I feel like I live in John Irving’s fiction. It’s mostly because he writes about things that resonate personally.
In The Last Chairlift he wrote about the 85th and 87 Infantry which were part of the Tenth Mountain Division during World War II. I was stationed in the 87th Infantry while I served in the U.S. Army in Europe. While there, it was part of the Eighth Infantry Division. When 8th ID was deactivated, the 87th Infantry was reunited with the Tenth Mountain Division based in Alaska.
I don’t know if I ran into Irving when I lived in Iowa City from 1970 to 1974. I remember seeing him in the English-Philosophy Building, but that could have been like one of the ghosts in The Last Chairlift. I may have imagined it. I know his novel The Water Method Man‘s main character lived at 918 Iowa Avenue in Iowa City. While reading the novel, I walked along Iowa Avenue from the Pentacrest to look at the house. That novel was published in 1972.
It is the familiarity with objects and places in his fiction that draws me in. Irving is one of the few fiction writers whose writing resonates. In Act III, my reading accelerated until I couldn’t put the book down. Few novels I read have this effect.
What surprised me about reading this and other Irving books is his work rarely appears on lists of banned books that circulate in Iowa and elsewhere. Perhaps he is not read by evangelical Christians, or librarians know enough to avoid placing his fiction in the stacks. Any engaged person should read his work.
I enjoyed The Last Chairlift a lot. Highly recommend!
Jann Wenner’s Like A Rolling Stone: A Memoir would more aptly be titled A US Weekly Story of My Life. Its focus on his wealth, his celebrity friends and acquaintances, his wife and his husband, his Gulfstream II, his drug use, his magazine awards, his vacations in rare places, and other detritus of the self-centered rich would more appropriately appear in his publication US Weekly than Rolling Stone. I finished the book because I couldn’t avoid the mindless trappings of it: as if I were waiting in the dentist’s office with time to kill before a root canal.
Wenner’s work is evident in the book. It is competent writing yet the frequent mentions of famous people made it tedious. Why do we want to hear a person chatted with Bob Dylan about real estate? Or exchanged birthday gifts with Mick Jagger? Or vacationed with Ahmet Ertegun, a co-founder of Atlantic Records? Wenner had a substantial life yet this memoir is a puff piece. It could have been more, especially regarding the history of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of which he is a member (because of his work with Rolling Stone) and past chairman.
I expected better writing. How could he have worked with and edited so many great writers — Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe particularly — and present such a dry, soulless narrative? He got a story down, yet it is not the story expected. It is largely devoid of the excitement that was San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. It didn’t improve after the story of the magazine moved to New York in 1977 where he met and spent time with a different set of celebrities including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Bruce Springsteen.
There are a few redeeming qualities. The Rolling Stone story of Annie Leibovitz is one. The development of political campaign coverage by Hunter S. Thompson and others is another. I can’t put my finger on many more redeeming qualities shortly after finishing the book. I wish I could.
Perhaps a reason for Wenner’s lack of commitment to exceptional prose in the book can be found in this quote from page 296, “If I were asked if I could do it again would I still have used all that cocaine, I wouldn’t hesitate. No. It was a waste of money, energy, and precious time.”
I’m keeping Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir on my bookshelf as a reference for now. If I find another home for it, I’ll gladly give it away. Somebody had to publish Rolling Stone the magazine. I never figured it would be a person who came across in his writing as a dilettante when he had the capacity and interest in being deeply engaged in his work and the telling of its story.
As former Rolling Stone writer Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse Five, “So it goes.”
Thom Hartmann’s latest in the Hidden History Series, The Hidden History of Neoliberalism: How Reaganism Gutted America and How to Restore Its Greatness, is scheduled for release on Sept. 13. Well-written and timely, it takes a deep dive into neoliberalism with direct application to life in Iowa.
As the guardrails are removed from our Democratic Republic, it is important to examine how we got to a place where people believe government should have only a minimal role, if any, in our economic life. Hartmann’s new book fills that need. Not only does he explain what neoliberalism is, he says it is time for us to turn our backs to it.
