one summer: america, 1927

I remember seeing One Summer: America, 1927 when it first came out and being somewhat interested, but at the time I was intimidated by it’s length and I had mixed feelings about the one other book I had read by Bill Bryson before, A Walk in the Woods. But I’m less freaked by long books now, and this seemed like a great one to listen to on audio. Edited from Goodreads:

The summer of 1927 began with one of the signature events of the twentieth century: on May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to cross the Atlantic by plane nonstop, and when he landed near Paris, he ignited an explosion of worldwide rapture and instantly became the most famous person on the planet. Meanwhile, Babe Ruth was beginning his assault on the home run record. Al Capone tightened his grip on the illegal booze business through reign of terror and municipal corruption. The first true “talking picture,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, was filmed and forever changed the motion picture industry. All this and much, much more transpired in that epochal summer of 1927. In that year America stepped out onto the world stage as the main event, and One Summer transforms it all into narrative nonfiction of the highest order.

Bryson was matter-of-fact with the events, with a little bit of observational humor thrown in but not interjecting his own views, and not sugarcoating the bad stuff. As a reader in 2018, I couldn’t help but notice it’s largely about white men… however, yes, this book is about a very specific span of a few months of one particular year. And the major achievements and events that took place then were certainly carried out by white men. However! I appreciated that Bryson exposed these men for who they were—Lindbergh wasn’t the American hero the press made him out to be. He was bland, rude, and had secret mistresses (and children) in Germany. Coolidge couldn’t be bothered to do much, if anything, during his presidency. Henry Ford was a stubborn anti-Semite. And I loved learning about Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the U.S.’s second-ever woman assistant attorney general, and first woman to head the Tax Division. She came up with the idea of investigating tax evasion as a way to prosecute major criminal figureheads, which was used to bust Al Capone in 1931.

I learned a lot from this book. One thing leads to another. For example, I had no idea about the anarchist movement at the time, the example used here was the 1927 electric-chair executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, convicted of murder and armed robbery. Bryson profiles the executioner, Robert Elliot, who was basically America’s most prolific killer, if you want to look at it that way, and you learn about the rise of the electric chair. He also executed Ruth Snyder in 1928, convicted of killing her husband the summer of 1927. So then you learn about Snyder and her case… which made headlines in the brand-new type of news magazines, tabloids…

There’s so much more. The season of arguably the best baseball lineup ever, the 1927 Yankees’ Murderer’s Row, as well as the rivalry between Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. The development of tabloids and the popularity of barnstorming (wild stunts that enthralled huge crowds, like flag-pole sitting). The rise of cinematic “talkies” just at the peak time of Broadway. The first national radio broadcasts and the invention of television. The beginnings of Mount Rushmore. Jack Dempsey’s historic boxing career and his final fights in 1927. Eugenics and the horrifying, unnecessary (but, at the time, totally legal) sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans.

I was especially captivated by the baseball (I had a mild obsession with Babe Ruth as a kid), organized crime and Al Capone, and the achievements of early aviation. Bryson does a wonderful job placing everything in context so you understand exactly how monumentally historic and important this time was, setting up what led to the events of summer 1927 (showing how America was woefully behind Europe regarding flight innovations, for example) and then laying out their lasting effects. This is a fascinating, engaging book!

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

reading recap: february 2018

I’m pretty sure I’m out of that slump and funk now, by the end of February. I had a great month of reading, much better than January. Almost all of these were audiobooks. Since I knew the end of my membership to my library back home in Kansas City was ending in February, I wanted to capitalize on using it as much as possible. I was pretty pleased to get some highly anticipated new releases, as well as discovering some new gems I hadn’t heard of before.

My favorites were easily Dark MoneyOtis Redding, and Broad Strokes, with Shark Drunk close behind. I’m happy I stuck with writing up posts after finishing books here throughout the month too!

