign his own checks without oversight, and expenditures down to toothpaste were monitored. But this is not even the most terrible of the legacies. The Osage began to be murdered, one by one.

When Grann discovered rumblings of this century-old criminal case in Oklahoma, he wanted to see the extent of what was called the Reign of Terror, thought to have begun in 1921 and lasted until 1926, when some of the cases were finally successfully prosecuted. The “reign,” he discovered, was much longer and wider than originally imagined, and therefore did not just implicate the men who were eventually jailed for the crimes. “White people in Oklahoma thought no more of killing an Indian than they did in 1724.” said John Ramsey, one of the men eventually jailed for crimes against the Osage. A reporter noted, “The attitude of a pioneer cattleman toward a full-blood Indian…is fairly well recognized.”

What we learn in the course of this account is that a great number of people had information that could have led to answers much sooner than it did, but because there was so much corruption, even the undercover agents and sheriffs were in on the open secret of the murders. Those townspeople who might be willing to divulge what they knew were unable to discover to whom they should share information lest they be murdered as well. Grann was able to answer some questions never resolved at the time, with his access to a greater number of now-available documents.

Why this history is not better known is a mystery still. Memory of it was fading already in the late 1950s when a film, The FBI Story starring Jimmy Stewart, made mention of it. The 1920s are not so long ago, and some of the people who were children then have only recently passed away, or may even be still living. Among the Osage there is institutional memory, and still some resentment, naturally, and a long-lasting mistrust of white people. Need I say this is a must-read?

The audio of this book is narrated by three individuals: Ann Marie Lee, Will Patton, and Danny Campbell. Interestingly, the voices of the narrators seem to age over the course of the history, and it is a tale well-told. But the paper copy of this has photographs which add a huge amount of depth and interest to the story. This is another good candidate for Audible's Whispersync option, but if you are going to choose one, the paper was my favorite.

A short audio clip of the narration is given below:

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Monday, April 10, 2017

A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman translated by Jessica Cohen

Hardcover, 208 pages Pub February 21st 2017 by Knopf Publishing Group (first pub 2011) Orig Title סוס אחד נכנס לבר / Sus eḥad nikhnas le-bar ISBN13: 9780451493972 Literary Awards Man Booker International Prize Nominee for Longlist (2017)

Everyone knows that successful stand up routines are laughs at the expense of grief, or embarrassment, or pain of some kind. The laughing picks a sore and in many cases, starts the healing. The novel-length comedy routine given by Dovaleh Greenstein one night in a worn-down beach town is unique. The night of the performance is his birthday. He will be fifty-seven. He will give a one-of-a-kind, career-ending show that looks at his life, his heritage, and one particular loss that shaped him as a youth. He wants to connect the dots. He invites a witness.

David Grossman manages an extraordinary breakthrough in the consciousness of readers. Dov is not an appealing man. He is old and his jokes are not funny. He often berates his audience and embarrasses them. He is not politically correct. Most of his audience walks out. But somewhere in there is a sense of history itself, the whole boring humiliating sordid joyous beautiful and yes funny ball of wax…the thing that forms us…the things that make us human.
"He darts across the stage like a windup toy, cackling: ‘Being! Being! Being!’ He stops and slowly turns to the room with the gleaming face of a crook, a thief, a pickpocket who got away with it. ‘Do you even grasp what a stunning idea it is to just be? How subversive it is?’"
Somehow, in playing the scales of history up and down for several hours, Dov makes us sense the depth of humanity again behind the historical markers. The witness he invites to his show is a former judge, a man who knew him as a child, right before some mysterious personality-shaping event of his childhood. Dov asks this former judge to watch his show and tell him if he sees
"That thing," he said softly, "that comes out of person without his control? That thing that maybe only this one person in the world has?"

The radiance of personality, I thought. The inner glow. Or the inner darkness. The secret, the tremble of singularity. Everything that lies beyond the words that describe a person, beyond the things that happened to him and the things that went wrong and became warped in him. The same thing that years ago, when I was just starting out as a judge, I naively swore to look for in every person who stood before me, whether defendant or witness. The thing I swore I would never be indifferent to, which would be the point of departure for my judgment."
Dovaleh sees another person in the audience he recognizes, though he pretends he doesn’t. He makes her explain why she feels she knows him, and whenever she expresses tendency towards kindness in her memory of him, he humiliates her a little, challenging her and memory. The audience becomes restless, angry. One man leans over to the woman and suggests she leave:
"'This guy’s not right, he’s taking us all for a ride. He’s even making fun of you.'

Her lips tremble. 'That’s not true,' she whispers. 'I know him, he’s just doing make-believe.'"
That defense, the surety of her knowledge of Dov’s goodness, is as much about the woman herself as it is about Dov. Dov is the ultimate recreation of the tortured soul so familiar to us from other works of Jewish literature. There is nothing so tempting and hard to resist as the chance to look into another man’s hell, Grossman tells us. But the woman looks only for his humanity, his kindness.

Dov was pulling in and wrapping up that night, making sense of the whole long parade of his life. Being itself is subversive, comedic even. But Grossman's tale is just as much about the judge who was witnessing that night, who’d been shown early retirement because he’d been too caustic and furious in his decisions. This judge, who'd had to crawl through his own prejudices while watching Dov's show, who got back to that place where he could recognize the spark of humanity Dov was searching for. He’d wanted to remember so that he could be remembered. And it worked.

This novel has been long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. It was translated from the original Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. An interview about the translation can be found here. A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio interview interview with the David Grossman is here.

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The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

Hardcover, 224 pages Pub March 14th 2017 by Random House ISBN13: 9780812996937

Ariel Levy always believed she could be a writer. Her mother told her it was a good idea, a normal thing for a pre-teen to aspire to, something for a teen to aim for. She was in her late teens when she wrote for New York magazine about a bar in Queens where enormously heavy women danced for men, and presumably women. The women wore brightly colored clothes, high heels, and sequins for anyone who lusted for heavy. It made the women feel desired.

Levy was allowed to grow up thinking that sexuality was not always obvious; that one might, in fact, be in love or lust with someone not one’s spouse. One might even consider all the world to be possible partners, not just someone of one’s age and race and perhaps not even of the opposite sex. If some might think that would add to the complexity of decision-making—who would take one’s virginity and when—to Levy it made things easier. Decisions about who to sleep with wasn’t difficult. It was easy to undo. One could just change one’s mind.

I grow anxious with so many options, and have difficulty embracing such a cultivated sophistication about the possibility of lust for everyone I meet. Levy’s descriptions of her sexual life and gender fluidity gave me the feeling of viewing a Diane Arbus photograph: fantastic, queer, different, other. I think I may have convinced myself that gay and trans love and sex was like straight love and sex, only with different partners, but listening to Levy makes me reassess. I find I don’t really want to know. Please don’t tell me more. It makes me uncomfortable. Do I need to know to be fair?

