Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

An Appetite for Violets

Posted by nliakos on January 17, 2019

by Martine Bailey (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2014)

This is a really fun read, full of interesting historical tidbits from the setting (England, France, and Italy in the 1770s). The narrator/main character is Biddy Leigh, under-cook at Mawton Hall, near the Welsh border. Biddy (short for Obedience) is a delightful character, bright, hardworking, loyal and passionate. The reader cannot help but like her and be drawn in to her story–and what a story!

After the master of Mawton, Sir Geoffrey, marries Lady Carinna Tyrone, who is Biddy’s age (early twenties) and at least 40 years younger than her husband, Biddy’s life is upended. Her intended marriage to the local heart-throb, Jem, must be postponed while she travels with Lady Carinna; Carinna’s snobbish and unfriendly lady’s maid Jesmire; her footman, the Batavian slave Mr Loveday; and Sir Geoffrey’s steward, Mr Pars to London, Paris, and finally Tuscany to Villa Ombrosa, Carinna’s uncle’s estate. Biddy quickly makes friends with Mr Loveday, but she mistrusts and/or dislikes her remaining traveling companions, although she feels somewhat sorry for the sickly Carinna and promises to help her out of a difficult situation. Helping Carinna involves impersonating her to the lecherous Count Carlo, which leads Biddy to Carlo’s cook, Renzo Cellini. Renzo and Biddy, both lovers of good food and cooking, have much in common, but Biddy is afraid to tell Renzo who and what she really is. . .  until she has no choice.

Each chapter includes a recipe, and I was fascinated and sometimes repelled by the dishes described, like Viperine wine (To make a potent brew to prolong life and promote vitality drown several vipers in your wine and drink as you require) and Manus Christi (First take your sugar clarified and melt it in water of roses. Seethe these two till the water be consumed and the sugar hard, put in four grains of crushed pearls and precious stones, made in fine powder, then lay it in cakes on a marble stone anointed with oil of roses and lay on your gold.)

In addition to Biddy’s chapters (supposedly from a journal she kept in an old book of recipes given to her before she left Mawton), there are third person chapters from the perspective of Mr Loveday, letters from Mr Pars to his brother, and one extraordinary chapter (the first) about Carinna’s brother’s fruitless search for his sister in Villa Ombrosa, reminiscent of Miss Havisham’s creepy wedding banquet in Great Expectations.  There are many unexpected twists and turns to the story, but everything gets sorted out in the end. I loved it.



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Runaway Amish Girl: The Great Escape

Posted by nliakos on January 14, 2019

by Emma Gingerich (Progressive Rising Phoenix Press, 2015)

I was watching random online videos the day before yesterday, and I came upon this Megyn Kelly interview of Emma Gingerich, who was raised in an ultra-conservative Swartzentruber Amish community in Ohio and Missouri but left the community at the age of eighteen. Gingerich had written a book about her experiences, and the e-book cost only $4.49! So I bought it and started reading immediately (what I love about e-books–the ultimate impulse buy!). It’s very short, only 132 pages, and not particularly well-written; but one can make allowances for this courageous young woman who never felt like she belonged in her family or her community, and who risked everything for the freedom to drive, to go to college, to listen to music, to think for herself and to make her own decisions about dating and marriage. After all, she never had to speak or write much English until she left her Amish life behind. She had to enroll in English classes like any international student. Of course, she had to get her GED before she could fulfill her college dream; Amish schools go only until the eighth grade. She had to get a job to support herself. She had to learn how to do everything, from shaving her legs to driving a car to being a student to applying for financial aid to saying no to people who asked her for money, and much much more.

She was raped but overcame her trauma and shame to go to the police and pressed charges against her rapist, which resulted in his incarceration and later deportation, though when it happened, she writes, “I did not even know what it was called. I did not know anything about sex, which made the horrific experience even more difficult to explain to anyone, even if I had wanted to.”

In the first part of the book, Gingerich describes her life in the Amish community, where “dating” consists of chastely sharing one’s bed with a young man; this is tolerated by the parents, although they do not tolerate their unmarried daughters engaging in conversation with young men. She describes the chores she had to do, the clothing she had to wear, the pranks she pulled, the trouble she was always getting into because she would not follow the strict rules of the community, and her large family, who never really communicated with one another, let alone showed one another love.

The last few chapters focus on Gingerich’s escape, aided by acquaintances who took her in and helped her with the immediate transition (a roof over her head, getting new clothes, learning about deodorant, etc.). Soon she relocated to southern Texas, where she focused on learning English and getting an education: first the GED, then a community college degree, then a Bachelor’s (followed by a Master’s, which was in progress when the book came out). In these chapters, Gingerich also tells about her relationship with her family after she left, which surprisingly (to me) was never cut off entirely. She visited them in Missouri several times, including attending her brother’s wedding. I would have thought visiting would be discouraged, and indeed it wasn’t easy, but it did happen, and her parents seem never to have given up hope that she would return to the fold–something Gingerich never wanted to do for a minute, despite all the challenges of life “outside”.


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The Japanese Lover

Posted by nliakos on January 5, 2019

by Isabel Allende (Atria 2015)

I went to the library the other day and picked out three novels off my to-read list–really unusual for me. I needed to take a break from all the seriousness of The Color of Law and similar books. It’s interesting how no matter how awful truth is, it doesn’t make me cry, but I’m a sucker for tear-jerker fiction.