My focus is on Iowa and the recent Republican rout of Democrats by taking the governor’s office and large majorities in both chambers of the legislature. Without saying what they were doing, Governor Kim Reynolds and the Republican crew embraced neoliberalism principles about which Hartmann writes. Their policies include reducing taxes, gutting government spending, reducing licensing requirements, and other tactics to minimize the impact of regulations on business and enable the invisible hand of the global free market to work its magic. For goodness’ sake, there was even a Grover Norquist opinion piece in the June 7 edition of the Cedar Rapids Gazette!
Reading Hartmann brought this aspect of the Republican culture war into focus. It is neoliberalism at its zenith.
If Iowa Republicans had their way, society as we know it would be dissolved, leaving scattered family units headed by white, male patriarchs. Such families would have many children. Women might well take a subservient role to men in public life. If you listen to Republican rants from the state capitol, they already believe their chosen tribal relationships are in place. If Republicans declare war on trans people, or others who don’t lead what they consider to be a traditional life, they will fight until every one of them has been run out of the state or marginalized. It’s a crusade!
Like all the books in the Hidden History series, The Hidden History of Neoliberalism is a great weekend read with depth of thought hard to find on television or radio. I’ve been reading Hartmann’s series for the last couple of years, and each time his explanations and historical research bring something new to my attention.
For example, I lived through the U.S. plot to overthrow Chilean president Salvador Allende, the C.I.A.-backed military coup by Augusto Pinochet, and the restructuring of Chilean society by Milton Friedman and his gang of Chicago school neoliberals. Hartmann highlights the relevance of Friedman’s work during this fifty-year-old event to today’s Republican governance. “The blank slate of a new Chile offered the perfect laboratory for Milton Friedman’s Chicago Boys to try out their exciting new neoliberal experiment,” Hartmann wrote. Neoliberals have been hard at work creating a radical, right-wing culture that seeks to dominate our politics.
According to Hartmann, America could go one of two ways: continue down the road to neoliberal oligarchy, as supported by the GOP, or choose to return to FDR’s Keynesian economics, raise taxes on the rich, reverse free trade, and create a more pluralistic society. The Hidden History of Neoliberalism is a primer in how the United States got to this point.
In a June 29 interview, I asked Hartmann what progressives should do about the clear and present danger of neoliberalism.
“The best way to combat what they are up to is expose it,” he said. If Democrats would speak more loudly, in a consistent enough fashion, the Republican policies of supporting great wealth, and white, male supremacy would be easy to organize around. Hartmann acknowledged organizing Democrats to work on a single thing is complicated.
Hartmann is essential progressive reading and I recommend The Hidden History of Neoliberalism. While readers await the new book, the others can be found at https://hiddenhistorybooks.com/
Happy autumn reading!
Thom Hartmann is a four-time winner of the Project Censored Award, a New York Times bestselling author of thirty-two books, and America’s #1 progressive talk radio show host. His show is syndicated on local for-profit and nonprofit stations and broadcasts nationwide and worldwide. It is also simulcast on television in nearly 60 million U.S. and Canadian homes.
To buy a copy of the Hidden History of Neoliberalism: How Reaganism Gutted America and How to Restore its Greatness,click here. The book is available Sept. 13, 2022.
The craftsmanship of Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America by Beth Hoffman is good, better than many books I read. For people unfamiliar with the challenges of Midwestern, sustainable agriculture, it is a good introduction, covering most issues.
Hoffman is a member of Practical Farmers of Iowa and so am I, so there are some connections. Even though we never met, I know people she mentions in the book and we would likely have friends and acquaintances in common. The PFI community is not that big.
For nine seasons, I worked with beginning and experienced farmers who operate community supported agriculture projects, large vegetable or fruit farms, and raise livestock, so I know some of the work and the challenges. In total, I worked on or did interviews for newspapers on a dozen or so of them.
As she mentions more than once in the narrative, she is from the coast and the land was owned outright by the Iowa family. The former is more typical of beginning farmers, the latter isn’t. It is a good book, yet I hoped there would be a connection to the author and her narrative. There wasn’t.
Bet the Farm was a quick read and if a person is interested in this topic, there are a number of other works by beginning farmers I’d read first.
I wish Beth and John good luck on their farm and would read another book about their progress after they have been farming five or ten more years.