When Levy writes some kind of magic happens. I heard an excerpt of her memoir very late one night on the radio. She told us about the death of her infant while she visited Mongolia. The story made me feel sick, but it was as fascinating as it was grotesque: I couldn’t not listen. I think of her traveling around the world, picking people to marry. The man she chose after she lost her baby she describes as having no family left at all, his parents dead, his wife divorced, his children in college, and his country, South Africa, in the throes of a government change. He was living and working in Ulan Bator.

That kind of rootlessness is something very edgy, and not comforting. Only people that are forced would choose that space. Who goes into something always looking for the back door? Isn’t that a way to fail trying?

Ariel Levy is a terrific writer, but I can't say I really like reading her. The exact way she describes how we discover alcoholism in someone close to us, how it feels new, constantly surprising, and always denied made me feel foolish for having been taken in so many times, just like that. It is just all so hard to believe. We just doesn’t understand, the way it presents. It looks like something else. We want to believe the lies—what a mess it will make—until one day the mess is already a fact and impossible to avoid. It just makes us feel so stupid. Human failure. The ways we sabotage ourselves. And all the time, it is worse for the alcoholic. Because it will never go away.

This woman is too much, just like she says in the beginning of this memoir. She thinks the world is just there for her, and she will use it up. She will use herself up. She will use us up. When her spouse admits to alcoholism, Levy feels betrayed. Yes, but, we protest, it is worse for the spouse. She is the one who can’t get out of the hole. But Levy keeps intellectualizing it as if the bad things that happen are targeting her.

Levy's struggle leaves me feeling like I went through much of it, too. Chris Abani writes fiction the way this woman writes nonfiction. I listened to the audio of this, produced by Penguin Random House and read by the author. Levy has an expressive voice and is able to put emphases in the work where she wants to push us a bit. She is something quite outside my experience.

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Saturday, April 8, 2017

CEO China: The Rise of Xi Jinping by Kerry Brown

Hardcover, 288 pages Pub July 30th 2016 by I. B. Tauris & Company ISBN13: 9781784533229

The Chinese economy has always fascinated me, the Chinese political and judicial systems less so. The economy is so rich and hopeful and life-giving because it is run by an irrepressibly entrepreneurial populace who can find their way, like water, around any obstacle. Marginal gains, in the past, were enough. People weren’t so much out to make a killing (“the nail that sticks up is beaten down”) as to feast well occasionally. Food was important. Not many of those simple goals remain; severe imbalances have appeared since market reforms were introduced in 1978. Xi Jinping took over in 2012 and is currently General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, President of the People's Republic of China, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

This look at Xi Jinping could be a college course with plenty of room for more side research on aspects of Xi’s background, political comrades, and challenges. This work culminates finally in a truly interesting and too-short discussion of democracy, the judicial system, taxation, corruption, cyberspace, population movements, and the leadership of the Party. Reference to these issues are quickly sketched, addressing complexities it has not space to detail. It is understandable for an interested beginner, and may raise important questions that experienced China-watchers would like to debate or pursue.

The first part of the book details the background of Xi Jinping, not adding terribly more than the information found in Evan Osnos’ 2015 article “Born Red” in The New Yorker. Biographical information about Xi is available because the government allows it to be found. Outside of his personal life, however, there are plenty of things about his governance that can be discovered and discussed, including how he has structured leadership of the government, the Party, the judiciary, the military, and how closely he follows (or not) exhortations of Mao, Deng, and other revolutionaries.

There are parallels one could make between the way Xi interacts with “the masses” of China and America’s new President Trump. This book was written and published before Trump was elected, but makes observations about Xi using the internet for direct access to people without interference from the propaganda department, which sometimes could be difficult to control precisely.
”For Xi, having this ability to go through social media to speak directly to as wide a public as possible is also a golden opportunity. This weakens the meddlesome interference of propaganda intermediaries who can often get things badly wrong…Xi is probably the first leader of the country who has had to have a clear, serious digital strategy…The Party must keep close to the people, Xi has said many times.”
Xi does not try to diminish Mao’s legacy but uses Mao’s appeal to emotion, to loyalty, to ideology. “Ideology…underpins and underlines the fundamental claims of the Party.” The Party is central to how everything is organized in China. “Xi…has had one great intuitive insight that has given him the edge over his peers…Moral, symbolic, and idealistic appeals really control allegiance. This is the main territory that he has sought to secure. So while he is not Maoist in his ideology, he is very Maoist in his understanding of the need to locate durable power and gain traction on it.”

Chinese leaders studied the reasons for the failure of the USSR and believe that Western political interference was key. The dysfunction of the western democratic model, the fractiousness, the corruptibility of the system by massive cash infusions, the time it takes, the possibility of poor candidates winning—all these are reasons why the Chinese government is not anxious to go that direction. But because the loosening of controls over economic growth has created relatively massive gains in the wealth held by individuals, it may be necessary to rebalance by means of taxation. Taxation without representation is anathema in China as anywhere, thus pushing on the door of democratic change. The pressure for such changes grows annually.

Another discussion I have not seen elsewhere references China’s relations with North Korea: “‘The country Kim Jong-Il hates most is China,’” North Korean defector Jan Jin-sung wrote in his memoirs. The most important barrier, Jan wrote, was the 'ideological demarcation line' between China and the DPRK, not the 38th parallel between South and North Korea. China’s leaders have long treated North Korea as unstable, parasitical, even contemptible. Xi visited South Korea while showing no interest in going further north to visit Kim Jong-Un. That Kim Jong-Un’s half brother was murdered while under the protection of the Chinese gives an observer the sense the feelings are reciprocal.

Brown’s scholarship is clear and comprehensive, one long argument surmising Xi Jinping's role, decisions, direction. At the very end is a section looking to the future. The whole is interesting and useful, definitely worth a look.

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Monday, April 3, 2017

White Rage: The UnspokenTruth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

Hardcover, 256 pages Pub July 27th 2016 by Bloomsbury USA (first published May 31st 2016) ISBN13: 9781632864123 Literary AwardsNational Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism (2016)

This is a completely enraging book. Anderson basically fits her material into five chapters, beginning with the aftermath of the Civil War through President Obama’s presidency. She is pointing out the ways that America has been granting rights to all its citizens with one hand while taking away the rights of some with the other. She has it all copiously documented, which is useful because she tells us some frankly unbelievable things: did you know 1) in the early part of the 20th Century black folk were arrested and prevented from leaving the South when they faced discrimination in work and housing because they constituted the “workforce”; and 2) in the 1980s two L.A. gangs, the Blood and the Crips, were sold drugs and weaponry by anti-Sandinista forces funded by our own C.I.A., beginning the massive drug war the country has been struggling with since.