The Japanese Lover is about passion, friendship, racism, injustice, trauma and its lingering effects, Japanese internment camps during World War Two, sex trafficking and internet child pornography, homosexuality and AIDS, aging and death. Deep stuff. Alma Belasco, saved by her doomed parents who sent her out of Poland ahead of the Nazis, has two loves in her life: one, Ichimei Fukuda, is the son of her aunt and uncle’s gardener, while the other, Nathaniel Belasco, is her cousin. Her feelings for them are strong and deep, but very different. Irina Bazili, a young Moldovan fleeing an abusive past, comes to work in the nursing home where Alma has gone to live, to the dismay of her wealthy family. Alma’s devoted grandson Seth is immediately attracted to Irina, who holds him at arm’s length. These characters and others have their own chapters as Allende weaves together their individual stories into a tapestry that spans almost a century. For example, she follows the Fukuda family to a hastily converted race track where thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans and immigrants where held until the Topaz internment camp opened in the Nevada desert, where they spent the remainder of the war, having lost everything they had worked for in this most shameful episode in our history. Allende brings this history to life and makes us care about each character, even the minor ones.


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The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Posted by nliakos on December 30, 2018

by Richard Rothstein (Liveright Publishing Corporation, a Division of W. W. Norton & Co., 2017)

Color of law refers to an act done under the appearance of legal authorization, when in fact, no such right existed. It applies when a person is acting under real or apparent government authority. The term is used in the federal Civil Rights Act, which gives citizens the right to sue government officials and their agents who use their authority to violate rights guaranteed by federal law.  <> 

In this book, Richard Rothstein argues that segregated neighborhoods all over the United States resulted not from de facto segregation (incidentally, due to the decisions of millions of individual private home-buyers), but from de jure segregation: racist governmental policy. As such, it violates African-Americans’ constitutional rights under the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and we now have the exceedingly difficult task of remedying the situation.

Chapter 1, “If San Francisco, Then Everywhere?” – examines how the federal government segregated the northern California city of Richmond during the Second World War. It looks in particular at the life of Frank Stevenson of Louisiana, who came to northern California to work in the shipyards and other war industries. Richmond, supported by the FHA, built whites-only housing for war workers; African-American workers were not permitted to take advantage of this housing and instead were forced to find shelter wherever they could. This usually meant sub-standard housing, over-crowding, and very long commutes.

The story of Ladera, where my aunt and uncle raised my two cousins, illustrates what happened in many places. A cooperative of mostly white Stanford faculty purchased a tract of land next to the campus, intending to develop it with affordable housing. But because there were a few African Americans in the cooperative, banks refused to lend them the money to develop the land because the FHA refused to insure the loans. The cooperative eventually admitted defeat, and the land was sold to a private developer, who built the whites-only subdivision where my relatives lived.

Chapter 2, “Public Housing, Black Ghettos”, tells the sorry story of public housing projects, originally conceived during the New Deal to house white people. Public housing was segregated from the beginning, and black people were only allowed to live in segregated housing, which was never adequate and, being separate, was never equal (after Brown v. Board of Education, the general counsel of the Housing and Home Finance Agency claimed that the decision was not applicable to housing).  As the suburbs were developed and white people moved out of public housing projects, black people were slowly permitted to move in; the projects were never built in majority-white communities to begin with, as it was easy for anyone who disapproved to stop construction. So after a while, public housing only existed in black communities, and only served black people–and served them poorly, with few services and poor upkeep.

Chapter 3, “Racial Zoning”, describes the development of Jim Crow in the South following the end of Reconstruction, as well as the increasing mistrust and hatred of African Americans which developed in other parts of the country. Woodrow Wilson, who grew up in the racist South, then segregated the federal workforce when he became president in 1913. Examples of early government-sponsored housing segregation include Baltimore, Atlanta, St. Louis, and many others. During this period, blacks were not permitted to live on majority-white blocks, and whites were forbidden to buy on majority-black blocks, so over time, these blocks, and later neighborhoods, became more and more segregated. Then the resulting majority-black neighborhoods were rezoned for industrial use, and they turned into undesirable, unhealthy, over-crowded, poorly served places–slums, where African-Americans were stuck.  The 1917 Supreme Court case, Buchanan v. Warley, ruled against racial zoning laws (not because the justices found segregation to be wrong but because they believed white owners should be able to sell to whomever they pleased) but was widely ignored.

Chapter 4, “Own Your Own Home”, examines the push by the Hoover administration to get white Americans to buy homes in the newly developed suburbs rather than rent them, subsidized by HOLC (Home Owners Loan Corporation), FHA, and VA loans, which were unavailable to African-Americans. Not only that, but the FHA refused to insure loans in African-American or integrated communities. If they could qualify for loans at all, African-Americans were eligible only for installment plans known as contract loans, which did not let the borrower accumulate equity and enabled the lender to evict a family for missing even a single payment. In this way, white people were on their way to accumulating wealth as their property values rose; African-Americans were excluded not only from white neighborhoods but from this opportunity to increase their worth. The discriminatory policies were clearly laid out in the FHA underwriting manual. Rothstein points out over and over that these and other indications of racist guidelines in government agencies constitutes a clear violation of African-Americans’ constitutional rights under the 13th and 14th amendments.

