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Book Review – Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir

Jann S. Wenner. Photo Credit – Penske Media Corporation.

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.”

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Book Review: Bet the Farm

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.

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Book Review: The Hidden History of Big Brother in America

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.

Thom Hartmann

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.

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Book Review: Peril

Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. Photo Credit – The Guardian

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.

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Book Review: My Own Words

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Official Portrait. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Top 2021 Book Picks

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.

Other Favorites:

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.

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Book Review: Birds in the Morning, Frogs at Night

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 book A 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.

~ First posted on Bleeding Heartland on Dec. 11, 2021.

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Book Review: Persist

Elizabeth Warren Meet and Greet in Tipton, Iowa. April 26, 2019

I was invested in Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for president and attended some events about which she wrote in Persist, her memoir published this year.

Like tens of thousands of others I waited in a selfie line and got my moment. I don’t recall what we talked about. Of all the things I thought about Warren during the campaign and afterward, the book is about something I hadn’t considered much: she’s a woman living in what largely was and remains a patriarchy.

The book is worth reading whether you are a fan or not. It explains some of her major policies in a way only a teacher could: clearly and rationally. For example, I didn’t understand the importance of child care to society until I read her explanation in Persist. When talking with friends and Democratic acquaintances during the run up to the Iowa caucuses, I heard the discussions about whether we should run another woman for president, whether a woman could win against Donald Trump. Those questions weren’t asked of men. Warren recounts these attitudes and what they meant in detail. I knew there would be wonkish policy stuff yet I didn’t expect the book to be as good as it was.

I couldn’t live the kind of life Warren does, mostly because I’m not as smart and don’t have the same kind of drive she does. The book serves as an example of a life worth living, an example of how to deal with prejudice, sexism, racism, economic injustice and more. It inspires us to dream big, fight hard and be better citizens.

We’ll never know what the United States would have been like with President Elizabeth Warren. For the time being we can be glad she’s in it with a position of power. We can also follow her suggestion and persist.

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Book Review: The Decarbonization Imperative

It’s easy to write a post on social media that says we should reduce greenhouse gas emissions then add a hashtag like #ActOnClimate. What’s harder is knowing what greenhouse gases are at work across the economy and the steps required to reduce them. The upcoming book by Michael Lenox and Rebecca Duff is here to help.

The Decarbonization Imperative: Transforming the Global Economy by 2050 takes “a deep dive into the challenge of climate change and the need to effectively reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.”

When the authors say “deep dive” that means the book doesn’t read like your parent’s latest mystery novel. It is packed with details and examples, along with questions about whether society can make the transition to a decarbonized economy effectively and in time to avert the worst effects of climate change. The authors remain positive about the prospects even if their narrative presents a bleak answer to both questions. The book welcomes a reader already engaged in how to combat climate change. It takes them beyond generalities.

“The challenge before the world is overwhelming, requiring a profound shift in so many large economic sectors over the course of a few decades. But try we must,” wrote Lenox and Duff. They present five sectors of the economy for review: Energy, Transportation, Industrials, Buildings and Agriculture.

Running throughout the book is the theme of electrification as a way of economic decarbonization. Energy, or electricity generation more specifically, is a key consideration. The other four sectors depend to varying extents upon the energy sector, according to the authors.

Lenox and Duff name all the carbon-free operating methods for generating electricity and point to solar as the one with the most promising capability to disrupt current patterns toward decarbonization of the economy. The narrative is familiar: solar technology is effective, it is currently inexpensive, and costs continue to decline. “Utility-scale solar is now competitive with fossil fuels,” wrote the authors.

Nuclear power is mentioned multiple times in the book as a potential solution to decarbonize electricity generation. Readers of this blog know my skepticism about building new nuclear power generating stations. Like many, I point to the failures at Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011). According to the nuclear regulatory commission, “Today, the Three Mile Island-2 reactor is permanently shut down and 99 percent of its fuel has been removed. The reactor coolant system is fully drained and the radioactive water decontaminated and evaporated.” The other two disasters remain ongoing.

