Tag Archive | non-fiction

Book review: A Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes

A Colony in a NationA Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Clear-eyed analysis of the current state of racial tension in the United States. Chris Hayes is aware of his privilege as an educated, relatively affluent, white male, and uses that privilege to elucidate his premise that, for all its lip service to equality and justice for all, the US is a divided society — the Nation, generally composed of white people excessively concerned with public safety and “law and order;” and the Colony, constituted in the main by people of color who are increasingly the targets and victims of the “law and order” mindset of the Nation.

Hayes’ premise is easily confirmed by recent events in which people of color just going about their own business have had the cops called on them for what amounts to breathing while black. Not that the Philadelphia Starbucks incident or the Oakland barbecue incident are anything out of the ordinary for black folks in this country: we just hear about them now because of the ubiquity of smart phones and use of social media.

While Hayes doesn’t offer any solutions, that’s not the point of his book. The whole point here is to raise awareness. Look around. Take notice of the many ways the Nation oppresses the Colony. And, if you’re white, do your best to recognize your part in the oppression — because we all do it, despite our best intentions. Recognition leads to self-awareness leads to a change in behavior.

Because black lives matter.

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Book review: Listen, Liberal by Thomas Franks

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the PeopleListen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People by Thomas Frank

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

True confession. I dog-eared pages as I read through this book.

*dodges the stones and rotten tomatoes *

I know. I know! But I have an excuse. I had only two bookmarks with me as I read, one for my current place and one marking the endnotes; neither did I have any little Post-it notes or sticky flags, nor any other method to mark all the passages that stood out. So I turned down the page corners instead.

Thomas Frank’s premise is that the progressive movement, or what he terms “The Liberal Class”, has forgotten its roots in the labor movement; has set aside its concerns for the poor and the working class; and has become obsessed with meritocracy rather than equality. Frank wonders what it means “…when the dominant constituency of the left party in a two-party system is a high-status group rather than the traditional working class? …[It] means soaring inequality. When the left party in a system severs its bond to working people…issues of work and income inequality will inevitably fade from its list of concerns.”

Let’s define two terms. Meritocracy is the belief that power should be vested in individuals almost exclusively based on ability and talent. Followers of this belief system proclaim those who work hard and take advantage of all educational opportunities will, by virtue of their talent, rise to the top; ALL of society’s problems can be solved if only everyone had access to higher education.

The high-status group Frank mentions above are members of that meritocracy [as a class name, rather than a belief system]. They are those who have risen to the top and taken power, based on what they believe is their ability and talent. Even though “liberal elite” is often used as pejorative term, it’s a valid description of the mostly-Ivy League-educated individuals who front the progressive movement. They are what Frank calls “the well-graduated”, mostly Caucasian, mostly from privileged backgrounds, and mostly wealthy in their own right. Exceptions abound, of course: the Clintons were not wealthy as young people; and President Obama is neither Caucasian nor from a privileged background; but they are by definition meritocrats, having been smart enough and lucky enough to take advantage of the educational opportunities that launched them into heightened circles of prestige.

Speaking of Clinton, Frank rips apart the 8-year presidency of William J., and doesn’t express much hope for the better for the prospective term of Hillary R. (The only thing that saves her from outright excoriation is the spectre of a Trump Presidency, something even more disastrous than Clinton II.) In Frank’s view, the Clinton Administration, with its 1996 welfare reform legislation, completed the dismantling of the social safety net that had begun with the Reagan Administration. Having worked on the front lines of a social service agency since 1995, I can testify that Frank is right. Fewer people may be on public assistance, but more people are in poverty.

It seems like I always have my own rant about inequality and the abandonment of the poor to impart whenever I read one of Mr. Frank’s books. I’ll spare you the rest of it; and the rest of the passages I marked. What I will say is access to higher education has never been the answer to income inequality. A college degree does not guarantee success. (Case in point: My own spouse has a master’s in business administration; he’s the smartest man I know; and he manages a retail store because he can’t get hired in his chosen field. I never finished college myself, but I was in the right place at the right time to be hired by my employer, and now I make three times his salary.) What will help those at the bottom of the social ladder isn’t just education, it’s opportunity and infrastructure investment and plain old good hard cash.

Go read this, especially if you are of a liberal bent. You’ll be enraged and outraged; you’ll be enlightened; you’ll despair; and then you’ll get back on your feet, filled with determination to vote, to write your Congressional representatives and the editor of your local newspaper, to make noise, and to take care of the “least of these”, because ultimately, that’s our responsibility as human beings.

