Archives for category: Non-fiction

Green’s book, subtitled West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom, covers the years from 1890-1933. I’ve started to become more interested in labor history and have a family connection to West Virginia. Like many others, according to the explanation Green offers as his reason for writing the book, I was not aware of the violent intensity between the miners and their families and the owners / operators of the mines. Green says repeatedly that there is no completely accurate account of how many people died, but everyone – the miners (some of whom were WWI veterans), the private guards the operators hired, the National Guard that had to be summoned, and even the US Army – all had guns. The organizers, the likes of Mother Jones, John Lewis and Frank Keeney, were amazingly persistent and resilient people, especially in an era when transportation and communication were far more difficult than they are today.

But the willingness of the ordinary and here often unnamed families to participate in strikes absolutely astounded me, especially in the later years when the country was experiencing a depression. At times, I wondered whether the rugged spirit that was formed in West Virginians during this time was a kind of precursor to Hillbilly Elegy, and perhaps another explanation of the result of our recent presidential election.

I was also quite taken with how diverse and integrated the union was from its very inception. Even when social forces interceded and resulted in things like segregated housing, the union was always open to all.

Green never really hides his pro-Union bias, and it never overwhelms his narrative. Despite this bias, he is critical of certain union decisions and tactics, particularly when corruption infected the organization.

Green makes the case that this is a story that needed to be told, and he told it well.

Although you wouldn’t think that the history of banking would be exciting, much less the stuff of a musical, Baradaran presents a compelling narrative about how and why we got to the place where we are so far from the democratization of credit that our founders envisioned (and pretty much enacting the fears they anticipated). It boils down to mission drift or, better yet, mission abandonment. Initially, banks were conceived as a public service institution, assigned to serve everyone. At some point in the 70s, the mission shifted to profit, and Baradaran demonstrates how this hybrid – a private profit making institution supported by the government is just not sustainable.

Various alternatives have emerged – the credit union, in its original form, seems to have had some success. But it, too, had its mission corrupted. Baradaran sees some possibilities in postal banking, but her endorsement is far from passionate.

And the question of what comes next (there’s that musical again) is essential. J.D. Vance of Hillbilly Elegy fame talks about how his family relied on payday loans. And The Atlantic  also wonders what would replace them.

What Will Come After Payday Lending?

a preview of the book on a podcast

Look, I’m no art critic, but I’ve always been intrigued by Basquiat’s work. Can you separate the artist from the art? Would it be as intriguing to me if I didn’t know anything about the human being behind it? I think so. Those who have had discussions with fiction with me know that I tend to downplay the author’s biography when it comes to interpretation. So does it matter here? I think so. Hogan’s thesis seems to that of the divided Basquiat. Talented, but untrained. Attractive and repellent. Desperate for fame and aware that it destroys first his talent and then his life.

The book is, as the cover blurb says, “compulsively readable.” Hogan makes interesting choices with her supporting material. Instead of weaving it into the narrative, she’ll just stop and tell you the biography of a dealer or the evolution. You might think this would kill the momentum of the biography, but it doesn’t; it’s a chance to catch your breath.

We know how this turns out. Basquiat dies. He dies young, and he dies badly. Hogan never shies away from that fact; nor does she attempt to create any kind of artificial suspense or pathos. It’s a sad and predictable ending to his chaotic life which, in turn, leads to a tangled afterlife for his work and its profits.

I can’t resist one psychological observation (a natural consequence of reading a biography, I think). Basquiat’s father gets a lot of the blame here; Mom disappeared from the narrative for so long that I wondered if I’d overlooked the fact that she’d died or something. There are a few who make tentative efforts, but no emerges, no friend, no mentor, no family member, no artist, no business associate, no girlfriend who makes any serious and consistent effort to tell him that he’s screwing up his life. They are all too attracted to him and afraid of him.

Was he talented? Was he just both a victim and a beneficiary of the 80s art scene? Are we just drawn to him because he died young and left a good-looking corpse? I don’t know. I like to look at his art. It makes me think; it makes me feel. That’s enough, yeah?

As anyone who has seen me try can attest, I should be nowhere near even the word ‘dancing.’ So when this book won the Anisfield-Wolf award, I thought, “Great. Not reading it.”

But a respected reader suggested that once I saw Seibert at the awards ceremony, I would change my mind. And though she’s still not forgiven for the whole Paul Beatty incident, she was right about this.

Seibert has swung for the fences here and succeeded. Perhaps inspired by that fact that no one else will tackle this subject for some time to come, he sought to be comprehensive. And he does manage to pack a great deal into 540 pages. His enthusiasm for his subject is as evident as his knowledge. He has clearly done his research, though its evidence never bogs down his prose.

“Writing about music,” someone said first, “is like dancing about architecture.” What then, is writing about dance? These are the parts that I glossed over. This was one of the few times I could see the virtue of an electronic copy of this book, one that could provide links to the performances Seibert mentions. (Instead, I made a list of movies to see as I read.)

What is incredibly admirable here is the way Seibert’s focus on the evolution of tap necessarily requires an examination of the racial implications of every, generally non-linear, stage of its development. The two narratives must be intertwined and Seibert handles them both openly and gracefully. He acknowledges that questions of cultural appropriation are everywhere in his story and he more often asks good and hard (and undecidedly un-PC questions) than he provides answers. His writing is unafraid. And since he’s already captured us with his enthusiasm for and knowledge of his subject, we willingly follow him on this track, too.

The next step is to see what Fred Astaire films I can find on NetFlix and to wonder what Savion Glover is up to these days.

I am no chemist. My efforts in high school were absurd (and so was my teacher). But I understood enough to see the chemistry here not just as chemistry – because it was still that. Levi clearly has a high regard for his own vocation as a chemist. But it’s also (and this element was more accessible to me) chemistry as metaphor. The ability to control, transform, analyze, indeed to be rational, when all around you is anything but (i.e., WW2). Science, here, in contrast perhaps to any sense of a deity, is dependable, both in the form of its sometimes monotonous practice and in content. There are rules, laws here – not even a fascist can deny them. Therefore, there is freedom, at least in the mind.

It’s a tough book to classify, which is okay by me. Levi considered it a “micro-history.” I don’t have that category, and since I don’t think it would fit anything else, I did the best I could.

That was a hard word to type; it’s a word I will not say. But Gregory wanted that title. so I figure I shouldn’t shy away from typing it. And I stand completely with Gregory here –

Gregory responds to students protesting the Dean who recommended his book

Gregory is a terrific writer. He moves between detail and big picture smoothly and effectively. There were more than a few passages that just blew me away.

And there was so much here I just did not know about him and his involvement in the Civil Rights Revolution – revolution is the word he thinks is more apt than ‘movement.’ If at times, he attributes a bit too much to his intuition, well, that’s okay. But the treatment of his wife after a personal tragedy? Not okay.

I appreciated how Gregory was able to explain his own entry into the Revolution, whether it was forcing a prison audience to be integrated before he performed or marching with Medgar Evers. I also appreciated that he was willing to turn down an opportunity to speak at the March on Washington – at least initially. And his comments are very powerful when he connects the events in the United States with those around the world. I’m not sure the word Vietnam is ever mentioned; but it’s always there.

I remain puzzled as to why he called his need or instinct to become involved in Civil Rights his “monster.” It’s likely limiting to say that the monster was just that – he needed to speak and be heard like most of us need to breathe.

But from beginning to end, the title makes sense. Gregory makes it clear what’s at stake. And by his measure, indeed by almost every measure, we aren’t there yet.

I’ve very much appreciated what I’ve seen as a recent trend of producing and sharing reading lists for issues and questions that, judging by the number of these lists, a decent number of people are having trouble understanding. There are reading lists to accompany Beyonce’s Lemonade, the Syrian refugee crisis, Ferguson, etc.. I will never get through them all, but that won’t stop me from trying.

So it was no surprise to me when reading lists emerged for those of us (myself included) trying to understand the recent Presidential election. Vance’s book was always on these lists, and I resolved to wait for the paperback. Then I learned that Vance was coming to Ohio to lead a program called Our Ohio Renewal. So I decided to splurge for the hardback.

It’s an interesting and pretty quick read. And it is about a community I’ve only experienced a bit – I live in Ohio and have family (that I haven’t seen for a long, long time for reasons that seem to fit the character of the people Vance describes) in West Virginia. Vance interweaves his own story with the story of his two main hometowns (one in Kentucky, one in Ohio) in an effort to explain why the area has turned (like him) Republican. Though he identifies a range of issues, the one that seems to spark the most passion in him is the way he and his family perceive that the welfare system has destroyed the desire of members of his community to work while still allowing them to afford the likes of t-bone steaks and cell phones.

It comes across as a dangerously oversimplified argument. Though he shows that he’s done his homework elsewhere,  in his defense of the ruinous nature of the welfare state, he resorts to a bandwagon argument (“many in the working class saw precisely what I did”) and an inflammatory quotation, one not worth repeating here (140, if you have the book).

Vance does not quite resort to the exceptionalism argument. He knows that “somebody along the line gave [him] some help.” He describes a remarkable, if unconventional, family structure and gives them credit for making sure he didn’t become a statistic. And I could definitely support some of the policy prescriptions he advocates near the end of the book. And I do support the notion of helping individuals learn to make better decisions. For me, it’s a both-and situation, something that seems to elude Vance. He talks about how his beloved Mamaw seemed to be conservative on some issues and liberal on others. His tone is one of gentle chiding for her inconsistency or apparent contradictions. (This seems to be Vance’s most damning comments about everyone – that they don’t recognize their own contradictions. Isn’t this what makes us human?) I think he misses the point here. The grandmother he describes does not seem to care one bit for Democrats or Republicans. She cares for what helps people, particularly her family and especially children.

So, read it? Sure. It’s illuminating, but I am not sure I see enough insight here for him to lead Our Ohio Renewal. We’ll see.

What’s next for me on this particular syllabus? Maybe this? White Trash – Isenberg. Has anyone read it? Other suggestions?