Tag Archive | privilege

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: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

A Sudden LightA Sudden Light by Garth Stein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Trevor Riddell is spending the summer with his father at his father’s family estate. Trevor would rather be elsewhere, but as part of a trial separation, Trevor’s father Jones insisted the boy come with him to rural Washington State rather than accompany his mother to England to be with her family. Jones’s purpose in visiting his estranged and ailing father Samuel is to get Samuel to sign over power of attorney so Jones and his sister Serena can sell off the major portion of the estate and recoup the family fortune. Samuel has good days and bad days: on his good days, he is adamantly opposed to selling off any portion of the Riddell lands; on his bad days, he is confused, insisting he hears and sees his deceased wife dancing in the ballroom, and writing cryptic messages on Post-it notes. And then Trevor begins hearing voices as well.

Part ghost story, part coming-of-age novel, part family saga, A Sudden Light is chock-full of all the gloomy gothic atmosphere one could possibly desire. And while it does get a bit draggy in the middle, it’s still a joy to read, with a dramatic denouement and a satisfying, if bittersweet, ending.

I didn’t realize this book was by the same author who wrote The Art of Racing in the Rain, which I hated, until I picked it up from the library. It’s a good thing I didn’t know that or I probably wouldn’t have read it, thus missing out on a real treat.  High fives all around. I won’t hesitate to pick up Mr. Stein’s next novel, so long as it’s not told from the point of view of an animal.

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Book review: The Innocence Device by William Kowalski

The Innocence DeviceThe Innocence Device by William Kowalski
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the near future, the United States is divided into prisons, and the majority of the men in the country — especially men of color — are prisoners. The majority of the women serve as guards. People are sentenced to prison for the most minor of infractions committed as children, and then sentence after sentence is piled on top of the already-incarcerated individual for things like insubordination (i.e., talking back to a guard), theft (i.e., taking an extra food allotment), or any number of other potential crimes. Here’s the rub, though: virtually everything is a crime. This is “zero tolerance” run wild.

Within the prison, a hierarchy has evolved that determines where one lives and what sort of privileges one may receive. Our hero, 24-year-old Chago, is a poor laborer whose only goal involves seeing his son (by one of the prison guards) as often as he can. When the warden of the prison announces the invention of new technology that can determine one’s innocence or guilt, Chago is eager to step through the Innocence Device. He knows he didn’t do anything really wrong — in fact, he’s not entirely sure why he’s in prison; he only knows he was about six or seven when he was first sentenced — and he’s certain the Innocence Device will set him free. Alas, all is not as it seems, and when a prison riot begins, Chago’s entire world is thrown into chaos.

Great premise, right? It’s why I signed up for this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Sadly, the writing itself failed to live up to that premise. This short novella — hardly more than a short story, really — can’t seem to make up its mind whether it was written for an adult or a YA audience. The language is simple, perhaps written at about a fifth- or sixth-grade level, but the protagonist is an adult in his early 20s. The copy is printed in large type with widely spaced lines, which is why I say it’s hardly more than a short story. Had it been printed in normal-sized book type with normally spaced lines, its length would have most likely been around 50 or so pages: a lengthy short story, yes, but still a short story. Plot development is minimal, character development is somewhat better (for Chago, at any rate), both of which generally can be forgiven in fiction of this length. However, there’s a gaping plot hole in the last few pages that, combined with the simplistic grade-school language, left this reader deeply dissatisfied. This plot hole almost feels like the author wrote something else in between the last chapter and the epilogue that he later took out, but he didn’t go back and smooth out the edges of the excision.

The premise of The Innocence Device is one I would enjoy seeing rewritten in adult-oriented language, and greatly expanded with more plot development, more character detail, more of the whys and the hows, the politics and the social disorder that must have led to such circumstances as exist within this novel. As I read through it (which took about 40 minutes — really, it’s just that short), I could almost see the full-length novel lurking in the shadows of each paragraph, waiting for someone like Hugh Howey, maybe, or Ben H. Winters, or (be still, my heart) China Miéville to flesh it out and bring it to life.

Too bad one of them didn’t think of it. Hey, Mr. Kowalski! Will you sell this idea to China Miéville and make me a happy woman? No? Two stars for you, then.

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Book review: The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

Three of five stars

On the way home after his shift at the care home where he worked as a nurse’s assistant, 20-year-old Oscar Lowe wandered into a chapel on the grounds of Cambridge University one day to listen to the organ music.  After the service, as young men often do, he began chatting with an attractive young woman, Iris Bellwether, whose brother Eden was the organist.  From such chance meetings do lives change.

