Friday, July 20, 2018

The Fall of Wisconsin by Dan Kaufman

Hardcover, 336 pgs, Pub July 10th 2018 by W. W. Norton Company, ISBN13: 9780393635201

This is the perfect book to give someone trying to understand what exactly happened in Wisconsin over these past thirty-or-so years so that a staunchly progressive and friendly state who looked after their own fell prey to a group who wanted to break that sense of community and, as Scott Walker told the national Republicans, “divide and conquer” the unions. Well, that they did, and a whole lot more and now the state is so heavily gerrymandered even majority Democrats don’t have a chance to elect their preferred candidates.

Kaufman manages to get us up to date on the state of the economy there, the threat of environmental degradation, and the lack of funding for public projects like universities. We learn which candidates who have run in the past and who is running now, including Braveheart Randy Bryce in District #1 who took on the “head of the snake” Paul Ryan and managed to slay Ryan's political future.

Bryce still has a battle with Steil, Ryan’s handpicked successor, but he’s got national support and attention for his fight. What Kaufman does particularly well is the backstory—which candidates ended up on the ballot, what they bring, and who supports them.

Norwegians instilled a kind of communitarian ethos in the area southwest of Milwaukee where they settled in the mid-nineteenth century, moving up from Chicago. At the same time northeast of Madison abolitionists gathered and decided to call themselves Republicans after the Latin for “the common good.” How much has changed! in the years since.

Very quickly Kaufman sketches the strong progressive values inculcated in state residents since the earliest days and draws a line to present political incumbents. Despite Paul Ryan being a native son growing up in Janesville, he calls progressivism “a cancer.” Scott Walker’s family moved in from Colorado by way of Iowa. He was a religious crusader who felt God had given him a mission in Wisconsin to break the unions. Randy Bryce, a veteran and cancer survivor, on the other hand, became a strong proponent of the labor movement just at the time Walker was looking to cripple it.

Chippewa Indian tribes, also called Ojibwe, who have retained some land rights in Wisconsin, have been strong proponents of environmental conservation and preservation. This has put them at loggerheads with people who call themselves conservatives but who have supported open-pit mining in the headwaters of Indian land, a poor site that had been rejected many times over by previous prospectors looking for good sites.

One of the more heartbreaking stories Kaufman tells is that of the tar-sands pipeline that crosses under the free-flowing Namekagon River in northern Wisconsin. Owned by the Canadian company Enbridge, it was responsible for several hundred spills in the past decade, including one in 2010 that counts as the largest and most expensive inland oil spill in American history.

Like the Keystone pipeline, Enbridge’s pipeline carries tar-sand, which needs to be mixed with chemical solvents so that it will flow. When exposed to air, these chemicals release a toxic gas, and the sticky tar sands sinks in the river & requires dredging to remove it. Here we have proof that tar-sands pipelines invite environmental disasters and we are still hearing how that will not happen with Keystone because of all the protections. An absurd refusal to see alternatives is leaving us--or our fellow countrymen--vulnerable to unacceptable risks. This needs to be exposed.

For years before Scott Walker came to office, there had been an assault on public institutions in Wisconsin, including universities and public schools. Walker instituted Act10 in 2011, which limited the right of public employees to collectively bargain, and then in 2015 attempted to change the mission statement of the university system from “to educate people and improve the human condition” to “meet the state’s workforce needs,” showing us the limits of his imagination. We do not know why Walker appears to have failed out of Marquette University, but we can see that he appears to fear what comes and so looks backward, to what he learned in childhood--not facts perhaps, but beliefs. No soaring rhetoric for him, by God.

Portraits of individuals desperate to put up a fight against the prevailing winds in Wisconsin are both heartening and discouraging. National opposition parties to the GOP, like Democrats, have their national goals wound so tightly around their axle they can barely cast a glance at states not putting up a good fight on their own.

