Saturday, June 24, 2017

Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff

Paperback, First Edition, 144 pages Pub September 2004 by Chelsea Green Publishing ISBN13: 9781931498715

This slim handbook subtitled “Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives” was originally published in 2004. It is slightly more than one hundred pages that recaps the large ideas Lakoff had written about in his role as cognitive scientist, in a book called Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, first published in 1996 by the University of Chicago Press. Moral Politics is on it's third edition (ISBN-13: 978-0226411293), published in time for the 2016 election. Last year Lakoff also published an essay on his website called "Understanding Trump" subtitled "How Trump Uses Your Brain Against You." Lakoff is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1972.

While I read this book published shortly before the 2004 election, I am astonished Lakoff’s brilliant insights are not better utilized by the Democratic Party. Bernie took the lessons to heart and started pounding out a new single-note message so that we couldn’t miss it, but why was he out there alone? Why didn’t the entire liberal left start with reframing—we had a handbook after all—and completely change the way business was done?

One could argue that Hillary did use Lakoff’s cognitive science approach by allowing the ‘Stronger Together’ message to express her values. I vaguely recall hearing also “This is not who we are,” when Trump said or did something particularly egregious. I was paying attention, but it seems to me Hillary’s team could have been A LOT more explicit about the ideas in Lakoff’s book, reframing arguments and changing the discussion. She just couldn't manage to relinquish control and involve us.

Bernie just had one message and he said it loudly and often, and even if we didn’t know what he would do in different situations that arose in foreign affairs, we knew his basic playbook: Man is basically good. Citizens working together unleash the creative potential in the population. Who wants to be rich when people are starving next door? We have some big problems but we’ll get there together.

This book is a series of conclusions and so reading it is a little like mainlining information if you’ve never seen it before. It may take reading it a couple times before the information sticks in your head, and before you are able to apply the techniques he shares with us. Many of these ideas probably seem familiar if you have been thinking about what happened in the last election. I hadn't been able to articulate my own thoughts but the instant I saw what Lakoff wrote about conservatives and the ‘strict father’ way of looking at the world, it sounded so right (see Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land).

One thing Lakoff points out is that when conservatives start using Orwellian language—language that is the opposite of what they mean—they are weak. And just as they are vulnerable on their position on environment and global warming, they are weak on the ‘healthcare’ bill. We should take these issues and run with them, turning every argument into a referendum on what they are not doing to solve these problems. We own the moral arguments here. They have nothing. Be smart. Be smarter. The far right has appropriated the word “freedom” if you can imagine.

The far right uses “freedom” to mean “freedom from coercion from others,” which at first blush sounds pretty good. Who wouldn’t want that? But then they go on to express the need to "save capitalism from democracy," so that laws won’t constrain their money-making and power consolidation. They object to paying taxes in excess of the amounts one would voluntarily contribute. Why should one pay taxes for schools if one does not have children oneself, is one common argument. They are being coerced to pay for social welfare.

Conservatives are also very big on ‘tort reform,’ or putting limits on awards in lawsuits (like for exploding products, leaking barges, or environmental catastrophe). “If parties who are harmed cannot sue immoral or negligent corporations or professionals for significant sums, the companies are free to harm the public in unlimited ways in the course of making money.”

Liberals look at freedom in a different way: freedom to express one’s creativity, to pursue one’s interests; or freedom from anxiety, from hunger, exploitation, environmental degradation. To achieve these freedoms, we need groups of people working together, doing what they do best.

Last night I briefly watched Charlie Rose interview the president of Princeton University, Christopher L. Eisgruber. He confirmed something I'd noticed but wasn’t sure was a blip or a real, observable phenomenon. Eisgruber said that the students at Princeton gave him enormous hope for the future. They are engaged, and their values are right side up. I only hope they continue to exhibit those values at the ballot box in the years to come, and perhaps even help other people understand the ‘strict father’ (I can’t help but think of a spanking father and all that connotes) model is an unsatisfactory way for adults to engage with their world.

Read this book. It’s important. It’s short.

Tavis Smiley interviews George Lakoff (about 23 min):




You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Burma Chronicles & Pyongyang by Guy Delisle

Hardcover, 272 pages Pub April 1st 2009 by Jonathan Cape (first pub 2007) Orig Title Chroniques birmanes ISBN13: 9780224087711

Delisle manages to capture for us what a non-working foreigner not proficient in the local languages would perceive during his/her time in Rangoon. The heat. I'd always wondered about it. Delisle said his level of tolerance improved over the year he stayed there, so that he could stand up to 90degF before turning on the air conditioner, while when he'd arrived, 80degF was his limit.

Delisle's wife works as a physician for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International as a physician, and this time we learn a little about how the process of country-siting is chosen, what kind of conditions employees endure as condition of their employment, and a little about the different roles sister organizations have within the same country. One can actually use this as a window into the work of the organization as well as into the country.

All of Delisle's graphic memoirs are interesting. This one made me laugh when he showed a picture of a pen and ink drawn made during 'the wet,' or the rainy season. The lines were all running and blurred, as though it had been dunked in a barrel of water or as if one had spilled water onto it. The rest of the year is 'the hot.' What else is striking is at that time (2006-07), permits were required for foreigners to travel around the country, due to a great deal of internal unrest.

Some of the physicians are stationed at remote outposts, and even though the organization is permitted to operate, getting permission to travel to and from those outposts is difficult and can be dangerous. But here the usefulness of having an artist making the trip is apparent. We envision the enormous ancient teak house in Mudan that is rented by MSF, and the local translation of a British village complete with fenced front gardens. You will remember Orwell was stationed in Burma between the world wars.

Anyway, Delisle is not a political writer, nor a journalist, but he adds a heck of a lot to our understanding nonetheless. I'm now officially a big fan.

-----------------------

Hardcover, 184 pages Pub September 1st 2005 by Drawn and Quarterly (first pub October 2003) Orig Title Pyongyang ISBN13: 9781896597898 Literary Awards Urhunden Prize for Foreign Album (2014)

Delisle's Pyongyang experience is a little different from his other books because in the case of North Korea, Delisle is here to work on animation studies for a film. Apparently most major animation studios find animation devilishly expensive to produce in the home country and so go to lower-wage countries to do the in-between frames in a storyline so that the work is smooth and not herky-jerky.

Foreigners are asked to come for short periods of time to keep an eye on the project and get the work done on time and with the proper standards. While he was there, Delisle came across a not-insignificant number of people living in Pyongyang or passing through, on their way to remote outposts for different reasons. I'd always wondered about that, but wasn't sure if it actually happened. Must be pretty grim work, considering Delisle's experience ensconced in a big, empty, cold & impersonal hotel in the city...surely as comfortable a place as can be found.

Anyway, one gets a very good sense of what his days were like, what the city looked like, how fun was to be had, if it was to be had at all, but very little of the inner lives of residents, which is to be expected. Delisle's work again adds to the richness of our understanding of the world.





You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Dry by Jane Harper

Hardcover, 320 pages Pub January 10th 2017 by Flatiron Books (first published May 31st 2016) Orig Title The Dry ISBN13: 9781250105608

This debut novel won the 2015 Victoria Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. Can you imagine the fantastic possibility of that? Harper explains in an interview with Bookpage that she began writing the novel as part of a 12-week online novel writing class. It must be like getting blast out of a rocketship.

Americans have no doubt heard of the bushland fires Victoria state has experienced in the recent past. Weather patterns that leave huge portions of the Australian countryside water-starved can kill communities even before fire removes all signs of human habitation. People therefore rely on one another and suffer together when some members of the community experience hardship.

This fiction takes place in a country town experiencing drought conditions. Families as well as government-provided services and facilities are experiencing enormous stress. Author Harper brings Aaron Falk, a former resident, now a federal agent responsible for financial crimes in Melbourne, back to the bush to attend the funeral of a once-friend. His presence reminds townspeople of the reason he left so abruptly twenty years previously.

Two stories, one a long-unsolved cold case, are worked in this novel. The more recent crime is a spectacular triple murder-suicide of a family, sparing only an infant. The presumed killer is thought to be the father of the family unit, who died of a gunshot wound. Experienced crime readers will find small inconsistencies in what the characters reveal which can give clues to outcome.

