Below are a few short description of books I have read recently. I have grouped them into fiction and non-fiction categories. This past year I joined a couple book clubs at the Hedberg Library, our excellent public library here in Janesville, Wisconsin. Most of the fiction listed below comes from the book clubs. I want to thank Nikki Bolka and Beth Webb, the two librarians who lead the book clubs, for recommending several superb selections listed below.
Kristin Hannah, The Great Alone (2018)
In this gripping novel, Kristin Hannah has created the story of Lenora Albright and her family. In the telling, Hannah presents several themes. These include a serious and seemingly realistic portrayal of domestic abuse. I have never read an account of domestic abuse as immediate and as terrifying as the one presented here. Also, the author provides a rich description to the wonder of Alaska as seen through the eyes of the newcomer. Included in the description of the spectacular natural beauty of the place is also a presentation of the struggle for survival against the elements when nature reveals itself in all its fury. In touching scenes with a sense of immediacy the author also presents the experience of first love, becoming a parent, the loss of family members, desperation and loneliness. I am tempted to suggest that the central theme of the work concerns the effects of domestic abuse on the lives of those involved, and while I recognize the importance of this theme for the novel, I am also inclined to suggest that a more enduring theme is the hope and perseverance engendered by the complex relationship between love and life experience.
Christine Mangan, Tangerine (2018)
Set in Tangiers in 1956, this novel is a psychological thriller that tells the story of two young women, Alice Shipley and Lucy Mason. The story begins one year after they have been college roommates at Bennington in Vermont when Lucy shows up at the home of Alice in Tangiers. Since Alice last saw Lucy, she married John, a rather uninteresting person who, while essential to the plot line, remains a blank to the reader. The story is told from the first person view of Alice and Lucy, each perspective alternating between chapters. As the novel progresses, the reader suspects that the narrators are unreliable, that both are psychologically deranged and seemingly dependent upon each other. At several points in the novel I wondered if they might be one and the same person with a split personality. Needless to say, tension builds between the friends and murder is in the offing. It turns out that one of the friends is a psychopath and the other is helpless.
The tale exhibits several timeline issues and at least one crucial episode is left hanging with no resolution nor explanation. The author’s style of writing is descriptive, yet I never felt the background of Tangiers added much to the narrative with the possible exception that it added a noir element to the tale.
Colleen Faulkner, Finding Georgina (2018)
This a novel of intense emotional interaction among the characters. Georgina, a two year old, is kidnapped. She lives with who she thinks is her mother until she is sixteen when she is discovered by her biological mother. Appropriate legal steps are taken and Georgina is returned to her biological parents. The person she thought was her mother is arrested and is held in a women’s correctional facility. The story really begins with the integration of Georgina into her biological family which consists of her mother and father who are divorced and her sister, Josephine. The story is narrated by first person accounts of the main characters, except for the father who is never heard from directly. This approach is engaging. Over the years when her daughter was missing, the mother, Harper, became something of a neurotic in that she was overprotective of her remaining daughter, Josephine (JoJo). She is more so with Georgina once she is reunited with the family. Josephine is a fourteen year old girl with the concerns and anxieties of a normal teenager. She doesn’t know how to behave as a sister and is generally perplexed by the arrival of a new family member. Georgina (Lilla) is traumatized by the nightmare she now finds herself in. When she was found, she was happy with her life. Suddenly, she is inserted into an entirely new reality. The author handles the ensuing drama with skill. I recommend this book.
Nathan Ripley, Find You in the Dark (2018)
If you want to read a book about a guy who secretly digs up murder victims as a hobby and calls the police when he finds them with taunts about why they are not doing their jobs, then this is the book for you. It was not the book for me. The main character, Martin Reese, is rich and apparently has time to maintain his hobby. He is also married with a child. Interestingly, his sister in law is one of the victims he is looking for, and presumably, this is a motive for his activities. I personally found him creepy and unpleasant with his explanations for his hobby unconvincing. He apparently has serious personality defects. Without going into details, his activity goes off the rails and he becomes a pawn of the murderer he is trying to catch. The conclusion of the book is predictable, but he is not redeemed in any true sense. My suggestion is to find something else to read.
Steve Hamilton, The Lock Artist (2010)
This is the story of Michael, a teenager who was traumatized when he was eight years old and has not spoken a word since. For some reason Michael develops a fascination with locks. Over time he takes them apart, learns how their mechanisms work, and becomes proficient at opening them without a key. He also develops the same facility with combination locks, even the high end ones used on safes. He is the lock artist.
The ability to open locks has little cash value except to criminals. When local thieves discover Michael’s talents, he is recruited into their circle and he then finds out that he is not free to leave the crime underworld. It is around these basic facts that the story is created.