Lenox and Duff acknowledge the high cost of current nuclear reactor technology. They also mention Bill Gates’ nuclear project. In his 2021 book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, Gates wrote, “I put several hundred million dollars into starting a company to design a next-generation nuclear plant that would generate clean electricity and very little nuclear waste.” While Lenox and Duff acknowledge new nuclear power is too expensive for economically disruptive potential by 2050, Gates’ investment is of the kind for which they advocate throughout the book. If Gates’ company resolves issues with nuclear power, as is its stated goal, it may be worth another look.

The authors emphasize no sector of the economy is without challenges in getting to decarbonization. The benefit of reading the book is its broad overview of these challenges.

There is a lot to absorb in The Decarbonization Imperative. Unless advocates are willing to do the work to understand this narrative, what’s the point? I recommend the book for its analysis by sector and for the ways each sector is connected with others. Climate advocates often focus on electricity generation and electrification of transportation yet to decarbonize the economy, all sectors must be addressed. Zero emissions will be a tough nut to crack, especially when zero means zero.

The Decarbonization Imperative: Transforming the Global Economy by 2050 by Michael Lenox and Rebecca Duff is scheduled for release from Stanford University Press on Oct. 29, 2021. Click here to go to the book’s page at Stanford University Press.

About the authors

Michael Lenox is the Tayloe Murphy Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He is the coauthor of Can Business Save the Earth? Innovating Our Way to Sustainability (Stanford, 2018) and The Strategist’s Toolkit (Darden, 2013).

Rebecca Duff is Senior Research Associate with the Batten Institute at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. She also serves as the managing director for Darden’s Business Innovation and Climate Change Initiative.

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Book Review: The Hidden History of American Healthcare

In The Hidden History of American Healthcare: Why Sickness Bankrupts You and Makes Others Insanely Rich, author Thom Hartmann returns to familiar themes of greed, racism and oligarchic corruption. He applies them to a system of healthcare that profits the wealthy and provides marginal healthcare to Americans. A proponent of Medicare for all, Hartmann dives into what’s wrong with American for-profit healthcare and how changing it to a single payer system would be better for citizens.

Describing the overall theme of the series of Hidden History books, Hartmann lays out the challenge:

Americans must now prepare politically for 2024, and that starts by picking candidates and promoting policies that will beat oligarchy at both the presidential and congressional levels.

But most urgently, the entire country must laser-focus on stripping the oligarchic and fascistic elements that have crept into our republic since the Powell Memo, multiple Supreme Court interventions, and the Patriot Act with the war crimes and torture it has already facilitated.

Preface, The Hidden History of American Healthcare by Thom Hartmann

Anyone who bought health insurance through an employer or privately knows the issues with the American system: health insurance premiums are expensive and subject to high annual increases; there are co-pays that vary depending upon what type of coverage is purchased; preexisting conditions affect premium amount and can exclude people from some types of coverage; rather than visit a clinic close to home, an insured must visit medical professionals within the network of the insurance company or face higher costs. This system led to health care costs representing 24 percent of GDP. Countries like Taiwan have a healthcare cost of six percent of GDP, according to Hartmann.

Thom Hartmann

There is a better, less expensive way of providing healthcare. The trouble is, Hartmann said, “(it) would cut off the hundred of millions of dollars that health care industry executives take home every month.”

Hartmann seeks to put healthcare into historical context. He recounts the first single-payer healthcare system in 1884 Germany. He takes us through the creation of Medicare from John F. Kennedy’s initial proposal to passage into law under LBJ, and through the Republican dissent over the program. Hartmann describes Republican efforts to privatize Medicare through what is called Medicare Advantage implemented by President George W. Bush. That section of the book alone makes it worth the reading.

Like previous books in the series, Hartmann’s book is readable and familiar. It is divided into four sections: How bad things are in America regarding healthcare; the origins of America’s sickness-for-profit system; the modern fight for a human right to healthcare; and saving lives with a real healthcare system. The last section proposes solutions to our healthcare system problems.

The Hidden History of Healthcare in America takes us through the history to make the critical point: “It is time for America to join every industrialized country in the world and make health a right, not a privilege.”

Because the subject of the book is so familiar, it renders a complicated process to bare essentials with concrete proposals for action to fix the healthcare system. I highly recommend the book, which is scheduled to be released Sept. 7, 2021.

~ Written for and first published at Blog for Iowa.