I listened to the Macmillan Audio production of this mystery, very successfully read by Stephen Shanahan. Shanahan’s accent was very Australian but perfectly understandable, reminding readers that the setting is significantly different from an American experience. He managed to convey a wide range of emotions by both sexes without straying from a straightforward script. Good job all round.





You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Dream Hoarders by Richard V. Reeves

Hardcover, 240 pages Pub June 13th 2017 by Brookings Institution Press ISBN13: 9780815729129

At first Reeves’ argument, that the upper middle class should voluntarily give up their advantaged place in society, sounds virtuous if a little unlikely. But gradually, listening to his arguments in this slim book of charts, graphs, and statistics, we remember what we don’t like about America: how our segregated neighborhoods bear little resemblance to what we see on the news every night. We sense a dislocation so strong we know it could come back to bite us, or more importantly, our children. Using beneficial social and tax structures to advantage our children and perpetuate class division may ultimately work to their detriment, and is certainly skewing the competitiveness of a large proportion of our working class, and therefore our nation as a whole.

First, Reeves posits that real advancement for most people in our society is predicated on access to knowledge and information, i.e., “knowledge is power.” Right away we realize that access to information has never been equally distributed in this country, and that many of us have considered attainment of an IV-league education for ourselves and our children the highest goal. Virtuous in itself, one could say. But, Reeves points out, who is actually able to attend the IV-league is skewed by a few factors which can ultimately taint the achievement: access is unequal and not as competitive as touted. One reason is inequality in preparing for admission, and another is legacy admissions for relatives of graduates.

Reeves suggests we protest legacy admissions until they are denounced publicly as discriminatory like they were in a strongly class-based society like Britain in the middle of the last century. Inherited admissions clearly work for the benefit of the landed class alone, and are therefore something which perpetuates inequality. For greater equality of opportunity, one has to look at lower schools, and who has access to the best schools.

The best schools often go along with the best neighborhoods, the most nourishing family environments, opportunities for exposure to both nature and culture, music, art, etc.…and these are circumscribed, Reeves tells us, by zoning restrictions disallowing multi-family dwellings, low(er)-income high(er)-rises in desirable suburbs.

I had a harder time reconciling this argument of his. In the United States, despite laws forbidding discrimination in real estate, there was demonstrable race-based discrimination in real estate throughout the twentieth century. Races were segregated beyond what would occur naturally—that is, races seeking to live with others of their culture. The idea is to allow access to desirable suburbs with good schools, nature, etc. If we stop discrimination on the basis of race, that will take care of some of the problem. Then, if we can add low(er)-income high(er)-rise buildings without changing the essential benefit of desirable suburbs (leafy, green, quiet, beautiful), I’m all for it. Let’s do it everywhere.

For those that cannot escape poor schools in the inner-city, Reeves suggests we offer our best teachers the hardest jobs: teaching in low-income neighborhoods downtown. These excellent teachers would be offered the best salaries. I have no objection to this, but I fear it will not produce the outpouring of talent that Reeves is anticipating. Teaching is a profession, and we have learned anything about professions, it is that money is not always the strongest motivator. At the margins, a certain amount of money can induce some individuals to take on difficult jobs, but the inducements must quickly become exponential after a certain level of difficulty, saying nothing about the kinds of returns one would be expected to produce annually. But big challenges can be an inducement and the money will help make sense of it. It’s absolutely worth trying. Let’s do it everywhere.

Among other things that would flatten the playing field is to eliminate our most beloved tax breaks which, Reeves explains, are in effect subsidies for the wealthiest among us: College savings 529 tax havens, and the mortgage interest deduction for homeowners. Eliminating these two loopholes would add hundred of billions to government coffers, while disadvantaging those in the upper 20% income bracket very little indeed while flattening the playing field for the rest of us.

Lastly, Reeves suggests that internships during college are often distributed not on merit, but on the basis of class, familiarity, or favored status. Since jobs to which many of us aspire are often awarded on the basis of experience, internships, which deliver a certain level of confidence to applicants, can be extremely useful in bridging the gap from childhood to adulthood within the target job area. While favored distribution of internships seemed somewhat trivial to me and other critics Reeves mentions, he counters with “If it is trivial, you won’t mind then if we eliminate/outlaw it.” So be it. All “merit” all the time, if we can be reasonably expected to perfect that little measure.

It is not going to surprise me when liberals discover status and wealth do not necessarily translate into greater life satisfaction or happiness and therefore decide to voluntarily give up certain advantages that perpetuate their inherently unequal class ranking for the greater benefit of the society in which they live. It is conservatives in the ranks of the well-to-do that may hold back progress. According to Nancy MacLean’s new book called Democracy in Chains, which paid some attention to the basis of far right conservative thinking, the wealthy feel they deserve their wealth, even if it is inherited, or even if it is made on the backs of exploited labor. It may be more difficult to get past this barrier to change.

On the basis of the statistics Reeves shares about the stickiness of class status among the top 20% of income earners, he writes persuasively about different individual things we can do to alleviate huge class disparities in opportunity. Reeves addresses the experience of J.D. Vance (author of Hillbilly Elegy) explicitly in the book, and indirectly in the first of the short video links given below. It is difficult and uncomfortable to move up the ladder but people with exceptional skills are not going to be discriminated against: “The labor market is not a snob.”

Below, please find two very short videos in which Reeves simply and easily explains the concepts in his book.








You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Lies They Tell by Tuvia Tenenbom

Paperback Pub March 1st 2017 by Gefen Books ISBN13: 9789652299116

Tuvia Tenenbom is a man of enormous appetite. Most of us will agree about that, despite other disagreement we will have at the end of this review, or at the end of his travel memoir around the United States. Tenenbom, by his own description, is an overweight, cigarette-smoking, brandy-drinking, non-religious, non-apologetic, argumentative, shape-shifting Israeli Jew who claims whatever citizenship (German, American, Israeli) will grant him greatest access to people’s inner thoughts. The more he wrote, the more he revealed about himself, a phenomenon he'd trumpeted about in his experience with talkative but reluctant interviewees, despite themselves.

I could pick at inconsistencies I found in Tenenbom’s observations about the people in our country, but mostly I was rapt. He is a thoughtful, seeking man with a background in religion, computers, journalism, theatre, and a lifetime of attention paid to history and world affairs. He makes notes of his interactions as he travels the northern route to the west coast, to Alaska and Hawaii, and then the southern route back to New York City. It was a huge journey, and his memoir is informative and fascinating.

He wanted to know who Americans were: what we thought of Jews, Palestinians, and Israelis; how party politics manifest amongst us; how do conservatives and liberals justify themselves? What was immediately apparent to him setting off from New York City was race, how it segregates us, how it completely colors our experiences, our choices, our lives. We overlap so little, Tenenbom had to go out of his way to get through the barriers to entry: white people and black both told him to “stay away,” be careful,” “watch yourself,” etc. if he entered or wanted to enter the places black people lived in Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Honolulu, Charleston…cities whose class divisions left a mark on his psyche.

As he travels he reports a bit of the day’s news. This was 2015, the year Dylan Root entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and shot nine people, this was the year of the Bataclan nightclub massacre in Paris, this was the year President Obama renamed Mount McKinley in Alaska Mount Denali. Tenenbom finds that politics often determined where an individual stood on climate change, their support for Palestine, their perceptions of Jews, gay rights, abortion rights, the boundaries so clear cut opinions seemed cookie-cutter and instinctive rather than well-thought-out and reasoned. Mostly folks were surprisingly unwilling to share their thoughts on politics, apparently afraid it would spoil their personal and business relationships. This struck Tenenbom as suspicious: how can one arrive at a well-argued position without refining it at every opportunity? Americans are a fearful people, he concluded.

Rights of gun-ownership was a subject that arose for Tenenbom in the midwest. He found he liked handling others’ weaponry very much and, to his surprise, he himself was very good at shooting targets. We get his explanation of how handguns or guns which use magazines require permits…we never get a full-throated disavowal of such weapons. One suspects he thinks it is the least of our worries. If we dealt with the more obvious divisions among us, guns wouldn’t be an obstacle to good self-governance. Possibly.