Chapter 5, “Private Agreements, Government Enforcement”, considers federal government tolerance of exclusionary practices such as restrictive covenants, which prohibited sales of homes in certain neighborhoods to people of color. Though these covenants were already illegal, neighborhood associations, realtors, and local governments figured out ways to get around the law. Those blacks who bought in segregated white areas were forcibly evicted. In 1948, another Supreme Court ruling, Shelley v. Kraemer, held that the enforcement of restrictive covenants by state courts to be unconstitutional. As with Buchanan, this decision was widely ignored as government at all levels continued to turn a blind eye to violations. For example, if covenants did not contain explicitly racial language but effectively excluded African-Americans from moving into majority-white areas, the FHA continued to approve loans for white buyers and to finance new segregated developments, while “redlining” other neighborhoods zoned for African-Americans where loans would never be approved.

Chapter 6, “White Flight”, is about the self-fulfilling prophecy that people of color moving into an area inevitably caused property values to decrease, and how unscrupulous speculators called “blockbusters” callously and deliberately panicked white homeowners into selling their properties at below-market prices so that the speculators could later sub-divide the properties and rent or sell them to African-Americans at inflated prices (because housing was at a premium in African-American neighborhoods, they routinely paid higher prices for comparable dwellings). If property values fell, it was due to the FHA’s prejudicial policies. Rothstein writes, “In the end, whites fled these neighborhoods, not only because of the influx of black families, but also because they were upset about overcrowding, decaying schools and crime. . . . But black contract buyers did not have the option of leaving a declining neighborhood before their properties were paid for in full–if they did, they would lose everything they’d invested in that property to date. Whites could leave–blacks had to stay.” (p. 97)

In Chapter 7, “IRS Support and Compliant Regulators”, Rothstein says that the IRS was complicit in the segregation of America because it continued to grant tax-exempt status to institutions (churches, universities, hospitals. . .) that “promoted residential segregation”. In addition, government regulators tolerated racial discrimination in the banks and businesses that they supervised. Many examples are given of church officials and others who actively promoted racial segregation, but the IRS routinely ignored these cases. Banks had discriminatory loan policies through much of the twentieth century, but the FDIC under Eric Cocke and others declined to intervene. Some discriminatory activities have persisted into the present century; for example, the preponderance of subprime mortgages in African American communities, which were the hardest-hit when the housing bubble burst in 2008. Homeowners of color who lost their homes were forced back into slums. Rothstein writes that “borrowers should have been more careful before accepting loans they could not understand or reasonably repay, but they were victims of a market that was not transparent–in some cases deliberately not so.”

Chapter 8, “Local Tactics”, focuses on “the extraordinary creativity that government officials at all levels displayed when they were motivated to prevent the movement of African-Americans into white neighborhoods.”  They denied access to public utilities, suddenly decided to zone housing sites for parks, built highways through and around African-American neighborhoods to isolate them, condemned properties, manipulated zoning designations, and more. Examples in California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Michigan, Florida, New Jersey, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina support this claim.

Chapter 9, “State-Sanctioned Violence”, describes how white mobs rioted, burned crosses, vandalized homes, threatened bodily harm, firebombed homes and otherwise violently resisted African-American encroachment into segregated white areas while police looked on or actively aided and abetted the perpetrators. Rothstein pointedly remarks, “During the mid-twentieth century, local police and the FBI went to extraordinary lengths to infiltrate and disrupt liberal and left-wing political groups as well as organized crime syndicates. That they did not act similarly in the case of a nationwide terror campaign against African Americans who integrated previously white communities should be deemed, at the least, complicity in the violence.” (p. 148)

Chapter 10, “Suppressed Incomes”, considers all the governmentally-supported ways in which African-American incomes were kept low, resulting in less accumulation of wealth and a resulting inability to buy into the housing market. These included denial of access to free labor markets in the post-Reconstruction South, exclusion from most labor unions and subsequent inability to apply for many categories of jobs because they were not union members, discriminatory hiring practices during both the Second World War and the New Deal (e.g., the TVA, NRA, and CCC), keeping workers of color in menial positions without possibility of advancement (even when they had acquired skills in the  military that should have made them eligible for higher level jobs), lack of enforcement by the National Labor Relations Board and the Fair Employment Practices Committee (whose first chairman, Mark Ethridge, was an avowed segregationist–kind of like putting Scott Pruitt in charge of the EPA).  In some cases, African-Americans fought back, but the discrimination was so widespread that it was very difficult to make real progress against it. Furthermore, HUD over-assessed the value of African-American homes and under-assessed the value of white ones, effectively subsidizing the white homeowners on the backs of the black ones; and blacks routinely paid higher rents than whites, with the result that they needed more wage-earners per unit to pay the high rents, another factor in over-crowding.

Chapter 11, “Looking Forward, Looking Back”, contrasts the relative difficulty of desegregating public transportation and accommodations, workplaces, and voting with the more complex task of desegregating neighborhoods: “Ending de jure segregation of housing requires undoing past actions that may seem irreversible.” Reasons for this include multi-generational poverty (the concept of American upward mobility is a myth, but even more so in the African American than in the general population), injustices in the tax code (e.g., homeowners get tax breaks, but renters don’t), and federal subsidies for low-income housing that perpetuate segregation.