Which is why, once Bryce broke a certain level of consciousness nationally, the Democrats were willing to contribute some money and some people. But Bernie Sanders recognized a fellow traveller in Bryce, someone whose values are in line with Wisconsin’s historical Scandinavian ethos of progressivism and in contrast to his states’ current conservative climate.

Finding and funding candidates is a huge step towards putting up a good fight in Wisconsin. I used to be disappointed well-trained and -spoken lawyers didn’t make more of an effort to help lead, but no longer. Voters in Wisconsin are going to have to fight for what they want, and one of the first steps to effective forward movement is a fire in the belly and the imagination. Kaufman does a brilliant job of making key elements of Wisconsin's history come alive with personality and human foible. We can, we must fix this. Wisconsin is not just the heartland, it is our heart.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón

Hardcover, 272 pgs, Pub Jan 30th 2007 by Harper, ISBN13: 9780060594794, Lit Awards: John Sargent, Sr. First Novel Prize, Internationaler Literaturpreis – Haus der Kulturen der Welt (2009), Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction (Runner-up) (2008), Alabama Author Award for Fiction (2008)

This story of Peru’s civil war (1980-2000) is startling in what it reveals about humans—how thin the skin of our civilization and how remarkably base our instincts. I would have plunked the whole story under the rubric ‘science-fiction’ except for the acknowledgements in which Alarcón cites debts from his long period of research.

After twenty years of war, teenagers are like newborns, having no institutional memory. Towns are designated by number, not name. Both sides so distrust and despise the other they no longer ruminate on guilt. Each is sloppy in their reasoning and callous in their behaviors; they treat one another like a separate species needing extermination. Terrifyingly, it shows us what can come of broken political systems. It happened. Not long ago.

It shows us what comes when intellectuals are jailed and disappeared, when the people are kept in ignorance. They know only that their family members and townspeople are disappearing, they know not where they go. This particular novel focuses on a radio show that the entire country listened to: a golden-throated newsreader sharing names sent to her by people trying to find individuals they knew and loved. If everyone listens, there is hope that some may eventually be reunited with their families.

What is so astounding about this novel is not only that it previews for anyone interested an outcome when a country follows a path of political warfare and division. Sometimes I think we can still fix our own broken system; after reading this I am sure we must, and sooner please. This novel is a debut by an author who was thirty years old at the time (2007). It doesn’t seem possible he would be capable of such depth and such understanding. But great stresses can force unusual talent.
"Manau carried with him the shame of an exposed man who had imagined his mediocrity to be a secret."
"….it didn’t seem at this [early] hour to be a city but a museum of a city, a place she was viewing as if from some distant future, an artist’s model built to demonstrate how human beings once lived…"
Lately I reviewed the author’s latest collection of stories The King is Always Above the People, which led me to this novel and another of his, At Night We Walk in Circles, published in 2013. Alarcón hosts a podcast for Latin American voices, among other things. He is a critically important voice for North Americans at this time of our own political upheaval, and because he is extraordinary. We need to hear him. Get something of his right now.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The King is Always Above the People: Stories by Daniel Alarcón

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Pub Oct 31st 2017 by Riverhead Books, ISBN13: 9781594631726, Literary Awards: National Book Award Nominee for Fiction (2017)

One assumes from the title that the king spoken of is revered and placed in a position of honor. Very shortly we learn that the king is actually hanging by his neck, above the central square, the people looking up at him swinging there. Many things are different from the perspective of those on the flip side of north.

Alarcón is Peruvian-American, and his voice is strong (having seen poverty), male (having known brutality), and distinctive (not being North American). His biography is fascinating. He is an investigative journalist; he teaches both broadcast journalism and writes novels. He collaborated with partners to establish a Spanish-language podcast, Radio Ambulante, telling Latin American stories for NPR.

This collection of stories may be a perfect way to be introduced to his work. Some stories have a knife hidden somewhere in the folds. We are reading along, interested and engaged, and suddenly we remember the world is not kind. We might have moments of carefree pleasure but it is not too long before the reality comes flooding back. Until then, however, there is a sense of release most intense.