In October of the same year of the Charleston shooting, nine people are killed by a gunman at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Tenenbom points out how quickly the news fades when race as a motive is not involved. When someone else points out that more white people are killed by police in America each year than blacks, he investigates. His statistics read:
"during 2015 [as of sometime in the fall season], almost 250 blacks and close to five hundred whites were killed by US law enforcement personnel."
Without some indication of the percentage of blacks’ minority status, it is hard to use these statistics properly, but the truth is that I did not know white people were being shot by police at higher levels than black people. What does it mean for our understanding of police work, or the Black Lives Matter movement? What should it mean?

There is nothing knee-jerk about Tenenbom. If he has an opinion, it is usually thought-out, or if not, like his undecided stance on climate change, he is willing to continue to collect information. He doesn’t like the selfishness he often observes among wealthy conservatives , but neither does he like the unexamined righteousness of liberals who have an opportunity to make a difference where they are and insist instead on opining about politics in distant lands while doing nothing at home. He likes black people, their culture, and what they add to diversity, a word which gets bandied about atrociously in this book. We don’t have much diversity, for all our many cultures, in America, because white people are privileged and have separate opportunities, no matter how woke they think they are.

What I don’t understand about Tenenbom’s point of view is his mix of nationalism and religion. Just like his willingness to call himself German, American, or Israeli depending on which works better for his purpose, he blithely says he loves his adopted America, but his Jewishness seems more important to him, despite his self-proclaimed non-religiosity. If a Muslim does the same thing, do we react differently? I think we do. Muslims are constantly having to reiterate publicly their love of America, and how it supersedes their love of religion.

The thing about Tenenbom that is so interesting is that he gives the impression he can be persuaded. He’s interested. He pays attention. He asks questions. He knows what injustice is and will call it out. He doesn’t like everyone parroting support for Palestinians without knowing more about the situation in Israel. I still think he is being disingenuous in claiming “no foul” in the settlements, in the outsized responses to Palestinian resistance, in the discrimination of opportunity, etc.

No, Jews don’t have to be better than everyone in the world. They have to strive to be better than they are, is all. Americans have their own indignities to face, the most egregious right now being race and class. Both countries could use clear-sighted critics. He and I agree on Samantha Power, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Sometimes “liberal” turns a corner into something else entirely.

I’d like to hear a podcast discussion between Tuvia Tenenbom and David Remnick of the The New Yorker. I think they are on opposite sides of the Israel questions, and they might be able to uncover sources of anti-Semitism in the U.S. that is hidden to most of us.





You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Catch the Jew! by Tuvia Tenenbom

Paperback, 467 pages Pub February 1st 2015 by Gefen Publishing House (first pub August 1st 2014) ISBN13: 9789652297983

Tenenbom is Jewish, Israeli in fact, and though to this time he had “carried no flag for any country,” at the end of this book he finds himself holding a Palestinian flag in a group of stone-throwing demonstrators in Bil’in, being filmed by European television and documentary crews. It hadn’t been Tenenbom’s idea to be a part of the show, but since traveling around Israel for some months claiming he was Abu Ali the German or Tobi the German journalist, he’d been invited to this celebration of Palestinian Independence Day, all staged for the benefit of the cameras and their international audience. In Tenenbom’s view, finding himself in this position was the height of absurdity.

Tenenbom went to Israel in 2013 at the request of his publisher. His earlier book, I Sleep in Hitler's Room: An American Jew Visits Germany, about a six-month walking tour of Germany, appears to be a critique of European attitudes towards Jewishness, and became an international bestseller. Tenenbom had been born ultra-Orthodox in Israel from a long line of European rabbis. He was groomed himself to follow that path until as a young man, he moved to the United States and to pursue higher degrees in mathematics and literature. For thirty-three years he pursued a career as journalist and columnist for media outlets in the U.S. and Germany, and as playwright in the Jewish Theatre of New York, which he founded and manages with his wife Isi. His role as journalist, playwright, and failed rabbi gave him the perfect platform to ask probing questions about the Israeli/Palestinian situation, and Tenenbom took advantage.

His playful yet incisive questioning and manner allowed him to re-state and re-frame arguments in which sides have been drawn for some time, giving us another angle from which to view the action. This book about a several-month stay in Israel in 2013-24 begins light-heartedly enough, laughing along with the little deceptions of both sides in the Israel/Palestinian debate, feeling a sense of camaraderie, appetite, and deep joy at spending time again in the Middle East.

The longer he stays, however, the more Tenenbom sees traps for the Jewish state in the language Israelis and Palestinians use when describing the actions and positions of each side. There is a huge under-informed army of NGOs and Christian religious organizations that have developed very effective propaganda tools to support the Palestinian cause at the expense of the Jewish state. Tenenbom can see it is big business and grows more distressed when Jewish newspapermen like Gideon Levy writing for Haaretz does not ask better, more thorough questions and instead seems to accept the self-flagellating viewpoint that Israelis are racist.

By the end of the volume Tenenbom is losing his sense of humor about Jews he calls “self-hating” who are not pressing hard enough in their self-examination about what is expected of them, or keeping their minds nimble and open to the realities of the situation. The Palestinians may be milking the “conflict” for all it’s worth, but some of the truly needy are being overlooked in the rush to help the more polished actors. Pay attention we can hear him say in subtext. Stay skeptical.

Tenenbom is very persuasive, and very likable: he has an earthy, warm, and intimate way of pointing to our similarities rather than our differences. It is when he meets a uncompromising right-wing settler who insists on his right to burn the Palestinian olive trees because he is “at war” that Tenenbom’s attitude receives its most damning blow. Tenenbom says the man sounds like a Goy, like any other non-Jewish farmer he’d known, not like a normal Jew.
"Personally, I hardly get to meet conviction-driven Jews, say-what-I-think Jews, farming Jews, if-you-slap-me-on-one-cheek-I’ll-slap-you-on-both-cheeks Jews. The Jews I know are neurotic Jews, weak Jews, self-hating Jews, hate-filled-narcissist Jews, accept-every-blame Jews, bowing to all non-Jews Jews, ever guilt-ridden Jews, ugly-looking Jews, big-nosed and hunch-backed Jews, cold Jews, brainy Jews, yapping Jews, and here-are-both-my-cheeks-and-you-can-slap-them-both Jews.

To me, the biggest proof that Jesus was Jewish is this: Who else, but a Jew, could come up with this statement: ‘If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other one as well’?"
If your convictions haven’t been shaken up in awhile, Tenenbom stands ready to help out. He is funny, and those who appreciate self-deprecation will have an easier time of it. His extra layer of thoughtfulness rearranges the Middle East so that we must go back through our understanding and look again, do more work on examining how the ground game has changed since the last time we looked. At the end we may not agree that Europeans, Americans and Palestinians can exhibit anti-Semitism commonly and regularly, but he will have us looking closely, to make sure. What he is saying is that Jews are really just like anyone else—no better but certainly no worse—and any attempt to categorize them or assign a ‘national character’ is specious.

This enormously interesting book makes immoderate readers of us. Tenenbom is someone we’d like to encounter again. He makes us think, he makes us laugh, and he seems a perfectly ethical sort. His book is divided into chapters called "gates." Those familiar with the Torah will know of the Fifty Gates of Wisdom or the Fifty Gates of Understanding. Well, Tenenbom has fifty-five gates, but the idea is the same: "Being worthy of receiving prophecy requires character improvement." The thing is, Tenenbom is not optimistic about Israel's longevity in the world. Poor leadership, perhaps, and I agree.

Tenenbom has written a new book on travels around the United States in the lead up to the last election, called The Lies They Tell, just published March 2017.



You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken

Audible Audio, Unabridged, 12 hrs 5 min, Pub May 30th 2017 by Hachette Audio ASIN B06ZZPN9Z7

It had never occurred to me that reading the memoirs of a sitting senator could be an interesting and informative way to spend time. Congress has infuriated me for awhile now. Before I became laser-focused on politics in Washington, listening to the “can’t manage it” complaints from Democrats really burned me up, so the thought of giving a Congressperson more time to blather at me was unappealing.

