Category Archives: Bookshelf

Black Boxes

W.E.B. DuB — wait, Frederick Dou — no, he had a beard. James Baldwi — nah, he’s the skinny one. I got it! Zora Neale Hurston.

The late British author Joanna Russ wrote a truly excellent book called “How to Suppress Women’s Writing,” which is the slam-dunk answer to those who say “If female authors are equal to men, why didn’t they write more Great Books?” (Ditto music, art, or any other form of expression.) Russ goes through the eleven-stage process that prevents women from writing and, if they manage to get published, minimizes their accomplishments.

It’s a quick and eye-opening read. Or if you’re strapped for time, the eleven points are summarized on the book’s Wikipedia page. Which, unlike Scots Wiki, appears to be legit.

An identical book could be written called “How to Suppress Black People’s Writing” or, well, insert your ethnic group or subcategory here. This hit me like a two-by-four — as I confessed earlier, very much belatedly — while I was reading Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. He organizes his chronicle of racist thought in America around the lives of five people: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois and Angela Davis.

One thing I never knew: How long and distinguished the careers of DuBois and Davis were. I’d always thought of DuBois as a figure of the distant past, specifically the late 19th Century and the first couple decades of the 20th. But as I learned from reading Kendi’s book, DuBois was a respected figure and a widely published author through nearly two-thirds of the 20th Century. He died on August 27, 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington.

(Many of you, I’m sure, are thinking “No shit, Sherlock.” But as I wrote previously, I am a reasonably well-educated and well-read person who tries to explore important issues and think clearly about them, and yet my knowledge is embarrassingly limited. I suspect I am representative of many well-intentioned wypipo.)

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Waking Up to Racism

I’m 66 years old. And I’ve learned more about racism this year from reading three books than I’d managed to learn in my entire lifetime before.

The books, pictured above, read in this order: Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon, The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, and Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi.

Before I explain what these books have taught me, I need to write about how I got here in the first place. I’m a white guy from the suburbs of Detroit. I went to a very good public school system and a top-notch university. I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life. I’ve been aware of racism as an issue. I’ve tried my best to not be a racist. I’ve tried to be an ally.

But there are huge gaps in my knowledge of American and world history that kept me from realizing the true depth and impact of racism in my country. I am embarrassed by my own ignorance, and I’m doing my best to rectify the situation.

Up to a point, I can blame my education. “World History” as it was taught in school and college was a joke; it basically included European history plus a Euro-centric view of Middle Eastern history. When I was in college, Black Studies was starting to be a thing — but I never thought it relevant to me, since I was already a good white liberal who marched in Open Housing protests in my lily-white suburb.

Since I graduated (in 1978), I’ve been responsible for my own intellectual diet. I’ve read tons of books and thought myself well-educated, but I’ve never consciously chosen to read anything about race relations. Offhand, I can’t think of a single book I’ve ever read by a Black author. I’ve likely read one or two, but nothing that’s ever left a mark on my thick skull.

No W.E.B. DuBois, no James Baldwin, no Ralph Ellison, no Richard Wright, no Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston or Octavia Butler or Angela Davis or bell hooks, no Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. No Ta-Nehisi Coates, not even his run on Black Panther. I’ve never read a biography of a Black person, or anything focused on African history. My leisure reading is mainly sci-fi and mystery, but never have I ever read Samuel Delany or Octavia Butler or N.K. Jemisin or Walter Moseley.

And I’ll bet I’m far from alone among the ranks of NPR-listening, New Yorker-reading*, comfortable, well-meaning white folks. My lack of knowledge and perspective have severely hampered my ability to see the world clearly or to be an effective ally.

*I let my subscription lapse a couple years ago and made a deliberate decision to read more books. I’ve never regretted it.

So now, the books.

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Bookshelf: A simple lie will obliterate a complicated truth

Florida: The place where reality goes to die, where men’s dreams turn to rot. where history is an inconvenience consistently trumped by comforting legends.

This book, I tell you.

Finding Florida was published in 2013; I found it in my local library, and am I glad I did. (It’s still in print.) It’s 450-odd pages of mythbusting excellence. Not only did I learn a lot about why Florida is the way it is, I also learned a lot about why the whole U.S. of A. is the way it is.

Which is to say, a place built on myths and legends, a place fond of ignoring complicated truth.

Allman starts with the early Spanish explorers — who weren’t explorers so much as they were clueless treasure hunters. Ponce de Leon never got anywhere near St. Augustine and didn’t search for the Fountain of Youth; he came to Florida to search for gold. He lost his life for his trouble.

As for the other “heroic explorer,” Hernando de Soto, he spent three miserable years wandering the American Southeast in a real-life Aguirre: The Wrath of God situation: a treasure hunt turned slow-motion death spiral.

Sorry. “Spoiler Alert”

Ponce and de Soto, as we know them today, are entirely the creation of 19th Century American writers, Washington Irving and Henry Schoolcraft, who valued a great story over the truth.