Chapter 12, “Considering Fixes”, suggests more or less feasible ways to get ourselves out of the mess we have created with de jure segregation (“Many of our serious national problems either originate with residential segregation or have become intractable because of it.”). First, Rothstein considers it imperative that all Americans understand the role that governments (federal, state, and local) have played in this debacle, starting from the history books our teenagers learn about our history from, two popular examples of which barely mention the government’s role in creating and sustaining our uniquely American form of apartheid. Other suggestions include a ban on zoning ordinances prohibiting apartment buildings in suburban neighborhoods, encouraging “inclusionary zoning” ordinances such as the one we have here in Montgomery County, Maryland; loss or decrease of homeowner tax deductions in communities that are not actively working to encourage integration; increased housing subsidies for lower income families that choose to move to integrated areas; and expanding the Section 8 voucher program. (“The housing subsidy that the federal government gives to middle-class [mostly white] homeowners is an entitlement; any homeowner with enough income to file a detailed tax return can claim a deduction both for property taxes and mortgage insurance. The government does not tell homeowners that only the first few who file can claim the deductions and the rest are out of luck because the money has been used up. But that is how we handle the Section 8 subsidy for lower-income [most African American] renters.” (p. 209) But Rothstein does not minimize the difficulty in setting right this enormous wrong that has been done in our name, by our elected and appointed officials, to a group of citizens whose only fault was to be of African descent.

Rothstein ends the last chapter as he began the first one: with the family of Frank Stevenson. He muses, “What might have become of these Stevenson grandchildren if their parents had grown up and attended school in an integrated Milpitas, not in a de jure segregated Richmond? . . . How much farther on the socioeconomic ladder would they have been able to climb if they had grown up in a well-educated household as a result of [their mother] and her sisters being permitted to attend a high school that was designed for students ‘who can profit from the academic program’, rather than one that instead offered manual training? How different might the lives of the Stevenson grandchildren have been were it not for the federal government’s unconstitutional determination to segregate their grandparents, and their parents as well? What do we, the American community, owe this family, in this and future generations, for their loss of opportunity? How might we fulfill this obligation?”

In the Epilogue, Rothstein opines that as a nation, we (whites) have deluded ourselves into thinking that we are not responsible for these patterns of segregation. He observes what might have been had government acted differently and promoted integration rather than segregation. He believes that before we can begin to remedy the problem, we must first accept responsibility for it.

Finally, in the “Appendix: Frequently Asked Questions:, Rothstein responds to some of the questions he has been asked since he began his research into this topic. For example, How can you hold people today accountable for what happened in the past? Why do you want to force people to integrate? Shouldn’t African Americans take responsibility for their own success? What about Hispanics and other minority groups who have suffered from racial prejudice? To each question, he gently but firmly reiterates his position that a great wrong has been done; we are responsible for that wrong whether or not we participated actively in it; and it is up to all of us to fix it as best we can.

This is an important book. Every American should read it! Certainly, it should be in the library of every Member of Congress, every Supreme Court justice, every federal and state judge, every state senator and delegate, every county executive and council member, and every mayor and city council member. To say nothing of the President, Vice President, and Cabinet members. (Not that this President would every read a book.)

N.B.: The current issue of the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance magazine features an interview with Richard Rothstein entitled “Segregation by Design”. You can read it here.

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The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story

Posted by nliakos on December 15, 2018

by Hyeonseo Lee with David John (William Collins 2015)

Born Kim Ji-hae in Hyesan, North Korea in 1980, Hyeonseo Lee had a happy childhood, despite her parents’ divorce when she was a baby. She was adopted by her mother’s second husband and was given a new name, Park Min-young, the second of the seven names of the title. She only learned of her true parentage when she was a teenager. Sadly, this knowledge resulted in her alienation from her (step-)father, who had raised her lovingly as his own child. He died before she was able to reconcile with him–the first of many heart-breaking losses and misjudgments that plagued her young life.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One, The Greatest Nation on Earth, describes Lee’s early life in North Korea, when she never questioned what she was told by her parents and teachers and actually believed that North Korea was the greatest nation on earth, that it was the South Koreans who were suffering and starving, and that all Westerners were ruthless devils. Chapter 4, “The Lady in Black”, describes how as soon as they start school, North Korean children are taught to worship the Kim family: The teachers read us stories of child heroes who’d fought the Japanese during the period of colonial rule in Korea, and legends from the boyhood of Kim Il-sung–of how he’d suffered for the people’s happiness even as an infant, giving away his own food and shoes to children less fortunate. Whenever the leaders were mentioned, the teachers adopted low, tremulous voices, as if they were intoning the names of living gods. The walls displayed photographs of Kim Il-sung as a young guerrilla; Kim Il-sung surrounded by smiling orphans; Kim Il-sung in his white marshal’s uniform, as the father of our nation. He was tall and striking, and his brave wife, Kim Jong-suk, who had fought alongside him, seemed like a lady from a folktale. It was not difficult to adore them. . . . Yet alongside the brainwashing is a widespread tolerance of smuggling, black markets and bribes, and Lee’s family benefits from this lax enforcement of the laws; her mother, in particular, does illegal business with Korean-Chinese on the other side of the Yalu River. The China-North Korea border, at least in this location, is as porous as any other border around the world. This surprised me. (Although I knew that many North Koreans escaped over that border, I guess I thought it was harder than it in fact is. For small children, especially boys, it is particularly easy, and according to Lee, there are no repercussions for crossing the Yalu to play with (Korean-)Chinese kids on the other side, and when done playing, the children simply return to their homes on the North Korean side. In fact, that is why Lee herself crossed just before reaching the age of majority; she knew she would not be punished.)

In Part Two, To the Heart of the Dragon, Lee, now almost 18, the age of adult responsibilities, thoughtlessly decides that she wants to see China, just across the river from her home in Hyesan. One December night, she walks across the frozen river and knocks on the door of one of her mother’s business contacts. From there, on a whim, she decides to go and visit some unsuspecting relatives in Shenyang, a large city eight hours away. One thing leads to another, and Lee realizes that she cannot go back home. She stays with her aunt and uncle in Shenyang for two years, and almost marries a Korean-Chinese man named Geun-soo, but she runs away before the wedding. Astonishingly (due to a combination of dumb luck and quick thinking), Lee manages to avoid the awful fate that entraps so many female North Korean defectors, learns to speak fluent Chinese, finds well-paying jobs, has a serious relationship with a rich South Korean businessman, and flies to Seoul to ask for asylum in South Korea.

