Monday, July 30, 2018

More Than They Bargained For by Jason Stein & Patrick Marley

Paperback, 350 pgs, Pub Mar 22nd 2013 by University of Wisconsin Press (first published January 1st 2013), ISBN13: 9780299293840

Scott Walker could be likened to a sharpened pencil. He does what he is told to do, but appears wooden. This is clear even from the words he uses in his own memoir of his time in the governor’s office, when he faced a recall vote a year and a half after taking office. This man, after fighting the most bitter and divisive fight in his state’s history against collective bargaining rights for public unions, wants to take his show national. The mind reels.

Having previously been a Milwaukee County Executive before running for Governor in 2010, Walker was undoubtedly aware of problems Milwaukee faced. His plan to cut benefits (retirement & health care contributions) to public employees would initially cause a financial transfer to wealthier counties who saved more in cuts to employee compensation than they lost in state aid. “… the city of Waukesha, Milwaukee Public Schools, and Milwaukee County—Walker’s old charge—lost more than they saved, at least in the short term.”
“In the long term, there was a clear advantage for the budgets of Milwaukee Country and the Milwaukee Public Schools, which faced problems funding retiree health care and pensions far in excess of the typical local government in Wisconsin…An actuary found that the district lowered its projected obligation to retirees by a whopping $1 billion, or 42 percent, between 2009 and 2011.”
However, Walker did not keep another of his campaign pledges to the working poor. Walker cut the earned income tax credit by $40 million over two years and froze the homestead tax credit, which helps low-income homeowners and renters. Additionally, he cut aid to local governments by $1.25 billion because he refused to raise taxes while trying to balance the budget. But “…we are providing almost $1.5 billion in savings through our budget repair bill,” Walker explained. It's difficult to decide but Walker sounds like he is too thick to get it. Saving money that people need to live may not be productive.

Anyway, this book is nuanced in its examination of just how the protests played out, how less than two hours’ notice was given after 4 p.m. to convene state Republican legislators to force a vote upon quorum requirements, which allowed them to bypass Democrat approval, and to finally pass a bill limiting collective bargaining for public employees. Because the legislature refused entry to some citizens wishing to view proceedings when the bills were presented, the new law faced legal challenges and the bitter enmity of Democrats. It was a very ugly business.

I don’t think this is what our founding fathers had in mind, though maybe it is. We’ve read of vicious battles fought in the name of governing that have come before. Procedures were challenged, declared null, challenged again…just like happened when voting districts were drawn in the middle of the night by WI Republicans alone to favor their own party & limit debate, using maps made up by the national GOP. This gerrymandering was declared unfair by the state supreme court, challenged again by Republican lawmakers and sent to the U.S. Supreme Court, only to be pushed aside in this summer’s session, undecided.

What is amply clear is that events in Wisconsin presage the division we now see splitting states around the union. Clearly there are differences of opinion about who “deserves” more, which is something we really do need to reach agreement on. Considering Republicans have only money and not even smart spokespeople or good ideas (if their ideas are so good, why is it so hard to convince people of their efficacy?), we who do not agree with the way they cut the cake are going to have to show that money is not the most valuable thing we can own.

The truth is, I would go along with some 'conservative' ideas if wages were higher and more equitably distributed. We can’t force companies to change their wage scales, but we can make it impracticable to give enormous bonuses to a few while forcing others to be paid too little considering their contribution (and state assistance) upon the rest. Tax them. If we take taxes off the table, ‘Republican’ budget packages go bust because after all, they are protecting corporations, not people. Now, our economy is based on corporations, so everyone wants them to succeed. We just have to be honest about who we’re looking to serve. All of us, or just a few? Are we a nation or a rug for billionaires?

The hateful disregard among dissenting points of view that we experience now is very difficult for me to take. This book shows us how bad things can get, and what we have to face if we can’t control people’s anger. We should all be trying to lower the level of acrimony, learning as much as we can so as to find some answers that work for all of us. This book allows us to make decisions on what can happen without having to go through it ourselves and is very useful.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Unintimidated by Scott Walker with Marc Thiessen

Hardcover, 288 pgs, Pub Nov 19th 2013 by Sentinel, ISBN13: 9781595231079

This book was published in 2013, written with Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter to Donald Rumsfeld and political columnist. It has about fourteen pages of glossy photos mostly of the recall period when protesters took over the state capitol in Madison. The pictures are frightening, of angry people in a democratic system appearing to come apart. The final third of the book after the photos is a victory lap, comparing Walker to Reagan, and even once to Obama:
“President Obama and I could not be philosophically further apart…But in some other respects, President Obama and I ran similar campaigns. We even had the same slogan: “Forward.” (…“Forward” is the Wisconsin state motto.)
The arrogance of this comparison is almost too much to bear. One wonders who paid for this book to be written. The publisher is Sentinel, a conservative imprint of Penguin Random House established in 2003.