The book is written entirely as a first person narrative from Michael’s point of view. All we ever know about the other characters comes from MIchael’s description of them and his reports of their conversations. Some readers will find this approach a bit tedious. Michael, after all, is a teen-ager with teen-ager thoughts. Along the way he makes decisions that adults might never make, and consequently, he winds up in deep trouble.
This tale is a quick read. Readers who enjoy suspense and tense moments will like the book.
David Williams, When the English Fall (2017)
This is the fictional story of an Amish community near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Narrated by Jacob, an Amish farmer, through a set of his discovered notes, he recounts the events after a severe solar electrical storm that destroys all communication equipment, the electrical grid, and most engines that employ electricity. While the Amish community remains relatively untouched by the event, the surrounding society (referred to as “the English” by the Amish) collapses. In fairly short order desperate people among the English resort to violence to obtain food and necessities. Knowing that the Amish are well stocked for the coming winter, some of the English attack the Amish, killing several in the process. How the Amish cope with the ensuing crisis becomes the focal point of the story.
One approach to an understanding of the novel is to consider it a “state of nature” tale, in which the true nature of human beings is shown once civilization collapses. Similar to the scenarios presented in Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Dickey’s Deliverance, the characters of the story find themselves facing grim circumstances as they struggle to survive. Unlike the conclusions of Golding’s and Dickey’s novels, however, Williams does not reveal the outcome of the story. Readers are left to themselves to decide how the tale ends.
Williams has crafted a masterfully told story. He does not tell the reader everything, thereby increasing the level of uncertainty about the future. In this approach he places the reader in a position similar to that of the characters in the story as they make their own decisions about how to cope with crisis. This is a provocative and excellently constructed work.
David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017)
This book documents an important episode in the social history of the United States. Before reading the book, I knew nothing about the events described. In summary, this work documents the large number of murders of the members of the Osage tribe of Native Americans that occurred in the 1920’s in Oklahoma. The Osage had been previously given a reservation of dry and rocky land on which to live. As it turned out, the land was found to contain enormous amounts of oil, which in turn made the Osage a wealthy tribe indeed. Due to racist policies, however, the Osage were not allowed to manage their own financial affairs. Each owner of a headright on oil land was required to have a white person or person with a substantial portion of white blood be his or her financial manager. This situation put the Osage in an extremely vulnerable position and from this circumstance the story unfolds.
Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964)
Published in 1964 this is a masterful work in the history of ideas and political sociology. Hofstadter undertakes the history an anti-intellectualism, a major cultural trait in the United States, from the beginning of the republic until the present day. Hofstadter argues that while the Founding Fathers of the United States were themselves intellectuals, by the 1820”s anti-intellectualism became a dominant cultural trait in the country. It was the early spread of evangelical religion, especially by the Baptists and Methodists, that contributed enormously to the anti-intellectual culture. Economic and social developments in the 19th century also mitigated against the intellectuals in public life. The generation of the founders was eclipsed by the increasing preference for practical intelligence versus intellect. The decline of the the gentleman in American political life relegated intellectuals to the sidelines leaving them alienated from the mainstream of American society. After the period of reconstruction after the Civil War, intellectuals re-emerged as reformers of government, those who were desirous of the implementation of a meritocracy within the civil service. But these men were largely estranged from the working classes and the industrial leaders of the nation. It was not until the New Deal and the need for genuine expertise in the newly developed industrial economy that the intellectual once again found a role in the centers of power. Nonetheless, anti-intellectualism emerged as a dominant cultural trait after World War II in the midst of rapid industrial development. Hofstadter concludes the work with reflections on the state of the intellectual in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Alienation features prominently in this discussion.
Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1955, 1992)
This is an important work in the history of American political and social thought. Social Darwinism is the transposition of Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution on to society. It was Herbert Spencer, the British social philosopher, who initially formulated the doctrines associated with social Darwinism. In the United States social Darwinism was propounded by William Graham Sumner, a devotee of Spencer. Hofstadter traces the arguments of Spencer, Sumner, and their supporters. Spencer coined the phrase, “survival of the fittest,” to describe those who were the most successful economically in society. Possession of wealth was a sure sign of superiority over the less fortunate in society. According to Spencer and Sumner, those who succeeded economically did so through economic competition which was the arena for the evolutionary struggle for survival in human society. This doctrine struck at the heart of the ideology of the equality and dignity of all human beings. Its followers argued for strict laissez-faire economics and the avoidance of state programs to help the poor.
Hofstadter traces the decline of social Darwinism as it faced the philosophical movement of pragmatism, especially in the writings of William James and John Dewey. It also lost influence as it came into conflict with the emergence of a new sociology advocated by scholars such as Lester Ward and Thorstein Veblen who distinguished between the ends created by biology and those created by human beings who possessed consciousness. Whereas Darwin’s theories might apply to animals whose ends are determined blindly by biology, his ideas do not apply to human beings whose ends are determined by themselves.