Part Three, Journey into Darkness, chronicles Lee’s introduction into South Korean society and her risky, expensive rescue of her mother and brother. Again, a combination of quick thinking and extraordinary good luck results in eventual success, but there are moments when the reader is sure that this is going to end badly–only the photographs of the mother and brother visiting Chicago remind one that they must have prevailed. The story of their long journey through China, to a Laotian prison, and finally to South Korea is a fascinating one. But a more profound struggle awaits once they are “free”–discriminated against by South Koreans and ill-equipped to function in that fast-paced, ultra-competitive society, they both contemplate repatriation, despite its risks. Meanwhile, Lee’s relationship with her South Korean boyfriend ends, and she begins speaking out publicly about life in North Korea and her own personal story, culminating in a TED talk in 2013.

Years ago, I taught a student from North Korea. She was a rank beginner in English (a rare occurrence in today’s globalized world), so she was unable to tell me much about her story, but she did give me a short written biography that someone had translated into (poor) English for her. Like Hyeonseo Lee, she too was able to get her daughter out to join her in South Korea. When I asked how, thinking of the dangers for young women who escape to China and end up being trafficked as prostitutes or brides of poor Chinese farmers, she dismissed my question with one word: money. And Hyeonseo Lee’s story also shows that with enough money, one can do pretty much what one wants.

A really fascinating book. I tore through it as if it were a novel.

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One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet-Deported

Posted by nliakos on December 9, 2018

by E. J. Dionne, Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann (St. Martin’s Press 2017)

The authors claim that this book will leave the reader feeling more optimistic about our country’s future. I’m not sure that I feel particularly optimistic after reading it; the fixes they offer seem very daunting to me (e.g., strengthening civil society in America). But their basic premise, that the election of Donald Trump and the ensuing chaos have politicized a lot of people to fight to save the country, is certainly true for me. From a passive (and mostly uninformed) voter, I have been transformed into an activist. I am a more or less active member in many progressive groups. I regularly contact my Members of Congress to urge them to act one way or another on legislation and appointments. I have marched and rallied and protested at the White House, at the Capitol, in downtown Rockville and Frederick, and in Annapolis. I have signed hundreds of petitions. In the run up to the 2018 midterm elections, I canvassed, phone banked, led phone banks and canvass launches, and wrote postcards to voters. I have attended meetings and made donations. I can hardly recognize myself, but I know I am a better citizen now than I was. But are there enough of me, and can we maintain our outrage and energy for another two years? Dionne, Ornstein, and Mann are hoping that there are and that we can. I hope they are correct. The alternative is too horrific to contemplate.

Quick chapter summary:

Introduction: When a Crisis Is an Opportunity: The Perils of Trumpism and the Call to Engagement – The purpose of the book is to encourage citizen engagement in the resistance to Trumpism. There is an overview of the coming chapters.

