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Book Review: What Unites Us

What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner.

Because of Dan Rather’s long tenure at CBS News he reported on events that were important in my life and formative of a national consciousness such as one existed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His reflections on patriotism are staples of a certain view of the United States, one that is rapidly fading from sight. Rather’s framing of patriotism had hegemony for a long span. Such dominance is coming to an end. The frame has been broken.

There is a certain comfort in reading these essays. It is a false comfort because the United States has changed. We’ve entered a realm where, as Rather writes, what used to be valued no longer is. He asserts his view of patriotism is enduring. I remain skeptical.

We are a more diverse country where societal norms have broken down, resulting in an individualist, short-sighted view of what’s important. It’s everyone for themselves, exploitation of the commons on steroids, and wanton disregard for science that could prevent degradation of the environment.

In the crazy year 2020 has been with the coronavirus pandemic, ill-conceived foreign affairs, climate catastrophe, social unrest, and lack of proper governance, we need hope and Rather provides that. Yet it is not the hope we need. Looking forward our needs are more basic: survival is everything and our future survival as dominant species on the planet is in doubt.

In the maelstrom that is contemporary affairs What Unites Us is a fine meditation, a reminder of what once was. Reflection is important and useful, yet only if it spurs us into action to take care of ourselves and then work together with others in an increasingly integrated global society to improve our lot.

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Reviews

Book Review: The Hidden History of Monopolies

In The Hidden History of Monopolies: How Big Business Destroyed the American Dream, Thom Hartmann takes the reader from the founders’ fight against the monopoly of the British East India Company to the borking of the country by President Donald J. Trump.

Like his other Hidden History books, this one is a quick but important read for people who want or need to review the history and origins of today’s concerted, well-organized campaign by corporations to control commerce, government, and thereby our lives.

“Today, giant corporatism — the commercialization of just about everything at the expense of our civilization’s civic, spiritual, health, and safety values, and other conditions needed for the well-being of future generations confronting poverty, addressing planetary climate crises, and averting nuclear war — is crushing our democracy,” Ralph Nader wrote in the book’s forward. “It is corrupting our elections, and astonishingly enough, controlling the vast commons — public lands; public airwaves; vast pension and mutual funds; and industry-creating, government-funded research and development — owned by the American people.”

Thom Hartmann

We’ve heard the phrase “taxation without representation” as it pertains to the founding of the United States. Hartmann turns this around to what was really at stake: a monopoly on tea and other products sanctioned by the British government. It was concern with monopolies, the British East India Company specifically, not taxation that caused the Boston Tea Party. Founder Thomas Jefferson had monopolies on his mind even after the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789 according to Hartmann.

Nontheless, monopolistic practices grew during the 19th Century with the rise of industrialization. In his book The Robber Barons: The Classic Account of the Influential Capitalists Who Transformed America’s Future, Matthew Josephson described the rise of men like John D. Rockefeller, J. Pierpont Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie and others who pioneered vertical integration of companies, a form of monopoly. Their actions led to significant control over oil, railroads, steel making, coal mining, banking and other industries during the Gilded Age.

Beginning in 1887 with the Interstate Commerce Act, the U.S. Government began to regulate big business. It was followed by the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, and the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914. If the founders opposed monopolies and they formed anyway, it was the role of government to regulate them. Hartmann well-describes this history.

It was president Ronald Reagan, under the guidance of Robert Bork and the Chicago School economists, who began de-fanging antitrust regulations.

Many of us are familiar with the July 1, 1987 nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court and how Senator Ted Kennedy rose in the well of the U.S. Senate to oppose the nomination within 45 minutes of its being made. Previously, along with Milton Friedman, Bork pioneered the phrase, “consumer welfare.” It changed everything.

“In essence, (Bork) argued, it didn’t matter where a product was produced or sold, or by whom,” Hartmann wrote. “All that mattered was the price the consumer paid. As long as that price was low, all was good with the world.” The corollary was that business profitability was another measure of antitrust. Since Reagan the latter gained preeminence. This is referred to as the borking of America.

By the end of the book I became highly agitated and outraged that our government has become an instrument of corporations intent on shaking down the American people, giving any return on capital to a group of about 100 billionaires as Hartmann describes.

The Hidden History of Monopolies is written in classic Hartmann style and can be read over a weekend. If readers are concerned about banking abuses, dairy farmer bankruptcies, insulin price fixing, the cost of internet and telephone service, big agriculture, and more, Hartmann traces their roots to giant corporations and a systemic borking of America that deregulated business and freed corporations from constraints.

Highly recommend.

Don’t have time to read the book? Here’s a fifteen minute interview of Hartmann by David Pakman that covers some of it.

~ Written for and first published on Blog for Iowa.