Since I have been paying attention, however, I can see lots of areas where “can’t manage it” complaints are perfectly in order, leaving me free to be angry with the GOP and their many allied organizations, e.g., far right, libertarians, religious right, etc. Franken points out many ways the best laid plans go awry, and suggests those who are tempted to complain about politics try it themselves. Not a bad idea. It may be time we send our best to Washington to try to make some headway.

So why does sitting-Senator Franken write a book now? He began it in 2015, shortly after he won his Minnesota seat by a comfortable margin for another 6-year term. He points out that Congresspeople do not make a large salary, but he’d better not say that too loudly in this climate where the enormous wage differentials between different types of work are an enduring and growing source of confusion, contention, and anger.

A congressperson doesn’t make as much as a Hollywood celebrity, no. So? He has trouble living on his Senate salary? Anyway, he may have written the book because he can, because it is a something he is good at, and because his books are bestsellers, bringing in real income. I doubt it will allay the need for more fundraising, but it would be nice if it did. It may simply mean campaign funds do not become a temptation.

But I think he also wrote it also to stir the pot and make sure we've heard the message that we need to work hard on our side to become involved and not allow the current administration to go beyond 2018. He's doing what he can to keep our spirits up. As Bernie says, now is not the time to throw our hands up in despair and resignation.

Franken spent most of thirty years trying to be funny and after he became a senator, he had to cap the well so that he’d be taken seriously. After his re-election Franken thought he’d earned the right to be funny again in public, and the truth is, we yearn to find something funny about Washington. We know it is absurd. We want to hear a professional’s take.

It seems effortless for Franken to be funny, so used he is to drilling down to the absurdity in everyday happenings in Washington, to make jokes about the ridiculous posturing and outright lies, to recognize his fellow performers in the Senate as a kind of troupe, some of whom are easier to work with than others. And it is a kind of a relief to look at these politicians as humans, with human foibles.

I admit I was surprised to hear his stories about Orrin Hatch’s credentials writing country songs, or Chuck Grassley’s apparent willingness to work across the isle with a fellow midwesterner. We’d always heard about the startling collegiality among a group who by day fights rancorously in public, though in recent years, with congressional incumbents going back to their districts on Thursdays and returning Monday afternoons, members of Congress have little opportunity to meet casually.

Everywhere I turn I see Franken promoting this book, so I’m sure everyone has some idea what is in the book itself. I was more interested than I thought I would be to hear how it is to campaign every day and every night, to win an election, to suffer through a recount and a challenge, to find co-sponsors for bills, to sit on committees, to fundraise constantly, to answer to constituents, etc. It does sound as though they are pretty busy, and Franken tells us the best way to help, rather than hinder, their efforts to conclude legislation that makes an impact. Calling one’s representatives does help, it appears, useless as it seems at the time.

Anyway, this is not a struggle to listen to—Franken himself reads the audio—and it made me laugh aloud in places. I learned a lot, and find myself interested to look at his earlier work, Lies & the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair & Balanced Look at the Right. Franken is such natural. Let’s hope he doesn’t fall for the really ridiculous claim that Minnesotans are going to gain a lot of long-term well-paying jobs if the Keystone Pipeline from Canada’s tar sands goes through. It would make me happy if he could convince his people that pipeline is not going to save them and it will probably ruin the rest of us.

I know senators represent their states, but those states are in a nation. I’d be happy to carve out a Minnesota-shaped space (or an Idaho-, Florida-, etc. -shaped spaces) if they think their needs more important than those of a nation. There is a balance between needs, and this is another thing getting out of kilter in Washington these days.

This is an excerpt from the audio:




You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Friday, June 9, 2017

Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Hardcover, 288 pages Pub August 16th 2016 by New Press ISBN13: 9781620972250

The concept of this book is exactly what I had been thinking about for the past two years. I am so grateful for Hochschild for structuring a study to investigate the political divide in the United States as evinced by Louisiana, a deeply conservative red state facing environmental degradation and widespread poverty. Hochschild focused on a single issue upon which voting age people might be expected to converge in attitude, environmental pollution, and ended up asking a question which illuminated other attitudes: why do those living in polluted states want less federal oversight from environmental agencies rather than more?

The statistics and studies Hochschild shares at the end of this book are very useful for placing beside the statements, beliefs and attitudes of those she interviewed in Louisiana to judge discrepancies. Hochschild found that many attitudes are not based in economic self-interest so much as emotional self-interest, something with which every person struggles in our lifetimes. Sometimes our emotional response to a problem or issue colors our perceptions, and puts our economic self-interest at odds with what we decide to believe. (There are lots of examples of this in everyday life anywhere: a mother allows an adult child to move back home rent-free while looking for a job, a sister lends money to a drug-addicted sibling promising repayment, etc.)

Hochschild postulates that the individuals she interviewed belonging to the Tea Party in Louisiana were reacting to preserve emotional self-interest rather than economic self-interest with regard to environmental pollution controls (or the lack of them). She concludes these folks experienced a psychological high of belonging to a powerful, like-minded political majority, and as a part of this group felt released from politically-correct rules that usually govern polite society. [It might be worth noting a similar phenomenon is exhibiting in liberal groups with the campus demonstrations refusing permission to conservative speakers, or by destruction and violence during protest marches.]

Looking over the work Hochschild did in Louisiana, we realize that doing sociological research in the field is messy and hard to categorize. In order to determine if there was a shared narrative that connected the attitudes and emotions of the people she interviewed, Hochschild generated something called a “deep story,” which removes the particular facts and judgments that define individuals and just tells us how things feel to those individuals.

The Tea Party supporters she interviewed agreed that the deep story Hochschild generated did resonate with them and could be said to define them: That life is hard, and they must endure; that they felt like they were waiting in line, patiently, for their rewards for working hard but they see federal government-subsidized line-cutters getting benefits before the hard workers, i.e., Negroes, women, immigrants, refugees; the government appears to be helping the line-cutters using taxpayer money and is therefore antithetical to the hard-workers; God teaches how to endure; gay people were not godly; America, especially the America of their youth when fish and fowl were plentiful and air and water were clean, was something to preserve; everything was changing so much they’d begun to feel like strangers in their own land, not getting the benefits citizenship in America promised.

The connection between pollution and jobs gets tangled in the subjects’ emotional self-interest and they can’t seem to extricate themselves from a loop created by what they hear from their former corporate employers, from their state representatives (Bobby Jindal was in office), and from Fox News. It almost seems as though when corporate representatives said they would not clean up the river/lake pollution, that the pollution is not that bad, or they could not afford to clean up, residents felt powerless. In order not to feel powerless, they blamed someone else, like the federal government, or the line-cutters.

The people Hochschild interviewed for this study* were subject to the most egregious environmental pollution I have ever heard of. In some cases their houses were destroyed or blown up by gas leaks, the rivers surrounding their houses were so polluted plants and animals died when in contact with it. The interviewees were retired or near retirement. Their neighbors and spouses were dying of various cancers.

At the end of the study, when she was drawing her conclusions, Hochschild was remarkably restrained. She’d become friends with these folks, and though she might occasionally, gently, point out areas of disagreement with them to see what they might respond, for the most part it did not appear that she interfered with their belief system. Her conclusions were that these people, who struggled their entire lives to make a living, who were often lied to by those with power over them, felt a kind of collective excitement to be part of Donald Trump’s supporters where they felt secure and respected, and were released from the bonds of political correctness, e.g., caring about those further back in the line, the needy around the country, around the world.

Personally, I think it might be the release from political correctness that made everyone so giddy to be part of Trump’s team, because let's face it, the man was not respectful. Though he was rich, he was low class; he made it look as though his level of success was attainable to ordinary folk. There is a certain amount of willful delusion and economic self-interest in these beliefs, it seems to me. I understand compassion fatigue, particularly when one’s own world is so needy, so I am not going to criticize that. There is, however, something we [should] all learn as we grow older that these smart, mature, experienced folks don’t seem to have grasped, and perhaps this is our fundamental disagreement: Happiness and satisfaction in life is not a zero-sum game.