Florida, meanwhile, continued to cast a spell on white folks from far and wide. Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe wrested the peninsula away from the Spanish, who cared so little about the Godforsaken place that they put up virtually no resistance. Those distinguished Founders then embarked on a three-decade campaign of genocide against the Seminoles — who were, in fact, a few thousand natives, whites, free blacks and Hispanics who lived side-by-side, mostly practicing subsistence agriculture.

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Bookshelf: Three Authors in Search of a Scumbag

There are two new books about the Harvey Weinstein scandal: She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, and Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow. Both are worth reading, for different reasons.

The three authors spent months and months uncovering Weinstein’s criminal sexual conduct, despite the film producer’s thorough, expensive and sometimes illegal efforts to thwart their work.

Oh, I guess I should say “alleged” criminal conduct, since Weinstein won’t go on trial until next month. But c’mon, the guy’s a scumbag. Throughout his movie career, he used his power to exploit women and destroy their lives and careers. These books remind you of exactly how evil he was.

Kantor and Twohey are reporters for the New York Times. Their book is more straightforward, and is a better primer on the scandal and how it turbocharged the #MeToo movement. If you’re going to read one book on this subject, make it She Said.

But after the Times published their Weinstein stories, they moved on to other assignments. The last section of the book, in fact, is about the Brett Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford saga, which the two women also covered for the Times.

Farrow’s book goes deeper into the Weinstein case because he continued to follow the story for The New Yorker after the original stories were published. He also explores the complicity of the media and the legal system in helping Weinstein continue his predatory activities for years. And he exposes the efforts of an international web of operatives who worked for Weinstein in trying to uncover dirt on reporters and victims.

Catch and Kill also, somewhat problematically, presents as something akin to a spy novel. Take this author photo from the back cover.

The Spy Who Reported On Me
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Bookshelf: Those who forget the past…

Before yesterday, I knew some bare-bones facts about America’s wholesale imprisonment of people of Japanese lineage during World War II. And then I read George Takei’s graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy. (Available here.)

Takei, best known as Sulu on the original Star Trek, was one of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans who were ripped from their homes in the western U.S. and sent to distant “camps” for the duration of the war. I knew that the internment order was a terrible thing; Takei’s book taught me two important lessons.

First, it wasn’t just a single act. There was a whole series of barbaric actions by the U.S. government that are hard to fathom by modern standards — even given the cruelty of our current administration. And second, the human cost of internment continued long after the war. The story of a single family, told in pictures, brings to life the human dimension of this awful period. Seeing forced relocation through a child’s eyes provides a perspective you can’t get in a history book.

Takei’s story begins with a harsh knock on the door, and an order for his family to vacate their home within ten minutes. They could only take whatever they could carry. Everything else — homes, businesses, possessions — was left behind and lost forever.

America made no effort to determine which people might actually be a threat. All were treated as enemies. Politicians who would become celebrated for their devotion to American ideals — Franklin Roosevelt, Earl Warren — were willing participants in the demonization of ethnic Japanese, fanning the flames of prejudice and advocating legislation that would rob people of their lives, livelihoods, dignity and freedom.

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Bookshelf: A sobering look at the nuclear age

First in what might be an occasional series on Books I Just Read.

On my last browse through my local library’s stacks, I came across this book. It came out ten years ago, but I highly recommend it as an informed — and cautionary — tour through the history of humanity’s Nuclear Era. Very readable, to boot. (Although there are certain chapters, including the back-to-back sections on Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, that aren’t the best for bedtime.)

The author, Stephanie Cooke, spent a goodly chunk of her journalistic career covering the nuclear industry. In the process, she developed a wealth of information and contacts that made her uniquely qualified to write a book like this. And boy, did she do a great job.

One of the key themes in the book is how nuclear weapons and “the peaceful atom” have been, from the very beginning, two sides of the same coin. When President Eisenhower was preparing to give a speech to the United Nations on the new atomic age, he was desperate to present a hopeful face to a seemingly dismal recitation of the dangers posed by A-bombs. Literally, he asked his staffers to find him some hope.

The result was the “Atoms for Peace” initiative, which was designed to spread the alleged benefits of peaceful nukes around the world. The idea was to bolster public support (and dispel public angst) for nuclear research, which was necessary for the arms race. The unintended consequence: Marketing “Atoms for Peace” involved spreading nuclear technology — and nuclear material — to other countries. In fact, developing new markets took precedence over nonproliferation efforts.

Even the International Atomic Energy Agency devotes more of its time and treasure to fostering nuclear technology than controlling the spread of nuclear weapons. (The most absurd example, reports Cooke: A grant from the IAEA helped North Korea establish its own uranium-mining industry. Nice.)

In Mortal Hands is also a handy guide to the excesses and shortfalls on both sides of the nuclear coin. The number of incidents and close calls is rather astonishing. Safety and security have never been treated as seriously as they should have been — or as seriously as governments and utilities would have you believe.

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