“The Provincials” is the longest story and it is something altogether new. A father and his son return to the town the father had fled some years before. He is now working at a job unimaginable to those people in the town—Head Librarian of the Rare and Antiquarian Manuscripts division of the National Library—and has one son in America. The son traveling with him is an actor. Because the townspeople mistake him for his cross-border brother, he accedes to this role. He discovers there is, in fact, something of value here in this tired town they’ve left.

“República and Grau” may be my favorite story, a story of a wily blind man begging for coins. He is accompanied by a ten-year-old who is being pimped by his father to bring home half the take. Life is hard. The begging blind man seems happy to share his income, such as it is, with the neatly-dressed boy. One day, after his father beats the boy for such a small take-home, the boy’s bruised, bloody face and uncaring demeanor earns the two beggars more.

The second-longest story in the bunch, “The Bridge,” is as filling as a novel. There is so much to think about, so much alluded to, so much desire and despair in it that one has to pause, and pull in the oars. Let’s just think about what he is saying, if you don’t mind. It won’t hurt you to know the story ends with a recording of an audience roaring back at an opera performer who left them momentarily speechless.

In the best of all possible worlds, I would read this collection slowly, allowing time between stories as though each were a square of bitter chocolate. But I am a traveler, too, and fear I will lose the opportunity to share in this strongly South American-flavored story-telling so must finish it quickly. All the way through we sense the movement of individuals, tied in some mysterious psychic way to the mother country but mostly adrift, seeking rest. The North, when it is perceived at all, is “other.”

The final story, “The Auroras,” couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment, considering the state of discussion around the world on the subject of sexual relations and exploitation. The story pained me. While we experience a curious role-reversal in the sexual arena, we also have a queer example of the effect of social groups on attitudes…something like the Facebook effect. The main character was influenced to find his inner malice and express it, only later understanding how thoroughly he’d been manipulated. It was a distressing story to end on.

Alarcón is interesting enough that I set out immediately to see if this set of stories is representative of his work. He has two earlier novels, his debut called Lost City Radio (2007) about a radio show that recounts for families the status of victims of a war in a nameless South American country, and At Night We Walk in Circles (2013) featuring people with names and backgrounds the same as those in his story mentioned above called “The Provincials.”

But there is more. Alarcón collaborated on a graphic novel and several story collections. He is a journalist, and just kind of endlessly fascinating. He appears to write in English: no translator is listed. He teaches or has taught at several universities in the United States. You must sample his work if only because South American writers are too scarce—for whatever reason—in North America, and I presume, in Europe and elsewhere. South America is simply too often overlooked in our hurry to discover larger targets or exotica.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Milk!: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas by Mark Kurlansky

Hardcover, 400 pgs, Pub May 8th 2018 by Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN13: 9781632863829

Kurlansky is justly famous for his earlier works about Salt and Cod, among other things, so when I saw this 2018 Bloomsbury Publishing nonfiction about Milk, I was interested. I was particularly interested to see what he would say about humans consuming milk after infancy, when approximately sixty percent of the world's human population appear to lose their tolerance for and ability to digest lactose. Europeans, Middle Easterners, North Africans and some of the Indian subcontinent appear to lack a gene which shuts off production of lactase--an intestinally-controlled enzyme which digests lactose present in all milk.

In 2006 Cornell University's T. Colin Campbell published his thirty-year study on the eating habits of Chinese people called The China Study. The findings of Campbell's study blew me away, one of which was that consumption of milk products can cause osteoporosis in adults, a finding exactly opposite to what we have been told here in America. Kurlansky does not mention this startling information, sadly. But that study made me look closely at where the promotion of milk products was coming from—the industry itself, and lobbyists targeting government scientists, commercial attachés, and spokespeople.