Other bookish stuff… I started The Left Hand of Darkness for my Best Friends International Book Club and quickly DNF’d. It’s just not for me. I have trouble getting into high sci-fi fantasy in general, and I could barely follow the story. I didn’t know who was who or what was happening most of the time. Anthony, my book club buddy, DNF’d too, saying, “So many words I don’t know how to say, let alone keep track of. And the narrative voice doesn’t resonate with me; I can’t understand where I am in almost any given sentence.” Some people have the right kind of mind for elaborate, made-up words and worlds, some don’t. Our first-ever BFIBCDNF! I also bought two new Singaporean small-press books, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century and The Infinite Library.

Right now I’m reading Homegoing (for BFIBC and the TBR Pile Challenge), The Summer That Melted Everything (TBR Pile Challenge), and SQ21.

Otherwise, I’ve been spending time drawing and trying to get out of the apartment more. I went to see the Museé d’Orsay impressionism exhibit at the National Gallery of Singapore last week, which was fantastic, saw the amazing  Black Panther movie, and also bought a new bass!! It’s a Fender American Elite Jazz Bass. I’m in love.

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dark money

My first book for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge! I bought Dark Money by Jane Mayer right after the 2016 election, but put it off for the usual, dumb, distracted reasons. Edited from the back of the book:

The U.S. is one of the largest democracies in the world—or is it? America is experiencing an age of profound economic inequality. Employee protections have been decimated, and state welfare is virtually non-existent, while hedge fund billionaires are grossly under-taxed and big businesses make astounding profits at the expense of the environment and of their workers. How did this come about, and who were the driving forces behind it?

I’m not religious, but if I was ever asked, I’d say that the absolute worst of the seven deadly sins is greed. I’m just so infuriated that my country has basically become a plutocracy. I knew some of the basics before reading this, but I had no idea the sheer depth to which this shady network goes. The devastation this small faction of billionaires has inflicted on America is staggering, and I’m worried for the future.

This is the Libertarian Party platform David Koch ran for public office on in 1980:

It called for the repeal of all campaign-finance laws and the abolition of the Federal Election Commission (FEC). It also favored the abolition of all government health-care programs, including Medicaid and Medicare. It attacked Social Security as “virtually bankrupt” and called for its abolition, too. The Libertarians also opposed all income and corporate taxes, including capital gains taxes, and called for an end to the prosecution of tax evaders. Their platform called for the abolition too of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI, and the CIA, among other government agencies. It demanded the abolition of “any laws” impeding employment—by which it meant minimum wage and child labor laws. And it targeted public schools for abolition too, along with what it termed the “compulsory” education of children. The Libertarians also wanted to get rid of the Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, seat belt laws, and all forms of welfare for the poor. The platform was, in short, an effort to repeal virtually every major political reform passed during the twentieth century. In the view of the Kochs and other members of the Libertarian Party, government should be reduced to a skeletal function: the protection of individual and property rights. (pg. 57–58)

Sounds like complete and utter chaos to me. That would clearly result in two classes: the ultra-rich and the rest of us impoverished and starving in a destitute wasteland. It would be catastrophic if their ideologies and policies were enacted as real legislation, right? They lost the election badly that year (receiving 1% of the vote), but Jane Mayer goes on:

The Kochs were not alone. … they got valuable reinforcement from a small cadre of like-minded wealthy conservative families … Philanthropy, with its guarantees of anonymity, became their chosen instrument. But their goal was patently political: to undo not just Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal but Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Era, too. (pg. 59)

Terrifying. Almost 40 years later, it’s unfortunately working. Look at how conservatives and Republicans have attacked democracy and its institutions, intellect and knowledge, culture and the arts and humanities, diversity and anyone who is “other” than cishet white male… the list goes on. An entire swath of Americans have been convinced to stand by the GOP, no matter how deceitful, disloyal, corrupt.

One of the book’s sections that blew me away most was about how the Koch Brothers and their friends have spent countless millions of dollars fighting the factual reality of climate change/global warming. Skeptical scientists are hired to make vague or misleading statements to the public, and Republicans spout lies about climate change, that the average American will lose their jobs and way of life if we do anything to combat climate change. The audacity of the lies is mind-boggling, and so is how easily and quickly Americans fall for the lies.