Part One: Trump and Trumpism

  1. Trumpian Misconceptions: What Trump’s Election Meant, What It Didn’t, and Why Trumpism Doesn’t Own the Future – The election was extremely close, and the majority of Americans do not like or support Trump. The support of the fabled base is diminishing (in early 2017). As the American population becomes more (sub)urbanized, the Electoral College system negates our 1-person/1-vote democracy by awarded more power to rural voters in more sparsely populated areas. (Ditto for the Senate)
  2. When the Truth Doesn’t Matter: The Crisis of the Media and the Rise of “Alternative Facts” – “In the battle against Trumpism, the fight for truth may be the most important struggle of all.”  They discuss the issues surrounding the state of the (mainstream) media and point out how the idea that the mainstream media are not objective but “liberal” is not new but began in the 1960s. They mention false balance, the idea that media outlets must give voice to an equal number of conservative writers, commentators, and panelists who do not share professional journalists’ dedication to objective reporting. The rise of FM radio left AM stations without programming, a dearth that was quickly filled with conservative talk shows. These people eroded the public’s trust in the media, until we reached the point where we are now, when Americans get their information from entirely different news sources. The Internet offered expanded options and put traditional television stations and newspapers and magazines on the defensive with shrinking funds to pay for the kind of reporting we depend on to get the facts. Opinion is much cheaper than the “journalism of verification and fact.”
  3. Bad Behavior: The Disappearing Norms of American Politics” – How Trump personifies the loss of civilized behavior and tolerance of opposing views. Violations of uncodified norms (expectations of social behavior), like Trump’s constant lying and name-calling, inspires others to adopt the same behaviors, but the norms were already being violated before Trump came to power. The authors quote Rod Dreher: “George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and movement conservatism bulldozed the field for Trump without even knowing what they were doing.” They discuss the role of parties in American politics and party norms; Newt Gingrich and the rise of tribalism; Mitch McConnell and his breaking of Senate norms; and the unprecedented attacks on President Obama as the GOP sought to delegitimize his presidency. All these contributed to the belief of many citizens that our democracy was broken. Then Trump came to power and magnified all these negative things.
  4. A Penchant for Authoritarianism: How Trump Intimidates Opponents, Promotes Kleptocracy, and Challenges the Rule of Law” – Name-calling, tweeting, admiring autocrats and strongmen, denying facts, attacking the media and the intelligence community, violating the Constitution and other laws (explanation of the famous emoluments clauses), conflicts of interest, judicial responses, responses to judicial responses: how Donald Trump “combines incompetence with autocratic instincts”. Musings as to whether our institutions can survive this.  The authors are hopeful that the resistance to Trump, which began so forcefully the day after his inauguration with the Women’s March, will contain his worst abuses and will be supplemented by a quiet show of resistance from within his administration (e.g., leakers, which we have already seen in the months since the book came out)
  5. Phony Friend of the Working Class: Trump, “Populism,” and the New Politics of the Far Right – Trump the campaigner vs. Trump as President: “true to his nativist promises” but not to his promises on trade and the economy: “Where money was concerned, his populism was bankrupt.” Details of the #TaxScam, rolling back of rules and regulations constraining big industries from maximizing profits to the detriment of public health and safety, the fight to repeal the ACA.  Musings on populism (“a philosophically slippery concept”): its history and Trump’s use of it as a marketing strategy. Breitbart and Steve Bannon (“Trump used the Bannonites and the populist nationalist right to win the election. They used him to get to power.”).
  6. Race, Immigration, Culture, or Economics? The Complicated Motivations of the Trump Voter –  addresses the legitimate gripes of the white working class and reminds us that we cannot ignore them. Increases in immigration have historically been accompanied by increased anti-immigrant policies. The authors examine the reasons for the decline of the Rust Belt and American manufacturing. Trump’s use of racism, immigration backlash, the fears of older voters, and his astonishing popularity with white Evangelicals, who relinquished their focus on morality to support Trump. Much of Trump’s support came from people motivated by economic distress.                                                                                                                 Part Two: The Way Forward
  7. With Opportunity and Justice for All: Building a New Economy Here the authors admonish the American “governing class” that  their past behavior brought about the disaffection of a large number of Americans who have been “left behind” in the era of globalism, and they challenge us to use our ingenuity to better distribute the benefits of the wealth of this country (“the challenge of shared prosperity”). Social mobility is way down; inequality has reached a new high. Conservatives don’t want to acknowledge that there has never been a time in our history when government was not involved in/did not constrain business at all. (We saw unprecedented growth between 1940-1970 despite increased government involvement to protect workers’ and consumers’ rights.) Corporations need to realize that increasing value for shareholders is not their only concern, because social capital is necessary if democratic capitalism is going to survive. While we cannot recreate the past, we can restore the public-private partnership we once had, if we are realistic about what government can achieve. The authors suggest a Charter for American Working Families (decent jobs and housing, health care coverage that includes treatment for mental illness and addiction, education, reasonable working hours, freedom from discrimination, fair and efficient law enforcement, security in retirement, opportunities for career advancement), with a GI Bill for American Workers (protection, training, education) and a Contract for American Social Responsibility (new standards for corporations). Supporters of Clinton and Sanders, moderate Republicans and Independents, whites and people of color, and younger and older people must unite in coalitions to fight against Trumpism and for what is right. “Progressivism without a robust economic agenda will be neither attractive nor credible.” There is some discussion of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) but the authors doubt that it could replace programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. They mention some proposals that have been put forward already.
  8. Yearning to Breathe Free: Discovering a New Patriotism – It’s important to be clear about our vision for our country (diversity, shared values and ideas) and to distinguish between that patriotism and Trump’s nationalism (blood, soil, ethnicity). Trump’s disdain for America and for our best and brightest is contrasted with his adulation of dictators and demagogues. The important role immigrants have played in America’s success throughout our history is emphasized, We need to have “a new patriotism built on a capacity for empathy” (“a mutual, universal obligation to try to understand the situations in which others find themselves and the complexities of their thoughts and feelings”).
  9. Our Little Platoons: The Urgency of a New Civil Society –  This chapter talks about the importance of community in people’s lives (and the nation’s life) and how it has deteriorated since the 1970s: fewer people belong to a church, a union, a league, a club–leading to a “weakening of civic culture”. This civic culture must be rebuilt somehow if we are to regain people’s trust in our institutions. On a positive note, organizations play a major role in the resistance movement; religious institutions, law firms, scholars, environmental organizations, etc. have all stepped up to meet the challenge in different ways. The authors propose more place-based policies to help Americans in need because these help to maintain community ties. Service programs like AmeriCorps can play a vital role in developing empathy and understanding. Schools, community colleges, colleges and universities should double as community centers/”hubs of local engagement”.
  10. What “Draining the Swamp” Really Looks Like: Bringing a New Democracy to Life –  The right to vote is the most basic part of a representative democracy, so our most urgent task right now is to fight efforts to suppress voting rights. Besides updating and strengthening the eviscerated Voting Rights Act, we should schedule Election Day on the weekend and making it a national holiday, facilitate early voting, offer online registration, update our voting hardware, and consider universal or mandatory voting (like in Australia). One section focuses on the Electoral College and the challenge of getting rid of it when the low-population states it benefits would surely refuse to pass a constitutional amendment. Lacking an amendment, the authors suggest two possible ways to cripple it: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact  and the enactment of “instant runoff” systems. Another section discusses gerrymandering and proposes several possible ways to solve this problem. Another talks about reforms to the Congress and the Supreme Court. Finally, executive branch challenges like protecting the integrity and autonomy of the civil service must be tackled. Finally, the problem of too much money in politics could be dealt with by requiring full disclosure, empowerment of small donors through a 6-to-1 matching system or providing each voter with an amount of money to assign to political campaigns (I am proud to note that two Maryland lawmakers, Chris Van Hollen and John Sarbanes, have sponsored legislation to do just that.)
  11. “Show Up, Dive In, Stay at It”: Building One Nation After Trump –  The final chapter focuses on the various elements of the resistance movement: the Women’s March and the other marches of 2017 (Tax, Climate, Science), all of which I participated in; the Indivisible Movement; Daily Action; and Eric Liu’s Citizen University. The necessity to unite behind the Democrats to defeat Trump and Trumpism is noted, not because the Democrats are always right or deserving but because the Republicans have abdicated their right to be part of the solution. But the authors hold out hope that conservative voters and thinkers, if not for their present representatives in the Congress, will join the rest of us in standing up to Trump and Trumpism. The authors advocate “a new politics. . . that takes seriously the need to solve the problems that Trump has exposed. It will reclaim our country’s faith in the future and its natural inclination toward hope. And it will nurture our dedication to the raucous but ultimately unifying project of democratic self-government. For it is our shared commitment to republican institutions and democratic values that makes us one nation.”