These are just two examples in a book entirely filled with examples of the way rights for blacks have been curtailed in the United States, since its founding. And it continues to this day, with new abridgments to rights granted under the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013, when the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby vs. Holder that states with the longest histories of voting discrimination no longer need to have the federal government approve voting changes made prior to elections. Since then, seventeen states had new voting restrictions in place for the first time for the 2016 presidential elections, including strict requirements for government-issued I.D.s, cutbacks on early voting, and new difficulties in registering to vote or being removed from the voting rolls without notification.

Besides all that, the disparity in funding for public schools means that districts with primarily black populations have less, sometimes far less, funding than schools in districts with primarily white populations, all perfectly "legal" when school districts are funded by taxes. Discriminate on lower education, higher education, wages, and housing and yes, black districts will have fewer taxes, and the cycle is perpetuated. I am just understanding the pervasiveness of “racism with plausible deniability.” Anderson’s persistent and careful documentation of the continual challenges the states put in the way of implementing the Supreme Court decision Brown vs the Board of Education show us the way laws can be undermined by new oral argument, written decisions, and execution.

When growing up I was not always aware of the sometimes subtle ways—and even sometimes big, national, loud judicial and congressional decisions—that constrained African Americans, preventing them from realizing their full potential, but I knew enough to be shocked when President Obama was elected. Even without the consciousness I should have had, I knew enough about America’s racism to find it extremely unlikely that people would put aside their prejudices long enough to elect a bi-racial man, even if he did graduate from Harvard Law School. I am happy to be proved wrong on those two elections, but I am not so happy as I continue to learn the ways one’s rights can be infringed regardless of how we vote and the ways the attacks on rights just never ends.

This is an important, even necessary book. For those without the background in the ways black lives have struggled, it is eye-opening. For those who already know the background, it has lots of references altogether in one place, and an extensive bibliography. This is another one of those recent books that seems like it should have been written fifty years ago. It probably was, with a different title. This has been going on an awfully long time, at least 350 years, though a book written earlier wouldn’t have had all the examples of how abrogation of the rights of African Americans is happening right now. This may go on until the end of time, so there is still a undeniable need for you to learn about it and work to stop it.

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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Love-Lies-Bleeding by Don DeLillo

Paperback, 112 pages Published January 10th 2006 by Scribner (first published January 2002) ISBN13: 9780743273060

I believe this is the first time I have been able to read something by Don DeLillo. I’ve tried in the past, not recently. This is a play, his third, with four characters. Staging is minimal, consisting of chairs on the stage. Set changes are made by lighting, by who is on stage, by clothing changes for one character who is in a wheelchair.

He touches, in practically so many words, the big themes: life, death, familial and sexual love, time, compassion, generosity, jealousy, resentment, desire, beauty. A man, a painter, suffers one, then two, massive strokes. His family, such as it is, gathers.

They discuss him. But mostly they discuss themselves, their needs, wants, desires. He has a second wife, much younger. She focuses on the painter, but it is her love, in the end, that she wants to preserve. They discuss what is fair treatment, what is right and what is good, now, about his life. How long should it be preserved? He dies.

The spare dry air of the southwestern desert plains is clear in a few short sentences:
I’m just here. In winter the sharp-shinned hawk comes down to the scrub. I can sit and watch a hawk in a tree for unnumbered hours. I’m on his time. He don’t move, I don’t move. I drive to the site and stay four five days at a time. Work and sweat. Talk Spanish to my crew.
That was before, before the strokes. Time grows short, and it is almost always time for bed. What is the good, the right, the fair thing to do?

Masterly in its control, this short play condenses a lot of experience into an hour or so, without giving us any sense that the answer given here finishes the debate. It is a moment, in a wide open plain, when the sun slowly sinks into the west and the Love-Lies-Bleeding evokes color, suffering, mystery. “That’s what being in the world means. At times we suffer.”

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Saturday, April 1, 2017

Is It Evil Not To Be Sure? by Lena Dunham

Kindle Edition, 54 pages Pub May 12th 2016 by Lenny ASIN B01FMWFG9A

Lena Dunham is still the woman you met in the first season of Girls. These journal entries were made in 2006 when she was in college at Oberlin in Ohio. Many times the entries are not even complete sentences; they are mostly markers for absurd situations or behaviors. All that Lena Dunham is now is evident in those sentence fragments: her lacerating humor, her lack of modesty, her clear intelligence, and her fierce refusal to put makeup on the human condition.

She is offering these fragments to the world in order to show other young women and men that from which inspiration flows. They are fragments that capture a zeitgeist, a moment in the life of a college student…the time the unsexy boy wrapped his arm around you in the car, or the lover with the meaty thighs, or the time your girlfriend carried you over the snowy field on her back. Dunham is the same person…never sure how she is going to get all the people out of her apartment, sleeping everyday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., so inventive in her imagination one is ever off-balance in her company.

2006 was the year Dunham began making short videos around the theme of sexual enlightenment, extracurricular to her school work. One could say none, or all, of the ideas recorded in her journal that year surfaced in her art. She records awkward moments, moments of pleasure and of pain, moments of humiliation. Moments she can use to see a situation, a person, a scene. Theoretically, one could use these scraps to spark an idea, or to remember a character you’d like to describe more fully.

It’s interesting, but it is probably not for the lay person. It’s really for creatives. The audio for this is read by the author, produced by Penguin Random House. It worked well for me. I understand the written journal is available as an ebook only.

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Friday, March 31, 2017

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell

Hardcover, 192 pages Pub January 10th 2017 by Riverhead Books (first published 2014) Orig Title Distancia de rescate ISBN13: 9780399184598 Literary Awards Premio Tigre Juan (2015), Man Booker International Prize Nominee for Longlist (2017)

Dream is the right word for what we think we observe in this novel. Something poisonous is going on involving two mothers, their children, and pollutants that have entered the soil and water in a countryside that should nourish farmers, ranchers, and vacationers. The cycle of life has been profoundly disrupted and neither residents nor visitors can or will speak of the horror in the vacation wonderland. It looks as though some kind of paranormal witchery is being considered a kind of cure.

Americans lived through a history of environmental pollution and subsequent corporate denial for years in the 1950s-1960s until regulations put a halt to the most egregious flaunting of public health. The public became savvy, protesting when agriculture, methane, coal, oil, gas or other byproducts left a mark on their communities. But we rarely saw what happened in other parts of the world where the legal infrastructure was not as developed and the public not as well-educated in the ways profits become manifest.

Schweblin has made an extraordinarily intimate small novel speak for a national catastrophe. She has captured the somewhat insular way a mother observes and protects her child—how intimately she is familiar with every gesture and each learned behavior, connected by some psychic string, or in Schweblin’s words, ‘the rescue distance.’

The story is told in a unique way. The action is all past; a woman, Amanda, is in the hospital. She has a young boy speaking to her in imagination if not in actuality. The young boy encourages her to remember…to remember the sequence of events that led to this moment. Amanda and her child are staying in a vacation home in the country; while waiting for her husband to come on the weekends, they invite an interesting-looking local woman, Clara, and her son over to talk, play, and drink maté.