In The Hidden History of Big Brother in America: How the Death of Privacy and the Rise of Surveillance Threaten Us and Our Democracy, author Thom Hartmann focuses on Big Data and its consequences for all aspects of our lives. In the framework of surveillance and social control, Hartmann traces the history of surveillance and the threat of violence to control behavior, thought, and belief by our political and social masters.
Referencing George Orwell’s book 1984, Hartmann wrote, “Orwell was only slightly off the mark. Big Brother types of government, and Thought Police types of social control, are now widespread in the world and incompatible with democracy.”
What makes this book timely is the way Trump campaigns used Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to scrape personal data about tens of millions of voters from the internet, and then custom targeted them with tens of thousands of distinct daily ads designed to either persuade people to vote for Trump or not vote at all. On the day of the third presidential debate in October 2020, Hartmann wrote, team Trump ran 175,000 variations of ads micro-targeting voters. These ads were, for the most part, not publicly seen.
Here in Iowa the Republican legislature seeks to control our behavior with legislation intended to address perceived constituent needs. Iowa Republicans approach it with a dull knife. For example, because of feedback and paranoia about transgender girls, Republicans introduced legislation to ban trans females from Title IX activities. This legislation would create discrimination for sure, and potentially a bullying environment for children. They seek to control our behavior and even such crude attempts at social control are anti-democratic. By using bludgeoning methods, Iowa Republicans were not nearly as effective as Trump’s use of Big Data to spy on voters and use what they found to influence their decisions.
Whether one is liberal, conservative, libertarian or whatever, we have concerns about how Big Data firms like Google, Facebook, Oracle, Microsoft, Amazon, and others surveil and use data we consider to be private. In the beginning we considered such data collection and use to be for advertising like generating sales for a brand of energy drink. Whether it is conservatives who have paranoid feelings that “Big Data” is collecting personal information, censoring and manipulating people, liberals who see companies like Cambridge Analytica violating their privacy, or Amazon Ring customers concerned about law enforcement gaining warrantless access to video from the camera at their doorstep, Big Brother is watching us, eroding our privacy, and threatening our democracy.
In The Hidden History of Big Brother in America, Hartmann uses extensive examples to highlight the consequences of Big Data on our lives. He traces the history of surveillance and social control, looking back to how Big Brother invented whiteness to keep order, and how surveillance began to be employed as a way to modify behavior. “The goal of those who violate privacy and use surveillance is almost always social control and behavior modification,” Hartmann wrote.
Big Data threatens privacy and enables surveillance, Hartmann wrote. The lack of alternatives to lifestyles that involve feeding into Big Data leads to almost forced participation in surveillance by Big Brother. Surveillance and lack of privacy are a threat to freedom, he wrote, because the information gathered can be abused, people have a right not to be observed, and being observed is an intervention that can affect those who are observed.
Are we doomed to live under Big Brother’s watchful eye? How much social and political control should corporations have in society? How much Big Brother will modern people tolerate? For discussion of answers to these timely questions and more, I recommend the Hidden History of Big Brother in America.
Thom Hartmann is a four-time winner of the Project Censored Award, a New York Times bestselling author of thirty-two books, and America’s #1 progressive talk radio show host. His show is syndicated on local for-profit and nonprofit stations and broadcasts nationwide and worldwide. It is also simulcast on television in nearly 60 million US and Canadian homes.
To buy a copy of the Hidden History of Big Brother in America: How the Death of Privacy and the Rise of Surveillance Threaten Us and Our Democracy, click here. The book is available March 8, 2022.
Fiction usually serves a specific purpose in my reading life: it functions the way a palate cleanser prepares us for flavors ahead, or in the case of reading, the next serious book. It is not that fiction writers are trivial in their efforts, it takes the same hard work to produce decent fiction as it does any other type of writing. Fiction is not the main event for me, so there are different expectations.
A novel must be paced quickly to hold interest. While fans of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky exist, their books have been difficult reads. I’m willing to suspend disbelief, yet only for so long.
I don’t like it when the mechanics of assembling a story are visible in the narrative. Yes, the author has to end a novel, although arbitrary resolutions of plot, ones in which the author’s hand is clearly visible, are particularly annoying. I’m thinking of Richard Powers novel The Overstory, an otherwise engaging tale.