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Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran

Posted by nliakos on November 30, 2018

by Shirin Ebadi (Random House 2016)

Judge, lawyer, human rights activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi tells the story of her attempts to get the Iranian government to uphold their own laws, first in Iran (even after many of her compatriots had fled abroad), and subsequently from outside the country, where she now lives in exile. Believing that her status as a Nobel Prize winner will keep her safe, she takes many risks to help those who had been unjustly arrested or imprisoned. In response, the government targeted her sister, her husband, and her two daughters; her daughters had to leave Iran, and her husband left her (a heart-breaking tale of persecution, entrapment, blackmail, and imprisonment that eventually broke his spirit). Ebadi refused to give in, knowing that if she allowed herself to be silenced by threats to her family, the threats would only escalate. She and her husband lost their property in Iran, the place Ebadi still sees as her home and which she swears she will return to some day. And they lost their 35-year marriage.

Along the way, we get some basic information about Iran’s recent history and politics. Ahmedinejad, Rafsanjani, Rouhani, and others are differentiated and fleshed out a little. We are also introduced to some of the many courageous activists working within and outside of Iran to resist against the excesses of the regime, such as Noushin Khorasani,  and Haleh Esfandiari. And there is the Ministry of Intelligence  officer Mr. Mahmudi, Ebadi’s “nemesis”, who hounds her and her family mercilessly, trying to get her to stop speaking truth to power, as they say.

Sometimes she begins a paragraph by describing a particular day, a place, the weather; the reader tensely awaits something awful, like an attack on her life or the arrest of one of her daughters. These things usually don’t materialize. But the cloud under which she herself lived in Iran and the arrests of so many of her colleagues and staffers, as well as the description of her husband’s treatment in prison, is horrible enough and constitutes the most powerful aspect of the book in my view.

Ebadi discusses elections,  women’s rights, the plight of the Baha’i religious minority, the so-called Arab Spring, Iran’s support of Shi’a rebels in countries such as Syria and Yemen, and more, and describes how her views on Iran’s right to develop its nuclear power program changed after she spoke at length with Rebecca Johnson and other anti-nuclear activists at an international conference she attended in Belfast.

For American readers, it is a chilling reminder of what can happen under a dictatorship that cares nothing for the basic human rights of the people, where there are no free media or elections, no women’s or individuals’ rights, no freedom of expression–none of the freedoms and rights we in the U.S. take for granted, but which Donald Trump and others would like to take from us.


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The Violinist of Venice: A Story of Vivaldi

Posted by nliakos on November 21, 2018

by Alyssa Palombo (St. Martin’s Press 2015)

I was in the library, looking for Red, by Orhan Pamuk. It wasn’t on the shelf, but my eyes strayed over to Palombo, and I saw two historical novels by the same author: one about Botticelli and the other about Vivaldi. Those looked interesting, kind of like The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which I loved, so I borrowed one.  The Girl with the Pearl Earring this is not, but it held my attention for about 24 hours. Palombo’s narrator is the musically talented, stubborn, eighteen-year-old Adriana d’Amato. Having read that some people believe that Anna Girò, the much-younger woman whom Vivaldi was rumored to have had an affair with, was in fact not his mistress, but his daughter, Palombo imagined who the mother and actual mistress might have been, and came up with Adriana, who approaches Vivaldi one dark night asking for secret violin lessons, which ultimately culminate in a scandalous love affair between this daughter of a wealthy Venetian social climber and the Red Priest.

In addition to Adriana and Antonio, there is a bastard brother, an abusive father, faithful servants, BFFs Vittoria and Giulietta, various suitors (the older, boring senator; the handsome, fabulously wealthy son of a great Venetian family), the eventual children who are all beautiful and musically talented…. Except for the impossible relationship with the composer-violinist, Adriana turns out to have a pretty cushy life. And things happen without much fanfare. Palombo doesn’t bother to build her story line slowly. (In two sequential sentences, Adriana’s half-brother Giuseppe begins courting her widowed friend and marries her eighteen months later.) Everything is tied up neatly and efficiently: for example, unwanted spouses conveniently die so that would-be lovers can marry, and the bastard child given up for adoption magically reappears to study singing with Vivaldi.

There’s rather a lot of sex. . . .  no bodices are actually ripped, but there’s a lot of passionate attraction among Venice’s beautiful young people (and a few lecherous old ones too).