Kurlanksy does remark on lactose intolerance briefly at the beginning and again in the section on China. He indicates that while there is a growing tolerance for dairy products gradually in China among the wealthier and more worldly citizens, it fights with the notion that the Chinese are genetically lactose intolerant. It may be that livestock was discouraged in a country which needed all possible land for food production, and that reintroducing dairy stimulates the production of lactase.

Kurlansky mostly elucidates the uses of milk in the part of the world that uses it daily, giving recipes that have survived the ages, showing some changes in those recipes over time. And certainly coincidentally but with a weird synchronicity he discusses breast-feeding throughout the world and throughout history. Breastfeeding has come and gone in popularity, with scientists in the past forty years generally concluding that until clean water and sterile bottles and low pricing for formula could be achieved throughout the world, perhaps breast milk was superior to any industrial formula.

It is now de rigueur to pump breast milk, offering convenience and nutrition. Pumping breast milk induces lactating mothers to produce more than they need, which has led to an oversupply. Some entrepreneurs have endeavored to sell soap made with breast milk; those selling breast milk ice cream in London found they couldn’t keep up with demand. Some sell breast milk on the internet to athletes who believe it makes them stronger. Some people buy it when they are ill, believing it has medicinal qualities. Some testing internet purchases found 10% of the time cow’s milk was mixed in, while 75% was contaminated with bacteria and/or pathogens.

It turns out that yogurt made from yak milk makes that made from cow’s milk seem boring and tasteless due to the high percentage of fat in yak’s milk. Consumption of milk in the United States has declined almost 40% since the 1970s, and now large scale industrial farming is the key to survival of the industry. At the end, Kurlansky takes another quick trip around the world to look at how dairy farms manage and what problems they are encountering now, including some of the profit calculations small producers are making.

Kurlanky is a wonderful writer of nonfiction who manages to take on big subjects and make them intelligible to the non-specialist. If you are looking for specific information, this book may simply be too diffuse, but Kurlansky is a wonderful host for a general reader.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Paperback, 400 pgs, Pub June 26th 2017 by Random House Trade (first published March 15th 2016), ISBN13: 9780525509714, Lit Awards: PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Nominee (2016), PEN Open Book Award Nominee for Longlist (2017), Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction (2017), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Debut Goodreads Author (2016)

This was a stressful read for me and may make your stomach ulcer bleed a little. I became anxious contemplating the poor choices the characters faced, and picked out things I would have done differently, given the constraints. A man from Cameroon overstays his visa in the United States, invites his girlfriend and their baby to come from Africa, then seeks an immigration lawyer to plead a case of asylum for him.

This is a story of immigration, illegal trying to be legal. It is a story that puts the reader in the awkward position of caring about a person in a difficult position and still not feeling obligated to help them evade a law designed to protect said reader. The author wanted us to feel that tension and to recognize the strain under which many immigrants operate. It is almost unimaginable—the pressure under which people of conscience live.

Americans still have not had the conversation we really need to have about immigration. Of course people want to live in America. Although sometimes our nation does not live up to its promise, it is still a land of laws, democratic elections, enormous resources, and relative peace. One of the things that makes us special are laws, agreed upon and enforced, that benefit citizens. People from other countries are welcome to visit and perhaps even stay, if they follow the law.

The point of this story is that visitors and/or immigrants must decide what kind of life they want to lead. If they come illegally over the border or refuse to leave when their lawful documentation expires, they must decide if they want to spend psychic energy evading the law in the future. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, live a life of evasion, less because of any moral stand but simply because I couldn’t take the uncertainty and inability to live openly. But I don’t have the difficult life in the home country that awaits those whose plea to stay in the U.S. is rejected.

These immigrants are from Cameroon. They could just as easily be from South America. Difficulties exist in the home countries of immigrants. Does that mean we must take them because they would rather be here than there? Most of us would probably agree that we do not. On the other hand, natural disasters, massive corruption, or political upheavals do seem to influence Americans’ attitudes, as they should. What should our policy be towards climate-related migrants? War-related migrants? Surely we cannot refuse them entry. That would be unconscionable. Mbue’s novel raises questions. It seems an opportune time to discuss these issues.

