Posted in Book review, Books, Reading

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.

View all my reviews

Posted in Book review, Books, Movies and TV

Book review: The Beguiled by Thomas Cullinan

The BeguiledThe Beguiled by Thomas Cullinan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I first started this book, I really enjoyed it — the alternating viewpoints, the sly digs each young woman got in at her fellow students while proclaiming her own virtues, the different backgrounds of the girls. But somewhere around the 50% mark, the same things I enjoyed at the beginning started to annoy me. When I began to want to reach into the story and slap certain characters upside the head for their sheer pettiness and lack of sense, it was time to set the story down. I didn’t really care what happened to the girls, or their schoolmistresses, or the young man. I figure it was not a happy ending for him, because up to the point I laid the story down for good, he never got his own chapter to speak his piece. I may still watch the movie. This one might be the exception — where the movie is better than the book.

View all my reviews

Posted in Book review, Books, Reading

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.

View all my reviews

Posted in Book review

Book review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Three of five stars

Some people are doomed from birth, it seems. Libby Day is one of those unfortunates. When she was seven, her family was murdered. Her teenaged brother was convicted of the crime based on Libby’s testimony. And twenty-five years later, she’s at the end of the money raised for her while she was that sweet-faced surviving tot, and earned from the book she published about the tragedy while she in her 20s. With no education, no job skills, and no family except an aunt who won’t return her phone calls, a brother serving a life sentence, and a deadbeat father — whereabouts mostly unknown — Libby faces the almost-certain probability of destitution and homelessness. Then a letter arrives in the mail, inviting her to appear at a convention of murder buffs and offering her $500 for the appearance.

As it turns out, these murder buffs think her brother Ben is innocent. And Libby sees an opportunity to milk her tragedy for profit yet again, by making these pathetic fools pay her for finding and interviewing all the remaining players and reporting back any information she discovers. Not that she expects to find anything, or even make much money, for that matter. But when $500 is the difference between having a roof over her head and living in her car, she’ll take what she can get.

The story structure alternates between Libby’s search in the present, and the events of that terrible day in January 1985 when her mother and sisters died. There isn’t a single likeable person in this entire cast of characters: Ben Day is surly and not very bright; Michelle Day, the oldest sister, is nosy and selfish; Patty Day, their mother, is weak-willed; Libby herself was whiny and clingy as a child, self-absorbed and larcenous as an adult. But they — especially Patty and Libby — struggle so hard, and fight so desperately for their day-to-day survival, to find a piece of solid ground where they can stand tall and be safe.

I know these people. I see them every day in my work. And while I may dislike them on one level, I still love them on an entirely different level, a “there but for the grace of God” level. These are the denizens of the trash-strewn trailer parks and the ramshackle tumbledown farmhouses. This is the mother too proud for food stamps but terrified she can’t feed her children. This is the teenage boy learning to be a man in today’s world and lacking any positive role model to emulate. This is the young girl bounced from relative to relative because no one wants her to stay for long, but everyone refuses to let become a ward of the state because she’s family and “we take care of our own.” They break my heart with their failure, their abject poverty, with being beaten down by a trick of circumstance and the consequence of poor choices.

But in the end, I admire Libby. She had a tough row to hoe. She’s a survivor. I hope she finds some happiness someday.