I'm tempted to describe how the initial rush of the first chapter couldn't be replicated but that I still couldn't put the book down, and when finishe...moreI'm tempted to describe how the initial rush of the first chapter couldn't be replicated but that I still couldn't put the book down, and when finished I wound up cooking it and smoking it. I know that's juvenile, but one of my favorite editors once said "go with the gag" when in doubt, so fuck it.
This book has very good long term reporting about the international networks that have made meth American as apple pie, using a town in Iowa's struggles with the drug as a focal point. At times I felt a bit too much of the author's presence, as is the case in many otherwise good pieces in Harper's, which Reding has written for. It's also hampered, as a native Iowan reader elsewhere on goodreads (who also complains about lack of geographical fact checking) notes, the book is hampered by lack of endnotes. Surely for use by public policy activists and other writers, footnotes are essential, no? Alas, the current state of publishing is such that that's not the case. All hail the miracles of the fucking marketplace.(less)
San Francisco Bay Guardian January 6-12, 2010 p.25
Not Mrs. Brightside Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book takes on the pernicious disciples of Norman Vincent...moreSan Francisco Bay Guardian January 6-12, 2010 p.25
Not Mrs. Brightside Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book takes on the pernicious disciples of Norman Vincent Peale
By Ben Terrall
I have a friend whose significant other’s breast cancer metastasized and is now in her bones. Members of the cancer support group she tried to join informed her that she wasn’t eligible for membership, as they were doing fairly well and needed to stay positive. My friend’s girlfriend, being that much sicker, would bring the others down.
Maddening? Disgusting? Depressing? Yes, all of the above, and, as Barbara Ehrenreich shows in her wonderful new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan Books, 256 pages, $23), not an isolated incident. Ehrenreich begins her exploration of happy-face/thumbs up culture by recounting her own experiences battling breast cancer. Though understandably angered at her condition (and soon to become angry about environmental carcinogens, battles with insurance agencies, and toxic treatments), she encountered an entire industry devoted to exhorting cancer sufferers to be cheerful. Ehrenreich writes, “In the most extreme characterization, breast cancer is not a problem at all, not even an annoyance – it is a ‘gift’ deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude.”
I had my own brush with such bilge when a former therapist suggested that I view the loss of a friend who drank himself to death as (yes, he actually said this) “a gift,” apparently because of insights into mortality I could gain from my pal’s untimely demise. Not surprisingly, I declined his invitation.
The same shrink, who I can’t say I particularly miss, also touted the “law of attraction,” a favorite pseudo-law among contemporary peddlers of positive thinking. Ehrenreich, a PhD in Cell Biology, takes it apart and shows it won’t stand up to the most basic scientific scrutiny.
“The law of attraction” states, basically, that if you think positive thoughts, positive things, including material riches, will come to you. To nice comic effect, Ehrenreich describes an early version of this concept found in the 1937 volume Think and Grow Rich!, which explained that “thoughts, like magnets, attract to us the forces, the people, the circumstances of life which harmonize with [them:].”
Ehrenreich gamely inserts herself into various conventions and seminars where she interviews “life coaches,” motivational speakers and other participants in a world she describes as “New Age meets middle-American business culture” (in her 2005 book Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich masterfully exposed the lucrative business similar “coaches” conduct passing on dubious wisdom to white-collar job seekers). She writes, “If early capitalism was inhospitable to positive thinking, ‘late’ capitalism, or consumer capitalism, is far more congenial, depending as it does on the individual’s hunger for more and the firm’s imperative of growth.” Further, “Perpetual growth, whether of a particular company or an entire economy, is of course an absurdity, but positive thinking makes it seem possible, if not ordained.”
Most conspicuously in the “mega-churches” of the “prosperity gospel” movement, growing numbers of Americans have come to believe material wealth to be one of the blessings of devotion to strip-mall friendly Christianity. The positive thinking church tradition traces back to Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science, but Ehrenreich argues that secular trends also influence churches, and notes, “certainly by the 1990s there was no dodging the positive thinking available in the business literature, the self-help books, and even weight-loss plans.”
The mega-churches take in and spend millions of dollars each year, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of their leaders move in the same circles as corporate big-wigs who have been systematically gutting U.S. companies for the past several decades. Pastor Rick Warren describes himself as a “mentor” to notorious job-slasher Jack Welsh of GE, and counts Rupert Murdoch among his flock. It makes perfect sense that Murdoch, Welsh, and their ilk would take a shine to a doctrine which taught that newly laid-off workers need not blame their bosses or agitate for change, but should instead stay positive at all costs and pray more.
