Archive for the ‘Political Science’ Category

BehindtheBeautifulForeversReading this book was like watching a car accident, I was compelled and horrified at the same time.  Katherine Boo spent almost four years interviewing and living alongside some of the world’s poorest people in the slum of Annawadi near Mumbai’s international airport. She has written the results of her researches into an un-put-downable book that reads like a novel.

A myriad of characters from different religions and at different places in the hierarchy of the slum, come living, smelling, fighting, struggling and striving off the page. But don’t get too attached, as several of them die in sordid, pointless and horrible circumstances. Others are entangled in a web of police corruption that just keeps on getting worse. I found myself wanting it to be fiction so that it could have a happy ending for some of the characters, but Annawadi is a place with few happy endings.

Katherine Boo says that when she gave a character thoughts, she has based this on extensive interviews where her subjects revealed their actual thoughts about life in general or a particular incident. What makes me uncomfortable is the extremely personal nature of some of the thoughts she puts in the book. If I revealed to a friend in quite crass terms that I was annoyed with my father for being too sick to work, but not too sick to get my mother pregnant ten times, then I don’t think I’d want my annoyance–perhaps understandable, but definitely tactless–revealed to my father in a New York Times bestseller.

This book has won lots of prizes, and was suggested to me in my book club as a must-read. I agree that is an important book because it paints a picture of a life that I cannot imagine, but a real life that these people often cannot escape through no fault of their own. It is a book that puts human faces and lives on news stories of India’s growth or India’s problems of TB. This is a great book for fans of fiction about the poor of India like A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. I also recommend it for readers who want to get a glimpse of a whole society through the lives of some of the most powerless, like in Margaret Powell’s  Below Stairs,  or readers of popular sociology books like The Big Necessity by Rose George.  It is essential reading for anyone who wants to learn more about the underside of India. Just don’t expect to feel comfortable after you finish the book.

Check the WRL catalog for Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

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Hot CoffeeEveryone knows about the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit in the mid-90s. Or at least, they think they know. Hot Coffee, a recent HBO documentary, strives to tell the truth about this case, and other civil lawsuits, that have been deemed “frivolous” and the impact of tort reform on the United States’ civil justice system. Sound kinda boring? I thought so too – at first.

It analyzes and discusses four cases and how each one relates to “tort reform.” It begins with the infamous Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants case in 1994, which has practically entered into urban legend. I certainly thought I knew the details of the case, but I only knew the inaccuracies and the game of Chinese whispers I had heard in the media. In truth, Ms. Liebeck was a 79-year old lady, sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car, who, while trying to add cream and sugar to her coffee, pulled off the lid and spilled the cup of coffee on her lap. Coffee that, in keeping with McDonald’s franchise instructions, had been kept at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. And indeed, Ms. Liebeck suffered severe third-degree burns in her pelvic area, and the documentary does not skimp on the photographic evidence – the burns are appalling. Nor was Ms. Liebeck the first to suffer terrible burns because of their coffee – there had been over 700 prior complaints. (And these are just the individuals who made the effort to lodge a formal complaint.)

As well Ms. Liebeck’s case, the documentary goes on to discuss Colin Gourley’s malpractice lawsuit and caps on damages; the prosecution of Mississippi Justice Oliver Diaz and the buying of judicial elections; Jamie Leigh Jones v. Halliburton Co. and the growing pervasiveness of mandatory arbitration.

The documentary concludes by examining how the plague of mandatory arbitration is swiftly erasing many individuals’ ability to take complaints to the courts. Own a credit card? Cell phone? Well, if you do, it’s almost certain you have signed away your right to a civil trial in your contract and if you ever have a serious complaint and feel entitled to claiming damages, you will be forced into secret mandatory arbitration with an arbitrator who – wait for it – has been chosen by the corporation itself!

Hot Coffee is an eye-opening, jaw-dropping documentary that exposes how corporations have spent millions on a propaganda campaign to distort the average American’s view of these civil lawsuits. This documentary will forever change what you think you know about “frivolous lawsuits” – in reality, what you’ve been told by corporations and doctors afraid of being sued.

The way that the individual’s rights have been infringed upon by mandatory arbitration, caps on damages, and corporate campaign contributions is unacceptable. Hot Coffee shows how access to the courts has been blocked by greed, corruption, and the power of special interests and how the U.S. civil justice system has been changed – maybe forever.

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secretlivesIn advance appreciation of President’s Day, read about the contributions of the First Ladies.

Cormac O’Brien’s book gives brief biographies from Martha Washington to Laura Bush. After describing each woman’s background and marriage to the man who would be president, there are two or three tidbits about “what your teachers never told you.”

Some of these facts I already knew:  that Abigail Fillmore (First Lady from 1850-1853) is credited with starting the White House library or that Nancy Reagan (First Lady from 1981-1989) consulted an astrologer. But other “secrets” were new to me.

Take the fascinating story of Louisa Catherine Adams’s (John Quincy’s wife, First Lady 1825-1829) trip from Russia to Paris with her son Charles Francis and a few servants. The journey took six weeks and was one of the most harrowing ever for a First Wife. At one point Louisa used her son’s toy sword to deter marching brigades from attacking her carriage in France (this being the time Napoleon was making his triumphant return). And did you know that Bess Truman (First Lady 1945-1953) sent her laundry to Kansas City for washing because she didn’t think the establishments in Washington could do a good job?

It was interesting to see how many of the wives, particularly at the beginning of the new nation, dreaded having their husbands take on the presidency. But even contemporary First Ladies had their reservations about their new role. Laura Bush was asked by reporters what her concerns were upon becoming First Lady. She replied, “It’s a major life change. I’m not particularly worried about safety. Privacy. I’m very worried about privacy.”

Because the book is set up in short chapters dedicated to each First Lady, you can spend a few minutes reading one or two entries, or a whole afternoon soaking up decades of history. Either way, pick up Secret Lives and brush up on some little-known chapters in America’s past.

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“How human encroachment hurts wildlife has been… common knowledge for decades. This knowledge isn’t wrong but it is only half the story.”  page 269

My first view of my new North American home was as my plane descended to land in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.  I was struck by the verdant summer landscape – from above it looked like a forest – which was odd, because it was then a city of 750,000 people.  After reading Nature Wars by Jim Sterba I am not surprised by my puzzled reaction, because as he says, “Three out of four residents [in the Northeast of the United States] live in or near land under enough trees to be called forestland if they weren’t there.” page 52

How can this be true? Haven’t we and our ancestors been busily and irreversibly destroying nature for hundreds, if not thousands of years?  Jim Sterba argues that we have certainly changed nature, but not in the ways many of us assume. He reports that a huge regenerated forest stretches from Norfolk, Virginia to Maine, and most of the book is about this area.  Modern people like trees, and we like to live among them, so as our houses sprawl further apart in suburbs and exurbs we plant trees in the gaps.

The deforestation of the Northeast was at its peak in the late 1890s.  It has taken 100 years for the forest to grow back.  We’ve been able to let it grow back because we don’t have our ancestors’ desperate need to use trees for fuel and building materials, and also because we don’t need to farm marginal East Coast land because so much of our food comes from the hugely productive Midwest.

Significantly, with the regenerating forest comes resurgent populations of some of the forest animals.  Jim Sterba devotes chapters to the burgeoning populations of beavers, deer, Canada geese, wild turkeys, black bears, and feral cats.  All of these, except feral cats, live naturally in this area. Their populations dropped after Europeans came to North America,  but they are doing very well under the way modern people manage the landscape.  So well, in fact that Jim Sterba notes that some estimates put the population of white tailed deer at the highest it has ever been.

It seems strange that there could be so many large wild animals living among so many people, but I thought of the deer I regularly see and also thought of the deer-car collision I saw in the highway lane next to me.  As the wild animal populations have grown and the human population has grown, conflicts are inevitable, accounting for the word War in the title.

When there is a direct conflict of one individual’s or species’ needs over another’s, then inevitably someone doesn’t get their needs met.  In the events described in Nature Wars it is not so clear whose needs should come first, and people can vehemently, sometimes violently, disagree.  Is it more important for deer to be able to run free or people to be able to successfully grow gardens?  This problem has even been addressed in our library collection:  Fifty Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants: The Prettiest Annuals, Perennials, Bulbs, and Shrubs That Deer Don’t Eat, by Ruth Rogers Clausen. Or what about when the conflict is between two animal species?  Do humans intervene to save the song birds at the expense of the feral cats or let things fall out as they will?  For those who say that we should just leave nature alone, Jim Sterba argues Americans “are actively managing the nature around them in ways they barely recognize or think about – with their gardens, lawns, landscapes, mulch bins, garbage cans, bird feeders, pets, cars, and species partisanship, to name a few examples.” page 293.  We must accept that we are stewards and caretakers of the land and the animals whether we particularly want to be or not.

In my native New Zealand the isolated islands have a very delicate and unique ecosystem.  Introduced cats and dogs wreck havoc on the native birds, so feral cats are generally, and not too controversially,  killed in native forests.  Jim Sterba points out that in America feral cats have partisans who sometimes resort to death threats of those they feel threaten the cats.  The partisans for and against the  “Trap, Neuter, Release” program for feral cats are so strident, that the American Veterinary Medical Association refuses to support it or say they don’t support it.

I found this book enlightening and kept saying to myself  “Really? That can’t be true!” but Jim Sterba talked to and quotes dozens of working scientists, park rangers, and other experts, and he documents it his research in the extensive notes.  Nature Wars will certainly interest people who read nature books, and those who like to garden, bird watch, feed stray cats, drive along deer-free highways or use goose poop-free parks, to name a few.  It also provides a unique perspective on the social history of the settlement of the United States.  And most importantly it opens up conversations on very contentious issues that aren’t going away.

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We Americans have always prided ourselves on our democracy, our opportunity to go into a private place and select the people who most closely represent the policies we want to see.  And yet… in Virginia’s 2009 election cycle, which included a gubernatorial race, fewer than half of registered voters cast a ballot.  Even in Presidential election years, only around three-quarters of registered voters go to the polls.  And those who actually voted are about one-third the number of people who are eligible to vote.  Obviously, participation in our democracy is less than optimal.  What happens, though, when those who want to cast a ballot don’t trust the system as it stands?  That’s what worries Richard L. Hasen, creator of the Election Law Journal, which examines the cultures and technicalities of the voting process.

Hasen looks at the entire process and the potential points of conflict in our election system, which suffers from the fractured nature of county-based administration overseen by partisan state officials and guided by nearly incomprehensible law.  He surveys the charges and counter-charges of both Democrats and Republicans in the way voters are registered and identified at the polls, and the way votes are counted, or not, after they are cast.  He also envisions an election where the chaos of the Florida 2000 election looks tame by comparison.

Hasen identifies the two sides of the battle in terms of goals.  One side, usually Democratic, wants to include everyone who wants to vote, accepting that a marginal amount of fraud is possible.  The other, usually Republican, wants a strict process that eliminates any hint of fraud, even if it leads to the disenfranchisement of tens or hundreds of thousands of voters.  Of the two, Hasen identifies a real and organized threat on one side, and debunks claims against another threat.  He examines other issues that he believes to be more important to the integrity of the electoral process and ends with a pessimistic view of a future without reform.

If you tune into Fox News or Rush Limbaugh, or read the myriad of conservative newspapers and magazines, you’d inevitably hear from those Hasen identifies as “the Fraudulent Fraud Squad.”  With credibility established by their national careers, people like Karl Rove and Hans von Spakovsky are able to present their unchallenged narrative and build support for voter ID laws.   They also extend their power into the polling booths through an organization calling itself “True the Vote,” which trains volunteers to work as aggressive purgers of voter rolls and as observers primed to overwhelm poll workers and voters with challenges.

On the other hand, voter *registration* fraud, which is usefully conflated with voter fraud by ID proponents, brings up the specter of ACORN organizing waves of illegal voters.  Those accusations, which discredited the advocacy organization, made it possible for subsequent false allegations to break its back and shut it down.  When closely examined, though, it turns out that one ACORN employee violated the law in Nevada by using incentives on his workers, and that ACORN itself was defrauded by temporary workers who were later convicted.  But none of those fraudulent voters ever turned up at the polls.

Moving up the chain, Hasen discussed the problems of partisan election officials.  He’s quick to point out that both sides are guilty of manipulating their positions to take advantage of unclear vote-counting procedures, especially in recounts.  Both sides are also closely studying election laws and regulations, which may lead to a tidal wave of litigation for contested results.  That will put election outcomes in the hands of judges, who may themselves be partisan.  That kind of scenario is discouraging to both new voters and people who believe that participation in democracy is the highest form of citizenship.

He also examines and dismisses the “fringe left” theory that voting machines are subject to hacking, which probably requires a perfect storm of opportunities.  However, he is troubled by the secrecy involved in creating the machines and software, and in the unreliability of electronic machines that don’t produce a paper trail for audits.  (I would be interested in his take on the slot machine/voting equipment comparison, but he only links to it on his blog without comment.)   The good news is that problems have decreased; the bad news is that they aren’t resolved, especially for military and overseas voters.

So where does this leave us?  Hasen is glum about the likelihood of top-to-bottom reform which would standardize registration and elections, put them in the hands of competent nonpartisan professionals, and make them transparent to anyone interested in auditing results.  He’s also glum (even frightened?) by the possibility that social media has further polarized partisans and made the likelihood of finding a compromise more difficult.  My own concern is that the invective of anonymity on the Internet will boil over into public turmoil that will make the “Brooks Brothers Riot” of 2000 look like nuns playing touch football.  In any case, Hasen’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in how democracy in the United States moves forward.

PS: I wrote this post on October 26, and on the 27th, the Washington Post ran this story.  Just goes to show that we have a lot of work to do to get from here to some semblance of a national election that represents the popular will.

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Alan Bernstein’s review:

In The Guns of August Barbara Tuchman offers a narrative account of the fateful first month of World War I, a war that had been planned for and rehearsed by the two main European continental powers–France and Germany–practically ever since the end of their last war, the Franco-Prussian War, 44 years earlier in 1870.  Although the book is primarily concerned with military matters–differing philosophies of warfare; military strategy, doctrine, and education; logistics; proper martial spirit; and command structure–the author writes so well and organizes her material so skillfully that the book has the narrative flow of a superior novel instead of a musty tome of military and diplomatic history of a bygone era.  Mrs. Tuchman also provides enough background information to explain how and why Europe allowed itself to fall into this war.

What animates the author’s narrative is the human element of the major actors–the senior diplomats, government officials, rulers, and generals–who conceived, made, implemented, or reacted to the policies and events of their time.  She is superb in her thumbnail portraits of all the leading figures, and she has the knack of describing each of them with a few telling words.  Of General Ferdinand Foch, who was the molder of French military theory leading up to the war, she writes “His mind, like a heart, contained two valves: one pumped spirit into strategy; the other circulated common sense.”  However, what strikes Mrs. Tuchman most strongly is the level of stupidity, malevolence, self-deception, cruelty, and wishful thinking that appeared in varying degrees in almost every actor on the scene.  France and Germany had 42 years to think about and prepare for this war and yet from the beginning hardly anything went according to plan.

One of the unintended ironies of the book is that it was published in 1962, just as the United States was beginning its involvement in Vietnam.  Within a few years every unlearned lesson from World War I was repeated by us in Vietnam.  It seems that the military and the supporting civilian mindsets are universal and are doomed to repeat themselves.  And 40 years later the same human failings surfaced again in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Guns of August, read this way, becomes a meditation on human nature.

The book also gives insight into the German military psyche and its civilian component that goes far to explain the Nazi barbarism of World War II. Germany felt it had the moral right to ignore all international conventions of war and conduct war anyway it wanted because in the years leading up to World War I it felt itself to be the aggrieved party.  Its eventual defeat in that  war just magnified its grievances after the war.

One note of caution: the maps in The Library of America edition of The Guns of August (which also contains the author’s The Proud Tower) are superior to those I have seen in other editions.

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” There was plague somewhere in Europe almost every year between 1348 and 1680″ page 34

“Most poignant of all are the expressions of the pain and loss created by one of plague’s cruelest features: the heavy mortality it inflicted on single families and households, as relatives and servants died one after the other” page 66

The library owns over sixty volumes in an interesting series that are literally easy to miss, because they are slim books less than seven inches tall, with covers I can only describe as boring.  They are Very Short Introductions published by Oxford University Press.
Our titles range from Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction, by Robin Le Poidevin to World Music: A Very Short Introduction by Philip V. Bohlman, stopping on their polymath way to visit The U.S. Supreme Court: A Very Short Introduction by Linda Greenhouse and Plague: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Slack.

The topics are all serious, including subjects that many people would like to get to know better, but don’t have the time to study in depth.  These little volumes are just the place to start if you don’t want commit to a lengthy book.  Despite their small size every Very Short Introduction includes references, further reading and an index.  They are written by learned people who do a good job of making their subjects accessible without dumbing them down.

Plague: A Very Short Introduction is about the Bubonic Plague, the disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, but the book covers other plagues with uncertain causes that were recorded right back to Biblical times and beyond.  Author Paul Slack points out that virulent epidemic diseases can have similar effects in human lives, no matter what their causes or when they occur. One effect can be a loss of population and seemingly empty cities ” ‘Grass grew in the streets,’ says Paul the Deacon in Rome about a plague in 680, and Samuel Pepys about London a thousand years later in the plague of 1665.”

Plague: A Very Short Introduction covers the biology of the disease but it is mainly about its history and social effects.  It is often argued that the decline in population from the Black Death in Europe in the 1300s caused the end of Serfdom, a system that tied Serfs to their Lords and the Lord’s land.  Other people think that it also led to the Industrial Revolution because technology was needed to fill in for labor shortages.  Paul Slack argues that this is too simplistic a view.  The long term effects of plague depended on the situation before the disease hit.  Some places, like Sicily recovered more quickly, even though they had a higher mortality rate.  Serfdom did decline in Western Europe, but in Eastern Europe the lords were powerful enough to impose serfdom on previously free populations.

The book also uses written accounts from the time to look at the effects of the plague on individuals, even those who survived.  Despite not knowing about bacteria and viruses medieval people observed that human contact made disease spread.  They frequently instituted quarantines that kept people in as well as keeping people out, sometimes cruelly as family members or servants were thrown out of their homes at the first sign of disease.  Other people showed a better side of humanity, nursing abandoned strangers at the risk of their own lives.

Unsettlingly for the future, Paul Slack says that we don’t know the exact reasons that the plague became so devastating.  Changes in climate (possibly caused by a meteor), changes in animal populations, expanding trade routes and increasing urbanization are all possibilities.  We don’t even know why it ended:  “The end of the first pandemic remains a puzzle, the greatest mystery in the whole history of plague.”  Maybe it hasn’t ended, Bubonic Plague still occurs naturally in the Western United States and infects up to 5000 people worldwide every year.  In terrifyingly dry language, the World Health Organization classifies plague as a “re-emerging” disease.

Plague: A Very Short Introduction is a good choice for readers of historical medical non-fiction such as The Ghost Map and I recommend the entire Very Short Introduction series  for anyone who ever needs any short introduction to a topic (and who doesn’t?).

Check the WRL catalog for Plague: A Very Short Introduction

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It’s a popular question these days, mostly because the closest we get to oil is the pump at the nearest gas station.  But at ground level, in a place where there’s no safety, no regulation, and no hope of the wealth being shared, it’s entirely possible that the residents reverse the question.

Helon Habila takes us deep into Nigeria, where the promise of oil wealth has long been transmuted into the reality of oil industry.  The countryside is locked in a battle between lawless militants, many of whom say they’re fighting to share in the supposed prosperity, and the lawless military which is supposed to protect the oil infrastructure.  Caught in the middle (as usual) are the ordinary people who want to stay on their ancestral lands, worship at their shrines, and fish their waters.

The journey into this particular heart of darkness is narrated by Rufus, a young journalist looking to take his first step into the big time.  An Englishwoman, wife of a petroleum engineer working in-country, has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers want to open negotiations by proving she’s alive.  They issue an open invitation to the country’s media, and Rufus is among those to take up the challenge.  Along with several other reporters, including his idol Zaq, Rufus heads upriver for the meeting.

Nothing goes as it should, and Rufus becomes a firsthand witness to the brutality of both sides, and to the devastation of the environment.  The water is choked with oil.  Dead birds and fish are everywhere.  Abandoned drilling rigs overshadow villages.  Gas flares light the night sky.  No place is safe because the military suspects everyone of helping the militants, and the militants suspect everyone of helping the soldiers.  Raiders from both sides descend at will, stealing food, burning homes and boats, interrogating, even torturing and murdering random residents in sight of their neighbors and families.  Rufus, searching for what Zaq calls “the perfect story”, barely survives to return to his home in Port Harcourt.

The story behind the story, the true story, is the result of the ubiquitous oil drillers.  Using the implied promise of jobs and the practical demonstration of power, these men and the Company they work for represent the worst vestiges of colonialism left in the world.  Even as they rape the land, buy the leaders, and ship money and oil out of the country, they live lives of ease in their city strongholds.  Like oil and water, they do not–they cannot–mix.  But they are vulnerable to the blackmail and terror raids of the militants, and the kidnapping of Company employees has become the militants’ most lucrative industry.  When Isabel Floode disappears, her value to the various factions skyrockets and a miniature war breaks out as everyone tries to get their hands on her.  But even her kidnapping isn’t what it appears to be, and the deception has fatal consequences.

Habila immerses the reader in the chaos, heat, disease, and distress of the Niger Delta, where the rivers and waterways braid in myriad paths and where each turn may yield danger or comfort.  He also writes much of the dialogue between Rufus, Zaq, and the people they encounter in the pidgin of the Delta, which houses a multitude of ethnic groups and languages.  While the language may seem odd at first, context and growing familiarity make it easy to comprehend, and even to get some sense of the cultures that lie behind it.  I suspect, though, that those interested in learning about these cultures or reading Mr. Habila’s book aren’t the ones who need to understand that “our” oil carries a much higher cost than we see at the pump.

Check the WRL catalog for Oil on Water


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The time has come to forever mark New York’s grief and loss from the September 11 terrorist attacks.  5000 blind submissions, all trace of the artist’s identity removed, have been sorted through by a jury of political appointees, academics, artists, and a representative of the families.  The field is winnowed down to two entries – one, a ten-story high black boulder thrusting up from the ground, with the names of the dead engraved up and down its sides.  The other, a walled garden divided symmetrically by canals, with living trees interspersed with steel trees sculpted from Twin Towers’ beams, and the names of the dead inscribed on the walls.  After debate and lobbying, the jury selects the garden, which was designed by…

Mohammed Khan.

Or, as the governor’s representative says, “Jesus f—–g Christ!  It’s a g—–n Muslim!” (This is a family blog.)

The selection is supposed to be confidential, but it’s no time before second-rate reporter Alyssa Spiers gets her scoop on the front pages of the tabloid New York Post and all hell breaks loose.  Suddenly the memorial is the sole property of the understandably angry families.  Or a cause celebre for liberals rejecting knee-jerk hatred.  Or the target of right-wing rabblerousers who proclaim it only lacking 72 virgins to make it a complete Islamic paradise for victorious terrorists.  A chance for Muslim activists to reach a broader audience.  A headache for the committee chair.  A political liability.

A personal and professional triumph for its creator, who demands recognition for his achievement without any need to defend his heritage or his design.

Mo Khan considers himself a plain vanilla American—born to non-religious parents who immigrated from India, raised in Alexandria, Virginia, trained as an architect, promoted for his skill.  No different from any other ambitious single-minded young man.  Now he finds himself treated as a stranger in his own country, interrogated by the FBI on his first post-9/11 flight, his career derailed, and now his breakthrough achievement threatened.  Mo now draws the line at sacrificing his vision, and the irresistible force of public opinion meets the immovable force of a proud man.

Amy Waldman does a terrific job exploring the needs and sensitivities of all the people with a personal stake in this controversy.  Some are confused, unable to distinguish between their sorrow and their anger.  Others are struggling with the balance between doing what is right and doing what is realistic.  Still others cannot see a reason for the collective emotions, insisting on keeping the memory of their own loved one independent of the memorial’s politics.

If the premise of The Submission sounds familiar, you may remember Maya Lin’s controversial design for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.  You may remember the hoo-hah over the Park51 project. (Waldman’s work on the book preceded that episode, and could even have been the blueprint for how it played out.)  You may even know that the real memorial is not without controversy.  As Waldman shows in a very effective epilogue, Americans tend not to hold grudges, even when our social progress is made in fits and starts.   If only there was a way to speed up the process.

Check the WRL catalog for The Submission

The Submission is also available as a Gab Bag.


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How does a just and civilized country conduct the trial of the self-confessed mastermind of 9/11? Is he an enemy combatant? Is he a civilian who is deserving of a civilian trial? And what happens if, despite his confession, the rules of civilian justice require that evidence against him is inadmissible?

In trying to answer these questions William Shawcross refers to the famous Nuremberg Nazi war crime trials after WWII because they set a precedent for a new kind of justice. Previously, winners of many wars have conducted trials, but the Americans wanted to do something different. In 1945 the Americans, against the wishes of some of their allies, declared that they would not conduct simple sham or show trials at Nuremberg. In a speech to the American Society of International Law in 1945 Justice Robert Jackson said that, “You must put no man on trial under the forms of judicial proceeding, if you are not willing to see him freed if not proven guilty. If you are determined to execute a man in any case, there is no occasion for a trial; the world yields no respect to courts that are merely organized to convict.”

Since 9/11 these same questions of justice have vexed the government, the military and many individuals. How do we keep the public safe from self-avowed terrorists who promise to attack any target in their power, and at the same time ensure justice for the accused? With a sketchy knowledge of both Nuremberg and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed I was interested to learn how these newsworthy events and people are connected. I have to admit that even with an interest in the topic I was doubtful about starting a tome with such a weighty title, but I found that William Shawcross has a very readable style.

This book highlights fascinating background for the events that are in the news all the time. For example, the book states that only three prisoners were ever waterboarded by representatives of the U.S. government. Perhaps this is three too many, but from the controversy and vitriol surrounding the issue, I thought it must have happened to dozens, if not hundreds of people.

Author William Shawcross is the son of Chief British Prosecutor at Nuremberg, Hartley Shawcross. He obviously grew up hearing about the trial and occasionally inserts what his father said. This book is sure to be controversial and you may disagree violently with Shawcross’s conclusions, but it is definitely still worth reading to consider some depth behind the headlines.

Check the WRL catalog for Justice and the Enemy: Nuremberg, 9/11, and the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed


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Nobody really knows how it started, just that it did.  Did Charles Colson send G. Gordon Liddy?  Was it Howard Hunt trying to relive his CIA days with his old Cuba buddies?  Was James McCord sent by the CIA itself?  How were John Mitchell and Richard Nixon involved?  In any event, a team of burglars entered the Watergate office/apartment complex to raid the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and got caught.  One of them had Howard Hunt’s White House phone number, and it was off to the races.

In Watergate, Thomas Mallon mines the scandal and reconstructs the fallout among the Nixon Administration and its supporters.  He’s not so much interested in the mechanics of how a “third-rate burglary” metastasized into a full-blown Constitutional crisis as he is in the mental and emotional effects on people such as Fred LaRue and Rose Mary Woods as the cover-up melted down.

LaRue, whose name is not as recognized as HR Haldeman or John Erlichmann’s, is tormented by his personal history and bemused at the idea that he walked away from an oil fortune to become a political bagman. Woods is an iron lady whose unconditional support of the President is tested by Nixon’s lack of loyalty to her.  Among the actual burglary conspirators, Howard Hunt is distraught, questioning whether he subconsciously derailed the burglary, and afraid that he is being set up as the fall guy.

Mallon also creates the interior lives of Richard and Pat Nixon.  Pat, often characterized as a plastic political wife, carries on an affair while living in New York, and seriously considers leaving her husband for her true love.  She’s also deeply angry at Dick for his passivity in the face of the investigations.  Dick is self pitying and confounded by the media fascination with Watergate in the midst of his successful foreign affairs and economic policies.

The most fascinating character Mallon creates is Alice Roosevelt Longworth.  The daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, she knows all the political and domestic dirt on the whole Washington crew, and her own peccadilloes are well known among longtime Washingtonians.  Her well-honed political instincts are dismissed by other characters as the foolishness of a 90-year old woman better known for her witty salons than her inside knowledge.  How would the whole thing have played out had Nixon listened to her?

In the long run, as Mallon leads the reader to conclude, it doesn’t matter how the whole thing started.  The Watergate scandal peeled back the lid on the rotten core of Nixon’s blowout 1972 re-election. The dirty tricks, the illegal cash transfusions, the bribery, and the idea that those things mattered less than getting Nixon re-elected infected the souls of the President and his advisors, and that’s what created the revulsion that Nixon couldn’t understand.

There is a tinge of satire in Watergate, but the final effect is that of a tragedy.  For those who view Watergate and Nixon’s resignation as the well-deserved defeat of a soulless man, Mallon uncovers areas where we can sympathize with him.  For those who still admire Nixon, Mallon reveals a man fundamentally self-centered and in many ways unlikeable.  That Mallon is able to do both is a function of his skill at absorbing history and digging into the psyches of those who think they make it.

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There are some stereotypes that cannot die out, and one of them is “the lunchlady”.  She is a large woman dressed in a greasy uniform, with a hairnet and a perpetual expression that suggests she’d like nothing better than to throw you in next week’s Mystery Meat as the main ingredient.  I went to enough schools to understand the source of that stereotype, but since my own kids have been in school, I’ve come to see the reality – these ladies (and I’ve only ever seen women in the cafeterias) love being around children.  If lunchladies today seem harried and harrassed, perhaps it’s because their roles have changed over the years.  That change is one small part of the school lunch scandal that Sarah Wu reports on.

Wu, a Chicago elementary school teacher, forgot her lunch one day.  Thinking she’d make do with the cafeteria offering that day, she picked up a tray of “food” – a bagel dog, Jell-O, six Tater Tots, and chocolate milk.  The experience of eating bland unappealing food of questionable nutritious value appalled her.  After debating with herself and trying to work out the work and family ethics of the experiment, Wu started to anonymously observe cafeteria food for one year.  Each day, she would purchase lunch, photograph it during her free period, and write about the meal when she got home that night.  Her blog attracted attention from advocates for nutrition, green schools, the locavore movement, and student cooking, even as she struggled to maintain her alter-ego, “Mrs. Q”.

That first day’s meal was a revelation, but by no means was it an exception.  The above meal was packaged for efficient shipping, not for genuine nutritional value.  The hot dog was wrapped in a bread-like substance and sealed in plastic.  The tater tots, which count as the vegetable, were microwaveable.  The chunks suspended in the plastic Jell-O cup masqueraded as the fruit.  And of course, the chocolate milk was the dairy.  Not exactly the Food Pyramid that kids learn about in that same school, is it?  Strangely enough, the US Department of Agriculture, which created the food pyramid, also represents corporate farming operations and multi-national food service companies, and treats school lunch programs as a profitable outlet for their clients.

So teachers get children who’ve been hopped up on processed sugar then sent back into the classroom.  Students get unappetizing food served without input from real cooks.  Parents get the illusion that their children are eating healthy and filling meals.  The community gets immense amounts of waste from individual packages, utensils, and wasted food.   Food service contractors get the profit from turning food into a disposable commodity served almost literally on the run.  (In many school systems, students have less than 30 minutes to make their way to the cafeteria, stand in line to be served, eat, and still have some form of relaxation time. )

Thankfully Wu’s book not only details the failure of the school lunch program, but identifies people and organizations creating ideas for better school nutrition.  She also talks about how parents can get involved in transforming the culture of bottom-line bottomfeeding into a system that replaces the current foodlike substances with nutritious and attractive alternatives.  And she writes about school systems that are leading the way back towards affordable and healthy school lunches centered on the needs of growing children.  The most important partner parents can call on? Lunch ladies.

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Like many who have traveled I am intimately aware that umpteen people around the world have dirty, nasty, and awkward toilet facilities.  It is great to see the world but sometimes even better to get back to my own bathroom.  What I didn’t realize before reading The Big Necessity is that “2.6 billion people don’t have sanitation … Four in ten people have no access to any latrine, toilet, bucket, or box.”

These figures are astonishing and are what drew me to read The Big Necessity when a biology professor recommended it for Freshman Seminar classes.  Ever since reading it I have been recommending it to people, from my book club of older women to my husband as he was deploying to Afghanistan.  All of them, after giving me a strange look and being initially reluctant to tackle a book with a cover picturing a roll of toilet paper, have said that it was well worth reading.  “Fascinating” was a word I heard a lot to describe the book and I agree–it is a surprisingly engrossing read.

Perhaps it is engrossing because this is a subject that we are even more reluctant to talk about than sex, but it is vitally important and affects us all. In ten chapters, British journalist Rose George travels from east to west as she looks at aging sewer systems in New York and luxurious robo-toilets in Japan.  The chapters on biogas and biosolids point out that the admirable goal of making use of the resources in waste has advantages and big disadvantages.  If you like to read while you eat, the chapter “Open Defecation-Free India” is the one to avoid over lunch, but even it has positive notes.

The Big Necessity isn’t a simple tirade about how people in poor countries have terrible lives while rich people have life easy–it is more than that.  It points out how we are very conservative about our toilet habits–conservative in the sense that we don’t like to change them–deep down we feel that what our mother taught us when we were toddlers is how we should conduct our business all our lives.  In many cases, whether we have a squat toilet or a seat, a private room or no doors is immaterial to health and safety but is individually very important to us.

This is an important book on an important subject that makes a great read for anyone interested in topics as diverse as international development to the psychology of our private acts.

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There is no doubt that Barbara Kingsolver is one of the finest authors of our time, and The Lacuna upholds that reputation.  She explored issues of identity through myriad competing and complementing characters in her two best-known books, The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer.  Now, with The Lacuna, she offers two astonishingly well-realized characters whose mutual dependence contrasts with their very different views of the world.

Harrison Shepherd is the center of the story.  A boy when his mother flees back to Mexico as the mistress of a wealthy man, he has no real place on the isolated island where they live.  Neither Mexican nor American, rich nor poor, educated or illiterate, servant or patron, the only place he feels at home is in the ocean, where he should be most out of place.  There, and in the pages of his diary, he is free to live outside the expectations of others.

As Harrison grows, those expectations take on the form of names that others bestow on him.  At the American military school he attends for a short time, he is “Pancho Villa.”  To his eventual employers he is “Sweet Buns,” “Insolito,“, or “young Shepherd.”  “Sweet Buns” is the gift of Diego Rivera, who discovers that Harrison mixes the best plaster for his frescoes, while also baking the breads and pastries Rivera loves so much.  And “young Shepherd” is the name given to him by Lev Davidovitch Bronstein, better known to the world as Leon Trotsky.  Harrison is a full-fledged member of the household when Rivera offers Trotsky refuge from Joseph Stalin’s assassins, and he becomes a second secretary to the embattled Trotsky.  He is witness to and transcriber of the outpouring of letters, articles, polemics, and eloquent pleas that the exiled Trotsky maintained in his uncompromising opposition to Stalin, and comes to genuinely admire, even love, Trotsky the man.

But Insolito is the name he takes to heart, since it is given to him by Frida Kahlo, with whom he shares a deep friendship and respect.  She is the only person who sees him as he is and encourages his budding talent as a writer.  She is also one of a select few who know that Harrison is homosexual.  And she proves to be his savior when official reaction to Trotsky’s assassination threatens their lives.

This story is told through Harrison’s diary, a remarkable document in which he recounts the details of his daily conversations and the sights and smells of Mexico. Under Rivera’s artistic spell, he comes to realize that the rhythms of ancient Mexico are not very far removed from the 20th century, and discovers the path to his vocation.  Harrison becomes an historical novelist, telling the tales of the Aztecs and Maya before and during the Spanish conquest in ways that resonate with American readers.  His work becomes immensely popular and he takes on a new and unwelcome identity, that of the public figure.

To help him deal with the correspondence, accounting, and manuscripts, he hires Mrs. Violet Brown, a relatively young woman who is nonetheless a longtime widow.  Raised in the deepest backwoods of Appalachia, Violet educated herself and has maintained her independence.  She has a very clear view of the world, understanding the implications of his actions far better than Harrison, a reticent romantic, ever could.  In the heady days of World War II, his wide-eyed naivete fits with the times; when the war ends and the crusade against Communism begins, Violet recognizes that his public status makes Harrison a target and tries to warn him.  She understands that this is not the time or place for nuance, context, or metaphor, and by the time he heeds her words, the full press of McCarthyist tactics has already isolated him and ended his career.

The mechanism Kingsolver uses to present this story is not unique—an unidentified archivist is organizing Harrison’s diaries for publication and explaining to the reader the setting in which each diary was either written or reconstructed. The art that Kingsolver adds to it, though, is the differentiation among the various voices.  The archivist tries to be neutral but deep emotion rises closer to the surface with every additional note. Harrison’s personal diary entries become more expressive and intimate as the boy becomes a man.  During Trotsky’s stay, he writes in the dry tones of a recording secretary, honoring Frida Kahlo’s wish that Harrison avoid writing anything that might be used against Trotsky; true to his name Insolito, he still manages to write pointed commentary within those pages. And finally, letters between Harrison and Kahlo strike a perfect tone that captures the friendship and student/teacher relationship between the two. This careful assembly of a written record is the perfect format to show the creation and destruction of a decent man.

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The early campaigning for the 2012 presidential election is well underway, which is impossible. We only just finished the 2008 election season. Hillary vs. Obama, then McCain and Palin vs. Obama and Whatshisname– all that drama took place, like, last week.

So why read a book about it? We all lived through it. We were there. We were active at the polls; we were engaged in discussions about race and gender and politics. We voted in primaries, for crying out loud, primaries. We already know what it was like.

Or do we? Television and the internet deluged us with election info in 2008, but mostly with “sloppy synopses and cartoonish characters at a rat-a-tat pace,” recalls Salon writer Rebecca Traister, whose prose is disgustingly quotable. “Many of us, struggling to keep up, were happy to just get the Cliffs Notes version. But in the ceaseless cycle of revelation and analysis we lost depth, clarity and perspective on the story that was unfolding around us, as well as on how that story was itself changing and reshaping itself.”

Traister delivers on the depth, clarity, and perspective in a book that is compulsively readable. If you thought you had a firm grasp on the events and personalities of the 2008 presidential campaigns, prepare to be taken down a peg. Traister has rummaged through the glut of information from America’s recent history and emerged with a narrative that will enthrall anyone who cares about sex, power, gender, or the media.

Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Sarah Palin all feature prominently in the book, but this story is not just about them. It is about Katie Couric and Rachel Maddow, Gloria Steinem and Tina Fey. It is about the older feminists who flocked to Clinton and the younger women who flocked to Obama, and the young men who loathed Hillary but who swore they weren’t sexist. It is about understanding feminism as it related to a vice-presidential candidate who balanced marriage, five children, and a powerful political career while remaining staunchly anti-choice. It is about the eighteen million pro-Clinton voters whom Clinton so eloquently thanked in her concession speech: “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it’s got about eighteen million cracks in it.”

I hope you remember that line– it still makes me tear up to read it– but you can be forgiven if you don’t. The mainstream media spent most of their time focused on the other part of Clinton’s concession speech, the not-news that she would be endorsing Obama. That decision to focus on Clinton’s capitulation, rather than on her astounding feminist success, speaks to the subtle sexism in the media and at large. This is where Traister truly shines. It is easy to cry sexism when newscasters criticize a candidate for her ankles or the pitch of her laugh rather than her policies. (Not that many people did cry sexism when that happened, alas.) It is harder to perceive sexism when it is nuanced and subtle, but Traister recognizes it for what it is and cries foul.

Does this sound like feminist screed? It’s not. Traister is in her thirties. She identifies less with the trailblazing feminists of her mother’s generation and more with younger women, many of whom felt uncomfortable at even considering gender when evaluating a candidate (because that sort of thing would be sexist, right?). Instead, Traister teases out the subtleties of feminisms old and new, creating her own fiery perspective.

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The United States is in the middle of the world’s largest and longest-lasting crime spree.  The criminals are known– their names and photos routinely appear on the front pages of newspapers– but law enforcement has been unable to make arrests or bring charges.  And, according to Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, they are likely to continue their spree until there’s nothing left to steal.  The ringleader is a character by the name of Goldman Sachs, and this kingpin has set itself up so that it not only steals from the suckers, but also from the other crooks as well.

Over the course of the past thirty years, Taibbi writes, a combination of easy money thrown at banks, oversight agencies blinded, and the watchdog press put to sleep has enabled investment banks, insurance companies, and commodities brokers to inexorably suck the money out of our pockets.  It doesn’t get added back into the economy in any fashion, except in the bonuses paid to CEOs, partners, and the legion of salespeople hawking their products.  Unless you produce gold-plated yachts and giant houses, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see that money again.

The cons are not simple. They were devised over the years by some really smart people who had their eye on anything monetary that wasn’t already theirs.  From institutional investors required to maximize profits in risky investments (have you checked your 401[k] lately?) to taxpayer-financed bailouts, these guys have created a system that privatizes their profits but socializes both the losses and the long-term consequences of their schemes.

Fortunately, Taibbi has sorted his way through both the histories and mechanisms used by these guys and come up with clear and cogent explanations of their concepts, and he steers clear of the tall grass that makes reading prospectuses both useless and soporific.  He doesn’t mince words, targeting Randian Fed Secretary Alan Greenspan, a host of government/industry insiders and their gold-plated revolving door, and the elected officials who approve questionable legislation for their donors.  If, as Dylan wrote, “to live outside the law, you must be honest,” it’s even better to buy the legislative process and make your crimes legal.  For these guys, it’s dirt cheap and pays off every hour of every day.

One of the important points Taibbi makes is that all of this goes on in full sight of the public, but we’re too busy talking about pigs and lipstick, socialism, abortion, gas-guzzling drivers, and gun rights to pay attention.  It’s easier for our press to cover the horserace and entertainment factors of our elections than to actually talk about the vanishing difference between the Democrats and Republicans and their focus on the next election cycle.  At this rate, we won’t be able to buy the metal for our pitchforks and oil for our torches in another five years.

Don Corleone said that “one man with a briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.”  Update that to “two thousand men with guns,” and you’ve got a more accurate picture of the Griftopia we live in.

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When political and media pressure combine in high profile criminal cases, the result can become the disgrace of a civilized society.  Sarah Burns has gone back to 1989 to remind us of a particularly odious episode that exemplifies that disgrace.

The term ‘wilding’ entered our vocabulary when a large group of black and Hispanic teens roamed through Central Park in New York City, verbally and physically assaulting passers-by.  That same evening, a young woman jogging through the park was raped and nearly beaten to death.

Several teens had been detained for the various assaults in the park but were set to be released when word of the rape and near-murder came through.  The veteran prosecutor and elite detectives assigned to the case could not believe that the incidents were coincidental, and began working to turn circumstantial evidence into direct evidence by soliciting confessions from the teens.  Their tactics were questionable at best: they denied the accused boys food for nearly a full day, pulled the required adult guardians out of the interview rooms during crucial parts of their interrogation, led one boy on a tour of the crime scene, and dictated the confessions to them.  Some of the boys said that they were physically abused, and that they eventually signed their confessions to end the questioning.  Their accounts were at odds with the facts and with each other, but those confessions outweighed everything else.

Citywide and national condemnation of the assaults and rape began immediately.  Mayor Ed Koch took every opportunity to get in front of cameras.  Donald Trump took out a full-page ad in one paper.  The New York press, especially the tabloids, led the way in describing the teens as beasts with human faces.  (The term ‘wilding’ itself was the creation of the police, but the media loved it and ran with it. )  Even the supposedly objective New York Times took up the metaphor of predators ruling a jungle of their own making in their reporting.  Perp walks, conveniently timed for news deadlines, identified the teens (now being treated as adults) and forever linked them to the crime.  They were convicted in the court of public opinion before the first witness was heard.

When the judicial system took over, Lady Justice’s blindfold disappeared in the glare of television lights.  Inexperienced or self-promoting defense attorneys, novel evidence presented as scientific certainty, and the behavior of the boys’ advocates ensured that the facts of the case would be obscured.  When the jurors finished deliberating, all five were found guilty of various crimes connected to the rape and sentenced to prison.  The case was closed.

Except that at the same time, a serial rapist named Mathias Reyes, using the same MO as the Central Park crime, was operating in the neighborhood.  After raping several women and murdering one, he was finally caught, convicted of those crimes, and sent to prison.  In 2002, he confessed to a prison official that he had committed the Central Park rape.  His story was investigated by the New York District Attorney’s office, and a dispassionate re-evaluation of the evidence demonstrated that he was the man who had raped and nearly killed the Central Park jogger.   The boys, now young men who had served in some of the worst prisons in the country, were immediately set free.  Unfortunately police, prosecutors, and the media– and impressionable media viewers– were still convinced of the boys’ guilt.  The prospect of a suit against the city and reviews of Burns’ book have reignited the vitriol surrounding the case.

Burns lays out the case that the conviction of the Central Park Five was the outward manifestation of fear and racism during a time when New York was a city in decline.  She shows how similar cases in which whites were the aggressors were treated differently in the media, and how bad relations between the black and Hispanic communities exacerbated the boys’ response to the accusations.  At the same time, she follows Mathias Reyes’ rape spree, which could only have continued if police chose to pursue the wrong people.   Given those factors, Burns’ subtitle (A Chronicle of a City Wilding) is not the description of a crime, but an indictment of the out-of-control political, judicial, and media powers that chose not to perform the roles that a civilized society demands of them.

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A mountain overlooks the valley of North Elba, NY, one of those massifs that split oncoming storms into two distinct patterns.  The Native American name translates to Cloudsplitter.

Like the mountain, John Brown was a Cloudsplitter. From his home in North Elba, he took his visionary crusade against slavery into battle. His extreme actions forced Americans to choose between those who accepted or profited from slavery and those who came to adopt his view that bloodshed was the only solution to its horrors.

Cloudsplitter is the story of the martyr or villain of the abolitionist movement, depending on where you stand on the issue of American slavery and the Civil War. Beginning with his unprecedented actions in Bleeding Kansas, John Brown provided an alternative to the passive abolitionists who had ineffectually taken the moral road to end “the peculiar institution.”  By 1850, the United States’ drift towards acceptance of the national influence of the slaveholding states had begun to quicken. Brown and his sympathizers knew that their work on The Underground Railroad could be undone right up to, and in some cases over the Canadian border. The 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was developed as the first blow in a new resistance and escape movement that would give pause to the bounty hunters and lawmen who might take escaped slaves or even free black people to the South. Instead, it became a watershed moment in the run-up to the Civil War.

Russell Banks could have taken any number of routes to tell this story, but he chose an intriguing one. Fifty years after Harpers Ferry, Brown’s third son, Owen, is an old sheeptending hermit in California. Visited by an assistant to his father’s biographer, Owen initially rejects her, then offers to write his account of his father’s story. But this is primarily Owen’s story–John Brown’s domestic, business, and militant life are faithfully recited, but Owen has another goal. He wants to explain his own life, meditate on the nature of father-son relationships and ponder his vision of the Abraham/Isaac story. (That Biblical tale is a dynamic that will arise again and again in John Brown’s life.)  Owen quenched his own life for the attractive certainty of his father’s vision, but made himself a murderous lieutenant in return. He takes the credit–or blame–for showing his father and his father’s other followers how easy it is to cross the line into murder, and from there the path to Harpers Ferry is set. But Owen’s confession leaves the reader uncertain. Has he come to this view with the hindsight of half a century? Was his confusion over violence, sexuality, and his father’s influence the result of his solitary existence or is he capturing feelings that he felt at the time?

Owen does wonder about the soundness of his father’s plan, but does not make this the story of a madman. Banks’ John Brown believes his mission is direct from God, and that the reverses and losses that filled his life were signs from the Almighty that his work lay in ending slavery. (The historical record bears this out–John Brown was a deeply religious man intimate with every part of the Bible and accustomed to preaching its exhortations.)  Contemporary views of him show a passionate advocate; later images would cement Brown’s popular image as an insane Moses.  (I believe Cecil B. DeMille had this in mind when he depicted the celluloid Moses at the Red Sea.)

Finally, Banks also explores frontier life in all its relentless work and harshness. The Brown family and their neighbors labored from “can’t see to can’t see” to break the land, secure food, build shelter, and care for their animals. They also suffered death on all fronts–John Brown would lose his first wife in childbirth, and of his 20 children only 12 would survive childhood. That level of detail humanizes a man usually known for the penultimate act of his life. His ultimate act would split the country in two for decades to come.

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