Although we might be able to feel sympathy, empathy, compassion—something other than steaming anger—for individuals in the world Hochschild studied, I don’t think it is so easy to do the same for a group. I found myself steeled against their resistance to coherent argument on commonsense pollution controls. They can react with their emotional self-interest if they wish, but I don’t think it is healthy if I do as well, because then we’re at loggerheads. If I react with my economic self-interest, we are likewise at loggerheads. These people want what I want, e.g., family, community, a measure of security. They must want a clean environment as well. We disagree on how to get there. I don’t see that changing unless perhaps we agree to set standards of accountability and hold each other to those standards.

This was really a spectacular study, enormously important, and deeply skilled in execution. I am in awe of how the author was able to approach the problems she could see in our society, measure them, and explain what she found to us. This book was published in 2016, the result of at least five years of labor and study. It was a 2016 Finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

*[We never get an explanation why younger people, with presumably more at stake, less history in the area, and more energy for resistance to corporate interests, were not interviewed for the study, except maybe it was necessary to limit the scope of the interviewees so they could all operate from the same deep story.]



You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean

Hardcover, 400 pages Expected publication: June 13th 2017 by Viking ISBN13: 9781101980965

Many publishers claim “explosive new content” for their nonfiction but in this case it is not hyperbole. This political history of the Radical Right is a worthy companion to Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. It reveals what Mayer did not: what on earth were the Radical Rich thinking?

This is the book we’ve been waiting for—a book which explains the philosophical underpinnings of the Radical Right and the scope and direction of their plan for political and economic control. For years I have struggled to understand how they could imagine a small group of people should be more privileged than the majority, but now I get it. The Radical Right has divided human beings into makers and takers, “makers” being those who own the means of production (and pay taxes) and “takers” being those who do not. For some reason I still don’t understand, they have concluded that the superrich fit the first category and the bulk of the economy’s workers fit the second. Which, as we all know, with regard to taxes at least, is a logical fallacy in today’s America.

Though sometimes it may appear the Radical Right are inarticulate because they never seem to explain what they are aiming at, they apparently wanted to keep their philosophy and intent quiet, to work in secrecy. This is because most people in our democracy would oppose their thinking. The Radical Rich freely acknowledge this. The Right believes that the majority in a democracy can coerce individuals to pay for things the minority do not want to pay for, like public schools, health care, welfare programs, jails, infrastructure. The Right believe they should be free to do as they choose, and services should be privatized. The market will take care of any climate change-related environmental controls that the majority might wish businesses to adopt. The Right’s view of an efficient business and political environment might look like the early 20th Century when oligarchs roamed the earth.

It sounds bizarre, I know. The Right knew we would react this way, which is why they have been unable to say what they were thinking straight out, but instead made common cause with the Republican Party, and the Religious Right, cannibalizing both and leading those two groups to their own demise. An important piece of their thinking is that only the national government has enough clout to stop them from dominance, which is why they are so insistent on weakening the central government and passing “power” to individual states, which would of course diffuse power.

Things are so much clearer to me now. When the Black Lives Matter movement said opposition to President Obama was about race, they were right. Opposition to Obama was ginned up by this group, who spread rumors and undermined his attempts to compromise by refusing cooperation. The genesis of the thinking in this far right group has its roots in slavery.

The roots of Radical Rich thinking goes back to John C. Calhoun, slave holder intent upon “preserving liberty” [of the elite], and keeping the demands of the many off his “property.” Up until the 1960’s, the majority of wealth in this country was in the South, leftover generational wealth from slave-holding days now invested in tobacco, cotton, energy products like oil and coal, etc... MacLean calls it “race-based hyper-exploitative regional political economy…one based first on chattel slavery and later on disenfranchised low-wage labor, racial segregation, and a starved public sector.”

It is fascinating to hear how Nancy MacLean, investigating a tangential issue to those she explores in this book, came upon the personal papers and writings of Nobel Prize winner James M. Buchanan (October 3, 1919 – January 9, 2013) at George Mason University in Virginia, which included private letters between Buchanan and Charles Koch. The letters illuminated the train of thought of both men, including their insistence that their thinking be kept secret lest people object to their belief that democracy would ruin capitalism and their right to rule. Eventually the two men diverged in thought and Koch sidelined Buchanan decisively.

At last I can understand why the Republicans would put forth a health care plan that actually harmed people. It bothered me that I didn’t understand, but I do now. I struggled to understand why this group of individuals, which include Mike 
Pence, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Mitch McConnell, and a host of others, oppose government-subsidized affordable college education, corporate and personal taxes, environmental protections, and state-subsidized drug rehab programs. They actually believe the majority of the American people are stealing their wealth.

Of course there is room in the world for people with fundamentally different ideas about what man is. But there may not be enough room for these thoughts together in one nation. They can go off to live by themselves if they wish, on an island somewhere outside a country founded on the principle of “by the people for the people.” But, you know, without our willing slavery, they are just old men stashing meaningless bits of paper. They can’t even eat without our labor. They can’t live in all the houses they own. They can’t get where they are going without us. They can’t dress themselves without us. No, in order for them to win we must agree to be ruled by them, and we don’t.

You will want to preorder this book and read it immediately. I understand now why there was no buzz about this. Remember when Jane Mayer was asked in an interview1 if she was afraid to criticize the secretive Koch brothers because they were so powerful? MacLean, I am quite sure, had to be extremely careful until this became public. The audio is excellent, read by Bernadette Dunn, produced by Penguin Audio. The audio file is about 11 hours, and it is completely enthralling. Now I can tell a conservative from someone indoctrinated by Koch. I can see the strategy.


1Pamela Paul’s January 24, 2016 podcast for NYTimes Book Review



You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Woolly by Ben Mezrich

Hardcover, 304 pages Expected publication: July 4th 2017 by Atria Books ISBN13: 9781501135552

Mezrich picks interesting topics, I will concede that. Readers may already have heard some years ago that a Harvard lab was working on de-extinction of the Woolly Mammoth. Mezrich brings us up to date on this project; indeed, the first and last chapters in this nonfiction are set in the future.

If you are familiar with Mezrich’s writing, the author weights the concept of narrative nonfiction heavily on the narrative and fiction sides, ostensibly to stoke momentum and get folks interested. The only problem is that his very good instincts about what is intrinsically an interesting story fights with his method. Sometimes the reader has to thrash through pages of invented dialogue to reach a critical conclusion, a real buzz killer if there ever was one.

But this story works on many levels, and while we are following his careful step-by-step thrust with one eye, our mind is busy on the operations of a lab and the implications of the study for medicine, for wildlife, for every aspect of our visible and invisible world. Mezrich eventually addresses many of these key issues in the text, usually making the science sound responsible and considered.

I started to grow more uncomfortable towards the end of the book, when we are reminded that the science has progressed so far so fast that genomic modifications have escaped the lab environment and can be undertaken in a made-over garage for relatively small costs, and that billionaires of every stripe are lining up to make their money count for something big.

The real excitement of this story is in our imaginations, and what the skills and knowledge of present-day scientists can allow us to imagine. Mezrich places us in fund-raising meetings with billionaires, allowing the most humble among us to enjoy the same stories and sense of excitement that fuels movers and shakers. If the glamour of the whole thing begins to seem suspect at some point, I think you’ve caught my sense of unease.

Mezrich shares the history of the project, including the work by Nikita Zimov in Northern Siberia, determining that woolly mammoths seemed to have played a role in preserving the permafrost levels of the tundra, by upturning the soil and exposing lower layers to the freezing temperatures. His father, Sergey Zimov, apparently theorized that reestablishing animal herds that roamed Siberia earlier in human history might play a role in keeping escaping carbon and methane, now sequestered in permafrost, from accelerating the speed at which the earth warms.

The fact that woolly mammoth remains are discovered regularly now in thawing and melting ice and snow of the north is something I had not known. The ancient ivory from the tusks is not protected and is therefore an important source of income for hunters, sold in lieu of protected elephant tusks, for the same reasons, to the same buyers.