Ehrenreich convincingly argues that even Oprah and other ostensibly liberal purveyors of positive thinking wind up erring on the side of the status quo. Her book’s subtitle refers to the damage done when thoughtful naysayers – underlings cognizant that making subprime loans will have destructive consequences, military strategists who realize the insanity of invading Iraq – are marginialized.
Bright-Sided is not a call for nihilist escapism or terminal bitterness. It’s a rousing endorsement of skepticism, realism, and critical thinking. As Ehrenreich said in a recent interview, “The alternative is not despair, not depression. The alternative is to look at things as they are. ... Let's look at what's actually going on and see what we can do about things that are making people miserable.”
The Dashiell Hammett Tour leads the curious through San Francisco's alluring underbelly Discover the ways in which the writer's vision still applies to the city today
LIT Sometimes when I'm bored walking around Union Square, I wonder how many of the well-heeled white guys heading toward the Financial District are really criminal types who should be followed. Say, maybe some higher-up at Wells Fargo or Citigroup who helped rip off thousands through subprime loans before getting a nice slice of that sweet Wall Street bailout money.
When I'm feeling that way, I'm under the influence of a seminal 20th century writer who spent his most productive years in San Francisco. Here's a passage that sends me there:
She walked on down Post Street to Kearny, stopping, stopping every now and then to look — or to pretend to look — in store windows; while I ambled along sometimes beside her, sometimes, almost by her side, and sometimes in front.
She was trying to check the people around her, trying to determine whether she was being followed or not. But here, in the busy part of town, that gave me no cause for worry. On a less crowded street it might have been different, though not necessarily so.
There are four rules for shadowing: Keep behind your subject as much as possible; never try to hide from him; act in a natural manner no matter what happens; and never meet his eye. Obey them, and, except in unusual circumstances, shadowing is the easiest thing that a sleuth has to do.
The narrator so hep to the ways of the tail is Dashiell Hammett's "Continental Op," an operative for the fictional Continental Detective Agency, whose adventures in print include some of Hammett's finest San Francisco tales.
Don Herron's walking tour of landmarks associated with Hammett's time in San Francisco is well worth making for anyone curious about the history of the author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, who helped create hardboiled crime fiction and was one its greatest practitioners. At three to four hours of often hilly trekking, it's a bit of a commitment, but at $10, it's an affordable way to engage in the next best thing to time travel.
Herron, author of books about pulp actioneer Robert Howard and noir craftsman Charles Willeford, has been informally conducting the tour for three decades. It started in 1977 as part of a "free college" known as Communiversity. The Dashiell Hammett Tour: Thirtieth Anniversary Guidebook (2009), which updates earlier versions, is a nifty package that belongs on the shelf of any self-respecting San Francisco denizen with a passion for our city's often twisted past. It's a lively combination of biographical material about Hammett, assorted related trivia that never seems trivial, and Herron's memories from 30 years of accompanying a broad spectrum of writers, fans, and eccentrics through the former stomping grounds of Hammett and his fictional creations.
The tour starts near the former site of the San Francisco Library Main Branch, now the Asian Art Museum. In an era of economic collapse papered over with massive subsidies to the same financial entities that brought us to collapse in the first place, lessons from earlier belt-tightening eras are useful. Hence it's only appropriate to tip our fedoras to the memory of an autodidact left-winger who never finished high school but, by devoting years to reading in public libraries, got a better education than most who did. Though Hammett was making good money from writing crime fiction by the late 1920s, when he lived at 620 Eddy St. in the early 1920s, he couldn't afford books and the library was a lifeline. The 1923 photo on page 66 of the guidebook, of what Heron calls "Hammett's Reading Room" in the old main library branch at 200 Larkin St., is a beaut.
When Hammett and his family lived at 620 Eddy, their landlady was a bootlegger. Hammett's wife later recalled cops rousting people in front of their window to the street. As Herron notes, today's prohibition on hard drugs is about as effective at deterring users as the earlier one on alcohol, and equally effective at creating endless business opportunities for motivated entrepreneurs. If you're not legally blind and are paying any attention at all, it's likely you may see one or two such enterprising businesspeople on the streets of the Hammett tour. It's also a safe bet they might bear a resemblance to the Continental Op's self-description: "My face doesn't scare children, but it's a more or less truthful witness to a life that hasn't been overburdened with refinement and gentility."