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Book Review: Save Me the Plums

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl

I’d not heard of Ruth Reichl before a news reporter recommended this book. I had heard of Gourmet Magazine and have no memories of ever reading it.

I liked the book for these reasons:

It provides a window into the New York world of Condé Nast. As a Midwesterner New York seems exotic even though my brother in law lives there. It’s important to gain a broader understanding of the publishing world and to know something about it. Save Me the Plums provides that.

We all need some light summer reading to escape the sh*t storm our current politics, public health crisis, and climate crisis create in 2020. The food writing in Save Me the Plums is unlike anything I’ve read. While not sure of the attraction of something that tastes like sea foam, Reichl takes us into a world few of my cohort experience for themselves.

The book is well written and that makes a difference.

Recommend, especially if one is part of the broader American food movement. One wouldn’t want to be Ruth Reichl yet her story is interesting, different and valuable.

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Kitchen Garden Reviews

Book Review – A Cook’s Tour of Iowa

A Cook’s Tour of Iowa by Susan Puckett.

A Cook’s Tour of Iowa is a well-curated collection of culinary culture that represents a certain view of Iowa. It’s the picture Iowans can recognize. We also recognize many of the things mentioned as fading in cultural prominence.

As a resource for writing autobiography, the book conjures personal memories of Iowa things like the Grant Wood Art Festival, Maytag Blue Cheese, the African-American community in Buxton, Iowa, and many more. It is indispensable for that reason.

What is lacking is the diversity of what Iowa has become, even since 1988 when the first edition of A Cook’s Tour appeared. Our culture is also leaving behind things like VEISHA, Old Creamery Theater (no longer in Garrison, or Amana), and some of the festivals and events to which Puckett referred.

If we had an Iowa-themed dinner party, picnic or cookout, one might search the book’s contents for dishes to make for pure nostalgia. However, life in Iowa has become more than that.

I appreciate the work that went into A Cook’s Tour of Iowa. I may not open it often, but knowing it is there provides comfort as the food system changes along with the society that engendered it.

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Reviews

Book Review: The Hidden History Of The Supreme Court

Thom Hartmann Photo Credit – Thom Hartmann Website

The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America by Thom Hartmann is a quick but important read for people who want to review the history of the Supreme Court.

At 168 pages, the book takes readers through the founders’ vision of the courts, the Powell Memo, the growing influence of fossil fuels companies on the court, judicial review, and the constitution’s preference for property rights over human rights. Hartmann also covers the court’s involvement in key American movements and issues, including labor, abolition, racism, abortion, environmentalism, and the rise of the TEA Party. The final section of the book offers solutions to “save the planet, democratize, and modernize the Supreme Court. It’s a page turner.

“But isn’t Hartmann preaching to the choir?” engaged readers might ask.

What’s important about this book is it exists at all.

Blog for Iowa, and others like it in Iowa and around the country, rose up in the years after the 2004 general election offering an alternative voice to right wing talk radio, evangelical Christianity, and a media landscape where the Fairness Doctrine no longer applied and cable news companies gained hegemony with partisan, conservative messages 24/7. In addition to progressive national and state-based blogs, radio and television personalities competed to gain a progressive audience. Thom Hartmann is one who survived and thrived. He is currently the number one progressive talk show host in the United States according to the about the author section of the book.

The purpose served by The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America is presenting a narrative of the key elements of the Supreme Court’s history to a progressive audience.

So often ideas about the Supreme Court are formed by snippets of information in various media about specific decisions, the judicial nominating process, and groups like the Federalist Society which lobby the government for appointment of certain types of judges. Increasingly social media is a key driver for informing our opinions, yet it presents an incomplete picture. It is not enough. What has been lacking is a more comprehensive look at the supreme court told in language that is easy to understand. Hartmann delivers that and more.

Here’s a clip of Thom Hartmann reading from his book. The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America is available from the publisher and most places where books are sold.

~ First published at Blog for Iowa

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Living in Society Reviews Social Commentary Writing

Parade and Fragments

Sprayer in the Solon Beef Days Parade

A summer parade in Iowa is a chance to showcase lives for the entire community.

Farmers, restaurateurs, insurance agents, bankers, retailers, construction companies, government organizations and more cleanup their equipment and parade it through town handing out treats and small gifts along the route.

People line the street to watch, sitting on lawn chairs, standing under shade trees and chatting with friends on the sidewalk. It’s mostly for children yet adults get involved as well. Anyone can stand almost anything that marches by in the span of a couple of minutes.

Solon Beef Days Parade Watchers

I.

In 2013 our situation got dire. I had run out of money and held no job that paid enough. Not wanting to return to transportation, I took one low wage job after another to earn enough to get by. Most of the work involved standing on concrete floors, which precipitated a case of plantar fasciitis. Not only did my feet hurt, on a physician’s advice I gave up jogging after 37 years because of it. While the condition is resolved, it persisted until I left full-time work in 2018.