Hofstadter points out that while the doctrine of social Darwinism fell by the wayside, reflections of it could still be found in American thought in the first half of the twentieth century. The doctrine of “manifest destiny” used to justify American militarism depended in part on the notion of the survival of the fittest. A number of American statesmen, including Theodore Roosevelt, were likewise advocates of manifest destiny and the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race.
Hofstadter died in 1970 at the age of fifty four. Had he lived longer, he would have seen the emergence once again the emergence of social Darwinist ideas in the political arena among the new conservatives now in control of the Republican Party in the United States.
Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965, 1996)
This work is a collection of essays. It is divided into two main sections. The first is entitled, “Studies in the American Right” and the second section is “Some Problems of the Modern Era.”
The lead essay in the first section (1965 edition) is “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter writes that in American history there have been several movements on the left and right, but mostly on the right that have had “paranoid” elements in their thought. He notes that he purposefully uses the term “paranoid” in a negative sense. Some of these elements are the belief in a “central image . . . of a vast and sinister conspiracy . . . to undermine and destroy a way of life.” To combat these conspiracies an “all out crusade” is necessary. In the true believer’s view the struggle is “apocalyptic,” a matter of life and death which cannot end in compromise but only in total victory. In the struggle, “time is forever just running out.” Examples of these characteristics were voiced by members of the John Birch Society and the followers of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Hofstadter is careful to point out that these movements have never been the mainstream of American politics, and they have always been in a minority of political actors. One wonders if that observation would hold if Hofstadter were writing this essay today.
The remaining three essays of the first section of this collection concern the politics of the “pseudo-conservative.” Hofstadter coins this term to describe what today might be referred to as the nineteenth century liberal or the anti-statist liberal. The belief system is characterized by laissez-faire economics with a strong defense policy. The free market is given a central role in determining social policy from this perspective, although in a contradictory fashion, elements of social conservatism find their way into a variety of social issues. One of the three essays concerns the politics of Barry Goldwater as an exemplar of a pseudo-conservative.
Entitled “Some Problems of the Modern Era,” the second section consists of three essays. The first of these concerns manifest destiny, the second the antitrust movement, and the third uses the biography of Coin Harvey to discuss the free silver versus the gold standard controversy. For anyone who has had difficulty understanding this episode in American history, the third essay is recommended reading.
Steven Brill, Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall – and Those Fighting to Reverse It (2018)
This work by Steven Brill is an important contribution to our understanding of the major changes in the socio-economic structure of the United States over the past 50 years. Brill’s point of departure is to suggest that the major significant division in United States society today is not between the political right and left as many of his contemporaries would suggest, but rather between the protected and the unprotected. The protected is that extremely small segment of society that really does not need government services except for public infrastructure and national defense. They are the financial elite who are financially and legally secure without external assistance. The unprotected, in contrast, are the rest of us who use government protections, public schools, and legal protections afforded by banking regulations, contract law, and civil rights legislation. In Brill’s view, the protected have structured the financial and legal systems to their advantage and to the disadvantage of the unprotected. This division of U.S. society has solidified over the last fifty years. How did this happen?
Brill recounts the financial, legal, and cultural changes in both law and finance that have made the current situation possible. Starting with Milton Friedman’s edict that companies are responsible to their stockholders and not to their employees, Brill takes the reader on a historical tour of the development of junk bonds, mortgage backed securities, credit default swaps and synthetic default swaps. On the legal side of the issues, Brill discusses the legal history that led up to the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (2010) Supreme Court decision that declared corporations persons with free speech rights, hence allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns.
Other developments over the past fifty years include the demise of labor unions, the abuse of due process by corporations who delay legal proceedings for years, the globalization of trade, the disastrous trade deal for U.S. labor concluded by Bill Clinton with China, the development of a dysfunctional democracy including the failure of constitutional checks and balances, the tendency of social media to polarize politics, the development of bureaucratic inaction and incompetence, and why nothing works.
Brill also details the development of “moats” that isolate the protected class from accountability. These include banks that are too big to fail and financial leaders who are too big to jail. Other topics in this arena include arbitration clauses that limit corporate liability, anti-price bargaining legislation for Medicare to protect the pharmaceutical industry, the income tax code that is designed to protect the rich, and the elimination of the Glass-Stegall Act and the erosion of the Dodd-Frank Act designed to regulate the banking industry.
The end result is a society expressing much less faith in government than fifty years ago. In the words of Robert Putnam as discussed in Bowling Alone, social capital has declined substantially in the United States since the 1970’s. For most people there is much less sense of belonging to community and nation, much less social and political efficacy among the population than before.
Brill concludes on an optimistic note, indicating a number of resources available to citizens who wish to change the existing social and economic structure. Nonetheless, under our existing legal and constitutional structure, the future for a genuine democracy appears bleak.