The strangeness comes from the juxtaposition of the hospital setting with green fields waving in a warm breeze, a cool creek, the hot sun sparkling on an outdoor pool, the languid slap of a screen door, a gold bikini, a young daughter chortling and repeating to herself, “we adore this.” There is unspoken menace in everything recalled by the woman now lying in the hospital, and the young boy she speaks to makes it sound almost as though she still had a choice…a choice she could make to prevent her imminent death.

A review from the Los Angeles Times talks about the introduction of genetically modified soybeans into the farming culture of Argentina. In an interview with Bethanne Patrick in LitHub, Schweblin is more explicit:
"This story could be set anywhere. In fact, the first time I heard about pesticides and their terrible consequences was through a documentary about this subject in France. But, mainly because of corruption, Latin America has the worst agrochemical regulations and agreements. And Argentina, in particular, is one of the biggest importers of soya—one of the products more related with pesticides. We spread this soya all over the world; it is the base of a lot of our food. Soya is in everything: cookies, frozen fish, cereal bars, soups, bread, all kinds of flour, even ice cream!"
The pollution already permeates the soil and water, is what Schweblin is telling us. It’s not like stopping now is going to change anything, but the tension in this novel may indicate there may be a way to forestall an inevitable end.

Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Schweblin apparently now lives and writes from Berlin. Fever Dream is her first novel, originally published in 2015 and winner the Tigre Juan Prize which serves to draw attention to a worthy lesser-known author. She has three story collections besides this book.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Hardcover, 272 pages Pub February 7th 2017 by Atria / 37 INK ISBN13: 9781501126390

The story of Ona Maria Judge, slave to President George Washington who escaped his presidential residence in Philadelphia and fled by sea to Portsmouth, New Hampshire in May 1796, may be one of the most intriguing escape narratives ever told. I’d first heard of Oney Judge and Washington’s pursuit of her from a mind-expanding history of black freed men and slaves in New Hampshire called Black Portsmouth, written by Valerie Cunningham and Mark J. Sammons.

In this work, historian E.A. Dunbar examines and interprets details of George Washington’s households in New York, Mount Vernon, and Philadelphia. There are many intriguing holes in the narrative, but Dunbar hews closely to the facts she uncovered and adds her understanding of how a black slave in this period would have viewed the environment and opportunities. Dunbar describes the calculation a nubile slave would make when contemplating being passed to an owner with a history of sexual interest in colored women. The startling insight of the observation was clear the instant it was articulated and certainly was not found in original documents.

The slaves in George Washington’s household came to him through his wife, Martha, widow of Daniel Parke Custis, a rich farmer. Ona Maria Judge was a teen when George Washington became president in 1789, and she was a valued house servant and seamstress. Mrs. Washington made clear that she would gift Judge to her granddaughter Eliza Custis Law, who married Thomas Law in 1796, a British subject who had made his fortune in India. Judge later told a newspaper interviewer that she “was determined never to become her slave.” (Italics preserved from the original.)

Dunbar’s research succeeds in that it does what good nonfiction ought to do—it makes one interested to know more. In this case, Dunbar introduces us to an exceedingly interesting family dynamic—granddaughter Eliza Law ended up separating from Thomas Law eight years later, finally divorcing (!) in 1811—and advances a theory about why Thomas Law later freed Ona’s sister, who took Ona’s place as servant slave in Eliza’s household. I formed a different theory based on the information Dunbar gives us in this book, but mine would require more research before I could field it confidently.

Ona’s sister, whose name was Philadelphia, appeared to have had a much easier life than did Ona. Philadelphia married a free man, William Costin, in Federal City, as the Washington D.C. area was then known. Costin, a mulatto, was illegitimate cousin to Philadelphia's mistress, and a free man. Ona had escaped to her freedom and struggled ever after with trying to balance making a living with preserving her anonymity. She lived as a fugitive eight miles outside of Portsmouth, in Greenland, which at that time must have seemed very remote indeed. The contrast between the lives of the two sisters is exceedingly tragic. I suspect they never knew the fate of the other, or we would have learned of it and Oney's life wouldn't have been so destitute.

Washington asked friends in New Hampshire several times for help in locating “the girl, who was brought up & treated more like a child than a Servant.” The friends did find Judge but she refused to be returned to the Washingtons, saying that she “would rather suffer death” than return to slavery. She’d “never received the least mental or moral instruction of any kind, while she remained in the Washington family,” a most damning indictment of the Washingtons as slave owners. Judge is described in the newspaper ad to recover her as light Mulatto, freckled, and delicately made, “with many changes of very good clothes.”

Oney Judge Staines gave two published newspaper interviews fifty years or so after her escape. The first time she told her story was to abolitionist Thomas H. Archibald of the Granite Freeman in May 1845, 49 years after her disappearance from Washington’s household. A facsimile of a portion of the interview is reprinted at a chapter head, but is frustratingly short and without sufficient detail. No explanation is given why the rest of the interview is not published in full. We know there is more because Dunbar mentions
"In her 1845 interview, Judge told of her journey to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on a vessel that was commanded by Captain John Bowles. Judge remained secretive about her escape almost her whole life, only announcing the name of the captain more than a decade after his death in July of 1937: 'I never told his name till after he died, and a few years since, lest they should punish him for bringing me away.'"
The second interview was published New Year’s Day 1847 in an important national abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. The lack of opportunity to view these original documents makes it difficult to consider this history a full-blown success. One critic made the point that this might be considered a “young adult” history. This can be to the good: Dunbar writes clearly and simply. She may allow some interpretation and stock historical detail to take the place of facts that might be relevant to the case she was seeking to advance.

For instance, it seems strange that we did not learn more about the mysterious “French gentleman” whom George Washington assumed had abducted Ona and had gotten her pregnant. Washington was under this misapprehension for years, understanding what happened only in 1799 when Portsmouth’s head of Maritime Customs reported to back to Washington that Ona had married a free black seaman, Jack Staines, in Portsmouth in 1797 and bore his child in 1798.

The story of Ona Maria Judge is immediately interesting to anyone who hears of it, both at the time and now. We may assume Judge wanted us to know what happened because she granted the newspaper interviews. This history is a good beginning to uncovering a ravishing story which touches on our interpretation of the earliest days of our nation and our first president.

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Celine by Peter Heller

Hardcover, 352 pages Pub March 7th 2017 by Knopf Publishing Group ISBN13: 9780451493897

Peter Heller is completely his own man, his work unlike anyone else’s. Almost everything we love about a Peter Heller novel is here in spades: descriptions so fresh we can smell the creek water, glimpses of people so painterly a photograph would ruin the image, a manly strength and confidence that gives his main character a tiny swagger when confronting mother bears, bad-ass motorcyclists, or CIA operatives with orders where their hearts used to be.