Expenses got delayed during this period, as did preventive health care. It wasn’t clear how tight money had been until I began taking Social Security benefits which brought relief.

II.

An Early Thanksgiving

The story begins with the proximity of relatives. Our maternal grandmother and grandfather made visits to our home. I never knew my paternal grandparents except in stories and photographs. As much as anything, my grandparent story is about my relationship with Grandmother from my earliest memories until she died Feb. 7, 1991.

We were lucky to have her with us for so long.

Grandmother had five children and 15 grandchildren. She spent more time with our family because of our proximity. She lived with us off and on during my early years, but eventually maintained her own apartment. In later life she lived at the Lend-A-Hand, a residence for women at the time, then moved to the Mississippi Hotel where she lived the last years of her life in an apartment until moving to the Kahl Home for a brief period. Grandmother had many sisters and a brother. We had a lot of relatives, or so it seemed.

III.

I read The Overstory by Richard Powers. It engaged in a way most fiction fails to do. The author must have spent an enormous amount of time researching trees, forests, and the culture around them. He wove them into a spellbinding narrative. I could go on gushing about the book, but just pick it up and read it. If you do, and are interested in the environment, I doubt there will be any regrets.

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Reviews

Summer Reading 2019

Lake Macbride

For the next five weeks I’ll be covering weekdays for our editor Trish Nelson who is on summer break. This is my seventh year to provide summer posts, and more than ten years since I began posting at Blog for Iowa.

Regular readers know my topics: politics, foreign affairs, the climate crisis, the Iowa legislature and nuclear abolition. I’ll contribute those types of posts and more as I compete to gain your interest in a busy media landscape.

While Iowa lakes struggle to maintain safe water quality for summer activities like boating, low impact water sports, and swimming, Lake Macbride experienced its first-ever public health warnings about microcystins produced by blue-green algae. Department of Natural Resources staff recommended people not swim in the lake because of high levels of toxins in the water. While the swimming ban was lifted, there is another traditional summer activity for those skeptical about the water’s suitability: reading a book. Following is a list of books readers might consider for summer reading.

I know the 720-page Mueller Report published by The Washington Post sounds like a lot and maybe a straight through reading isn’t for everyone. However, read ten pages per day and it can be finished in 2.4 months.

Willard “Sandy” Boyd, the fifteenth president of the University of Iowa, published a memoir this year, A Life on the Middle West’s Never-ending Frontier. He was university president when I was an undergraduate and graduate student. Boyd remains active as Rawlings/Miller professor of Law at the university and is president emeritus. The memoir offers his views of the role of a public university and how it evolved since he first worked at the University of Iowa in 1954. I picked it for my personal connection to Boyd, but there is a lot more to the memoir, especially if your interest is in higher education.

If folks haven’t read a history of the great migration of black citizens fleeing the south in the 20th Century in search of a better life, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson offers an option. After fifteen years of research and writing, Wilkerson published the book in 2010. It “examines the three geographic routes that were commonly used by African Americans leaving the southern states between 1915 and the 1970s, illustrated through the personal stories of people who took those routes,” according to her Wikipedia page. Knowing the history of the Great migration is essential to maintaining progressive values.

What is a single book to better understand the climate crisis? I found an answer in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. Fair warning: there is not much good news within these 310 pages. What the book does do is present a broad array of the effects of the climate crisis and how they impact us now and near term. Wallace-Wells seeks to address denial that climate change poses immediate consequences that are both ever-changing and happening in front of us. Required reading for anyone advocating a sustainable life on Earth. That should include almost everyone.

Democrats expecting a fair fight in the 2020 election aren’t playing by the same rules as Republicans. When we consider how progressive values might again gain dominance in American culture it is important to learn how we arrived at this Trump moment. Two books highlight how we got here and are worth reading: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (2016) by Jane Mayer, and Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (2017) by Nancy MacLean. When people talk about getting money out of politics they are just flapping their gums if they don’t understand how it got in. These two books provide that insight and are essential progressive reading.

It seems like yesterday I was having a cup of coffee with Kurt Michael Friese in Iowa City. It’s hard to believe he’s gone. In A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland Friese offers a guided tour of the slow food movement in the Midwest around 2008. While a little dated, the book is worth reading for the landscape of Midwestern local food it presents and people in the local food movement. It’s also a way to remember his work as a chef.

That’s what’s on my summer reading list. Feel free to share what’s on yours in the comments.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

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Kitchen Garden Reviews

Rainy Days and Smarshing it Up

Tray of spinach and lettuce seedlings ready to plant in the ground.

Early planting is done… then it rained.

The ground has been too wet for planting so Friday became a day for weeding and staking the sugar snap peas.