I already knew much of Congress and many politicians at the local level have been corrupted by dark money from the Kochs and their ilk. I became aware of that especially during the gubernatorial election of Scott Walker and his raping and pillaging of my home state, Wisconsin, and also watching the collapse of Kansas’s economy under its failure of a governor, Sam Brownback. But what I didn’t realize until reading this book is how they’ve infiltrated our education system at every level. Here’s what happened in North Carolina when a conservative Republican majority, bought-and-sold by radical libertarians, took over:

They authorized vouchers for private schools while putting the public school budget in a vise … eliminated teachers’ assistants and reduced teacher pay … abolished incentives for teachers to earn higher degrees and reduced funding for a successful program for at-risk preschoolers. Voters had overwhelmingly preferred to avoid these cuts by extending a temporary one-penny sales tax to sustain educational funding, but the legislators, many of whom had signed a no-tax pledge promoted by Americans for Prosperity, made the cuts anyway.

North Carolina’s esteemed state university system also took a hit. … dug up professors’ voting records in an effort to prove political bias. … imposed severe cuts that were projected to cause tuition hikes, faculty layoffs, and fewer scholarships, even though the state’s constitution required that higher education be made “as free as practical” to all residents.

“It’s sad and blatant,” said Cat Warren, an English professor at North Carolina State. [Art] Pope, [NC retail magnate and a friend of the Kochs], she said, “succeeds in getting higher education defunded, and then uses those cutbacks as a way to increase leverage and influence over course content.” (pgs. 340–341)

And influencing course content not only in higher education but in grade school and high school as well. I feel pretty good about my public school education, but as an adult and life-long learner I’m shocked at some of the realities of America’s history that were left out or glossed over in my classes during my formative years. I hate thinking about how generations of Americans have been unwittingly indoctrinated to a business-first philosophy that actively demonizes social programs and the roles of government.

All of this comes back to greed for me. I will never understand how these people with more money than they and their children and children’s children could ever spend in their lifetimes, more money than average Americans could ever dream of let alone earn in a million lifetimes… why do these people think they need more money? Their money is buying political power, which they bend to their will so they can amass more money. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I don’t get it. Don’t they know that when everyone does better, everyone does better? What’s going to happen when the 99% and 99.9% and 99.99% have all died off and they are alone with their riches. Who will do the real-world work they refuse to do: clean, cook, build? Don’t they know that money doesn’t buy happiness? How would they know, though, when most of these billionaires buying political power were born into their riches. They simply don’t care. They just want more, they want it all. The pure GREED. It’s breathtaking.

You know what, fuck the Kochs. Fuck their greedy billionaire cronies. Fuck Mitch McConnell. Fuck Paul Ryan. Fuck the greedy members of Congress and local politicians who accept dark, dirty money and selling out their constituents and all Americans. Fuck radical libertarians. Fuck them for duping enough Americans into buying their selfish ideologies and into voting against their own interests. Fuck them for their systematic efforts to ruin our democracy, government, and society for their own outstandingly greedy benefit. I hope against hope that the pendulum will swing back to the left (even center-left, where most Americans’ ideologies lie) sooner rather than later.

While this is all very depressing and has left me even more livid than I ever thought I could be, I’m also encouraged by the protests and acts of resistance around the country since the election. Research. Read. Listen. Don’t take political ads at face-value. Don’t take anything on the internet at face-value. Have an open mind. Be critical. Question. Show up. VOTE in every local election—that’s where this dark money is having the most, harshest impact—not just once every four years.

We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.
—Louis Brandeis (epigraph)

Dark Money is my first of twelve books read for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

Listened to audiobook in January–February 2018.

mini-reviews: evicted, janesville, and how to speak midwestern

It’s no secret I’m very homesick here in Singapore. There is no place better or more beautiful on earth to me than my beloved home state, Wisconsin. I somehow manage to find connections to the Dairy State in almost everything—an actor in a random movie I know is from Green Bay, for example, or a singer of a song playing on the radio is from Milwaukee. And I love to celebrate all the great, wonderful things about Wisconsin: natural beauty, excellent sports, delicious food and beer, progressive political history, and more. That’s not to say I don’t recognize flaws and shortcomings in some Wisconsin systems, and I’m always interested in learning more about them and what can be done. Two new books in the last year along these lines were very high on my list, plus another one just for fun:

Evicted by Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer in General Nonfiction this year. It follows the author as he delves into destitute neighborhoods of Milwaukee and shares the intimate stories of a few poverty-stricken families living there on the brink, forced to spend the majority of their meager earnings on rent. They are adults raising kids, differently abled persons, drug addicts, and those mired in crushing debt, living in constant fear that one tiny mishap will destroy everything, and they’ll be evicted for falling behind on rent payments (because it has happened to them time and again), and may have to move to shelters or more dangerous areas… or end up homeless. Desmond outlines how people across the country find themselves in these precarious situations, and how the cycle viciously continues with virtually no relief in sight. It’s a personal, eye-opening look at the housing crisis, and how evictions, crime, segregation, and more are connected. I admired the tenacity of the tenants—they just want a normal, safe life, like everyone does. Of course they do! I’m just at a loss sometimes as to how the system so horrifically fails its people and turns a blind eye. This is an important, devastating work totally deserving of the Pulitzer, and one of the best books I read in 2016. [Listened to audiobook in November 2016.]

Amy Goldstein’s Janesville is an excellent companion piece to Evicted, but instead of the housing crisis, Goldstein examines the job crisis during the Great Recession, using the example of the closing of Janesville’s GM plant in December 2008 and its aftermath to today. She does a masterful job immersing the readers in this small industrial city during this time, following several families through the shock, frustration, and humiliation of losing good jobs these men and women thought were stable and were relying on until their retirement… and even seeing pensions disappear. Then being told to retrain in another field, only to find those fields weren’t hiring either, or hiring hundreds of miles away (can’t move, their homes have lost value and can’t sell)—finding themselves in impossible, no-win situations. How does this economic devastation divide a community? How does it try to heal and build again? This is an excellent look at the American dream and how difficult it will be to rebuild the middle and working classes after the upheaval of the Great Recession. [Listened to audiobook in June 2017.]

I read Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern in June last year to myself in the mood before my big trip home last summer. This is a fun, short book about the subtle differences in Midwestern accents and dialects. It also covers the history of how each regional way of speech developed—a blend of slight changes from the East Coast with adaptation of Scandinavian and North Germanic languages to English. I identified with some of all of it, but of course mostly with the parts about Wisconsin! [Read ebook in June 2017.]

mini-reviews: black earth and on tyranny

In the last year, I ended up reading two books by Timothy Snyder. One is a couple years old, one is brand new, and both are terrifyingly pertinent to what the United States is going through right now.

Black Earth is a dense and extensive look at the Holocaust, but is told not only as an historical account but also as a warning that the past isn’t so unrepeatable as we may think. Snyder delves into how the Holocaust began—as a dark idea within Hitler’s mind—and each step Hitler took towards attempting to achieve his vision. Military strategies, individual heroes, the dangers of statelessness, and of course the horrors of mass human slaughter are all examined here. Snyder’s warning comes as a conclusion that we in early-twenty-first-century America are facing similar ecological and ideological issues that Europe did in the early twentieth century, and missing the lessons of the Holocaust has endangered our national and global futures. We’re not as removed from Hitler’s supposedly incomprehensible world as we want to believe. It’s a bleak read, but necessary. [Listened to audiobook in October 2016.]

On Tyranny was released in March this year, hot on the heels of the inauguration. It’s a slim volume of twenty ways to defy fascism, the dismantling of democracy, and an authoritarian governmental takeover, citing historical (mostly European) examples from the twentieth century. It doesn’t go into great depth the way Black Earth does—it reads more like daily devotionals or meditations. But still, On Tyranny does serve as a reminder that there are ways to fight back. Some lessons included are refusing to normalize the situation, defending institutions, doing your homework when it comes to information, opposing a one-party state, paying close attention to words, believing in and defending the truth, reading, refusing to obey in advance, and making human connections. This is another excellent addition to the abundant response resisting this administration and time in U.S. history. [Read in April 2017.]