Heller places a woman at the helm of the story this time, and his Celine is exceptional. She is too big a character to describe here; Heller allows her depths to unfurl slowly, each mention of her like fine dining--surprising, unusual, uniquely satisfying. She is too daring a character to be created out of whole cloth, so she must be modeled on someone Heller has bulked up for the occasion. One feels slightly jealous such a character exists outside of our experience.

Celine is a private investigator. She works with her husband, Peter, who hails from Maine and says “ai-yuh” to indicate agreement. “My Watson,” Celine suggests, “or I may be his Watson, but nobody knows because he doesn’t say much.” Celine doesn’t do infidelity or corporate intrigue, the usual PI work. She looks for missing children, missing parents, or helps those who are desperate or destitute. Her focus makes us wonder what got her into the ‘family’ business exclusively.

This felt to me to be the most personal of Heller’s novels. The Penguin Random House website tells us
Born and raised in New York, Heller attended high school in Vermont and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Winner of the Michener fellowship, he received an MFA in both fiction and poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
He is writing what he knows, and we are there, listening to his voice, sense of humor, and perceptions when Celine and Peter sit around a daytime campfire outside the shack of L.B. Chicksaw Chillingsworth, the tracker. It’s maybe not as plausible as Heller makes it seem, but is warming, interesting, and plausible enough.

The detail that 68-yr-old Celine has emphysema from a former four-pack-a-day habit added something to this story. It added realism: we often read stories of talented investigators who are strong, clever, and attractive. We don’t often see the limitations under which most folks labor. This handicapping serves the imagination of readers: Celine is closer to readers’ world and all the more admirable for it. A protagonist with a flaw makes for more interesting pursuits. Besides, her skill set with a pistol is enviable and more than makes up for not being able to run away from bad guys.

The attention Heller lavishes on guns is not so much indulgent as generous. He is able to impart a bit of his fascination to us, his readers, particularly if we know a bit about the pieces he describes. He is entirely correct in observing that, as precision instruments, they are gorgeous pieces of work, and he shares cleaning, oiling, and polishing techniques as though we were sitting beside him, watching him work. Being able to shoot well seems a communicative skill useful in today's world, able to make points that words simply can’t.

My favorite character by far was the rarely-speaking Pete, or Pa, as Celine often called him. Celine and Peter had a fierce bonding going on, so thoughtful are they of one another. Pete’s intensity of care was entirely necessary to someone with Celine’s health history, for she experienced terrible moments of not being able to breathe, and Heller was able to convey to us Pete’s desperation to find help. My least favorite character was Gabriella, a character Heller wasn’t as successful in fleshing out. He almost got there, but I never had a sense of her as an adult woman with a child of her own rather than as a teen who had lost her father.

The standout difference between this book and Heller’s earlier works, each of which have been different from one another in terms of genre-type, is that this book is longer. The length did not improve the experience for this reader. The novel could have been pared further, words rearranged for elegance or streamlining, but Heller's work doesn't strain. There is something to be said for not taking oneself or one's work too seriously. Regardless, I thought this a wonderful mystery/thriller and would gladly enter into conversation with Heller again. His painterly attention to detail, fulsome imagination, and his locales are hard to pass up.

It turns out that the novel is a thinly-disguised memoriam of Heller's mother, who sounds like a very special person. Two articles explain the connection is here and here.

I listened to the audio of this book, read by Kimberly Farr and produced by Penguin Random House Audio. Farr managed some of Maine's language peculiarities, though she added a Katherine Hepburn-like upper class drawl to Pete that became endearing only eventually. He was IV-educated after all, so perhaps he could claim the blue blood accent. Celine came through perfectly, as Heller had intended.

Below find a short excerpt from the audio reading by Kimberly Farr:

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Hardcover, 160 pages Pub March 7th 2017 by Knopf Publishing Group ISBN13: 9781524732790

Joan Didion’s notebook of her drive across Louisiana and Mississippi with her husband in the summer of 1970 is filled with glimpses and impressions of the blazing heat, canopies of kudzu, a sense of disintegration and insularity. Didion interviewed friends of friends and folks who knew about important local happenings, but she had a hard time gathering the ambition to follow through with attending events in the muggy heat. She made notes, but the aimless drift through a South she knew was important somehow never fanned into flame...until now. Her instincts were right. The South tethers us still, to a past we cannot escape.

Didion’s experience of the South is that of confederate flag beach towels at the motel pool, debutante dresses, and plans for dinner out with local literati, illegal bottles of liquor smuggled in a large leather handbag carried expressly for that purpose. The childhood of a young white boy in the South may be the best childhood in the world, she imagines.

The house of one family had a slave certificate still hanging on the wall and servants that dated back a generation. Everyone seemed sure of where they stood on the race question, and stated it openly. The order to integrate schools immediately (80% black, 20% white) came in February: why didn’t they wait until September when a little more time might have gotten some folks to go along, a local white man with school-aged kids opined. "I can't sacrifice my kids to idealism," he concludes.

Didion and her husband sought the gravesite of William Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi but found only a young black man leaning against a two-tone sedan in the heat, waiting for customers, selling marijuana, perhaps. It was too hot to think too much about it. They never found the grave but the graveyard feel of the South pervaded her writing nonetheless. Death is a feature of the South. It feels close, as does rot, and subsidence. And yet, the South holds a history, slavery, which will not die, no matter how we wish it would.

The University of Mississippi is in Oxford with that elusive gravesite of Faulkner’s. The university library carries only textbooks, a few bestsellers, and Faulkner novels. Didion mentions her visit there:"…I saw a black girl on the campus. She was wearing an Afro and a clinging jersey and was quite beautiful with a NY/LA coastal arrogance. I could not think what she was doing at Ol’ Miss or what she thought about it." One cannot help think that the piece would have been infinitely improved if she had roused herself enough to ask the girl that question. All through this book she never crossed the color barrier once except to be introduced to the maid or gardener of a white homeowner.

Fireflies, heat lightning, heavy vines and soggy ground, fainting heat, water that smells of fish, vacant expressions, algae-covered ditches, fast-melting ice. The South is present everywhere in her words, in the barely-stirring observations she makes from a sitting position. But the 1970s South is evoked as surely as the 1950s and 1960s South. Things change only incrementally, imperceptibly.

The travel by car was onerous, and Didion tells us she had to avoid cities with airports because she would immediately book a ticket out. It was a struggle, this trip, and one evening they stopped late for dinner:
"The sun was still blazing on the pavement outside. The food seemed to have been deep-fried for the lunch business and kept lukewarm on the steam table. Eating is an ordeal, as in an institution, something to be endured in the interests of survival."
The point of view is distant and unconvinced when a dinner host says something about how the blacks would return to the delta if there were jobs anymore because “this is a place with a strong pull.” Didion’s judgment is as clear as a torch in a muggy dark night.