Reading the first chosen novel of an author is almost always better than the next. I’m comparing Amor Towles books A Gentleman in Moscow and The Lincoln Highway. I was enraptured by the former and the latter seems forced and vapid. Towles seems full of himself and we don’t read fiction because of that. The same applies to Zeyn Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars and The Thirty Names of Night. The former is memorable, and the latter, not so much. All of them helped pass the time, so what am I complaining about?
Time was I wanted a novel to teach me something. Michael Crichton’s State of Fear cured me of that. One needs no further thinly veiled and polemicized presentations of a political argument. That Crichton was required reading to work in a logistics company rubbed salt into the wound. I seek to engage in a good story, follow it through to the end, and move on. Spare me the polemics, please.
When I consider past reading, there are only a few novels I would read again. Among them are The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tolkien’s books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, and On The Road by Jack Kerouac. I enjoy reading John Irving, who is an exception to the rule about next books. Before I’d re-read one of his, I’d finish reading what I haven’t. My favorite was A Prayer for Owen Meany.
Give me a good novel, one that reads quickly, encourages me to suspend disbelief, and is a narrative for the sole purpose of telling the story. Do it well and you’ve got me hooked… at least until I move on to the next main reading event.
The effort to disrupt the Electoral College vote counting at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 was appalling. It was made worse by the fact a sitting U.S. president, in order to overturn a legitimate election and cling desperately to power, organized, led and encouraged a mob. When events turned deadly, the president failed to call off the demonstrators in a timely manner. By any definition, what happened that day was insurrection.
Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa is the first draft of historical narrative of events leading to that day and its aftermath during the first months of the Biden-Harris administration. The authors interviewed more than 200 people for the book and it reads like history. It’s not that. It is more like an extended newspaper article. Discovery of new aspects of the events leading to Jan. 6 have been released almost daily. The pace of new information is expected to accelerate in 2022. This book is what we have now to provide an overview of what happened.
To the extent Peril recounts what happened, it is useful the way a newspaper article is useful. It left me wanting to know more. It is neither the best written political book, nor does it provide meaningful insights. Its narrative is believable yet incomplete.
The good news about Peril is that it took less than 48 hours to read. Combined with our first winter storm and in between snow removal, cooking, and indoor work, it made an engaging companion. There will be better books written about Jan. 6 once the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack finishes its work. For the time being, Peril can accompany us on the journey to determine what happened and what a voter can do to remedy the causes of this doleful day.
As an American the need for action is obvious. Reading Peril is an efficient way to get caught up after the end of year holidays. What comes next is an open question.
The final book I read in 2021 was My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams. It is a compilation of writing by Ginsburg framed by the co-authors as autobiography.
In 1993, when Ginsburg was sworn in to the Supreme Court, I was busy living: moving from Indiana to Iowa to take on new work at the corporate headquarters of the company with which I would finish my transportation career. I wasn’t paying much attention to this supreme court appointment. Maybe I should have been.
Reading My Own Words was part of expanding my range of what types of memoirs have been written. It became more than a writer’s exercise. I realized on how many important decisions Ginsburg opined, and the prominent impact her work for the court had on my liberal sensibilities. Her writing on gender equity, presented in this book, is particularly noteworthy.
My Own Words was for me an infrequent foray into the judicial branch of government. A justice’s official writing, mainly in the form of court documents and opinions, is a matter of public record. To a large extent their work eclipses the personal story of a justice’s life. I am more interested in Ginsburg’s remarks on Brown v. Board of Education, Loving v. Virginia, and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. than I am in her opera-going habits with Justice Antonin Scalia or her twice-weekly workouts in the Supreme Court gymnasium. I do not own a Notorious RBG t-shirt and am unlikely to get one, even after reading this engaging book.
The writer’s question was how did she handle her prolific writing as it relates to autobiography. I read reviews that expressed disappointment this wasn’t an “actual memoir.” I don’t understand that criticism. As a public figure, one of the most prominent in the United States, we come to the book knowing more about Ginsburg’s personal life than normal. News media of the time tended to focus on the fact her spouse was an excellent cook rather than her intellectual capacities as a jurist. The latter is clearly more engaging.
