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Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1917. Public Domain Photograph

The copyright of The Great Gatsby expired yesterday and a flurry of news articles spammed the channels. If Gatsby is the great American novel, like the country, it is far from perfect.

It remains a good book to read at the onset of summer, as I did for many years. It takes a certain experience of what summer meant in Midwestern culture to appreciate the book. That culture of my youth faded years ago. I no longer read the book annually although I keep a copy where I can find it.

What impressed me most about F. Scott Fitzgerald was seeing an 8 by 10 photograph of him at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas during a reunion with fellow Army officers. Organizers of the event were attending the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. The future author of The Great Gatsby was stationed at Leavenworth and the photo commemorated his stay. As we know, Fitzgerald was not a good soldier. He worried he would die in the world war without publishing anything. He later regretted not serving in combat. Such worries being part of what characterized his short life.

Upon reflection, it occurred to me Fitzgerald was not much different in his humanity. While I haven’t the drive or interest in being published he did, the army is a great equalizer and created a bond with him that was no abstraction.

I know The Great Gatsby well. Now that it’s in the public domain others are latching onto it, to revise or rewrite it. As someone suggested, there may be a Muppet version of the novel. The truth I increasingly face is whatever summer meant 50 years ago doesn’t exist any longer. There is no going back. This renders Fitzgerald’s fiction less relevant than it once may have been.

That people write about this copyright expiration with so many words is a sign that nothing like Fitzgerald exists in contemporary fiction. Writers are more like Gatsby himself not realizing what was important about the book is rooted in a time now gone. There is no green light at the end of the dock toward which to reach. It’s just us in the dark, craving something more than the commerce of society, yet not knowing what that might be.

I think I’ll read The Great Gatsby again this year and consider how to soldier on. Maybe I’ll learn something this time.

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Wildland Sentinel

Wildland Sentinel: Field Notes from an Iowa Conservation Officer

By Erika Billerbeck

Wildland Sentinel is a well-written account of Erika Billerbeck’s experiences as a conservation officer in the state park and wilderness refuge adjacent to where I live.

While I was well aware of the diversity of experiences in the area, the author provided a perspective I would not otherwise have had. Her descriptions of being a female conservation officer in a male dominated profession seem archetypal. She showed the other side of stories I read in the newspaper. She explained the other half of conversations I’ve had with friends and associates about what it means to go camping outside state park camp grounds.

Besides the excellent writing, the book is recommended as a primer of what the job of conservation officer entails. I look forward to seeing what else Billerbeck writes.

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Favorite Movies

Morning in Iowa.

Someone asked, “What is your favorite movie and why?”

I had to think. After considering some options I answered, “The Lion King because of the music.”

I’m not sure that was completely right.

I’m also not sure which movie was the last I saw on television or in a theater. In the time of the coronavirus I watch movies on my desktop computer, either from a disk or streaming. I do keep track of what I watch. The last was on line, Public Trust: The Fight for America’s Lands.

When our daughter visited in December 2014 we watched a video cassette recording of Christmas in Connecticut together, part of a series of “dinner and a movie” events we discontinued as a regular thing. In 2017 I watched The Brainwashing of My Dad from a disk on my desktop. It was a powerful story of a family where the father got caught up in right wing media hegemony to his detriment, and then came out of it — a happy ending. I also watched The Princess Bride (for the first time) on Amazon May 31, 2013. Too many cultural references to avoid it forever. Since 2012, I watched about 20 movies, not many.

When we talk about “favorite movies” what does that mean? For me it means films seen long ago, the memory of which persists. The Lion King fits that description and I would view it again. I’d listen to the CD of the soundtrack more. There are about a dozen movies that mean something to me.

Blade Runner: We saw this at a theater the first time Jacque and I did something together outside of work where we met.

Out of Africa: Because of the cinematography. It’s a gorgeous film and I don’t use the “g” word often.

The Conformist: Few films of that era stick with me the way this one does.

The Matrix: How could someone with a Cartesian outlook not love this movie?

In a Year of 13 Moons: I was obsessed with Rainer Werner Fassbinder the way he was obsessed with subjects and themes in this movie.

Lord of the Rings Trilogy: I recall my argument with Father Harasyn as a freshman in high school about whether J.R.R. Tolkien’s books were literature. I lost the argument and was not given credit for reading them. The movie is a faithful rendering of the book.

The 400 Blows: I was enamored of Francois Truffaut during graduate school. Not as much now, but still.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs: I could easily have been one of the peasants in this film. The cinematography of Ermanno Olmi was unlike anything I’d seen.

Apocalypse Now: The first film I saw in a theater after returning stateside from Germany. It alone launched an interest in movies that persisted for the following five or six years.

Patton: The go-to film for soldiers maneuvering in the Fulda Gap. We would show it on a film projector run by a diesel generator. I knew to carry several replacement bulbs for the projector when we left garrison.

The Sound of Music: Grandmother insisted our family see this together and she paid for the tickets. She would have been the Maria Rainer character if life had been kinder to her.

There are others yet few recent ones. As the holidays draw near, and we contemplate the events of 2020, there are worse things to do than consider things we love. Movies have been part of my life in society as they are for many.

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Reviews

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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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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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