The 1920s in San Francisco were wild, wide-open years full of fast living and dodgy characters. The late venerable columnist Herb Caen wrote of the period: "The Hall of Justice was dirty and reeked of evil. The City Hall, the D.A., and the cops ran the town as though they owned it, and they did ... You could play roulette in the Marina, shoot craps on O'Farrell, play poker on Mason, and get rolled at 4 a.m. in a bar on Eddy."
Hammett toiled on his used Underwood typewriter late into the night, creating characters and stories based on what he'd seen in that milieu. During World War I, he contracted both Spanish influenza and tuberculosis. When his TB got so bad that it was hazardous to the health of his wife and baby to maintain a family abode, he moved out and lived in a succession of apartments, including one up the hill from Eddy Street at 891 Post St., at the corner of Hyde. In a corner apartment on the fourth floor of that building, Hammett pounded out his first three novels. If you're lucky, on Herron's tour you'll be buzzed in and get to see where Hammett typed, ate, drank, and smoked furiously — and sometimes pulled down the Murphy bed to sleep. The apartment of The Maltese Falcon's tough detective Sam Spade was based on the snug little dwelling.
The current occupant is Bill Arney, an architect and Hammett fan. When he showed the tour I was on around the small one-bedroom unit, I noticed a great compilation of "crime jazz," soundtrack music from black and white crime movies and TV shows, on top of a pile of CDs. Appropriate, since Arney serves as announcer for the Noir City film festival local mover and shaker Eddie Muller puts on at the Castro Theatre every January.
Hammett left a permanent mark on San Francisco. Specifically, on the block-long street that used to be called Monroe, which runs south off Pine in the block between Powell and Stockton. From what is now called Dashiell Hammett Street, walk east on Bush and on the right, at Burritt Street, just before the Stockton tunnel overpass, ponder the plaque that reads: ON APPROXIMATELY THIS SPOT/MILES ARCHER,/PARTNER OF SAM SPADE,/WAS DONE IN BY/BRIGID O'SHAUGHNESSY.
We are lucky to be in a city that commemorates one of its most accomplished past local residents with a plaque honoring a killing that was a product of that writer's imagination. *
MORE ON SFBG.COM: Johnny Ray Huston's illustrated look at the Vertigo tour
This book is not for the faint of heart, but it really nails so much about wrong with the wonderful global economy we live in that I found it to be an...moreThis book is not for the faint of heart, but it really nails so much about wrong with the wonderful global economy we live in that I found it to be an essential read. Coming from a background of both divinity school and covering war zones for two decades for the New York Times, Hedges has the journalistic and intellectual chops that too many leftie screeds described as books lack. That said, he may come off as hammering readers over the head a bit hard in his critique of the society of the spectacle, especially in his critique of professional wrestling and trashy Hollywood movies. But while he may occasionally paint his attack with overly broad brush strokes, he does back up his arguments pretty exhaustively in most cases. If the opening about professional wrestling comes off as a bit self-righteous or humorless, I recommend sticking with it anyway, the critique of the financialization of the U.S. economy is right on time and gives so much good useful detail for understanding where we are now that it's a must read. Also a good resource for tightening one's arguments when there are opportunities to fight back against the current status quo.
The chapter on porn is really depressing and hard to read -- I had to skim it. But even though I live in the "I'm empowered by stripping" capital of the U.S. (San Francisco), I have to say I agreed with Hedges's conclusions about the intrinsically destructive nature of the "sex industry" whole-heartedly.
The critique that it didn't offer solutions doesn't sing to me, as I'm sort of tired of simplistic lefty templates that push one course of action or another. Though I understand how it might sound corny to the point of being intolerably cloying, I felt his championing of the ultimate power of love despite all convincing. I was glad he didn't insult his readers's intelligence by implying that there is one true alternative path that will save us.(less)
Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted exposes western blind sides in relation to Islam
By Ben Terrall Tamim Ansary is a gifted writer whose 2002 memoir West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story is a must-read for anyone wanting to know more about Afghanistan. In this funny, touching book, Ansary, son of an Afghan father and American mother, recalls growing up in a traditional village and later traveling to the United States, where he wound up at Reed College in Portland, Ore., then moved on to San Francisco.
In his new book Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (PublicAffairs, 416 pages, $26.95), Ansary sets out to fill the noticeable Islamic gap in English-language world histories. Ansary concedes Edward Said's point that the West's view of Islam has been highly "Orientalist" — prone to emphasize sinister "otherness." But, Ansary writes, "more intriguing ... is the relative absence of any depictions at all." While working as an editor on a world history textbook for U.S. high schools, Ansary fought for inclusion of more Islamic history. His colleagues on the project were less than receptive. In the end, Islam was the focus of just one of 30 chapters. Ansary writes: "In short, less than a year before September 11, 2001, the consensus of expert opinion was telling me that Islam was a relatively minor phenomenon whose impact had ended long before the Renaissance. If you went strictly by our table of contents, you would never guess Islam still existed."
