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Reviews

Book Review: Our Time Is Now

If one needs a palate cleansing after the bitter taste of the Trump years, Stacey Abrams’ Our Time is Now is just the book to read.

I didn’t know what to expect going in. I knew of her close Georgia gubernatorial race in 2018. I followed the Georgia U.S. Senate runoff elections last month and knew she played a role in voter turnout after declining to be a candidate herself. If anything surprised me about the book, it was how timely is Abrams’ message as the Biden-Harris administration gets to work.

There are some key takeaways:

She emphasizes the importance of counting everyone during the U.S. Census. Undercounting the poor, persons of color, and other disenfranchised U.S. residents serves to further disenfranchise them. President Trump attempted to politicize the U.S. Census. President Biden reversed Trump’s executive actions and seeks to give the Census Bureau needed time to make the best count possible. That means a delay in states receiving information required for their decennial re-districting process. Biden knows what Abrams suggested: the U.S. Census is important to restoring political power to people.

Abrams emphasizes that people should vote. She also criticized the voter targeting methods use in the 2016 and 2018 Democratic campaigns. Voter registration continues to play a key role in citizens gaining political power. It goes without saying voting does as well. The conclusion I drew from the book was that no voter should be ignored during campaigns.

The book refreshes our collective memory about voter suppression efforts by Republican lawmakers. Abrams’ story was she overcame systemic voter suppression during her Georgia gubernatorial campaign by the sheer number of new voters they activated. The permanent solution is for voters to take control of the electoral process by electing more Democrats at every level. With Democratic control of state legislatures, it is less likely voters will be suppressed.

As a child I learned the importance of civic engagement. Unlike most Americans today, I study the issues and candidates, and vote in every election. I don’t know what happened yet we need to return to that basic tenant of governance. If we seek to retain government by the people, participation is required. That is Abrams’ message.

I read a lot of political books and Abrams’ book is well-written and relatable. If we seek to move our country forward, elect more Democrats. Stacey Abrams has provided a roadmap in Our Time is Now.

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Living in Society

Home Library

Bookshelves, Feb. 2, 2021.

Toward the end of my seventh decade I continue to buy books. I should stop, turn that around, and reduce my stacks each week. I am loathe to do it.

From my earliest days, going back to 1959 at least, I had a small library of books either given to me, or once I started working, ones I bought. The library has grown too big, and in truth, that happened years, maybe decades ago.

The easiest change would be to start reading books on an electronic reader instead of buying paper copies. Readers are convenient and the font size can be adjusted, making words easily legible. Quality of eyesight is increasingly an issue. A reader is better for reading in bed, and in a recliner or comfy chair. It would not be a big change to start reading fiction in that format. Adopting technology is a good thing and it would stop growth of the stacks.

A lot of volumes in my library were written by people I know, with whom I took classes, or did things. Others were special gifts. They have a souvenir value, a remembrance of time together.

For example, I made a driver recruiting trip to Southern Illinois University where, in addition to my recruitment event, I spent time with some teachers who felt isolated in the coal mining area. Students were more interested in getting a job in the trades — truck driving, coal mining, or manufacturing — than in learning. The teachers stuck together as a form of intellectual society. One of the group was Lucia Perillo who wrote a book of poetry, The Oldest Map with the Name America. I return to it often as a reminder of the challenge of intellectual pursuits in our time. I don’t recall if I met Perillo, but she was part of the group and it doesn’t matter to the memory.

The problem with books is they can be used as reference materials for my writing. It is a justification to keep almost any book. The idea I may return to it later for “research purposes” may sound good, but there is so much research and so little time. I need to thin the stacks. That, too takes time.

Our daughter expressed an interest in inheriting my books when I go. It would be a crime to leave her everything because some are more significant than others. If anything, the ideas of an inheritance will force a reckoning, a reduction in quantity, and an improvement in quality.

I started filling boxes that arrived containing mail ordered books with duplicates and others in which I lost interest. The idea is to give them to the public library for their used book sale. I have three boxes so far and it’s a start. I should fill more boxes.

Books are an addiction. In the scope of things, it is an inexpensive addiction. I spend no time on sports, movies and television, and go shopping only when we need something. Books can produce value in our lives. I’m reading more of them. Partly due to the coronavirus pandemic, but also because I realize the limited number I can consume before my inevitable ending. There is an increased urgency to read.

A friend said I should get rid of all the books. So did my late Mother. While I’m not ready to do so, a reasonable goal is to fit all of my books in the writing room. I have a long way to go to accomplish that, if it can be accepted as an operating premise. Today, I’m not sure it can.

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Reviews

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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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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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

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
Home Life

Reading Books Again

Morning Reading for $1.25
Morning Reading for $1.25

Most of my reading has been on line since September, but no more.

Instead of picking up my mobile device when I wake, I read at least 25 pages in a book.

It is a positive development, born of new habits, in the land of apparent madness Iowa has become since the general election.

I’m reading articles on paper as well. A tall stack of newsletters and magazines rests on the cocktail table next to the couch. I know many of the authors who write for Via Pacis, The Prairie Progressive, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Veterans for Peace, The Sower, Humanities Iowa, The Iowa Policy Project, and others.

Brian Terrell reported on his recent trip to Russia. Kathy Kelly about her work in Afghanistan. Frank Cordaro reported on activities at the Des Moines Catholic Worker. Jessica Reznicek wrote an article from the Sarpy County Jail in Papillion, Neb. explaining why she vandalized the Northrup Grumman property in Bellevue, Neb., home of the STRATCOM. Veterans for Peace chapter reports from around the country laid out a broad veterans agenda exposing the true costs of war and militarism. Mike Owen, Trish Nelson, Jeff Cox, Nate Willems, and many others offered insights enhanced by our history together. Newsletter writing provides a perspective unavailable in corporate news outlets. I welcome it and want more.

It was impossible to resist being drawn into the social media drama around the president’s executive orders, proclamations and memoranda during his first week in office. 45 has gotten the attention of almost everyone I know, engaging new people in the political process. To be fluent in society one has to read related documents as well. Some say I was grumpy last week. Maybe I was. Reading and learning is the best defense against excessive grumpiness.

So many people I know feel overwhelmed by the Republican takeover of state and federal government. To deal with the aftermath of the election I read — an hour or two each day — from words printed on paper.

There are few other things so helpful in sustaining a life in a turbulent world.