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Book review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

William Dodd, a history professor, was appointed as Ambassador to Germany in 1933, when Adolf Hitler was Chancellor under Hindenburg. In 1934, after Hindenburg’s death, Hitler became the head of state and began a systematic implementation of his plan to rid Germany of its “undesirables”. And Dodd began sounding warning bells.

Sadly, those warnings were unheeded, and even resented, by State Department bureaucrats in Washington. A particular cadre within the State Department was determined to undermine Dodd at every turn. His reports on Hitler’s actions and worsening conditions for German Jews were minimized and dismissed.

One can only wonder if the 20th century might have been less bloody had someone, anyone, taken Ambassador Dodd’s reports seriously.

It was strange and disturbing to read this while living through the 2016 Republican race for the Presidential nomination. While Hitler was already in a position of power and Trump, et.al., were only jockeying for one, the parallels were more than a little unsettling.

By the way, Erik Larson spent a great deal of time on Martha, Ambassador Dodd’s daughter. While her exploits were marginally interesting, I ultimately didn’t care who she married, how many people she slept with, or what her political views were. To me, the real story lay with Dodd, Hitler’s government, and the U.S. diplomatic corp. Larson apparently didn’t think that story had enough meat in it. Or enough sex. Thus: Martha. And three stars. Because Martha. *yawn*

So, other than the Martha digressions, this is an excellent book, well-written and documented.

Oh, and it didn’t really take me five weeks to read this book. I had to put it down for most of the month of February because I was doing a play — rehearsals and performances took all of my reading time. Once I had the time, I was done in about four days.

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Book review: How To Build An Android by David F. Dufty

Four of five stars

First off, let me say the idea of creating an android in the image of Philip K. Dick, with independently functioning AI software, no less, and with the blessing of his family, is so beyond cool it almost defies understanding. Second, the fact that this miracle of concept and technology went missing in late 2005 and has never been found is tragic beyond words, and is exactly the sort of ironic scenario that PKD would have written into one of his books and incorporated into an elaborate conspiracy theory.

Quick summary: In 2004, a consortium of scientists affiliated with the University of Memphis (Tennessee) collaborated on the creation of a lifelike replica of a human head using some advanced artificial intelligence software. In a fit of ironic whimsy, they decided to model the head of their creation after renowned writer and noted paranoiac Philip K. Dick, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and other science fiction classics. Author David Duffy, a minor player in this drama, steers us through the scientific and creative journey from technical drawings to working model with a minimum of technobabble and treats the reader to a quasi-biography of PKD himself: his work, his private life, his probable psychosis, and his acute paranoid-cum-religious fantasies.

The sheer hubris involved in this entire project is stunning in its scope, and it all makes for fascinating reading. Whether you’re a science fiction fan or a technology geek, interested in voice recognition or robotics, or just a plain all around nerd, you’re sure to find several hours of entertainment contained within the pages of Duffy’s treatise.

Many thanks to LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program for the opportunity to read this book.

Book review: Pity the Billionaire by Thomas Frank

Three of five stars

When I read What’s the Matter With Kansas? several years ago, I finished the book determined to conduct any future political discussions with a focus on how economic/social justice issues are inseparable from personal morality: that is, if one claims to be a “Christian”, one cannot ignore one’s responsibility to care for the needy and the oppressed, and said responsibility includes approving and encouraging government assistance such as food stamps, disaster relief, and jobs programs.

It’s been a very frustrating several years.

Thomas Frank’s new book helps explain WHY it’s been so frustrating. In this new America, The Free Market is God, and any attempt to regulate and control The Free Market is seen as socialism, communism, fascism, choose-your-ism, both by people who ought to know better AND by people who don’t know better because they’ve never bothered to educate themselves in matters of economic policy as it has played out in US history.

As Frank points out, however, it has been ever thus. In one of the few passages that actually made me laugh, Frank briefly discusses how labor unions were seen as a threat to capitalism in the 1840s, and “…sure enough, the form of capitalism they had in those days died, to be replaced by ‘capitalism modified by the right of collective bargaining.'” A few decades later, regulation of railroads signaled the End Times and “…the end of the world came to pass. Capitalism died, to be replaced this time by ‘capitalism modified by the right of collective bargaining and Federal regulation.'”