We return to California and it is here that Didion's intimacy with us becomes the story. She tells us of her upbringing and we see where she gets her sense of confidence and superiority. She’d never had anything blocking her way, in the “peculiar vacuum” of her childhood. She’d come from an affluent family and only saw in hindsight her extraordinary luck in a world that offers most people little certainty. She’d “been rewarded out of proportion to her scholarship,” but she remembers only her failures. Looking back, sometimes she does not “feel up to the landscape.” She tries to place herself, place us, in history.

The sentences in this book are a remarkable evocation of place, even if she “never wrote the piece” and her notes on her upbringing at the end are scattershot, gorgeous, real, thoughtful, meaningful, relatable, full of atmosphere and intimacy.

Kimberly Farr narrated this audio collection of notes, and her quiet sophistication is quite up to the task of looking askance at the deep-rooted and culturally-queer habits of the South, and at the naiveté of Didion's upbringing in California. Didion thinks people make too much and too little, both, of their effect on, say, the South, or the West. She takes the long view now, musing that we all seem so inconsequential except when we are not.

A clip of the Penguin Random House audio production is given below:

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Ratf**ked by David Daley

Hardcover, First Edition (U.S.), 288 pages Pub June 6th 2016 by Liveright Publishing Corporation/W. W. Norton & Company ISBN13: 9781631491627

This book infuriated me but also lowered the decibel level of my political retorts. I can clearly see now the utter cynicism with which Republican strategists set about grabbing as many seats as they could with the intent to hold onto them for a decade or more by controlling the redistricting process. “When you have power you exercise it.” The gerrymander is the reason Blue states can appear to vote Red. What is so pitiful is that we can still hear voters talking about what they believe like it actually makes any difference to the operatives in Congress.

It is difficult to keep the partisanship out of discussions of politics, but I am going to try because the issue discussed in this book, gerrymandering, was/is really practiced by Democrats as well as Republicans. The Republicans, under the leadership of a legendary Republican campaign strategist called Lee Atwater, recognized in the 1980s that controlling the right to draw the lines of voting districts could mean greater Republican representation in local, state, and national races.

They began a strategy which would not see results for thirty years. This decade it has come to fruition. Several states are laboring under gerrymanders so severely skewed to the Republicans that although Democrats win a majority of the votes, their representation actually falls. This book gives some of the background, especially for those states we watch closely in the national elections: Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania.

An international non-profit which specializes in vote monitoring around the world turned its analytic eye on the United States, the “greatest democracy in the world” according to some, and discovered that North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania had electoral representation more skewed to favor one party than many third-world countries.

Wisconsin, the state that brings you Speaker Ryan, has greater than 50% Democratic votes but has 60+% Republican seats. Wisconsin’s redistricting is currently handled by their Republican legislature, which allowed the national Republican party, with funds provided by Koch Brothers, to draw their redistricting maps. In closed sessions, deep secrecy, late night and storm days they would gather to prevent transparency of their process and to ensure Republican voters were the largest voting block in most districts. Even in a largely Democratic state, they managed to break, stack, crack, pack the districts with enough Republican voters to grab Congressional and state seats, and the governorship. Wisconsin used to be a Deep Blue state.

In November 2016 a federal court ordered that the voting districts in Wisconsin be redrawn by November 2017. Wisconsin Republicans (including Paul Ryan) refused, and appealed the decision to the Supreme Court (SCOTUS). Meanwhile, voters in Wisconsin are seriously disenfranchised. This is happening now, folks, and can be watched as it progresses through the courts.

Pennsylvania is the third most voter-obstructed state. Last year a youth pastor, Carol Kuniholm, noticed extraordinary discrepancies between the schools in some city districts and suburban schools and discovered one of the main reasons was underrepresentation due to gerrymandering. Kuniholm began a movement in PA which has taken on enormous momentum within the state and is garnering national recognition. You can watch progress of her attempt to introduce a bill to require an independent nonpartisan committee to decide contiguous, compact districts that do not break communities, cities, or racial blocks at She wants nothing less than the democratic process to work as intended.

Daley shows that state legislature-managed redistricting can be severely partisan and that citizens in some states have managed to pass referendums requiring a nonpartisan independent committee to manage redistricting. The independent committee works well in Iowa but is still subject to vicious partisan wrangling in Arizona. Some academics have taken on the challenge of trying to envision a better, more democratic process and Daley discusses these at the end of his book.

And this is the part of the book that I liked best of all. At the end Daley points out that gerrymandering has been ‘stealing people’s votes’ for centuries and it may have come up against its logical limits this decade. Because of the advances in computer modeling, coupled with voter awareness and rage at the government we have been handed, it may be possible to do something completely different. He points out that if Hillary had won the electoral college vote, she would have faced the same intransigence in Congress that stymied Obama. Instead, we got Trump. Daley quotes a Republican operative, Grover Norquist, talking with utter cynicism to a Conservative Political Action conference in 2012:
”We are not auditioning for a fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We just need a president to sign this stuff. Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States.”
The GOP will keep Trump around as long as he can sign stuff and listens to what they say. So, okay. This is what we are dealing with. It means we need to pay attention, focus our energy, rely on each other, and tell our legislators we want fairness and representation. This book is a very easy read because it is so eye-opening. It gives you the basics, suggests a fix, and points a direction. What more do we need?

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Monday, March 6, 2017

A Question of Order by Basharat Peer

Paperback, 160 pages Expected pub: March 21st 2017 by Columbia Global Reports ISBN13: 9780997126426

When I first picked up this title I imagined it would pull back from the detail and micro-angle on nationalist movements cropping up around the world and draw some larger conclusions. It doesn't get that far, but it does raise the questions. Peer gives a detailed timeline of events that led to the embrace of the authoritarian leaders in India (Narenda Modi) and Turkey (Recep Tayyip Erdogan).

Author Bashir Peer points out that those two countries are not alone, and names Russia (Vladimir Putin), Egypt (Abdel Fatteh ed-Sisi), Hungary (Viktor Mihály Orbán), Chad (Idriss Déby) Belarus (Alexander Lukashenko), Cambodia (Hun Sen), Singapore (Lee Hsien Loong). Somewhat oddly, I thought, he pairs Aung San Su Kyi (Myanmar) and Rodrigo Duterte (The Philippines) and names them as illiberal, if not outright autocrats along with Paul Kagame’s (Rwanda) regime, all of which have silenced critical voices, and have not stood up against political and religious persecution. When you look at all those names spread out like that one does have to wonder--what's happening?

What Peer does in this book is follow events that led to the rise of Modi in India, showing his aggression in the suppression of Muslim and Dalit rights. Dalits are India’s lowest caste, and many have benefitted from government attention to their plight in society. However, being admitted to university apparently doesn’t mean Dalits actually have professors willing to mentor them or recommend them or promote their work, somewhat reminiscent of oppressed classes in any society attempting to take advantage of their legal rights. Modi began his political career working for a Hindu supremacist organization.