Add the complication of a black man immigrating to a country who has not yet solved their race prejudices:
“You think a black man gets a good job in this country by sitting in front of white people and telling the truth? Please don’t make me laugh.”
This novel is set in the run-up to Obama’s historic election, which was also the run-up to the financial crisis.
“The only difference between the Egyptians [during the Bible’s Old Testament calamity]… and the Americans now, Jende reasoned, was that the Egyptians had been cursed by their own wickedness. They had called an abomination upon their land by worshipping idols and enslaving their fellow humans, all so they could live in splendor. They had chosen riches over righteousness, rapaciousness over justice. The Americans had done no such thing.”
Near the end of the book two characters discuss a choice the illegal immigrants are considering so that they can stay: to divorce & marry someone else for a green card. Only they cannot figure out if it is right or wrong to consider this choice. The person to whom they speak quotes Rumi:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
I have always interpreted that phrase in a different way than Mbue tells us here it can be interpreted. She says Rumi means ‘Let’s not dwell too much on labeling things as right or wrong.’ Which means, doesn’t it, that rightdoing and wrongdoing are relative? I always thought it meant something like ‘Let’s be bigger than our differences.’ If anyone knows the heart of Rumi, please let me know.

Anyway, I spent a great deal of this book gnawing the inside of my cheek. That generally tells me how anxious I am getting. When I draw blood, I have trouble getting past it. This wasn’t a comfortable read. But I suppose it comes close to the truth for some immigrants. If you want to know what it is like to be them, try this.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

To End a Presidency by Laurence Tribe & Joshua Matz

Hardcover, 304 pgs, Pub May 15th 2018 by Basic Books, ISBN13: 9781541644885

America is an advanced democracy. It is imperative we the citizenry recognize our responsibilities and make use of our rights. “Impeachment is neither a magic wand nor a doomsday device.” It won’t fix the problems that brought a failed real estate magnate and showman to power. Moreover, calling for impeachment may have deleterious consequences which serve to rally the tyrant’s support.

The best thing about this book for me is that it lowered my blood pressure. I am not going to deny I have been distressed for…more than a year now, and severely low in the past couple months. This book reminded me that there are smart, educated people thinking about how best to deal with a liar whose proclivities border on fascism. Impeachment, these authors argue, may not be the best way to address this threat.
“When our democracy is threatened from within, we must save it ourselves…We must draw together in defense of a constitutional system that binds our destinies and protects our freedoms.”
Calls for impeachment have been increasing over the past decades, but this pair of authors thinks that is a sign of the divisiveness of our politics rather than realistic means of addressing things we don’t like about the other party’s president. We reached a new low when, even before the last presidential election in 2016, promises were made by each side to impeach the winner.

The authors stress that loose talk of impeachment may become as desensitizing as crying wolf when even the public begins to mistrust the options for curbing bad behaviors in a sitting president. Our elected officials must think strategically about what they are planning to achieve especially when they do not control enough seats to initiate impeachment hearings. Hot air is not helpful in educating the public in a time of crisis because it inflames the citizenry’s baser instincts.

We must work together if we are going to govern. The authors quote Lincoln at a time our country was more divided than now:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”
Yes, exactly. We clearly have not seen the existential threats coming down the road or we would be a lot more circumspect about calling hatred down on fellow citizens. Good grief. If we can’t work together despite living in the most resource-rich and abundant country on earth, we’re gonna lose it. But the people that made us this angry will all be dead and we and our children will have to deal with the problems that come. If everybody’s happy with that, let’s prepare well.
“In our experience, one of the main obstacles to an even-keeled analysis of impeachment under Trump is the fear and fury that he inspires in many of his political opponents.”
Don’t be a part of the problem. Educate yourself. It turns out that the most reliable way to deal with a pedant ideologue is to sideline them…in our case, by voting him and his supporters out. Not easy. But neither are any of the alternatives. This state of affairs was a long time developing into toxicity. It may take some time to rid ourselves of it.