I moved seedlings from the garage to the dining room to protect them from wind and rain while I worked my usual shifts at the home, farm and auto supply store. They are back outside waiting for the ground to dry. There is a lot of gardening to do over the next four weeks.

While the grass dried I drove across Mehaffey Bridge to the BioVentures Center in the University of Iowa Research Park. A friend arranged an impromptu round table discussion of affordable housing centered around Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown’s trip to Iowa to support his wife Connie Schultz. Schultz interviewed author Sarah Smarsh at an Iowa City Public Library fund raiser in the county seat that evening.

The round table consisted of community leaders introducing themselves and discussing issues raised by the recent purchase of a mobile home park by a group of out of state investors. The new owners plan substantial rent increases which current residents can ill afford. My role was to listen and learn.

Sarah Smarsh is author of the memoir Heartland: Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. My brief review after reading it last year is as follows:

I was skeptical at first about the reach of this book about rural poverty, hard work, and economic injustice. Yet, I was drawn in to a world I knew existed but hadn’t been articulated in such words. Smarsh’s story resonates with how I was raised, and with much of what I see in rural Iowa today. It was a marvelous read.

Several of my farm friends attended the event. We gathered under the marquee of the Englert Theatre for a photograph. Those who read Heartland felt as I did, that it articulated something about modern life in the Midwest that had been missing. We also concurred that Smarsh had drawn a clear line between what she presented in the book and her personal life which was not up for public conversation. After discussing the book we told jokes and laughed (a lot) in the marquee light before finding our ways home.

Some political friends attended the fund raiser, including my state senator Zach Wahls and his biggest fan, Chloe Angyal. I complained to Wahls I couldn’t remove his bumper sticker from my aging Outback. “American made, baby,” he responded.

I met Angyal who is a contributing editor to MarieClaire.com. We discussed her arrival in the Hawkeye state where she is writing a series of dispatches (here and here) related to the first in the nation Iowa caucuses and the unprecedented number of women running for president. Originally from Australia, she relocated to Iowa from Manhattan. After surviving the polar vortex and one of our coldest winters in years, she said she likes it in Iowa.

I didn’t get the lawn mowed, which means another morning of waiting for grass to dry, followed by the long process of bagging it up then mulching the kale. The forecast is sunny and clear. Hopefully the rest of the apple blooms will open, followed by pollination. Fingers crossed. I’m ready for a solid day’s work in the garden after Friday night smarshing it up in the county seat.

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Reviews

Tallgrass Conversations – Book Review

“Prairie is among the most altered and threatened ecosystems in the world,” Thomas Dean of Iowa City wrote in a new book he co-authored with Cindy Crosby of Glen Ellyn, Ill. “Care of the world is always essential, and care arises from conversation.”

Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit was released April 22 by Ice Cube Press. It is a compilation of Crosby and Dean’s recent writing and photographs of tallgrass prairie in the Midwest. Organized in a series of 26 conversations, the book touches on many of the current issues pertaining to preservation and restoration of tallgrass prairie.

Prairie used to cover more than 85 percent of Iowa land, according to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Today less than one tenth of a percent of original tallgrass prairie remains in the state.

“Remnant prairie functions in a way we can’t replicate through planting prairie,” Crosby wrote. “We can educate ourselves about what we are losing. We can care for what remains. We can continue to plant prairie, then research, paint, write about and ensure tallgrass prairie is a part of future conversations about development, agriculture, and conservation.”

If one participates in the experience of tallgrass prairie as Dean and Crosby encourage us to do, it is decidedly cultural. They provide a window into current tallgrass ecosystems and their modern discovery and management. The authors want more writers and artists, poets and photographers to document what’s left of tallgrass prairie and enter into a conversation about what it means and what can be learned. They want to be partners in that conversation and the book serves as an example of how to begin.

“We hope you’ll enjoy seeing the various ways we invite you to think about some of these words and images that showcase the prairie spirit,” Crosby wrote.

To learn more about Cindy Crosby’s work, visit her website, Tuesdays in the Tallgrass: Exploring exterior and interior landscapes through the tallgrass prairie at https://tuesdaysinthetallgrass.wordpress.com.
Thomas Dean is senior presidential writer/editor at the University of Iowa, where he also teaches interdisciplinary courses.

~ First published in Issue 262 of Little Village

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Reviews

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming

Becoming by Michelle Obama
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What surprised me was the clarity with which Obama depicted a life on the South Side of Chicago and how it influenced her both while coming up and once she had means to be on her own. The first two sections of the book are by far the strongest. That’s partly because as First Lady events in the third part had plenty of previous play in the media creating a background noise that interfered somewhat with her meticulous and thoughtful narrative.

She crafted a story almost anyone could relate to. Highly recommend you check this book out from the library and give it a read. Better yet, have your children read it, or read it with a group of friends.