What may seem remarkable about Modi’s rise was his support from the intellectual, overseas-educated, and business elite. Not so strange when you think that “inequality in India is now growing at a faster rate than in other developing countries like China, Brazil, and Russia.” His biggest electoral challenges were traditional opposition of lower and middle castes to his party, which he managed to overcome with a robust twitter and get-out-the-vote campaign. After he won as prime minister in 2014, he talked a good game about putting caste and religious divisions away but was unable to prevent the country’s descent into violence the following year, probably because he was unwilling to act against this party.
“Modi’s victory in 2014 had legitimized hate speech and physical aggression against real and perceived opponents. Words that couldn’t be uttered at the dinner table were blared in the public sphere.”
It might be worth noting some barely-there shadow outlines of a comparison forming between Modi and Trump. It is worth noting what made Modi popular, how he sustained that popularity, and how quickly taboos against hate talk and violence evaporated.

In Turkey, the period of instability Peer describes starts a little earlier, in 2006. Erdogan took over in 2003 and pushed democratic reforms to make Turkey appealing to the European Union, and trying to lessen tensions with its Kurdish minority through negotiations. Healthcare, affordable housing, and infrastructure improved, but it was the loosening of the non-secularist creed, expanding collective bargaining rights, increasing welfare provisions for children, the disabled, and the elderly and allowing Muslims with headscarves into the governing body that had long banned them. Erdogan was loosening the control of the Kemalist military.

The July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey is covered in great detail, and Peer discusses the Muslim preacher Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, the cleric living in Pennsylvania in the U.S. who, once an ally of Erdogan, opposed to his rapprochement with the Kurds. Gülen’s very powerful group with tentacles worldwide--and especially in the Turkish police--was supposedly responsible for the coup attempt, or was blamed for it, in any case. The detail here is rather more than I was expecting, and less at the same time. I could be interested, but somehow connecting threads were missing in this discussion and I got lost in the details. For someone seeking details, however, this is a good view.

This is not a long book but I had a hard time getting a grip on this material and wished it had a greater amount of overview or boldface marking what we are meant to take away. Neither of these countries are my area of expertise, but it was difficult to pick out a few big ideas. It may be a better read for someone that already has a basic understanding of the culture and government in these two countries to take advantage of Peer’s providing the timeline of conflict for the past couple of years.

One country's specific experiences are probably not going to be immediately relevant to a worldwide theory. One would have to pick and choose details and immediately then one's conclusions become suspect. Authoritarian regimes are nothing new. The author needs to remind us why this moment is different.

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Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Hardcover, 464 pgs. Pub February 28th 2017 by Balzer + Bray, isbn13: 9780062498533

What do people talk about when we talk about race? This remarkable debut YA novel reflects the mindset and confusion of a sixteen-year-old African American girl, Starr, who witnesses up-close-and-personal a police shooting one of her childhood friends, Khalil. Starr lives in a black neighborhood, Garden Heights, but attends a private mostly-white high school an hour away from her home. Her relationship with her white schoolmates becomes a feature of the story.

The clever way Thomas sets up her character list allows us to experience Starr’s own disappointment and dislocation when Khalil is described as a drug dealer gang member to make the cop look less guilty in the eyes of the community. Thomas is especially good at describing a case that is not so completely clear that we can do without the officer’s testimony, but it soon emerges that his explanation, that he thought he was in danger, may have been because he saw a[n unarmed] black man and was afraid.

The YA nature of the material is useful to Thomas’ purpose because young people are not as close-lipped and cautious as adults and haven’t completely formed their worldview. Starr is still learning how the world works and she can be a little naïve and verbalize her learning experiences, and talk them over with her family and friends. We hear the things she is thinking, the things that bother her, the things she ultimately believes.

We can hear her discuss in an utterly realistic way one’s first impressions when confronted with her father’s own prison time, Khalil’s drug sales, Devante’s consideration of gang membership. Extenuating circumstances in each of these situations completely change our view of events and make readers realize how important perspective is when considering lifestyle and crime. Starr’s mother wants to leave the neighborhood for the suburbs to escape the drama and death of Garden Heights but Starr’s father refuses. This particular argument I have been waiting years to hear reasonably articulated, and Thomas does it well.

A new film, Get Out , was just released this month, directed by Jason Peele, a comedian who made his name as one of the Comedy Central duo Key & Peele. The work of these two bi-racial comedians focuses on how white folks are perceived by black folks, and black culture. Their work is funny, not mean, and meant to educate through humor. Thomas does something similar, with Starr articulating those micro aggressions she sustained at school, and with the police…but she is also able to articulate the assumptions, jealousy, and misunderstanding of Starr’s black friends about her opportunities outside of the neighborhood. This is all very well done: pointed but inoffensive.

Thomas says “I want to write the way Tupac Shakur raps”, her title coming from one of Tupac’s torso tattoos. She manages to include an enormous amount of nuance and expression into this novel without making it seem overdone. She throws a lot at us in a short time, giving our emotions a workout. She’d give TV writer and producer Shonda Rhimes a run for her money. Thomas’ characters are realistic if not completely developed, certainly not mere stereotypes. Thomas is helped in her portrayals by an extremely talented narrator for the audiobook, Bahni Turpin, whose proficiency with voices and accents goes far beyond the ordinary. The audiobook is an excellent choice for this material, produced by HarperAudio. Below find an excerpt.

I am not a fan of the more talky aspects of YA novels, and I was horrified with the school fight Starr was involved in, and Seven’s tendency to think first of throwing his black body physically against the forces that subjugate him, whether they be a gang leader or a white cop. This is definitely not in my experience and I’m not sad about that. Unfortunately I suspect it was an accurate depiction of how things get resolved in Garden Heights, though Starr's fight happened in the private school. This can’t be a useful habit to carry forward, but these incidents were not adequately editorialized in the novel.

I will, however, admit to being completely impressed with the skill with which Thomas composed her story. She packed in a great deal of human experience on both sides of the color divide and helps readers come to terms with a very difficult and important topic: police intimidation, excessive force, and shootings of unarmed black males. At the same time, she invites us to look at her life, the culture in the neighborhood, and the thought processes of folks who make choices different from white folks in the suburbs.

With literature like this, we get clues to how we can get to know each other better, considering the historic segregation of schools and neighborhoods. Racism, conscious or unconscious, is no longer acceptable to the majority of Americans. It should have ended long ago—by law it had, in practice it has not. Everyone who hasn’t studied up on what this means, can use books like these to make inroads into a greater awareness. Study up. Society is moving ahead. Many artists of color are going out of their way to light the road and explain these issues clearly from their point of view.

The book has been optioned for a film, purportedly with “The Hunger Games” actress Amandla Stenberg to star.