Destiny Disrupted is a one-stop antidote to that problem. The prose is fun to read, often graceful and never dull, and steers clear of academic jargon. If school textbooks aspired to this level of writing, there would be fewer bored, uninspired kids in the world.
Ansary is adept at culling from and distilling dense histories to present an Islamic view of world history that acknowledges and teases out various competing strains of Islamic thought. The book presents Islam not only as a religion, but as a social project that takes on political and economic questions and includes a complete system of civil and criminal law. Ansary doesn't have one particular ideological ax to grind, and is clearly a secular, cosmopolitan intellectual comfortable with ambiguity, paradox, and nuance. He refrains from excessive editorializing, but is also not afraid to call a spade a spade when he's discussing massacres, wars, or imperial conquest.
Here's Ansary on Egypt in the 1930s: "Egypt would get an elected parliament, but this parliament's decisions must be approved by British authorities in Cairo. Beyond these few points, Egypt was to consider itself sovereign, independent, and free. Egypt quickly developed a full-fledged (secular modernist) independence movement, of course, which offended the British, because why would an independent country need an independence movement? Didn't they get the memo? Apparently not."
Ansary doesn't apologize for the harsher aspects of Islamic fundamentalism. In one of the book's more depressing passages, he writes that he doesn't see how the Muslim "divided world view" on separation of the sexes can coexist in a single society with more Western ideas of gender mingling. Ansary doesn't offer a solution to that conundrum, but calls for Muslim intellectuals to grapple with it. Unfortunately, the thinkers he cites doing such work are Iranians now largely discredited in their own society as the U.S. ratchets up pressure on their homeland, tainting anyone associated with Western ideas.
As President Obama continues George W. Bush's policies of military occupation in Afghanistan, it's to be hoped that books such as Destiny Disrupted and thinkers like Ansary inspire Americans to start thinking about the Muslim world in new ways. Ideally, these new approaches won't include aerial bombing of civilians and other forms of "collateral damage."
This didn't knock my socks off the way Abbott's first two books did, but there's a lot going on in this book that kept me ripping through the pages. T...moreThis didn't knock my socks off the way Abbott's first two books did, but there's a lot going on in this book that kept me ripping through the pages. Though not literally, I don't do that to library books.
There's quite a bit of sexual obsession that consumes the main (heterosexual female) character that reminded me of parts of Abbott's previous novel, Queenpin. I think what I like most about this book is that Abbott gets down a lot of period detail circa 1930, an era she's not touched on in her previous books. She's quite an impressive writer, no doubt about it.(less)
Swanberg is very critical of Time co-founder Henry Luce, but provides copious examples to support his critique of Luce's approach and his various blin...moreSwanberg is very critical of Time co-founder Henry Luce, but provides copious examples to support his critique of Luce's approach and his various blind spots. He also makes the occasional acknowledgment of Luce's better qualities.
Here's a nice quote from Swanberg (pp.386-387): “…the underlying purpose of Time’s committee-and-meatgrinder system seemed to be to simplify and facilitate the doctoring of news. […:] No news publication was so error-ridden over the years as Time on the committee system. The system had long, long since proved ineffectual in its original purpose of ensuring accuracy. Time’s retention of it suggested appreciation for a method permitting convenient departure from the truth.”
I found Luce's admiration of Mussolini fairly shocking; Time was also fairly blase about the danger of Hitler before the beginning of WW2. It was always about the threat of godless communism that got Luce's lather up.
In 1934 Luce gave a speech in Scranton, Ohio where he said the following: “The moral force of Fascism, appearing in totally different forms in different nations, may be the inspiration for the next general march of mankind.” What a guy.(less)
Atwood keeps the action moving nicely while also maintaining a nice tone of jaundiced cynicism that doesn't preclude decent behavior and good instinct...moreAtwood keeps the action moving nicely while also maintaining a nice tone of jaundiced cynicism that doesn't preclude decent behavior and good instincts on the part of the fuck-up out of luck private eye hero who, like Philip Marlowe as played by Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet, gets knocked out with alarming frequency. Nice contemporary touches include a Bernie Madoff-type Wall Street ponzi scammer and several celebrity heroin enthusiasts, and young women on the run from sleazy Russian kiddie pornographers.
Nice turns of phrase throughout and only occasional clunky sentences that could have used editing(less)