And Adriana seems more like a liberated young woman of today, insisting on making her own choices (like nursing her babies and composing music) even when those are not done in her society. Another author quoted on the cover, Roberta Rich, proclaims the novel “realistic”. That’s not an adjective that came to my mind while reading it!

It wasn’t deep, but it was a satisfying read in a way. I can’t claim I didn’t finish it.

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Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Posted by nliakos on November 19, 2018

by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik (Dey St., an imprint of William Morrow Publishers, 2015)

Having recently seen the documentary based on this sort-of-biography (three times! And I could easily see it again), I decided it was high time I read the book. The book did not disappoint. It’s not exactly a biography in the sense that it’s not a chronological narrative of RBG’s life. Instead, the chapters each focus on a different aspect of that life, such as her family background, her education, her marriage,  her early work as a professor and ACLU lawyer leading the Women’s Rights Project (WRP), her friendships, her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993, her best-known opinions and dissents (helpfully annotated for better appreciation), and so on. There are plenty of photos of the justice as a child, a (beautiful) young woman, and an older woman, as well as images of drawings and other art depicting her, documents and letters, memes, even a couple of pages of various women (and one baby) dressed up to look like her, with her iconic glasses and lace collars and (sometimes) a crown. It was an entertaining and informative read (even though not much was new to me, as I had seen the CNN movie and read so many reviews and articles about her). I guess RBG is such a hero, and her story is so amazing, that I never tire of hearing it/reading about it/watching it. A new biography by Jane Sherron de Hart has just come out, so I will probably eventually read that as well. (The WaPo review of that one indicated that RBG’s official biographer is still at work on the official one.) And there’s a biopic called On the Basis of Sex, directed by Mimi Leder with Felicity Jones as a young RBG, that also came out this year. Lots to put on my to-read and to-watch lists!

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The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Posted by nliakos on November 15, 2018

by Deborah Blum  (Penguin 2018)

The “one chemist” of the title is consumer advocacy pioneer Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who headed up the Bureau of Chemistry at the Department of Agriculture from 1882 to 1912. Wiley fought to protect American consumers from mislabeled, adulterated, dangerous foods and medicines for his entire adult life. But The Poison Squad is not just about Wiley; it is also the story of his many allies (e.g., Willard Bigelow, lead chemist for Wiley’s early research into common food additives like sodium benzoate; and Henry J. Heinz of ketchup fame, who was an early advocate of preservative-free foods) and enemies (e.g., John Queeny, founder of Monsanto and a staunch defender of the unlabeled use of saccharin in food; and James Wilson, Secretary of Agriculture and Wiley’s boss, who often caved to industrial demands and suppressed Wiley’s findings and reports). (Blum helpfully provides a 9-page alphabetical cast of characters at the beginning of the book–I wish that all non-fiction writers did the same!) Scientists and journalists, novelists and cookbook authors, politicians and suffragists and consumer advocates on the one side, and industrialists, bureaucrats, different politicians and even presidents on the other–a great battle was waged for many years over the regulation of America’s food and drug supply. Interestingly from our perspective, around the turn of the 20th century, Democratic and Republican roles were reversed. The Democrats were the bad guys, supporting industry demands to be able to freely adulterate foods to cheapen production and increase profits, while the (progressive) Republicans were on the side of consumer safety.

Though the politics has changed, that battle continues today. Just one example is saccharin, one of the deleterious additives targeted by Wiley a century ago, which is still readily available on supermarket shelves now despite the finding that it “has a physiologic effect . . . in every place, in every cell.” (It was briefly banned in the 1980s but was unbanned in 2000.) Despite convincing scientific evidence, the food industry has continued to fight for the right to poison the public, as long as it increases their profit margin.

Wiley focused both on banning harmful substances in food, drinks, and medicines, and on truthful, complete labeling and advertising, so that consumers could know what they were buying and ingesting. He was also a dedicated feminist. He married late in life (not for lack of trying, but his wife, Anna Kelton, refused him when he first proposed, when she was in her late twenties and he about twice that). He was an enthusiastic supporter of his wife’s political activism in the suffragist movement. (Favorite quote, when Anna was arrested and jailed for political activity: “He had fought all his life for a principle and hardly could deny her the same privilege.”

Wiley was uncompromising in his zeal to clean up the food supply and get rid of false claims about medicinal properties. Time and time again, he courageously stood up to his boss (and to his boss’s boss, the President) and to his numerous detractors and opponents. One cannot help but admire him.

Reading about the long years of struggle before the first Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) and the ensuing struggle over writing and enforcing the regulations, I was reminded of the seemingly never-ending struggle for gun control legislation. The National Rifle Association plays the role of the food industry executives who shamelessly attacked those who were trying to protect the public. Organizations like MomsRising and Every Town for Gun Safety and individuals like Jim Brady and Gabby Giffords and the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas students play the roles of Harvey Wiley, Alice Lakey, Sinclair Lewis, Lincoln Steffens and so many others who refused to admit defeat despite numerous losses. The only way to combat this incessant greed, it would seem, is to persist, no matter how long it takes. Once the legislative battle is won, however imperfectly, we must gear up for the regulatory battle. And with Donald Trump in the White House, even regulations that have long been in place to protect consumers are being rolled back to the detriment of consumer safety and to the delight of the  industrialists (such as gun manufacturers and food/beverage/drug industry tycoons). The fight against the food and drug industries is never over, as Blum shows in her Epilogue. We must be forever vigilant.

This book is a fascinating and educational read. I highly recommend it, but I would advise you not to read it over lunch!

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