The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates – Book

When I post on Linkedin.com I often see posts from Bill Gates. Lately it seemed that he kept trying to get me (yes me personally ha-ha) to read The Moment of Lift, a recently published book by his wife Melinda Gates. Sometimes I leave billionaires out of my personal pursuits because their lives are so distant from mine that they don’t really feel like real people. It is exclusionary but I always figure they don’t really mind because it doesn’t impact their lives in any negative way and I am not real to them either. But prejudice in any form is probably not good for the soul and billionaires who are also philanthropists, trying to make life better in some way for all us on this tiny planet at the edge of this universe deserve some attention, even if it is just to see whether or not they are just making huge cosmic errors out of misguided arrogance. Now I am being arrogant. Anyway I read Mrs. Gates’ book and it really did give me a moment of lift, in fact more than one moment. When people use their huge fortunes to make a difference for people at the bottom of the economic heap it makes the inequalities of our current economy seem less obscene. And their experiences can teach us about realities in places we can’t afford to go.

I was deep into Chapter 3 of Gates’ book when Alabama decided to make abortion illegal in that state except in rare cases for the health of the mother. Melinda Gates was talking about the effect of women’s lack of control over their reproductive health and what a profound effect that has on the success of an entire family and even the village in which the family lives. If a women gets pregnant many times with little space in between it means she can’t pay proper attention to each child so the children often do not thrive. Infant mortality rates are really high in such cultures and the family is not able to progress, to send the children to school, to grow more crops or work harder to save money and the family does not thrive either. Generation after generation this is a reality that keeps families poor.

Gates was working in Africa and Asia, in countries where these patterns are very noticeable and small efforts can make a big difference. She began with finding ways to provide free vaccines to children. But she found that the mothers were begging to get regular access to contraceptives so they did not wear themselves out having baby after baby. Access to contraceptives is not something you might think would have such profound positive outcomes wherever it is available, but evidence shows us that it does.

So I cheated a bit and made use of Melinda’s new book to try to drum up readers for my recent blog post “Alabama and Melinda Gates” because I wanted to shine a light on what is happening with Roe v Wade.

https://www.thearmchairobserver.com/alabama-and-melinda-gates/

Melinda Gates is a very spiritual person. She is a devout Catholic who completed her college degrees at a Catholic college. But she is not a missionary. If she was about the business of spreading Catholicism she might not be so open to listening to women in the African and Asian places she visits, she might care more about fulfilling her own needs than the needs of the people she meets. However she has learned to let socially active people she meets at conferences and in her travels, people who know where to look in Africa and India to enlist the Foundation’s help for programs that already exist. These people become her mentors and they take her with them to meet the village people and see programs that are successfully allowing poor people around the world to have a future that is not simply a repeat of the lives people in that area have lived for generations, lives that can’t plan ahead, lives that can only get through each day and sometimes not even that.

There is no sense in talking about this as a work of literature. It is not intended to be considered in that way. But the book made me aware that not all billionaires are selfish people sailing around on yachts, drinking and dining at swanky restaurants, or building survival dwellings in isolated places. It gave me a lift to learn about the intimate problems of women on other continents (although we certainly have some of these problems on our own continent) and to hear about programs that were trying to lighten women’s loads and free them up to enjoy feeling that they could make personal contributions to their families and their culture, that life did not have to be drudgery and heartache or full of repetitive and difficult tasks that wear down the spirit.

So you might find that you also get to experience some of The Moments of Lift that Melinda Gates offers in her book if you spend a few days immersed in the life of the wife of a billionaire. One more point – just because this book is mostly about the things women face does not mean that men should not read Gates’ book. Perhaps they need to hear about these issues even more that women do. Many women’s lives are still under the control of men, and men’s lives also change for the better when women become partners rather than property.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Goodreads

 

 

Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts – Book

Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts – Book

Andrew Roberts, in his biography Churchill: Walking With Destiny tells us that Churchill was not ubiquitously or universally beloved, until he was. As he tells it even Churchill’s detractors enjoyed his wit, his oratory, and his intelligence. Having just spent over a month in the company of Winston Churchill, and an enormous cast of famous cohorts, I am surprised and almost sorry to find myself back in the weird politics and tenuous peace of the 21 st century.

Churchill was born in Blenheim Palace into the family of the Duke of Marlborough, a family whose most famous member was known to have been an excellent military strategist. Randolph Churchill, Winston’s father was the third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. Churchill seems to have been born with an interest in military matters. He studied what was known about his ancestor and he wrote a book about him. In fact, Churchill was a prodigious writer and authored many books now considered classics. He also studied the life and battles of Napoleon. He was in the cavalry for his own military service and, on a hiatus from politics he served in the trenches in France in the Great War (which we call WW I).