The scientists involved in the story at one of the Church labs at Harvard are fascinating individuals in their own right, each with a backstory that only fuels our interest. The project has been going on long enough now that the twenty-something personnel involved at the beginning of the project are turning it over to others, younger ones still, to ensure continuity of skills on such a forward-looking project. The whole concept and execution of the mammoth idea is sufficiently…mammoth…and complex enough to make readers feel as though they have been subtly changed by the experience.

The real life story ends with woolly mammoth DNA implanted in an elephant cell. Dr. Frank Church, the originator of this project, to his credit, decides not to use elephants to gestate the beast that might develop, but to construct a synthetic uterus. That is currently underway. Stay tuned.


Due out July 4th.



You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Two Paths: America Divided or United by John Kasich

Hardcover Pub April 25th 2017 by St. Martin's Press ISBN13: 9781250138460

John Kasich began writing this book as soon as he became the last man standing in the 2016 Republican primary contest between sixteen candidates and Donald Trump. We know Trump won by deriding and dismissing his opponents, but Kasich seemed to run under Trump’s radar. Neither Trump nor Kasich were beholden to Far Right money being shoveled to the other candidates by the Koch brothers’ organizations, and the Republican Party kept some distance from the two of them as well. But other than that, Trump and Kasich have practically nothing in common.

This book is not a difficult read. It’s as though we had an opportunity to sit around listening to Kasich tell stories about the campaign, what it’s like to run for president, what the candidates are like behind closed doors, how to begin to think about a national campaign, etc. It’s intrinsically interesting stuff, but not especially critical to know.

Although I am not Republican, I sought out information about Kasich to see what was different about his thinking from my own. Frankly, he was the only one I could stand to listen to. He is not a jerk, and often acts like a mature adult, which I find appealing. He has the common man touch in that he doesn’t seem particularly philosophy-, ideology-, or theory-based. He comes across as someone who puts one foot in front of the other, and while he has guiding principles, for the most part he is relying on material tested in a big swing state with enormous social strains and stresses.

That a governor can take so much time to campaign and then promote his book on the way to beginning a new campaign means either that he is really good at finding people who can do his job for him while he is away or he has a reservoir of goodwill from voters that he is gradually spending. One’s career is often derailed after a failed bid for president, but it almost looks as though Kasich could carry on as a perennial candidate until he decides to retire, not winning national office but managing his state coffers admirably.

Kasich makes no bones about the fact that he is a religious man. In my mind it is appropriate for him to bring up God because Kasich is actually a nice guy who appears to think about others. It’s in his daily conversation and in the way he treats others. Placed side-by-side with other candidates who also claim to be religious, Kasich comes off as looking pretty authentic in contrast.

In this book there is a chapter that makes enormous sense to me, and none of the other candidates anywhere has talked about it, Democrats either. In that chapter Kasich discusses the how the electorate often worries about a crisis of leadership when we perhaps face a crisis of followship. In other words, a leader is as good as his staff and the people on his team. (We all know this, we’re just not used to purported leaders telling us this. We can’t just pick someone and expect them to fix everything while we go back to our own concerns.) We should be the change we want to see. We need to find candidates that speak for us and deliver on our priorities, and we need to work to make him/her viable in the leadership job.

This book is named after a speech Kasich gave April 12, 2016 to the Women’s National Republican Club in New York City. Kasich had come in second in the NH Republican primary in February after 100 town hall events in the state. In April, the remaining candidates were down to three: Trump, Kasich, and Cruz, just as in that NH primary vote. This is the speech in which he said he would not “take the low road to the highest office in the land” and that “American is still great.” Of the two paths he spoke of, one is that of fear and division, the other is a sometimes steep path to overcoming issues which need resolution. The view on that second path is great, Kasich says, and we’ll be working with great folks (instead of the loud, greedy, insensitive boors on the other path).

I have no idea why more conservatives are not interested in the Kasich message. He seems perfectly rational, thoughtful, and effective, just what you’d think we’d want in a lawmaker, judge, or executive. He may not be the brightest bulb in the bushel, but like he says, he shouldn’t have to be. He has us. And besides, I think he knows a whole lot more than he communicates. Wisely.





You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Hostage by Guy Delisle

Hardcover, 436 pages Pub April 25th 2017 by Drawn & Quarterly (first published September 16th 2016) Orig Title S'enfuir. Récit d'un otage. ISBN13: 9781770462793

With this new book released in the U.S. in the spring of this year, French Canadian graphic artist and animator Guy Delisle takes a departure from his more usual graphic novels about his life as the spouse of a Médecins Sans Frontières physician to tell the story of a real innocent abroad, Christophe André, on his first assignment for MSF in Ingushetia, in the North Caucasus in 1997.

Christophe was taken hostage, driven across the border into Chechnya, and outside of Grozny he was held for ransom for three months. He had been in his post for three months when they came for him. He spent the bulk of his captivity chained to a radiator in a small room with a mattress stuffed with straw. He was fed watery soup and allowed bathroom breaks, but otherwise had no opportunity to speak, see the sky, move freely.

Ransom negotiations were slow: when he escaped, finally, the translator assigned to his office in Ingushetia told him other foreigners had been kidnapped in the time he was being held. The 400+ pages of this book are not a struggle; readers spend the time thinking about what they might do in similar circumstances, and interrogate themselves about the scene and their own strengths. André himself passed the more terrible stretches by recalling in great detail the military commanders, battles, and outcomes he had studied when he was younger, including Russian, French, and American battles.

The escape at the end is harrowing, and stomach-dropping. André simply did not know whom to trust. Eventually he made it back to his home in Paris, and six months after that went back to MSF and asked for a new assignment. He worked twenty years for MSF after that experience.

Here is a Public Radio International The World radio interview with the artist Delisle about this new book, Hostage, the kind of story that lingers in one's memory:




You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Hardcover, 304 pages Expected publication: September 5th 2017 by Scribner ISBN13: 9781501126062

This brilliant novel reads like a thriller yet teases out and lays bare a disturbing family history of violent, unresolved death resulting from a culture of race relations profoundly at odds with national ideals.

Jesmyn Ward is a Southern writer in the gothic tradition, a worthy successor to Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty, and McCullers. She shows the cruelties not just within families but between families and races. Her characters have so much at stake. What Ward writes is what we have inherited. We can change it, but first we have to acknowledge it.

The bulk of this novel takes place over the course of one day, the day Jojo and his sister Kayla accompany his mother Leonie to Parchman’s, a prison, to pick up his father Michael. Everything is revealed in that one day. Resolution takes a little longer.

Ward’s willingness to “go there,” her vision uncut and her language clear and exact, gives her work the aspect of witness. And yet she inhabits the young man Jojo so completely that he became our eyes and our judgment. It feels like a gift, to be able to see how families bend and break under the weight of all they carry…the weight of all those killed violently and not yet laid to rest.
“Last night, Richie crawled under the house and sang.”
Richie is the ghost of a poor murdered boy, and he is not the only ghost in this family’s present. Jojo’s uncle Given is also a spirit, albeit one that gives comfort, advice, and warning. It proves difficult for family members to deal with the spiritual needs of the ghosts as well as the temporal needs of those around them. It is confusing, demanding, intrusive. Add to that, not everyone has “the sight.” Jojo has it.

Ward opens her story with the butchering of a goat, giving us a taste of the education Jojo has on the farm, under the tutelage of his grandfather. The violence of the experience jolts us awake, nerve endings jangling. We need whatever instincts this incident has aroused in us to get through the day trip to Parchman’s, which becomes a descent into the dark heart of delusion and destruction.

Ward manages to instill the work with the impetus of a thriller: a reader becomes completely trapped by the closeness in the old car, the desultory conversation, the turn onto unfamiliar roads, the unexpected stop. The blood scent has put the wind up: we’re not sure who will come out alive at the end of the trip. Ward exquisitely calibrates her descriptions to resonate with us: we recognize these people, these motivations, these zones of danger.

Making an exciting work of fiction is an art, but Ward elevates the stakes by making an exciting work of fiction socially relevant and critical to the conversation going on in our nation. Just last summer a book of essays edited by Jesmyn Ward and written by important American writers and thinkers, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, was released to great acclaim. The essays address the ongoing race issues our country has never resolved and struggles with yet.