This book is worthwhile. Time to take a deep breath and think before you speak.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Hardcover, 352 pgs, Expected pub: Sept 6th 2018 by Transworld Publishers Ltd, ISBN13: 9780385618724

Not all of Kate Atkinson’s novels have been what she calls historical fiction, but the last couple have been. This novel may hew closest to the truth, though like she says in the Author’s Note at the end, she wrenched open history and stuffed it with imaginative reconstruction, at least one fantasy for each fact.

The author tells us afterward what her intentions were. This is particularly delicious, and I argue, respects the reader. We get to look into her construction and think. She answers questions we've formed, and instead of farming out possible answers to various reviewers, she’s blunt with us about elements we’d been wondering about. There is something comparable in theatre, when the actors takes off their masks for the final bow and we all celebrate together.

Atkinson returns to the Second World War, periodic releases from the National Archives of secrets from that time fueling her creative process. When she discovers [true fact] an ordinary-seeming bank clerk was a major cog in rounding up British supporters of Nazis, her story had a frame. When she discovered [true fact] hundreds and hundreds of pages of transcripts of conversations of dissident groups in London, her story had a heart.

What Kate Atkinson does is not necessarily unique (using historical documents to create fiction), but what she does with it is unique. Her style, tone, and characters are recognizably hers. She is funny: one knows there are people out there whose droll delivery of witty responses to ordinary questions is quintessentially British but we don’t come across it enough. Atkinson can do repartee.

By now Atkinson may be incapable now of writing fiction with a chronological timeline. This novel has only three time periods to work with and really only one central character, which simplifies the action enough that I only had to reread an earlier section once. This was partly due to my surprise, maybe a little exasperation, and finally willingness to be led out of the action at what seemed like a critical moment…again! I was burrowed in like a tick, and am yanked to a later, earlier, whatever time. (I didn't really mind...stretching out the experience of reading Atkinson again, luxuriously.) Atkinson manages to satisfy and confound a reader at the same time.

Atkinson’s characters always have the ‘ghost of Jackson Brodie’ about them. This is a very good thing, considering how much we liked Brodie and wouldn’t mind having him resurrected. We could make the case that the main character in this novel, Juliet Armstrong, is a female Jackson Brodie—honest and therefore vulnerable, she doesn’t have so high an opinion of herself that she is insufferable. In the end she is well able to take care of herself. She’s smart, and a very good liar, and keeps herself a little distant. After all, who can one trust?

At eighteen, Juliet is parentless: "her mother's death had revealed that there was no metaphor too ostentatious for grief." Young and alone, Juliet was not, however, callow. She lied like crazy through a job interview with a flippant and overly-inquisitive young man who interviewed her for a job, which she was surprised she got. Later she learned he'd known every lie, and appreciated the ease with which she misled him.

This book is about spies, spies working in the service of the British government, or so we believe. What is special is that we see what is British about them—what is ordinary, patriotic, courageous, honorable. But we also see a nation at war and we see duplicity, hunger, ambition, pettiness. Then we lay over that the work of the other nations at war, France, Germany, Russia, the United States and a few exceptional people emerge alive, not unscathed, but breathing at the end. The tension comes when we are not sure who will remain standing.

Atkinson writes about the middle of the twentieth century, but she could be talking about the twenty-first:
Juliet could still remember when Hitler had seemed like a harmless clown. No one was amused now. (“The clowns are the dangerous ones, Perry said.”)


Do not equate nationalism with patriotism…Nationalism is the first step on the road to Fascism.
One always senses the intelligence in Atkinson’s work. She not only writes a good story--which means getting the humanity right--she makes us think while we read. She’s unpredictable. And frankly, I like her politics. It’s always a pleasure to enjoy another of her books.

This novel is due out September 25th in the U.S., published by Little Brown; it looks like it will be out September 6th in Britain by Transworld. Preorder now!