Churchill was born at the end of the Victorian Age and lived until the 1960’s. The changes in politics and wars were dizzying and many of his contemporaries held onto the “old rules” they learned as children. Churchill was an unruly child, a challenge for the schoolmasters at the very aristocratic schools he attended. Roberts suggests that Churchill was an original who had no problems with the changes he lived through because he was never a rule-follower. He further marshalls the facts of Churchill’s life in such a way as to suggest that Churchill was born to lead the UK into war against Hitler. Churchill believed that he was safe from harm because he was destined for some greatness which made him seem almost fearless. The author suggests that Churchill could never guess what moment he was destined for so he tried to be a great man all his life. This occasionally ticked everyone off, especially some in both the Conservative and the Labor parties in Parliament. Churchill did not want to serve in the House of Lords. He never worried about not being a Lord like his parent, and he never accepted the title, because he would not have been able to serve in the Commons as he wished.

Roberts’ book is close to 1,000 pages long, longer if you count the photo section, the footnotes, the bibliography and the index. By the time Roberts, a respected and prize-winning British historical writer, tackled Churchill’s biography he had access to documents previous biographers never had. He had official papers but also the diaries of almost everyone who had known Churchill. I found myself interested in how British politics differs somewhat from our democracy, interested in Churchill’s political ups and downs, in his political and military successes and failures. Along with the public side of Churchill’s life, the diaries of his contemporaries, his secretaries and aides, his wife Clementine, and even occasionally his children give Roberts and us access to the private side of his life, even some gossipy bits.

If Churchill was destined for any one time it was 1939-1945, the World War that we call World War II. Truly the entire world was involved in this terrible conflagration with Hitler and his Germans, and the Japanese as instigators, and Russia under Joe Stalin as our rather frightening ally. Roberts makes us understand what we owe Winston Churchill, who almost single-handedly encouraged his Brits to stay in the war, a war they only believed they could win because Churchill kept telling them so. He had faith that America would eventually have to come into the war and, although he hated Communism, he set that aside so Russia would also be an ally. Although Russia gave everyone big headaches after the war, if millions of Russians hadn’t died to beat back Hitler, Churchill and all the British people could not have held Hitler off long enough for America to come into the war. Without Churchill and, indeed, without Russia, World War II could have been a tragic turning point for democracy and humanity, and Andrew Roberts makes that very clear.

I have barely scratched the surface and the depth of Churchill’s life, but Andrew Roberts does. I say “bravo”. I highly recommend that reader’s spend some time with Churchill : Walking with Destiny. I doubt if it will take a month. I was dealing with some other challenges at the time. This is one of those books that becomes a part of you. I will make my highlighting public, but I will warn you it is voluminous. It might be easier just to read the book.

Please find me on goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson and on www.tremr.com as brissioni and at https://nbrissonbookblog.com/

Photo Credits: From a Google Image Search – The Spectator, AZ Quotes

Becoming by Michelle Obama – Book

“For eight years, I lived in the White House, a place with more stairs than I can count – plus elevators, a bowling alley, and an in-house florist. I slept on a bed that was made-up with Italian linens. Our meals were cooked by a team of world class chefs and delivered by professionals more highly trained than those at any five-star restaurant or hotel. Secret Service agents, with their earpieces and guns, deliberately flat expressions, stood outside our doors, doing their best to stay out of our family’s private life. We got used to it eventually, sort of – the strange grandeur of our new home and also the constant, quiet presence of others.

 The White House is where our two girls played ball in the hallways and climbed trees on the South Lawn. It’s where Barack sat up late at night poring over briefings and drafts of speeches in the Treaty Room, and where Sunny, one of our dogs, sometimes pooped on the rug. I could stand on the Truman Balcony and watch tourists posing with their selfie sticks and peering through the iron fence, trying to guess at what went on inside. There were days when I felt suffocated by the fact that our windows had to be kept shut for security, that I couldn’t get some fresh air without causing a fuss. There were other times when I’d be awestruck by the white magnolias blooming outside, the everyday bustle of government business, the majesty of a military welcome. There were days, weeks, and months, when I hated politics. And there were moments when the beauty of this country and its people so overwhelmed me that I couldn’t speak.

 Then it was done.”