Ward is among the finest and most important writers we have. Make sure you catch everything she puts out.



You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee

Hardcover, 336 pages Expected publication: June 6th 2017 by W. W. Norton Company ISBN13: 9780393608816

Don Lee’s novels have always resonated with me and towards the end of his latest, I began to understand why. Lee is resolutely plebeian in his writing: he gives his characters, no matter how wealthy or learned, no place to hide from our judgments of them. The business of living is messy, he seems to say, though some might look like they have an easier time of it, it ain’t necessarily so.

Lee also isn’t snooty about genre: there is a touch of romance hidden within the complexities of the married lives he delivers in Lonesome. People aren’t settled, despite their legal status. The intensely personal and minutely calibrated nature of the characters, however, elevate his art above the ordinary. Reading his work is just fun.

One of the things that Lee does exceptionally well in all his books is give us an idea of what exactly people do in their jobs, and what makes each job an opportunity for creativity and excellence. While many authors might hint at hidden depths, say, in cleaning a celebrity’s suite in a five-star hotel or in laying wall-to-wall carpet in a decaying hovel, Lee takes the worker’s eye view and relishes in explanations of how it can be done elegantly. It’s interesting. Readers develop understandings and sympathies where before there were none. (The government should hire Lee to analyze labor equivalencies in the workplace. We would come out with a far flatter and more just wage structure than we have today.)

At heart, this novel is about the creative process and the winding path each person’s dreams take as their lives progress. Yadin was a musician ever since he can remember, writing songs, both lyrics and tunes, that people want to hear. He sang, too, but experienced such severe stage fright that it began to take a toll on his health. He had to quit touring, and his life narrowed to a pinpoint of casual work & sleep as he tried to cope with his illness. One day, chancing one day upon a few lines of spoken poetry, his capacity for song is awoken again.

Poetry and song: the parallels are many. Those readers who relish language will love Lee’s focus on the way words work to draw us in, to inspire and delight us. In addition, there is something terribly exciting and beautiful about capturing the process of creation. Moments of creative flow described on the page are exhilarating for what similarities they bear to one's own experience. We don’t tire reading of someone who has managed to cobble together something unique from scraps; conversely we yearn for more.

Yadin’s mind was busy with “a thread of melody noodling inside his head” as he lay carpet; he would stop to call his landline and leave a message of the tune so he wouldn’t forget. Later, a few words and phrases burbled up from his subconscious which he’d capture on a piece of masking tape with his Sharpie.

Life is complex, and Lee relishes that complexity, carefully unpicking the tangled threads that got us from happy days of infatuation to a limping marriage, paradoxically featuring both not enough sex and too many children. His characters are irredeemably flawed, all of them, though they are talented enough that others may look to them to lead the way. Their failures are heartbreaking, and are perhaps as much like us individually as any characters in any book.

If I have any criticism of this novel, it is Lee’s two strong female characters. Each is carefully drawn and multi-dimensional, Jeanette being Yadin’s long-time companion and the daughter of his boss. The slow reveal of her character’s history is fascinating in its surprises but one has the sense at the end that here is a woman struggling to free herself from a constricting web of her own making. I personally thought she was capable enough (at her age) to have made a more proactive choice than the one Lee chose for her. In the end, she was not an appealing partner for Yadin.

Mallory, the celebrity folksinger, is familiar to the extent that we feel we may have met her before—her type, certainly. Mallory wanted authenticity in her art and had to settle for less to get by, but she was always looking for that real experience again. She had most of what she needed most of the time, but she was aging out of the business of love songs. Lee may have made her harder, less sympathetic, and less vulnerable than strictly necessary. I bought it all until the end when I thought she would have (at her age) made a different choice.

This novel of sophisticated adult dilemmas gives us confused folks who make one choice as young adults and different choices in the fullness of years. Yadin was completely sure, in his later years, what he wanted. Lee did not tie his novel up neatly but showed us the messy lives of people making choices we don't like. If aspects of this novel had romance-genre undertones, the overtones were richer and deeper and far more complex.

Another GR reviewer made the terrific suggestion that this novel would make a great indie film, and he is completely right. In the hands of the right actors, this is a star-making vehicle. All that unrequited or misdirected love can play out as music.

An interview with Don Lee by Terry Hong on the Bookslut blog shows us how Lee agonizes over the publication process of novel-writing, a phenomenon which is examined more closely in this novel when Yadin writes a couple songs and then agonizes over their method of release. Paste Quarterly has a book trailer featuring an exclusive Will Johnson track of the title song.




You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Friday, May 26, 2017

Blind Spot by Teju Cole

Hardcover, 352 pages Expected publication: June 13th 2017 by Random House ISBN13: 9780399591075

This book of photographs paired with short essays is due out in the next two weeks. I want to give you ample time to order one for delivery on publication. Teju Cole’s art is exceptional at the same time it is accessible. In my experience, the confluence of these two things happens only rarely, which is how Cole has come to occupy an exalted place in my pantheon of artists. If I say his photography can stop us in our tracks, it says nothing of his writing, which always adds something to my understanding. Today I discovered his website has soundtracks which open doors. And there it is, his specialness: Cole’s observations enlarge our conversation.

This may be the most excellent travel book I have read in recent years, the result of years of near-constant travel by the author. Scrolling through the Table of Contents is a tease, each destination intriguing, irresistible, stoking our curiosity. Each entry is accompanied by a photograph, or is it the other way around?
“I want to make the kinds of pictures editors of the travel section will dislike or find unusable. I want to see the things the people who live there see, or at least what they would see after all the performance of tourism has been stripped away.”
Yes, this is my favored way of travel, for “the shock of familiarity, the impossibility of exact repetition.” It is the reason most photographs of locales seemed unable to capture even a piece of my experience. But Cole manages it. In the entry for “Palm Beach,” his picture is of a construction site, a pile of substratum—in this case, sand—piled high before an elaborate pinkish villa. His written entry is one of his shortest, only three sentences, one of them the Latin phrase Et in Arcadia ego, washing the scene with knowledge of what we are viewing, and what is to come.

Cole calls this work a lyric essay, a “singing line” connecting the places. There is some of that. What connects all these places for me are Cole’s eyes…and his teacherly quality of showing us what he is thinking. It is remarkable, and totally engrossing.
“Human experience varies greatly in its externals, but on the emotional and psychological level, we have a great deal of similarity with one another.”
Yes, this insight, so obvious written down, is something I have been struggling with for such a long time, going back and forth over the idea that we are the same, we are different. Cole tells us that this book stands alone, or can be seen as fourth in a quartet addressing his “concern with the limits of vision.” I want to sink into that thought, in the context of what he has given us, because outside the frame of a photograph, outside of our observation, outside of us, is everything else.

My favorite among the essays, if we can call them such, filled as much with what Cole did not say as with what he did, is the piece called “Black River.” Cole evokes the open sea, Derek Walcott, crocodiles, and white egrets. A tropical coastal swamp filled with crocodiles also had white egrets decorating the bushy green of overhanging mangroves, the large white splashes almost equidistant from one another, the closest they can be for maximum happiness, I like to think, t hough it could also be minimum happiness, I guess. Any closer and there will be discord, like the rest of us live.

The arrival in bookstores of a book by Teju Cole is an event. His pictures makes us look, and his words are like the egrets, spaced for maximum pleasure. Whether or not you read this as a series or alone, make sure you pick it up, just to gaze. You need have no agenda. His magic does not make much of itself. He takes us along for the ride. Bravo!



You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Monday, May 22, 2017

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle

Hardcover, 336 pages Pub April 24th 2012 by Drawn and Quarterly (first published November 16th 2011) Orig Title Chroniques de Jérusalem ISBN13: 9781770460713 Edition Literary Awards Prix du Festival d'Angoulême for Fauve d’or du meilleur album (2012)

This is an appropriate time to take another look at Jerusalem, and Guy Delisle’s book can explain to you the in and outs of what U.S. President Trump is seeing while he is visiting.