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Patrushevskaya

Paperback, 181 pages Pub October 28th 2014 by Penguin Books (first published 2002) ISBN13: 9780143121664

Not long ago I reviewed a short memoir published by Petrushevskaya, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia, in which I mused about rumors of her talent, never having read any of her poetry, stories, or novelettes. Petrushevskaya has a savage humor borne of long deprivation. Her work bears signs of torture of the spirit; she recognizes how to cannily exploit human weakness to stay alive. But she also has a huge umbrella of compassion which she holds over those she loves. Reading her work is a breathtaking experience.

This collection is comprised of a novelette, "The Time is Night," and two shorter stories. The work altogether expresses every feeling of love, desperation, hope, and bitter despair that a mother can feel about her children in any country in any time. It is an epic, deeply funny, excoriating look at how the deprivations in Russian social, political, and economic life have worked loose the traditional bonds of family. It is compulsive reading. The work was published in Germany before it could be published in Russia, having been banned there.
"It all seems like yesterday. I look back on my life—men are like roadsigns, children mark chronology. Not very attractive, I know, but what is, if you look closely?"
A proud poet finds herself destitute in late middle age. Her son is in prison for theft (and maybe murder) and her daughter keeps showing up pregnant and wanting more than the poet has to spare. The poet takes her daughter’s first child to care for and continues to suffer ungrateful visits from her children whenever they need something. Anna Summers, translator for this series of stories, tells us in the Introduction that
"…her heroines are tired, scared, impoverished women who have been devastated by domestic tragedies and who see little beyond the question, How to raise a child? How to feed it, clothe it, educate it when there is no strength left and no resources?"
When "The Time is Night" was finally published in Russia, it came out at the same time as the third piece, "Among Friends.” "Time…" is a novelette, its length over one hundred pages; "…Friends" is less than thirty pages, outlining a grotesque collection of viperish friends and former spouses, all calculating how and what they can score from knowing someone but paying no attention to the larger world outside their immediate purview. The incestuous theft and jealousy rife within the group is ghetto poverty: no one can break free of the poisonous atmosphere because they need each other. The story is a short quick shard that cleaves the heart, and leaves the reader gasping: it speaks directly to what some feel they must resort to “protect” their children.

The second story, "Chocolates with Liqueur," is the one written the most recently (2002). Summers tells us it was written as a tribute to Edgar Allen Poe. The story itself is broken into five parts; I thought the story was complete after the first part which contains the most horrendous and coruscating engagement scene I have ever encountered, without us knowing it is just a continuation of the theme of how difficult it is to find a place to live. The atmosphere gets thicker, darker, and heavy with motive as befits a Poe tribute, and finishes pointing to "The Cask of Amontillado," thought to be Poe’s best short story. In that story Poe created a family motto suggesting that the family history is filled with acts of revenge: "Nemo me impune lacessit" (No one attacks me with impunity). Find Petrushevskaya's story somewhere and read it. It feels positively ancient, as though this were a story written at the dawn of time.

The twist in the nature of marriage and family comes from the search for a safe place in a society where food, lodging, dignity are in short supply. Petrushevskaya is controlled She has seen it all and still gives us art. I don’t know which of these stories I like the best. She deserves all the awards and all the adulation. She is extraordinary.

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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

Hardcover, 228 pages Pub January 17th 2017 by St Martin's Press ISBN13: 9781250135995

I never took the time to read or listen to Michael Eric Dyson before. He became an ordained Baptist minister at nineteen, so for very nearly forty years now he’s been using words to educate and persuade. He’s very good at it. He teaches now at Georgetown University, but he has taught at many major universities around the country. He doesn’t sound like an academic; his language is salty, strong. It appears that in addition to teaching, he consults for MSNBC, has a podcast, lectures at other universities, and has been publishing lectures and books for at least ten years.

White people may not see race because they were the dominant race & their view became normalized. This is not news. White culture was the norm. We didn’t feel the need to think or talk about race. Now we do. Dyson obliges by telling us what it is like growing up in America as a black man. He assures us neither he nor his black family are more exceptional than any other black family: “it can happen to any of us; it can happen to all of us.”

Dyson explains that a sermon was the only way he could get across the information he wants to convey in this book. The sermon is not scholarly, but in vernacular. It is filled with anecdote either he or members of his family experienced. He clearly feels white folk have some things about their behaviors or their compassion to consider in the context of God, goodness, and fairness. He has a tendency to insist on superlatives and opinion (e.g., Beyoncé & MLKing are the best…ever) when his opinions on gradations of excellence don't matter. But the bigger issues he addresses are really critical to our understanding of race and the functioning of our democracy.

“Whiteness has privilege and power connected to it, no matter how poor you are.” Dyson explicitly addresses the objections some white ethnics may have about their experience with discrimination being similar to those of blacks. It is not so, he says, gives many examples of how it is not so. I agree with him that white people are not going to have as hard a time of it as people of color. It has nothing to do with culture. If we do not see this yet, we need to pay more attention.

In 1995 O.J. Simpson was acquitted when he was tried for murder. Many white folk didn’t understand why some black people were pleased that Simpson got off, given that he was clearly guilty. But that trial came a year or so after the trial of the police acquitted after the beating of Rodney King. Dyson takes a stab at explaining the thinking on both sides of the color line at that time. All this was twenty years ago and Dyson argues that white ignorance and police brutality is still happening. He is full of righteous anger when he says whiteness is a privilege and a shield…and an addiction. Sure it is.

Dyson is blunt, and he doesn’t let up after this point. All he things he has seen that need attention are laid on the table. There is more than enough here to make anyone feel full…even overwhelmed. But he has some stake in making us understand the urgency here: it is his kids and grandkids that are in danger every day. He talks at length about the terror black people feel when police become involved. This is an important discussion for white folks to internalize.

Discussion around criminality takes up most of the final third of this work. Dyson does not try to avoid difficult questions about policing, black-on-black crime, and incarceration. He wants this conversation and will provoke many listeners and readers to face their fear and their anger. Dyson asks why social engineers blast black communities for growing the seeds of their own destruction, when the same questions were not asked when crime was a problem when ghettos were filled with Irish, Italians, or Jews. This is worthwhile.

Here is a link to 45-minute WBUR Boston radio show where Michael Eric Dyson discusses the subjects in his book, but adds a few more topics, expanding his themes in response to an interviewer’s questions. Interesting.

I listened to the audio production of this, read by the author and produced by Macmillan Audio. Dyson talks fast, but clearly, and firmly. One can’t mistake what he is saying: white America needs to study and imagine what it is like to be black if we want to begin to understand, begin to heal the racial divide. We may not like all the things Dyson says and yet we can still agree with him about the “plague of white innocence.” No more saying we didn’t know. He's telling it. It feels urgent.

Below find a short audio clip of the book:

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