This is the voice of Michelle Obama in her biography/memoir, Becoming. Her story would be a great American story if she and Barack had never occupied the White House as President and First Lady, but it becomes a public rather than a private story because that happened. It happened to these two quintessentially American people while they were still quite young. Michelle spent her childhood on Chicago’s South side which was calmer and safer than it is today. She had a childhood that rivals that of any middle class American. She had two steady, loving parents. She had a father with MS who downplayed his physical challenges and went off to his job every day. Her extended family kept in touch with each other because her father had a beloved car (the deuce and a half) and he loved to go visit family members near and far. She knew racism but her parents kept it at a distance.

Michelle’s life was so much like the life I lived with my family that it evoked times that offered more stability than many children find today. She was good in school, she learned to play piano from her stern aunt who lived downstairs. As she grew her confidence in herself grew until it took her all the way to Princeton and a prestigious downtown Chicago law firm, where a young man named Barack Obama became a summer intern, then Michelle’s beau, and eventually her husband. Michelle had no calling for politics. While Barack finished a delayed college stint, she quit her fancy firm to do things that would lift up the people who grew up around her on Chicago’s South Side, and other, even poorer, Chicago neighborhoods, by running two very successful community programs. But Barack believed that the way to help even more people led through politics and, once he began, his career path took off like a rocket aimed right at Washington, DC and the Presidency.

Barack’s childhood was not as conventional as Michelle’s. He was the product of an unlikely union between a white woman from Kansas and a man from Kenya. His parents were estranged but his mother liked to travel. He spent several childhood years in Indonesia, but his real home was in Hawaii with his grandparents. He obviously also received enough loving support to grow into a very calm and confident person who ended up at Harvard, the Senate, and the White House.

This is a book that I enjoyed cover to cover. It uses no literary devices, no fiction-writing skills. It is what it is and that perfectly represents Michelle Obama; at least it seems she must be as she presents herself or she could not have written this memoir. If this were not her authentic self then she could not have written such a sweet book, and I mean sweet in the sense of offering a true taste of a good life, an American sweet spot, so far well-lived. The gracious way the Obamas lived in the White House makes them one of the great American Presidential families. I liked Michelle Robinson Obama before I read her story, and I like her even better now. The amenities of the White House, and the duties of state did not overwhelm her, but she did not take the privileges for granted either. Leaving the White House was a bittersweet experience because of the people who made their lives there so comfortable, not because she would miss the trappings of power. Barack and Michelle may be the first couple who did not arrive in the President’s house through an aristocratic American family.

America: The Farewell Tour by Chris Hedges – Book

Chris Hedge’s book America: The Farewell Tour begins with a chapter entitled “Decay”:

“I walked down a long service road into the remains of an abandoned lace factory. The road was pocked with holes filled with fetid water. There were saplings and weeds poking up from the cracks in the asphalt. Wooden crates, rusty machinery, broken glass, hulks of old filing cabinets and trash covered the grounds.”

His prose is personal and relatable. He is a well-respected journalist and does not ride a desk. He goes out to meet the world and provides plenty of anecdotal backup for the points he makes. He also recognizes that anecdotes need to be backed up by overviews that offer data collected by organizations who study these issues. Everything is footnoted and properly attributed as you would expect from someone who attended Colgate and Harvard (Divinity School). He has bona fides; he knows how to do research. Other chapters include: Heroin, Work, Sadism, Hate, Gambling, Freedom. However Hedges also had a thesis in mind when he began, and so the material in this book is not scientific in that sense. If you know what you want to find in advance it can affect what you observe.

The city that is home to the abandoned lace factory is Scranton, PA which leads into the challenges faced by the city leaders who find their city on the edge of bankruptcy. His point is that the lace factory  is emblematic, “is America”, as is the city of Scranton.

Chris Hedges tells us, in his tale of American decay, that he is a socialist. He quotes Karl Marx, a Communist. He says Karl Marx knew:

“that the reigning ideologies—think corporate capitalism with its belief in deindustrialization, deregulation, privatization of public assets, austerity, slashing of social service programs, and huge reductions in government spending—were created to serve the interests of the economic elites.”

However, he adds

“The acceleration of deindustrialization by the 1970’s created a crisis that forced the ruling class to devise a new political paradigm…This paradigm, trumpeted by a compliant media shifted its focus from the common good to race, crime, and law and order. It told those undergoing profound economic and political change that their suffering stemmed not from corporate greed, but from a threat to national integrity. The old consensus that buttressed the programs of the New Deal and the welfare state was attacked as enabling criminal black youth, welfare queens, and social parasites. The parasites were to blame. This opened the door to authoritarian populism.”

Hedges believes we are “witness-[ing] the denouement of capitalism”. He goes on to paint a pretty grim picture of America, a snapshot of our less than stellar moment in time here at the beginning of the 21stcentury. Addiction destroys individuals but it also is a symptom of rot in a culture. The kinds of work and the way work in America has changed has caused a decline in worker’s pride in their work, in their prosperity, and is turning us into corporate serfs. Lots of evidence is offered for these contentions.

Sadism is real, but, thankfully does not crop up often in my little world but Hedges goes to speak with the people who provide such experiences, and with other sex workers. This information is very graphic and I confess that I sometimes had to skip the details and seek out the conclusions Hedges arrived at. We need to understand the male domination in our culture and the abuse of women and if just reading about this aspect of American culture takes you to a dark place, you can imagine what it does to women (and exploited men) who feel this is the only way they can make a living. Hate and Gambling are further signs of the decay we see all around us in America. The chapter on Freedom begins with a discussion of incarceration as a tool of the capitalist elite to control populations with the most reason to resist or revolt. Also included is the Native American movement to block tar sand pipelines in South Dakota and the use of military might against people who were peacefully protesting.

I never read Chris Hedges before except for an old article in the Christian Science Monitorbecause I believed that our politics were very different but after reading this book I think we have more in common than not. However, I cannot blame problems on “isms”. The ways we organize economies are neither inherently good nor bad. Capitalism is not bad, but capitalists certainly can be. We have seen enough of unregulated capitalism to know that it gives full scope to the greediest, meanest impulses that reside in all of us very flawed humans.

Clearly though, the same weaknesses can be found in Communism and Socialism, because the defects are in us. We know that our natures are full of paradoxes. We all have a best self and a worst self and lots of degrees in between. We can rationalize that our worst behavior is beneficial with shocking ease. Communism, which lifted up those who had been oppressed, did solve the problems of inequality for a tiny minute (everyone was poor), except the Soviet Union got hung up on issues of purity and they began to purge anyone whose ideology was not pure enough. This is a trend we are finding in America right now, without the gulags (or, are our prisons our gulags).

This is where I differ from Mr. Hedges. I don’t think simply switching to socialism will magically save our democracy from decay and ruin. I do agree that what we have in America right now is nothing like the democracy/republic our forefathers foresaw.

“Our capitalist elites have used propaganda, money, and the marginalizing of their critics to erase the first three of philosopher John Locke’s elements of the perfect state: liberty, equality, and freedom.”…”Liberty and freedom in the corporate state mean the liberty and freedom of corporations and the rich to exploit and pillage without government interference or regulatory oversight.”

Hedges finds Republicans and Democrats equally guilty of turning America into a corporate state. I see the Democrats as more likely to feel some shame about this, and I also think that Democrats have not had many opportunities to introduce meaningful reforms because their power has been limited by a pretty successful Republican power grab. Hedges has some recommendations for strategies that we the people can employ to wrest back power from the corporations and the elite but he admits it will not be easy.

“All of the movements that opened up the democratic space in America—the abolitionists, the suffragists, the labor movement, the communists, the socialists, the anarchists, and the civil rights movement—developed a critical mass that forced the centers of power to respond. The platitudes about justice, equality, and democracy are just that. Only when ruling elites become worried about survival do they react. Appealing to the better nature of the powerful is useless. They don’t have one.”

I can agree with many of the progressive policies that Hedges supports although I do not call these programs socialist. The elites label these ideas as socialist to stigmatize them.

“…mechanisms that could ameliorate this crisis—affordable housing; well-paying jobs; safe, well-staffed, and well-funded schools and colleges that do not charge tuition; expanded mental health facilities; good public transportation; the rebuilding of the nation’s infrastructure; demilitarized police forces; universal government-funded health care; an end to predatory loans and practices of big banks; and a campaign to pay reparations to African Americans and end racial segregation.”

In a democracy we the people are meant to determine how our tax dollars are divvied up. If we want the federal government to manage utilities because it is fairer and more convenient and offers greater equality of access, then that is a democratic decision to use a socialist strategy for economic reasons. In other areas we might find that regulated capitalism works best, or it might make sense to make room for communal arrangements, or to even employ bartering if that suits the situation.

It is impossible to cover all that is in this book in a short commentary, but it is a deep dive into the maladies affecting America, which the Trump presidency did not cause, although the transparent looting of America by the Trump family and friends makes the direction we are headed much easier to predict. In America: The Farewell Tour, Chris Hedges focuses on capitalism as the real culprit in the decline of the quality most of us find in our lives in modern America and it is not just about money, but much, much more. This one is well worth reading and you should not let political prejudices stop you.

Fear by Bob Woodward – Book

Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame) recently published his exposé of the chaos in the early days of the Trump White House called simply, Fear: Trump in the White House.If you have been paying attention to the news (not Fox) then what you are reading in this book is hardly surprising. You see Steve Bannon come and go. The James Comey drama is in there. You see the contributions of people who played a role in those early days but are now gone, like Hope Hicks and Rob Porter. Tillerson and Trump disagree about foreign policy and Tillerson is replaced by Pompeo. Some of Trump’s fears about the Mueller investigation are covered.

There was a recent article in the NYT’s written by an anonymous source who told us that Trump’s West Wing staff are so worried about Trump’s orders telling them to design documents that will solidify bad policies, orders to place those documents on his desk to be signed, that they delay producing the papers and even remove the documents if they appear on Trump’s desk. They know that Trump’s mind jumps around from one idea to the next and that if the policy document is not placed in front of him he will forget about it (for a while). This is all covered in Woodward’s book. Woodward was there so it helps us feel like we are actually in the Oval Office, flies on the wall, experiencing staff fears in real time.

One of the greatest of all the fears is the one that shows us that someone who formed his policy ideas in some earlier decade, someone as inflexible as Trump, someone unwilling to learn about in-depth intelligence and to apply it to his fondly-held theories, someone unwilling to evolve, to revise old dogma, to encompass new data controls the nuclear codes. People in former administrations did not lightly make nuclear threats in hopes that going nuclear will turn enemies into friends. We don’t usually brag that our nuclear capabilities are greater than those of our enemies although we believe that it is basically understood. Nuclear boasting might backfire and the consequences could be devastating. Sometimes threatening documents, once produced, were removed from presidential proximity before he could sign them, but the fear that surrounds any casual treatment of nuclear weapons is always there.

Bob Woodward is not just making us aware that Trump’s staff lives in fear of Trump inadequacies and belligerent nature; he is telling us that we need to be fearful of a man who is filling a position he does not understand. We need to know that he is running America on ego, calcified opinions, and praise elicited by implied threats (fear). We need to follow Bob Woodward into those rooms in our nation’s White House and watch the slapdash way that business is now conducted daily in America. His account is very readable and the actual meat of the book ends well before the pages do. What follows is a section of photos, some pretty useful end notes, and a detailed index. If you have been paying attention to an in-depth news station like MSNBC it will all be very familiar. What will be different is that this time you are “in the room where it happens”.

The children in this Rainbow Room video offer revealing and very brief reviews of Bob Woodward’s book, reviews that sum things up very well.

https://mashable.com/video/stephen-colbert-reading-rainbow-woodward-trump/#FGlobArRcZqb

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Washington Times

Democracy Betrayed by William W Keller – Book

“Western leaders appear to have lost their compass. They have delegated the safety of the nation to a newly empowered class of internal security and intelligence professionals,” says William W. Keller in his book Democracy Betrayed: The Rise of the Surveillance Security State.

Life is full of trade-offs. We trade off free time or family time for money by going off to jobs that sometimes feel rewarding and sometimes just feel boring. Keller asks us how much freedom we are willing to give up for security, not even real security, but, for the most part, false security. The part of our freedom we pay with for this false sense of security is a loss of our privacy. We have not lost enough privacy that we live in a police state – yet. But we have lost control of our private data and not just to hackers but to our own National Security apparatus, which has grown enormously since 9/11. Our government now uses (as Edward Snowden made us aware) a giant sieve to catch a few tadpoles. Often it is not even necessary to get a court order to collect whatever the government wishes to see.

The author calls this “Secure Democracy”, which he tries to prove to us, is not really democracy at all. The new name states have invented for this is “illiberal democracy” which sounds an awful lot like Orwellian double speak.

The book is academic, with plenty of documented research, carefully noted in the end notes. However, the author does not bury his points in academic language. It’s very readable, although it may not keep you on the edge of your seat. But it really should keep our adrenalin pumping. Every modern President has done little to curtail foreign surveillance in the hopes of learning in advance about terrorist attacks. Even though data shows that very little useful intelligence has come from massive data collection, the spy apparatus grows. Perhaps the assumption is that we are just not collecting enough data and more will be the ticket into the minds of bad actors. Perhaps the security people are just getting a little giddy on ones and zeroes.

And it is not just foreign data collection. Domestic spying and data collection shows the same acceleration. I don’t believe, and neither does the author, that we know how to stop the secret intelligence “state” from growing. But we do know that a democratic government with an insatiable appetite for data about its citizens is an anomaly. A government that wants to scoop up data without a specific purpose or a court order should have our mental alarms going off like crazy. It seems that even a few terrorist events make us feel very vulnerable and afraid so we acquiesce to the surveillance state, something we were determined never to do. Keller’s evidence about the scope and reach of our surveillance state is compelling.

I always tell myself that someone would be bored to death tracking my communications and my online activities, but I do keep a blog about politics. It’s a fairly easy leap, especially right now, to imagine someone knocking at my door and frog-marching me off to jail. It is fairly easy to imagine being incarcerated without due process. This has not happened but it is only a baby step away, it seems, in a 21st century when we expected to enjoy more freedom, more global freedom, than ever.

Keller calls our current surveillance state the Security Industrial Complex. The internet, which makes the world seem so small, also makes itself a tempting target for a surveillance state eager to mine all that data. Why should businesses get to use the data and not the government?

Now that the intelligence community seems to have gone rogue we are surprisingly complacent about it. Keller does not offer much advice about how to keep our government out of our business, or how to protect our constitutional right to privacy (4th Amendment) but he knows that knowledge is power. I know, I know, who wants to read about something like this. What a downer. However, this is a book that everyone should read, downer or not.

Grant by Ron Chernow – Book

 

Grant by Ron Chernow is not a book; it is tome. He writes a very contemporary biography of Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps unclouded by the political passions and machinations of the 19th century. We often hear more that is negative about Grant than what was positive. We hear he was often drunk, that he headed one of the most corrupt governments in our history, that he was a gullible and simple man, without social graces or persuasive public speaking abilities. Writers in the past accepted, for the most part, that Grant had strong military successes, but opinions of his abilities range from a lazy leader to a military savant (which Chernow feels is much closer to the truth).

Prior to the Civil War, America was experiencing a time of great divisiveness (perhaps even worse that what we are seeing in the 21st century). Slavery and state’s rights were the issues that most passionately divided the nation (and they still are 151 years later). Strong abolitionist movements in the northern states enraged the South whose lifestyle and economy revolved around slave labor. The South claimed that the Federal government had no right to make laws in this matter. The verbal battles were bitter and the differences irreconcilable. Whatever you may feel is the reason for the Civil War (the GOP still cites the state’s rights issue; while Dems tend to cite the issue of keeping human beings as slaves), Grant evolved on the issue of slavery until he came to believe that it was an anathema and absolutely the point of the war. The Union considered the South to be traitors who wanted to dissolve the Republic. Although it may drive you crazy, you need to remember that in the 19th century Southerners were the Democrats and the abolitionists were Republicans.

Chernow does not sidestep graphic descriptions of the terrible tragedy of human destruction left in the wake of every victory and every defeat in the brutal Civil War. Grant, who seemed unable to be a successful businessman, proved to have a genius for warfare, a focus that seemed to appear only when battle loomed, and a broad and long view of the overall geography, scope, and strategy involved in any given battle. Since Grant was educated at West Point, he knew many of the officers on both sides in the Civil War and he had personal insight into how they would behave. Try not to read about these battles while eating.

I can never cover all of the information imparted in this biography. It is minutely comprehensive and still, somehow, eminently readable. It is long but well worth the investment in time. What I appreciated most about Ron Chernow’s tome is the attention he gave to what happened in the South after the war. Perhaps Grant was too sympathetic to the officers and men when the war ended at Appomattox. He did nothing to humiliate them. He let them lay down their weapons and leave without persecution to go home to their land and families. But perhaps this allowed the South to keep too much of its pride and they secretly kept alive the resentments that had caused the rift to begin with. Chernow does not skirt the details of the ways Southern slave owners took out their anger on freed Americans of African Descent.

According to Chernow and his exhaustive research Ku Klux Klan activity was far more prevalent and deadly in those years of Reconstruction than represented in the stories we tell ourselves today (and in our school history classes). Current events teach us that those feelings kept alive in the South and imported to the North still inform our politics, and the feelings of white supremacy that seem to have been resurrected, but which never actually left us. Grant earned the lasting respect of black folks by sending troops to try to stop the carnage and the total unwillingness of slave owners to accept the freedom of their former slaves. He supported programs to educate former slaves and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed while he was President. Frederick Douglas remained a loyal acquaintance of Grant and expressed his gratitude again and again for the support Grant provided to back up freedom for all Americans. If Grant accomplished nothing else, what he accomplished in the arena of freedom and equality for formerly enslaved Americans should move him far above the rank he held until now in the pantheon of American presidents. He deplored the fact that Reconstruction did not end racial hatred in Southern whites.

Mr. Chernow does not buy the tales that make drunkenness a key trait in Grant’s life. He finds a pattern to Grant’s binges and gives him credit for fighting against the hold alcohol had for him when he was without the comforts of his family (as soldiers often are). He admits that Grant was connected to a number of corrupt schemes while he was President and later when he resided in NYC. But if you follow the money you find that Grant never was at all corrupt himself. He was guilty of being unable to see through people, especially when they were friends. Since many people had been his fellow soldiers he tended to give them credit for being loyal friends when they were actually involved in collecting payoffs in scams such as the whisky ring, and the Indian ring, and other scandals of the Gilded Age. Juicy, interesting, and deplorable stuff. Many government rules were different than they are today and corruption was easy if you valued money over morals. Probably a number of rules and protections in our current government were passed to fight the human impulse to corruption which exists, of course, to this day.

It’s a wonderful biography, well researched and full of quotes from primary sources and although it may put a crimp in your accounting of the number of books you get to read this year it will offer such in-depth quality that you will not mind the hit you take in terms of the quantity of books you get to read.

 

 

Notes on a Foreign Country by Suzy Hansen – Book

Suzy Hansen won a writing fellowship in 2007 from Charles Crane, “a Russophile and scion of a plumbing-parts fortune,” and it allowed her to go abroad for 2 years. She went to Turkey, much to the dismay of her family and friends. This grant was rumored to have been reserved for spies but Suzy was in Turkey as a journalist. The book she wrote is called Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World. Hansen goes off to Turkey believing that America is the exceptional nation that it claims to be. She had been taught, as we all have, to feel a certain smugness about being American, brought up in a can-do nation where freedom reigns. But the people of Turkey had not been indoctrinated in the American version of American history. They experienced the Turkish version of American interaction and they were not as enamored of America as some of us, in all our innocence, tend to be.

America has had a sort of missionary zeal about spreading the wonders of our Democracy to nations it has deemed might be tending towards Communism. The period after WWII was all about a sort of contest between Russia and America to divide the world’s nations like so many spoils of war, much the way England and Spain, in all their pride, divided up the world (something the world did not necessarily know about or agree to).  We tend to think of America as being different from those early imperialists, but what Hansen learned in Turkey, and then in Greece, and Afghanistan is that imperialism was still practiced by America, but in different forms.

America went on a tear after the Marshall Plan went into effect in the post-world war II years and aggressively wooed any nation that it thought might be susceptible to Communism. It offered “modernization” in the form of convincing nations to develop their resources and to welcome industry and business (Capitalism). It tempted citizens with luxury goods and pricey comforts. Before nations even realized what was happening they began to lose their individuality, their unique culture, even in some cases their language.

America tempted governments with weapons and military accessories like planes and ships and if they were reluctant America would even support political turmoil and install a new leader. All these meddlesome things were done in the arrogant belief that people wanted to live like everyone lived in America. If they even had to modify their Muslim faith to fit in these new tastes that it would turn out well for them (or for America anyway) in the end. According to Ms. Hansen, America, in its extreme hubris has wreaked havoc with cultures all over the world and we have a lot to answer for. She is not alone in this belief.

I was torn as I read this book. I have always respected the idea of democratic governance. I also knew that America had never, from its very beginnings, lived up to its creed. Our forefathers said that all men are created equal and they wrote it down for all to see, even though they kept slaves who were also human beings, and some of them even admitted that these slaves were human beings. The very fact that our Constitution was based on a lie may have doomed American democracy from its inception. That may be why we see ourselves in one rather glittery way and why others think that luster is quite tarnished.

I understand what Suzy’s European friends felt and I understand that they experienced America from a different perspective than we often do. I am rather ashamed of the America she describes in this nonfiction book based on her first-hand observations. Probably, although you may resist the message that Ms. Hansen brings us from our neighbors on this planet, you should still give this book your careful attention. She and her favorite author, James Baldwin, can help you readjust America’s halo.

I want America to face up to its flaws and do better. Although that seems quite impossible right now, I want America to eventually succeed in finding a balance between power and humility. If we cannot mend our ways in the world it is possible that the American culture, as many claim, will truly be in decline. I would hate to see the idealistic aims of our democracy disappear because we cannot contain our rapaciousness, which is often a sin that comes with power.

In the Epilogue Suzy Hansen talks about America after Trump:

“But I did believe that in at least one way Trump voters were little different from anyone else in the country. They, like all Americans, had been told a lie: that they were the best, that America was the best, that their very birthright was progress and prosperity and the envy and admiration of the world. I did not blame those voters for Trump’s election…I blamed the country for Trump’s election because it was a country built on the rhetoric and actions of American supremacy or ‘greatness,’ or ‘exceptionalism,’ … it had been built on the presupposition that America was and should be, the most powerful country on the planet.”

I have not given up on my country yet, despite all its flaws, although I have never been more tempted to become an American in exile, a lifestyle I cannot afford. It never hurts an individual to do some introspection and it never hurts a nation (made of individuals) to turn critical and honest eyes inward. Suzy Hansen’s book Notes on a Foreign Country was an emotional and an intellectual journey.

 

 

 

 

Evicted by Matthew Desmond – Book

Matthew Desmond’s book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City summarizes the lengthy and intimate researches of this sociologist with a MacArthur Genius Grant who has done his due diligence. His interest is in analyzing and discovering ways for breaking up stubborn, seemingly impossible-to-resolve problems that make life a misery for poor folks, especially black poor folks, and single mothers who are at the absolute bottom of the economic heap.

Mr. Desmond, a young man, still in college, moves into two different poor neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since he is white he perhaps would have been distrusted in a minority neighborhood so he started out in a trailer park at the edge of the city with a more mixed-race population. This allowed him to make some connections, see some possible housing issues and eventually he was able to enter the predominately black North Side as a resident. He roomed with a black policeman called Officer Woo (a childhood nickname).

Obviously poverty and all of the things attendant on it, such as lack of education or training, being limited to low paying jobs, being hungry and having to spend too much time finding food for your family, not having an appropriate job wardrobe are all factors that contribute to keeping poor people from rising.

But Matthew Desmond decided to focus on the issue of housing and he exposes an angle on urban poverty that we have not yet explored in enough detail. He looks specifically at the part evictions play in squelching opportunity. He looks at a cycle that allows ever higher rents that do not decrease for low value properties. He looks at the gap between incomes and rents. He introduces us to the people he met who let him have access to their personal finances. I will issue a warning to you that they still haunt him even as he moves on to pursue his own life, and they will stay with you also.

Anecdotal studies are difficult because of the fact that the researcher is present and interacting. This can change the data in ways that are quite subtle, and perhaps not so subtle, sort of the way in which a rock bends the current in a stream. Desmond tried to keep his presence somewhat personal even as he also stuck to his position as a writer and a recorder of the lives of the people he met. He calls his report, his book, an ethnography, which seems accurate enough.

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey has a book club every summer. He chooses a title and everyone who signs up for the book club reads the same book. There is a discussion session at a certain date. This is the book for summer, 2017. You could probably still sign up.

I’m not going to summarize Desmond’s findings or his suggestions for fixing this seeming unresolvable dilemma of inner cities which seem to act like traps, robbing Americans of the comforts we expect life in America to offer. These observations are the entire content of his book. However, I will say, “Good choice, Cory Booker!”

Flâneuse by Laura Elkin – Book

Laura Elkin’s book Flâneuse is not the first book about women who are the counterparts of the more usual male figure, the flâneur, A few other books with this title predate hers. Her book has a subtitle: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London and reads very much like a doctoral dissertation, although the language is not quite as academic, and the book tends to offer a warmer reading experience than the expected dry fare of the dissertation. The flâneur she tells us is “one who walks aimlessly…A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention.

Flâneuse is the feminine form and denotes “an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities. But each flâneuse discussed in any detail by Elkin is not truly idle. These women were writers, photographers, artists. Until recently it was difficult for a woman to be a flâneuse. Writer Janet Wolff did not give credence to the flâneuse as “such a character was rendered impossible by the sexual divisions of the nineteenth century.” Other writers agree. But Elkin reminds us that the rise of the department store in the 1850’s and 60’s “did much to normalize the appearance of women in public.”

Laura Elkin was born on Long Island where no one walked anywhere. Her father was an architect who designed some of the corporate headquarters as companies left the city and moved into newly designed corporate parks. But Elkin discovered that she belonged in cities when she moved into New York City to attend college. “To sit in a restaurant on Broadway with the world walking by and the cars and the taxis and the noise was like finally being let in to the centre of the universe, after peering in at it for so long.”

The book is dense with detailed examples of women writers, artists, journalists, and more who felt most at home in cities and used the intimate details of city life gained through wandering and observation to enlighten us all. Elkin gives us a taste of London, following in Virginia Woolf’s footsteps; a soupçon of Venice, New York, and Tokyo (where wandering alone around the city is basically impossible even in daylight); but mainly of Paris which ended up being her home.

Artists she expands on in some detail, both about their lives and their work include Jean Rhys (allied with Ford Maddox Ford), George Sand (who dressed as a boy/man to roam the city freely), Virginia Woolf, Martha Gellhorn (wife of Ernest Hemingway and war journalist and more), and Agnès Varda, in French films.

Elkin’s sums things up in this way, “You don’t need to crunch around in Gore-Tex to be subversive, if you’re a woman. Just walk out your front door.” Reading this tome is a bit like being a literary flâneuse without having to leave your armchair – lots of great little tidbits.