The main thrust of Frank’s thesis here, though, is the surprising “Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right”, to quote his subtitle. Based on previous economic history as it played out in the 1930s, the Right’s new fascination with Ayn Rand’s doctrine of Objectivism and the anti-government, anti-regulation rhetoric should never have taken hold in the general population. Conventional wisdom dictated the rank and file “common man” should have been screaming in the streets for Washington to come down hard on the bankers, investors, and corporate entities who created the crisis. Instead, the Tea Party was screaming in the streets for government to take its dirty little fingers out of the pockets of the “job creators”, to cut back on current and proposed regulations that “crippled the economy”, and decrying any government attempt to alleviate social ills as treacherous steps on the road to the evils of a socialist society.

How the Right managed this shift in public perception makes for fascinating reading. Unfortunately, said reading had the side effect of leaving me feeling (a) helpless and demoralized in the face of so much misinformation, misunderstanding, and sheer right-wing obstinacy, and (b) supremely angry at liberal leaders and politicians who cowered in the face of such obstinacy, who did not articulate their positions in language that would be understood by the rank and file Right, who essentially shrugged their shoulders and abdicated their responsibility. (Yes, you, President Obama, I’m looking at you.)

I’ll get over the demoralization in a few days, and re-enter the fray with renewed vigor and determination. I hope our elected liberal officials — who are few and far between these days — find their courage and their voice and join me.

Many thanks to LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program for the opportunity to read this book.

Book review: Geek Wisdom, edited by Stephen H. Segal

Three of five stars

The best thing about this little slice of nerddom is its inclusion of sooooo many geeky quotes and references. And so is the worst thing. Editor Stephen H. Segal packed a grand total of 185 separate and related quotes ranging from the usual nerd suspects like Star Trek and Conan the Barbarian to unexpected and diverse sources such as A League of Their Own, Clue, and Goldfinger, and paired them with brief essays outlining the core geek concept contained within each. It’s quick entertaining bathroom reading — meaning each essay is short enough to be read during one, ah, sitting. And therein lies the problem.

When I chose this book (through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program), I expected something a little meaty: thoughtful analyses of “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion” or “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Instead, it seems Segal was anxious to include every geek touchstone he could imagine into one book, and so sacrificed quality of analysis for quantity of nerdiness.

Each unattributed essay barely grazes the surface of its accompanying quote, scarcely getting its metaphysical toe wet in the deep waters of “There is no spoon” or “The truth is out there.” Granted, this superficial surface-grazing helps raise questions and may point the reader in a direction he may otherwise not have ventured, “to boldly go where no one has gone before,” so to speak (a quote, by the way, that is not included in this slim volume), but this reader would have preferred fewer quotes, more substance, and a sequel.

The postscripts to each essay are a lot of fun and occasionally pose their own separate questions; for example, one proposes the following thought exercise: Who would win a scavenger hunt: Indiana Jones or River Song?

Who indeed?

Many thanks to LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program for the opportunity to read this book.

Book review: Half A Life by Darin Strauss

Half a Life: A MemoirHalf a Life: A Memoir by Darin Strauss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1988, when author Darin Strauss was barely 18, he struck a fellow student, Celine Zilke, with his car. She died.

Now 40, Strauss examines the past 20-plus years with as clear an eye as he can muster. As might be expected in this sort of memoir, he agonizes over the guilt, over whether he has the right to be happy or even to enjoy something as innocuous as a movie at the local cinema. It isn’t easy: Celine’s mother laid a tremendous burden on his back at the funeral by telling him that from this point on, he had to be twice as good as anyone else at everything, because now he had to live for two people. For the rest of his life. Strauss promised her he would.

As Strauss takes us through his life after the accident, he unsparingly points out the perceived flaws in his own behavior: how he prepared speeches, rehearsed facial expressions, tried to give the public what he thought it wanted to see — guilt, despair, sorrow — but he was only a boy. And he was in shock, a shock that remained with him for years, even decades. Strauss went through the critical years of college and into adulthood with a glass between him and the rest of the world, the glass of Celine’s death, through which he filtered all emotion, all relationships, even whether or not he could allow himself to enjoy a fine wine or a beautiful day. Because Celine couldn’t.

I came away from this book feeling more than a little angry with the adults in young Darin’s life. It seems no one who mattered — a parent, a friend, a teacher– ever really sat down and talked with him, tried to see what was going on inside, to help him process such a catastrophic blow to a young life. Oh, they sent him to a therapist, which lasted all of one session. Otherwise, nothing. Eventually, after many years Strauss returned to therapy. This book is part of the result of that therapy.

Darin Strauss has my admiration, not only for his courage in sharing this story, but for the story itself. He’s written a bewildering and hurtful tale in clear beautiful language. There are no easy answers here, no pat responses, no pithy platitudes. Just a powerful story, powerfully told.

Many thanks to LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program for the opportunity to read this book.