Iris and Eden were products of privilege: boarding school, music lessons, prestigious university education, with neither a thought to money nor concept of cost.  Oscar’s life couldn’t have been more different.  But his and Iris’s mutual attraction transcended the difference in their social backgrounds, and they swiftly fell in love.  Iris’s and Eden’s small group of friends made room in their closed circle for Oscar.  Eden, on the other hand, remained aloof, disapproving, with a penchant for insults so subtle Oscar wasn’t sure he actually heard them, or if he was being overly sensitive.

Over time, Iris began to confide in Oscar her worries about Eden: the childhood mistreatments, the obsessive behavior, the sheer hubris of his belief that he can heal people through music.  Convinced he suffered from a severe psychological disorder, she wondered if there was someone who could help:  in secret, of course, because Eden would never willingly subject himself to therapy.  Together, she and Oscar came up with a plan to have Eden evaluated, thus setting in motion the beginning of the end, and the tragedy that opens and closes the book.

Benjamin Wood’s debut novel is beautifully written, and somewhat reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s A Secret History.  He captures the opulence and arrogance of the Bellwethers’ lifestyle as seen through Oscar’s eyes, with echoes of Fitzgerald’s “The rich are different” ringing through the prose.  The living room at the Bellwether family home had “…the conscious extravagance of a hotel lobby;” Iris’s parents “…spent more money on cognac than most people could retire on.”  Oscar enjoys the luxury of becoming part of this privileged circle, but he is not seduced by it, and in the end, may be the only person who survives relatively undamaged.

Many thanks to Goodreads’ First Reads program for the opportunity to read this book.

Book review: Heart of Gold by Sharon Shinn

Three of five stars

I read Sharon Shinn’s Samaria series many years ago (when it was still a trilogy), and thought it simply wonderful. Heart of Gold, while good, doesn’t measure up. And that’s disappointing, because there’s a lot of potential in its premise.

On an unnamed continent of an unnamed planet, three diverse races live in a state of unarmed truce. The Indigos, a blue-skinned matriarchal society, are the de facto rulers of the continent by virtue of their numbers and control of arable land. The Guldens, a gold-skinned patriarchal society, are more technologically innovative, but stifled by restricted access to land, wealth, and power. The third race, the Albinos, exist in meek servitude, primarily to the Indigos.

Nolan Adelpho, the scion of one of the High Hundred families, the Indigo elite, is a scientist in Biolab in the Central City. His family is waiting for him to get this notion of working for a living out of system and marry according to family arrangement. He is quietly rebelling: although he loves Leesa, his fiancee, he is resisting the pressure being put on him to come home, where all he will then be required to do is raise the children and take care of the house. He enjoys his work and has made several satisfactory discoveries in his field: antivirals and antibiotics.

Kitrini Candachi is the somewhat disreputable member of another High Hundred family: disreputable by virtue of her father’s youthful rebellion in leaving home and raising her among the Guldens. Much to her indomitable grandmother’s dismay, she does her reputation no good by being the mistress of Jex Zanlan, the son of the Gulden chief Chay Zanlan.

The Indigo and the Gulden have viewed each other with suspicion for generations. Long ago, the Indigo bullied the Gulden out of their native lands and pushed them toward the rocky coast. Non-aggression treaties were eventually signed, but lately the Indigo have been pushing into Gulden territory again. Terrorist attacks have taken place in retaliation, attacks laid at the feet of Jex Zanlan, now under arrest and awaiting trial in the Central City.

Shinn spends nearly half of the book introducing us to the various aspects and conflicts of Indigo and Gulden society, and then plunges us into the midst of a terrorist attack, a frantic escape from Central City, and a clandestine journey to Gulden territory in an effort to thwart a malicious plot. The slow build-up is necessary, especially due to the severe role reversal of Indigo society, where women have all the power, land, money, and prestige, and men are the virginal chattel bargained away in marriage. Even the action-packed second half progresses at a leisurely pace. For all its leisure, though, this is a fast read, easily consumed in a day or two.

All that being said, this book’s premise is one that could have easily been expanded to twice its length. Too much was left unexplored. What was the origin of the different skin tones? Did the Indigo come from some other planet or some other continent and take over the Gulden lands? If not, how did two such radically different societal structures evolve on the same continent? Was there some geologic feature which separated them that the Indigo eventually surmounted? Why did Shinn even include the Albino race since they played virtually no part in the story? What about the Guldens’ trading partners on other continents, mentioned only in passing? Were they Gulden as well? Albino? Or something else? So many questions, so little information. I guess that’s what comes from having a mind attuned to anthropology….

So. Bottom line. Enjoyable light SF/fantasy with a romantic bent, not too taxing on the brain. Could have been better, but not too shabby a way to spend a Sunday afternoon.