Scott Walker was responsible for the passing of Act 10 in Wisconsin which increased the contribution from public employees to pension and health care, limited their right to collectively bargain for wages, and eliminated the requirement that beneficiaries of union bargaining pay dues. Police and firefighters were not included as public sector employees in any restriction to rights. Walker proposed the legislation immediately after taking office in 2011, with no explanation and no warning.

Later, Walker would write in this book that even his wife Tonette had no idea what he was trying to accomplish. He asked himself, “If even my own wife didn’t see why we needed to change collective bargaining, how could I expect the voters of Wisconsin to see it? I was obviously doing a lousy job of explaining our reforms.” This man is dead serious.
“Before we had introduced Act 10, we had methodically gone through every aspect of our plan of action with my cabinet. We had the legislative plan mapped out to the smallest detail. We had prepared for every contingency—even down to having the National Guard at the ready to take over state prisons if correction officers went on strike. But the one thing we had not done was to prepare the people of Wisconsin for the changes we were about to enact.”
This stunning admission that Walker considered force before explanations is terrifying. And I don't like the use of "we" because it deflects initiative and blame. The public unions were willing to increase contributions to pensions and benefits and would have discussed loopholes in the system. Even the Democratic stronghold of Rahm Emanuel’s Illinois required adjustments to excessive and unfair overtime payments, aspects of collective bargains that need adjusting, not wholesale elimination.

Walker kept repeating the mantra that jobs had increased in his state after Act 10, but to my knowledge he never asked himself whether the jobs were good jobs with wages high enough to sustain families and pay taxes. Did he replace higher-paying jobs with lower-paying jobs? “I knew I had done the right thing, but I had not taken the time to explain why it was the right thing to do…Tonette is an excellent political barometer for me because she is like a lot of Wisconsin voters…” This is a real political animal at work, with a range of opinions coming in from the far reaches of his bedroom.

Then the argument changes: “For some, it’s difficult to change. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess points out, ‘It’s really hard for Pan Am or TWA to just turn into JetBlue’… That’s why charter schools are still important. They give innovators a chance to start the educational equivalents of JetBlue.” There is too much here to unpack & argue with—we are being hit from every direction with ink in a fan. We really need to debrief these folks and figure out what their real problem is with public schools. I think I know but would like to hear it from them. I believe they want to obscure the reasons for their support of charter schools because they know we cannot support them…it just isn’t teacher’s salaries. I think Jane Mayer gave us the explanation in her book Dark Money: indoctrination.

Six weeks before his recall election in June 2012, a year and a half after he took office, Walker went to Illinois. “This election is way bigger than me,” he said, and I think that is probably true. Lots of money and support—outside money and support—was riding on his ability to show that breaking the unions and furthering the cause of charter schools made a difference in a formerly Democratic stronghold. The Guardian collected information of Walker's recall financing.
“Without the recall, I would never have had the opportunity to campaign across the state to defend our record. I would never have had a reason to air television ads across the state explaining the success of our reforms…It just goes to show that the extremism of your opponents is often your greatest weapon in the fight for what is right.”
Let’s concede that last one. And give him a fight he will never forget.

Friday, July 27, 2018

There There by Tommy Orange

Hardcover, 304 pgs, Pub June 5th 2018 by Knopf, ISBN13: 9780525520375

This novel references Gertrude Stein’s comment about her memories of Oakland, CA, “there is no there there,” upon discovering her family home was taken down to accommodate an office park. I think the characters in this book would say it differently, that there is indeed something in Oakland, home of the fictional Big Oakland Powwow with which it concludes.

Distinct Indian voices tell stories about their lives, whatever they want to tell and not necessarily to an immediate point. Somehow it all comes together at the end, at the powwow. Family members find one another, and there is some recognition of their losses. It is a fantastic imagining of the experiences of many.

The chapters are long and rangy at the beginning, shortening as the pace quickens and the powwow approaches. The interconnection between characters comes clear. It is beautifully woven together, each party distinct and yet having a similarly destructive upbringing.

What struck me most was, finally, the recognition of what happened to Native Americans and how diminished their legacy within their own tribes. There are many reasons for this, much of which we now realize was a shared responsibility we did not manage well. Orange doesn’t shy from painful truths; there is a psychic cost to the lives our ancestors took, or oppressed, a cost that has been playing out for hundreds of years. Although there may have been writers before who captured that karma, Tommy Orange is particularly skilled at showing us the ravages in a range of folks who struggle under the burden of what they have lost.

I alternately read and listened to the audio of this, produced by Random House Audio and featuring a full cast of readers: Darrell Dennis, Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Alma Ceurvo, Kyla Garcia. It’s a wonderful listen, and an equally a fine read. However you do approach this, you will appreciate the insights.

One of those insights helped me with a phenomenon I have never understood: the alcoholic uncle of one character came to visit his sister and her son. When he wasn’t drinking, the uncle was full of interesting stories and was a pleasure to be around. One day the uncle told the boy he was dying and was visiting people he knew and liked before his time was done. The young boy asked him why he was still drinking if it was killing him. The uncle answered
“I’m sorry you gotta see it, Nephew, it’s the only thing that’s gonna make me feel better. I been drinking a long time. It helps. Some people take pills to feel okay. Pills will kill you too over time. Some medicine is poison.”
I never understood that.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Octopus: The Ocean's Intelligent Invertebrate by Jennifer A. Mather, Roland C. Anderson, James B. Wood

Hardcover, 208 pgs, Pub May 21st 2010 by Timber Press, ISBN13: 9781604690675

This detailed and useful book was published in the U.S. in 2010 by Timber Press and authored by three long-time North American experts on cephalopods. James Wood maintains his own website, called The Cephalopod Page. This collection includes 38 color plates, and the discussion is for the non-specialist. It includes recent developments in the field and offers information in a way that is inviting.

No one knows how many octopus species exist, but it is estimated there are 100 members of the genus Octopus. Octopuses (not octopussies, everyone) are found at every depth in the ocean and while some are very large (up to 80 lb), most can be measure in millimeters at hatching. And yes, octopuses lay eggs.

Many variations in observed habits are discussed here, but the important thing is that octopuses don’t generally have a long lifespan—usually around two years, though the range is six months to four years, depending on the species. Sexual activity takes place towards the end of the lifespan, the mother often dying shortly after the eggs have successfully hatched. During gestation the mother typically doesn’t eat, neither attracted to food nor interested to attract possible predators to the cave in which she is holed up with a bunch of developing eggs. Her last days are spent spurting oxygenated water over the eggs attached to the walls of caves.

Much of what we know about the octopus is that they are great escape artists: they squeeze into tight spots, change color, and will lose an arm to evade capture. They can also put on a dazzling camouflage called ‘Passing Cloud,’ which is designed to confuse potential prey, not predators. This display makes nearby prey think something large is passing over their environment casting a moving shadow. It is thought the intent is to startle a motionless prey into revealing their location so they can be captured by the octopus with spread arms and web.

One of the things I like best about this book is that the information is delivered painlessly and in a conversational tone. The authors freely seed the work with ravishing stories, like the one about finding ‘a cuttlefish singles bar’ on a small rocky reef in South Australia in 2002—a huge aggregation of giant cuttlefish (41,000 estimated, about one per square yard) ready to reproduce, four males for each female, all trying for courtship, changing skin displays & waiting for a guarding male to get distracted. It’s just hard to wrap one’s mind around. This is determined, thinking behavior. Isn’t it?

Anyway, this book reminds me of the kind of book many of us read as pre-adolescents, obsessed with dinosaurs or airplanes or something, and reading whatever we could find on the subject until… until we were teased out of our expertise or the lure of the opposite sex scrambled our brains. Even a child could enjoy reading this book.

The authors have side comments on argonauts (yes, the ones the Greek playwrights mentioned), cuttlefish, squid and specific individual octopuses that made a difference in the lives of countless scientists. This is a terrific gift for the not-yet-specialist.

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.