Guy Delisle is a graphic artist who accompanies his wife, a Médecins Sans Frontières physician, to hotspots around the world. While in the past he has been able to work as an artist while overseas on assignment, every posting is different, and the one in Jerusalem did not lend itself as easily to sketching outside, teaching in universities, giving shows on his work, and concentrating on finishing his drawings in a systematic way.

The very thing that makes Delisle effective in his role as graphic artist and stay-at-home husband and dad also makes him a frustrating on-the-ground observer. He is almost resolutely non-partisan and non-political. When bombs start to fly in Operation Cast Lead over the holiday period Dec 27, 2008-January 16, 2009 he tells what he heard from his position at home, but he wasn’t interested in being an observer. He also wasn’t interested in interviewing settlers in Hebron when he was asked to do graphic reportage there.

By the end, however, I could see the value in his distanced, uninvolved view. He drew what he observed, without much editorializing. He drew the extreme care some security guards took in checkpoint and airport security work, the difficulties Palestinians had in getting around, working, living, and planning for the future, he drew the wall, and the pushing Palestinians out of their homes by settlers in the West Bank.

Delisle saw the sights Jerusalem had to offer, always on the lookout for interesting or peaceful places to bring his wife and children, or somewhere he could work uninterrupted. Eight months into a twelve-month tour, the pastor of the Lutheran church Augusta Victoria, on the Mount of Olives, offered Delisle a room in which to work. It was quiet and the only distractions were Delisle’s own thoughts, and a large organ which sent vibrations through his space. He found that he’d accustomed himself to grabbing the in-between moments in his hectic daily life, and the peacefulness of the church was made it more difficult for him to complete his projects, paradoxically.

Delisle spent many frames drawing the wall: “It’s graphically interesting,” he would explain. The wall through Jerusalem cut Palestinians off, in some cases, from their school, from their work, from their own land. What I particularly liked was his dividing the chapters by months of the year. Some months had considerable drama, but others reflected his dawning understanding about the situation and his learning to make up his own mind about what might be excusable behavior and what seemed like taking advantage.

Throughout the mostly black-and-white book, a map of Israel with the West Bank and Gaza drawn in chartreuse served to remind Delisle and readers that the amount of space allocated to Palestinians in Israel is very small, and Israeli settlers are pushing them away even still. The violent tactics and language the settlers use, the virulent criticism heaped upon the government and activists by the press, can be shocking to those of us who are not used to such extreme positions. “The vast majority of Israelis vigorously disapprove of the extreme behavior of the Hebron settlers.” It is hard not to respond with derision to statements like these, and it is hard to see that restraint is working to underline the urgency of the situation for Palestinians.

The currents of daily life are portrayed effectively by the end of this thick graphic novel (336 pages), and Delisle’s tone and lack of interest serve his purposes well. Despite his occasional missteps (when discussing Hasidic Jews, for instance), his intentional ignorance gives us and him the opportunity to look at the situation anew.

I ended up ordering Delisle’s Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea and also his book Burma Chronicles. He has another, called Hostage, which debuted in English in 2017, translated from the French. Hostage tells the story of MSF employee Christophe André, who was captured in Russia’s North Caucasus in 1997 until he managed to escape months later. Public Radio International has a description here. From that link, we learn
”And the truly surprising end of the story is this: Just six months after he escaped, André showed up at Doctors Without Borders and asked for a new assignment. He stayed on with them for another 20 years.”




You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul

Hardcover, 256 pages Pub May 2nd 2017 by Henry Holt and Co. ISBN13: 9781627796316

Coming out at this time of year, Pamela Paul’s memoir is reminiscent of a commencement speech, albeit book-length and one just as interesting for the parents as for the graduates. It is a blast to listen to an obsessive reader share her thoughts on books, her travels and travails. Bob is her lifelong companion and record, her Book of Books, the place she can note what she has read. It gives date of completion, and, because Paul tried to read books about the countries or cities she visits or lives, we deduce a sense of location. It is her book of memories then, a record of where she has been.

Paul was the single daughter born into a family of seven sons. Despite the expected in-house torture and rough-housing, her psyche remained remarkably intact, though her parent’s divorce may have had more effect than discussed here. She did emerge as a reader, an introvert, and from a young age wanted to write. In this book she has boldly decided to write about what she’s read in the context of her life, and astonishingly, it is interesting. We enjoy retracing her faltering steps as a burgeoning adult, in which she recalls with uncommon accuracy the embarrassed and confused feelings of a teen.

France plays a large role in Paul’s life. Although her American Field Service (AFS) experience in a small town in suburban France was not as she imagined, it set the table for her next visit and the one after that. Eventually she found a family in France that became a second home, a family that subsequently attended her weddings and met her children. This kind of close long-term relationship defines Paul, I think. We all have trajectories, but not all of us cultivate the path as we go so that it becomes personal, the impact felt on both sides.

Paul’s decision after college to go directly to Thailand without the usual scramble for underpaid work at home was prescient but daring. She’d not get another chance to see that part of the world with any depth, though the China portion of the trip gave me the screaming heebies. It sounded perfectly horrendous, completely uncomfortable, filled with sickness and incomprehension. The China trip was her father’s idea, and it never became hers. The unmitigated disaster of that trip reminds us that we have to own our journey, start to finish, for us to manage it with any kind of finesse.

There was a marriage that lasted a year. The utter heartbreak Paul experienced does not lacerate us: from the moment she begins to speak of her first husband we are suspicious. She is much too happy much too soon. Love is one thing. Blindness is another. In my mind I modify Thoreau to read: beware all enterprises that require giving up a large, rent-controlled flat in New York City...
"…the minute a subject veered from the fictional world, the private world, the secluded, just-us-on-top-of-the-mountain world, into the greater, grittier territory below, the nonfictional world, my husband and I had serious differences…Even when we each happily read those same books about the perfidy of man, we read them in opposite ways…this kind of book contested my essentially optimistic view of the world rather than overturned it…whereas for him, the world really was that bleak, and the books proved it."
Here you have, folks, a political difference so profound it can break nations in two. Ayn Rand’s work became Paul’s personal standard for judging viewpoints. Paul admits--she who practically worships books--that she threw one of Ayn Rand’s books in the trash after reading it, so that no one else would be polluted by its ideas. I laughed. I did the same thing, though I contemplated burning it before I did. In my tiny garage-turned-apartment in New Mexico, I wrestled with Rand’s horrifying vision of a society of go-getters and decided that to burn her book would invest it with too much significance.

I loved reading about Paul’s poor dating experiences after that. She was inoculated against irrational exuberance after her divorce, but she still wanted intimacy. She manages to share with us chortle-inducing instances of “okay, I’ve had enough of that” with some of the men she met later. My favorite might be the time a boyfriend convinces her that he’d been to the Grand Canyon before and so can show her “the best way to see it.” Har-dee-har-har. This memoir is a great example of smart and funny, gifting us many moments of remembering our own worst histories and reinforcing for younger women coming along that our judgment may be the only thing separating us from a much worse time of it.

Pamela Paul is now books editor of The New York Times and no longer has to struggle to find the coin to buy a new book. She is the best kind of editor for all of us because she is has read widely and acknowledges the draw of genre fiction while communicating her admiration for the range of new nonfiction that helps us cope with our history and our future. She is also an interested and informed consumer of Children’s lit and Young Adult titles, which aids me immeasurably since these are not my specialty and therefore necessitate me seeking assistance from a trusted source.

Access to all there is out there comes with its own set of stresses, but Paul has extended her reach by asking some of the best writers in the country to read and review titles in the NYT Book Review, and to talk about their selections on the Book Review Podcast, available each week from iTunes as an automatic download. Her guests and her own considered opinions help to narrow the field for us.

This is a great vacation read, not at all strenuous, yet it is involving. Imagine the unlikeliness of the concept: an introverted reader and editor writes a book about her life…reading…and it is interesting! Totes amazeballs. It occurs to me that Goodreads is one big Bob. I’m so glad Paul put the effort in to share with us: big mistakes don’t have to be the end of the world. It depends what happens after that. See what I mean about commencement?



You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores