I am not predisposed to care for Dave Eggers. Admittedly, a lot of this has to do with my just pure visceral repulsion to his youthful memoir, A Heart...moreI am not predisposed to care for Dave Eggers. Admittedly, a lot of this has to do with my just pure visceral repulsion to his youthful memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that phenomenally shallow and exploitative exercise in hubris. I've invested a lot of time and effort in a lot of book clubs explaining just why I loathe that book so much, so suffice to say that I have used this reaction to avoid reading any of his other works.
Still, my friends would ask, so what if I hated that book? Shouldn't I at least try another of his efforts? Could all of the praise that has been heaped upon both Zeitoun and What is the What be wrong? Wasn't my strict disavowal of his merits just as hubris-filled as his mocking debut, especially when luminaries from nearly every single still-extant newspaper's book section is showering it with acclaim? Beneath the weight of such impassioned queries my resolve weakened, sputtered, then died, and I found myself tucking into Dave Eggers once more.
I could never be happier that I did so. Zeitoun follows the family of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun, a Syrian-American family in New Orleans that runs a bustling construction business. Told in harrowing snippets of time, Eggers recounts Kathy and the children's flight from the storm even as Abdulrahman battens down the hatches at the family home and prepares to ride out what he assumes to be another in a long line of weaker-than-predicted hurricanes. No sooner have Kathy and the family settled in with her Islamophobic family than Abdulrahman calls, first to let her know that the storm had passed and the house was fine, then later to tell her that the levies must have broken because the house was flooding and he was moving all the keepsakes and important possessions to the top floor. Then the electricity cut out and the nightmare that was post-flood New Orleans began.
Day after day, Abdulrahman would set out in his canoe. Floating through the streets of his city he would pick up stranded neighbors and drop them at evacuation centers, feed and reassure abandoned pets trapped in the attics of homes near him, and inspect the flood damage of the various apartment buildings and houses that he and Kathy owned. He was offered ample opportunity to leave the city and when he and Kathy would speak everyday at noon, she would beg him to leave the city, her fear for her husband's safety growing as she fed on the constant stream of news from her home- of riots in the Super Dome, looting through the streets, martial law being declared and vigilantes enforcing order. Still Zeitoun demurred, there was something keeping him there. He felt that he was needed there, to render assistance as needed, that this was a calling his life had been leading him toward. He was doing unquestionable good, had saved many of his neighbors lives, and he wanted to be prepared to rebuild as soon as the flood waters receded.
So of course, everything goes cock-eyed. New Orleans is being patrolled by a motley grab-bag of law enforcement professionals, national guard soldiers just returned from Afghanistan and Iraq, and Blackwater mercenaries. FEMA falls under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, and is thus also inundated with that hyper-paranoid brand of government-sanctioned, revenge-tinted, racism that calls into suspicion every person of color and presumes guilt without even evidence of a potential crime. Zeitoun and a handful of survivors are picked up by a posse of police deputies and US Marshalls, imprisoned in a hastily built detention facility in the parking lot of the Greyhound Station (note- the multimillion dollar facility was constructed while thousands of people were starving and fighting one another for water in the Super Dome, which should say everything that ever needs to be said about priorities in militarized America).
He is given no chance to discover why he is detained, or even to get word to his wife that he is in custody, he has pepper spray repeatedly sprayed into his enclosure and is essentially treated in the same manner as those who have disappeared into Guantanamo Bay without charge or trial. Down this rabbit hole of government denial, secrecy, ineptitude and callousness Zeitoun falls- shipped to a remote prison and placed deep behind bars where no one knows his name, no contact with the outside world and daily abuse from his jailers who see him as partially complicit in the 9-11 attacks. It's not until a compassionate chaplain leaves a frightened message for Kathy, after two weeks of imprisonment, that the family even learns that he's alive, albeit in even more dire straits than the hurricane.
Not only is Zeitoun a beautiful tale of heroism, compassion and pure neighborly goodness but it is also a gripping reflection of racism in a post-Patriot Act America and an indictment of what can happen when fear and mindless obedience overrides reason and rational thinking. This is a story of the Bush Years at what should be remembered as the darkest point in a very dark period, the destruction of New Orleans during and after Hurrican Katrina. This is a time that revealed to the entire world that the United States as a government lacked the skills, resources and even the will to save one of its major metropolitan cities, but it also provides ample opportunity to showcase the vibrancy of the human spirit and the undimmed ability some have to do what is right and to help their neighbors, human and non-human, when needed. Dave Eggers captured both aspects exceptionally well, and I'm rather relieved to say that I was hasty in judging him solely upon his ...Staggering Genius and his works will absolutely have a place upon my reading lists from here forth.(less)
This book must have been recommended to me several dozen times over the course of the past year, from activists from either side if the ideological di...moreThis book must have been recommended to me several dozen times over the course of the past year, from activists from either side if the ideological divide. Written by a rabid political organizer who cut his teeth organizing in the Depression-era south-side Chicago who makes no secret of the fact that he views a worker's revolution as inevitable and something that leftists should constantly work toward, and given that President Obama got his start organizing with the late Alinsky's group back in the 80s, it's understandable why Gingrich started slinging around Alinsky's name in the Republican debates. Union organizers I know swear by this book to no end, some hailing it as a bible for community organizers.
I wish I felt nearly as passionate after reading it this morning. Alinsky is fiercely passionate, of that there can be no doubt. He dedicated his life to organizing the lesser privileged in our society so that they could be better agents of their own freedom. He had a cunning tactical mind and his books are great attempts to try to share the lessons he learned in decades of organizing. Which really makes it such a shame that he comes off as such an asshole. Examples? I have a couple.
He makes an understandable point that groups you are organizing with need a win from time to time to minimize activist burnout and to show that change is possible. I find no fault with this- it is damned difficult to keep people enthusiastic in the face of constant setbacks and the unceasing apathy of those not involved. However, the tactic he uses as an example is very unsettling to me. In the heavily Catholic population of Chicago's south-side the churches had kicked out an Infant Welfare Society because it was rumored they were offering birth control. Of course, without the aid the society had offered, citizens noticed an uptick in infant mortality. Alinsky knew that all the citizens had to do was to simply ask the society to return, yet coordinated an exceptionally disingenuous march to the group's headquarters, stormed in, demanded that services be returned to this neighborhood, and refused to let the society's spokesperson say anything other than 'yes.' Sure, it was an easy win at a necessary time, but to deliberately mislead the group you are organizing is not an effective way to engender trust and a surefire way to get them to turn on you when your deception is discovered.
Still, there are numerous useful tips for readers willing to overlook Alinsky's less than desirable personality and more than a few things that I'm going to work to bring into my day-to-day work. It's definitely worth the read and easy to see why both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have embraced it as an instruction manual in their efforts to bring their concerns into the national dialogue.(less)
As someone who used to consume nonfiction with the voracious appetite of a trucker at an Old Country Buffet, I find it odd and not a little unsettling...moreAs someone who used to consume nonfiction with the voracious appetite of a trucker at an Old Country Buffet, I find it odd and not a little unsettling that, since joining Goodreads, a solid 95% of my reading material has come from the fiction side of the bookstore. While this has definitely helped fill some dramatic gaps in my knowledge, it was with much relief that I tucked myself into Klein's The Shock Doctrine earlier this week. I'd attempted reading this in the heady afterglow of the election this past November but I was not in the mood to be depressed so soon and replaced it on my shelf.
Two months into Obama's presidency, as the economy crumbles into so many pieces which are then greedily consumed by the jackals that make up the banking industry, Klein's definitive history of Friedman economics and their entwined history with brutality, terror and disparity seems especially apt. Granted, Friedman didn't do this all on his own. Rather, as Klein's thesis bears out, this occurs through a system of shocks to the nervous system of the target country, much as electro-convulsive therapy was developed as a means to wipe its subjects mind so that it could be reformatted into a socially acceptable form.
The first shock is generally political upheaval- a coup, terror attack, or governmental collapse, though Klein points out that natural disasters such as the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina work just as well, that so upsets the regular routine of life that citizens are willing to invest extraordinary powers in the government and silence any dissent for the duration of the emergency. Sound familiar?
Next comes the economic shock, during which the social safety nets so despised by free-market zealots are taken away and former nationally-owned industries (oil, mineral, postal services, arms contracts, education, healthcare, pretty much everything) are "privatized," or sold at cut-rate prices to foreign investors who, through some never-explained sleight of hand will then lead the country into its bright capitalist utopia. Of course, as profit-driven enterprises are wont to do, this generally leads to corruption at unprecedented levels, currency inflation and record-bursting unemployment levels. "Relax," the economic advisers say (these well-trained theorists from Friedman's Chicago School of Economics), "these are just the birth pangs of a new economic era. Everything is under control."
Which is very true. Everything is very much under control. For, as social unrest grows, the next shock is coming. These are the state-sanctioned terror squads that quell social unrest by creating an atmosphere of unwavering brutality and terror. These are the Disappeared leftists of South America, herded into football stadiums and machine-gunned, the distraught funeral gatherings broken up with water cannons and riot police. These are electrodes under the nails, omni-present surveillance, bodies dropped from helicopters into farmer's fields, couples black-bagged during their own wedding ceremony and carted into torture facilities, in front of hundreds of witnesses who are all so very afraid to be next that they refuse to even acknowledge that the event occurred.
Klein charts the evolution of the titular Shock Doctrine from it's intellectual beginnings at the University of Chicago in the 1950s in horrified reaction to the New Deal and the Keynesian philosophy that holds that a country's economy should work to best serve the working classes that are it's lifeblood. Milton Friedman, godfather of this Doctrine, develops his economic theory of free-market systems using oh-so-precise calculations (this is the man who cried and recited Donne's "Ode to a Grecian Urn" upon seeing a geometric proof) yet lacks a real world opportunity to test them in.
Enter Chile in 1974, an alleged 3rd world country who has just elected the radical Salvador Allende who is promising further nationalization of vital industries and expanded benefits to its citizens. Obviously the man is a dangerous Marxist and must be deposed post haste, says the US-based United Fruit Company who has much to lose if these nationalizations occur. No sooner said than done. With the useful assistance of the CIA, the military executes Allende and installs General Pinochet as dictator who, with assistance from his Chicago Boys (worshipers at the fount of Friedman) dismantles the complete economy and disappears hundreds of thousands of upstart leftists.
Okay, so that was a bit too bloody for the world's tastes, but you can't argue with the profits. A few people got extremely rich, clearly the market works. Let's try that again, but this time a bit more slyly. So Klein ushers us through nearly every political upheaval of the past 30 years, from the Thatcherite Falklands War to the end of Apartheid in South Africa and communism in both Poland and Russia, illustrating in very explicit detail the cooption of movements in the name of free-markets, the economic blackmail of the IMF's structural adjustment programs, and the destruction of true freedom in order to create free markets.
What is shown is not a series of isolated events but the creation of post-nationalist systems in which the state serves as the source of endless wealth for a very few and muscle for the extortion that takes place in the name of freedom. Most effective is how, after hundreds of pages of showing how this program (or pogrom) worked overseas, Klein brings it home to the US and shows how the terror attacks of 2001, the Iraq War, and the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina allowed the Friedmaniacs to enact their policies in the states. Complete lack of oversight, no bid contracts, unregulated markets and massive speculation all ran rampant during the seven years of Bush's reign and Klein does well to show exactly how this system led to the economic armageddon that engulfs us today.
It is my only hope that Obama and his advisers have read and believed even one chapter of this book and seen Friedman's system for the massive fuck up that it is and are now looking to pull Keynes from the wilderness and enshrine his values firmly in the passages of law, finicky governors be damned.(less)
I've been a big fan of Johnson's past two books, Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire and have been looking forward to reading this most recent work sin...moreI've been a big fan of Johnson's past two books, Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire and have been looking forward to reading this most recent work since I first heard of it. However, where the previous two books clearly positioned US' foreign policy as an off-shoot of the militarism which infects every level of our economy and warned that the US' overseas adventures (everything from overthrowing unfriendly governments to funneling arms to other governments) would eventually lead to a blowback against the US- a theory that was proven true when the US' strategy of arming and training the Afghani mujahideen in the 1980s came back to bite it on September 11- this new book seems like a collection of scraps that were left on the editing room floor when Johnson's previous books were published.
There's nothing especially new or ground-breaking here, though Johnson does a fantastic job of analyzing the Roman and British empires and juxtaposing their downfalls with the current state of US foreign affairs. Charting the vast network of American bases, prisons, and secret torture facilities is a vast task, but definitely one that Johnson is up to and the portrait he paints of a web of American influence is a very disturbing picture.
Unfortunately, by trying to tie his three most recent books together under a unifying theme, Johnson stretches his premise to absurd lengths and never really focuses, until the last 10 pages, on how all of the examples that he recites tie together into the sad picture of a flailing American empire that poses a threat not only to treasured systems of American governance but also the future existence of Western Civilization.
If this is the first Johnson book you're looking at, I'd recommend looking to his earlier work first.(less)
The premise is a simple one: if you walk long enough in one direction, you'll eventually wind up back where you started. It was this thought that laun...moreThe premise is a simple one: if you walk long enough in one direction, you'll eventually wind up back where you started. It was this thought that launched former British diplomat Rory Stewart on a stroll of mammoth proportions through some of the most dangerous places on earth.
The Places in Between does not relate all of Stewart's trip, but rather the Afghan leg of this walk. Starting in January of 2002, less than a month after the fall of the now-resurgent Taliban, Stewart left the Iranian border town of Herat to follow the Mughal emporer Babur's historic winter march through the Kush mountains to Kabul. This route, while shorter than the flat paths that head South through Kandahar before angling North to Kabul, is desirable because it keeps Stewart away from the Taliban remnants and allows him to travel through mountainous regions that most Westerners haven't seen in nearly thirty years- since the Soviet invasion sparked nearly two generations of constant warfare.
Mixing a good amount of history with his exploits, Stewart's travelogue manages to paint a very real portrait of Afghanistan, both as it was and as it is today. Relying on the Islamic tenet of good hospitality, Stewart is nearly always provided with a scrap of floor to sleep upon and some nan (flat bread) to eat. Each village headman that he visits sheds light on the twisting political winds that have buffeted this mountain nation for too long. In one village he stays with a former Taliban supporter who is soon to face his comeuppance, in another he sits with old mujahadeen who had fought in the initial Soviet war or with former Northen Alliance fighters.
This trip helps to illustrate, more than most books on the subject, the scattered nature of the Afghan identity, not to mention the political aspect. Despite all of these people's various conflicts or any of the more offensive aspects of the fundamentalism practiced by some, at their core the Afghan people are the same as anywhere else. They're just trying to get by in a country that's known maybe 3 years of peace in the past thirty. Reading Stewart's notes, you really can't help but hope that they get to enjoy some in their own lifetime.(less)
If anyone is needing a primer on exactly everything that is wrong with the Bush Administration from their wanton disregard for Constitutional preceden...moreIf anyone is needing a primer on exactly everything that is wrong with the Bush Administration from their wanton disregard for Constitutional precedent to rampant cronyism, then this is the book for you. There aren't any real ground-breaking revelations and nothing that was particularly new for me, but then I am not the average reader. I follow with a bitter heart and an angry eye each new piece of abuse perpetrated by BushCo. and the complete lack of reaction by the apathetic country-at-large.
Anyone who has read Greenwald's How Would A Patriot Really Act is already familiar with the subversion of the Geneva Conventions by John Yoo. Anyone who has read Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival or Failed States is already familiar with America's abomination of foreign policy. Anyone who has read Suskind's One Percent Doctrine already knows the abuses committed by intelligence agencies in the name of "security." Yet to see all of the Bush Administration's crimes lined up in chronological order from the moment of Bush's appointment to the Executive Office up through the 2006 mid-term elections is to see wholly and completely just how far off course our country has been driven in the past eight years and just how monumental the task of fixing these wrongs is.
It would be easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of wrong-doing that Conason clearly and succinctly covers. It would be easy to shrug our shoulders and say "that's politics" and bury our heads back in the sand. That itself is part of the problem. Books like these should serve as agents of change. People need to get pissed. People need to get informed to the atrocities that are being performed in our name. People need to remind themselves that a plunge into an authoritarian government is accomplished with the public itself as an accomplice.
Then people need to act. Do some research, write your congress people, get involved locally, volunteer your time to your representative's election campaign or with the Obama campaign. Use this justifiable fury at the ugliness of our country to compel it to change. If we don't work for it, then who will?(less)
"I just finished re-reading (for the nth time) Bruce Sterling's 1998 novel Distraction. I didn't mean to -- I picked it up in a used bookstore in Milwaukee on my way to a quick dinner in my hotel room, thinking I'd just read a few pages of this old friend and then leave it behind for the next guest to discover and enjoy. Now it's 18 hours later and I've read all 500-some pages of it, and, as ever, my mind is a-whirl with the incredible ideas, people and speculation in this remarkable, remarkable book.
Distraction is the story of an America on the skids: economy in tatters, dollar collapsed, unemployment spiked, population on the move in great, restless herds bound together with networks and bootleg phones. The action revolves around Oscar Valparaiso, a one-of-a-kind political operator who has just put his man -- a billionaire sustainable architecture freak -- into the Senate and is looking for some downtime. But a funny thing happens on the way to the R&R: Oscar and his "krewe" (the feudal entourage who trail after him, looking after his clothes, research, security, systems and so on) end up embroiled in a complex piece of political theater, a media war between the rogue governor of the drowned state of Louisiana, the Air Force, the newly elected president, and a weird, pork-barrel science park in its own glassed-in dome.
Every single chapter -- every one! -- has at least enough material for five great speculative short stories. From the net-gang hobos (and their remarkable, cellular-automata driven fleamarkets) to the weird economic boom in cognition research, to the idea of leisure unions and anti-work activist techno-triumphalists, this book fizzes with awesome ideas.
But that's only one of its three signal virtues. The other two are: the insight Sterling brings to the nature of politics and the political process in the age of networked economies and systems; and the vivid, larger-than-life characters who populate this book. They are, to a one, likable, frustrating, believable, admirable and enraging.
It's a powerful concoction, this book, and now, ten years after its initial publication, it's possible to asses just how prescient, how visionary, Sterling is. I love all of Bruce's books, but this one may just be my favorite. It's the kind of friend you end up staying up all night chatting with, even when all you plan on doing is saying a quick hello." (less)