If you are a liberal, read this book. If you are a conservative, read this book. If you are engaged in society with its cultures around abortion, gender equity, corporate influence, equal protection under the law, or how the supreme court works, I recommend it as a primer. While Ginsburg was a liberal jurist, the lessons she presents in these writings apply to us all. Highly recommended.
I beat my 2021 goal and read 54 books this year. I also developed a process to give prime time, early each day, to reading 25 or more pages. Either book reading is important in our lives or it isn’t, I reasoned. So I read books, almost daily. Book reading is an important part of any writer’s life. Here are those I found most useful and memorable.
Poetry: I re-read A Coney Island of the Mind after Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s passing on Feb. 22, 2021. An important part of my high school reading, it held up well. In addition, I read books of poetry by Amanda Gorman (The Hill We Climb), Gabriela Marie Milton (Passions: Love Poems and Other Writings), Charles Wright (A Short History of the Shadow: Poems), Gary Snyder (Turtle Island), and bell hooks (Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place). I read the memoir of poet laureate of the United States Joy Harjo, Poet Warrior.
Current Affairs:Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert stands out in this category. Her writing is compelling and this book is relevant now. Other current affairs books I’d recommend are Persist by Elizabeth Warren, Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains by Lucas Bessire, The Decarbonization Imperative: Transforming the Global Economy by 2050 by Michael Lenox and Rebecca Duff, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet by Michael E. Mann, and Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall.
Wilding: Returning Nature to a Farm by Isabella Tree Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald Turning Pointe by Chloe Angyal On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong Poles in Minnesota by John Radzilowski What I Mean by Joan Didion
Check out my Goodreads profile for the complete 2021 list by clicking here.
I met Maureen McCue, who just published a memoir Birds in the Morning, Frogs at Night: Sharing Life Along the Road, when we were both on the Johnson County Board of Health in 2006.
As soon as McCue arrived to become the board’s physician, she drove us to become quite busy both with required tasks like replacing the director, and voluntary initiatives like educating other county boards of health in the effects of coal-fired power plants on human health. Given our shared history, I didn’t know what to expect when the memoir was released earlier this year.
While much in the book is familiar, the author’s interpretation of events is fresh. The road in the title, along which life is shared, was the same one I drove many times to get to their home: all without incident or specific inspiration. I recall when the bridge was out and had to take the long way around. It was a road, a conveyance. Or was it? The central assertion of the book is it was more than that, a metaphor for a path forward from environmental degradation.
It is a book worth reading for a couple of reasons.
McCue creates a sense of place that is hers alone and explains its risks and rewards. We see life along her road with all its wonder and tragedy. There are a number of Grade B roads in the county, yet she made hers special by describing animal and plant life along with changing weather in which she found herself. She attempted to connect it to the broader world she experienced in international travel as a physician. One experiences the sense of place in the writing. That alone is enough to make Birds in the Morning, Frogs at Night worth reading.
Life along the road includes their adopted son Michael who has special needs, or as McCue put it, “The diagnosis according to specialists that day was ‘mild to moderate’ mental retardation.” Over the years I spent time with Michael. He is a unique person and a familiar face around the county. While I feel I know Michael well, it is unclear what, if anything he remembers of me when I approach him to engage. McCue’s narrative about caring for Michael is compelling and an engaging read for people with special needs children.
When professors and instructors leave university many have written books. Stow Persons’ The University of Iowa in the Twentieth Century, D.C. Spriesterbach’s The Way it Was: The University of Iowa 1964 – 1989, and others come to mind. I asked McCue about this retirement, book-writing phenomenon. She answered, “I’ve asked myself the same question, but it’s not so much about writing after retirement, it’s more like having the time and will to get it published — this book and it’s parts were weaving there way out of me over a long time. Writing happens whenever, but following it to the publisher takes a different kind of mind set and time line facilitated by retirement.”
There is an obvious comparison between Birds in the Morning, Frogs at Night: Sharing Life Along the Road and Cornelia F. Mutel’s 2016 bookA Sugar Creek Chronicle: Observing Climate Change from a Midwestern Woodland. McCue and Mutel are friends and share many elements in their lives, McCue said. I wouldn’t want to pick between them so I advise reading both.
Birds in the Morning, Frogs at Night: Sharing Life Along the Road is published by Ice Cube Press. Find it by clicking here.