I kept hearing about what a good writer Patti Smith is but I just had not gotten around to reading any of her books. It may have been kismet, or serendipity, because The Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith is almost as surreal as living in isolation to avoid contracting novel coronavirus. Would I have loved this book as much in less apocalyptic times? I will never know. Patti Smith is only one year younger than me but our lives couldn’t be more different, even if you don’t count all the famous men she worked with, partnered with and married. I was a child of Woodstock, she was a punk rocker. I did not keep up with developments in music or, alas, in poetry. My excuse is that I was busy teaching school and living my own life. But I wish now that I had some of Patti Smith tucked away in a schema deep in my brain.
In The Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith checks into the Dream Hotel in California and falls asleep to the sound of the ocean. The rest of the book could be a dream that followed her through the year she turned 70, the Chinese Year of the Monkey. In the morning she goes to eat breakfast at a lonely diner on a long pier, called Wow, where she meets the enigmatic Earnest who pops up from time to time in true surreal fashion. Patti Smith is lost in a year of losses, deaths, illnesses, friends and lovers who are dead or dying.
I wish I could write like this. It’s atmospheric and incandescent at the same time and scattered throughout with some of Smith’s famous Polaroid camera shots. But I was not named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture either.(Wikipedia)
“Get in, said Earnest. We’ll drive through the desert. There’s a place I know that has the best huevos rancheros, and coffee that you can actually drink with pleasure. Then you can judge whether I’m a hologram or not.
There was a rosary wrapped around the rearview mirror. It felt familiar driving with Earnest in the middle of the unexplained; dream or no dream, we had already crisscrossed some curious territory.
“Earnest did most of the talking. Metaphysical geometry, in his low, meditative style, as if he was drawing words from a secret compartment.” Pg. 47
Sam Shepard, the Sam Shepard is dying in the Year of the Monkey, probably of ALS. These two are co-writers, maybe more, but now Sam can no longer write, he speaks and Patti writes. She covers a lot of territory in this year of the monkey.
“ We’ve become a Beckett play, Sam says good naturedly.
I imagine us rooted in our place at the kitchen table, each of us dwelling in a barrel with a tin lid, we wake up and poke out our heads and sit before our coffee and peanut butter toast waiting until the sun rises, plotting as if we are alone, not alone together, but each alone, not disturbing the aura of the other’s aloneness.” Pg. 79
Turns out the motel was never called the Dream Motel. It is the Dream Inn. Patti Smith, I loved your book and the glimpses you gave us of your feelings about the important people in your life.
Never would I have imagined that I would, by choice, read a book about oil and gas, but I found Blowout by Rachel Maddow both readable and sort of gripping. Except for a brief visit with Putin, as the title telegraphs the book begins with the BP Deep Water Horizon blowout and the oil leak which made it clear that while the industry has plenty of tools for drilling, it has almost none for clean-up. Rachel expresses incredulity that even now, in 2020, we still have only giant paper towels, dish detergent, and booms.
Once the Deep Water Horizon gusher is finally capped, Maddow has us shuttling back and forth between Putin’s Russia and Oklahoma City, In Russia Exxon Mobil under the leadership of Rex Tillerson signs a deal with Putin to drill using horizontal drilling techniques (fracking) in the Arctic releasing billions of gallons of oil and gas trapped in the ancient shale under the Arctic Ocean.
In Oklahoma we follow the rather excessively risky Aubrey McClendon in his quest to frack every inch of Oklahoma and put Oklahoma City on the map. It is hard to say if Aubrey loves oil or Oklahoma City most, but he loves money over both. He is a wildcatter who somehow talks banks into allowing him to carry enormous debts, and he talks with government officials and the powers that be at Oklahoma University to hush up the emerging evidence of a connection between fracking and the numerous earthquakes rocking Oklahoma.
There are so many good oil and gas stories (all true) in Maddow’s book that I can’t begin to tell them all. The Russia saga alone has so much corruption and thuggery that it reads like a thriller, but it is not a thriller. It’s an actual chunk of world history that reveals how chasing oil and gas resources and profits is destroying our democracy every bit as much as the Republicans, the Fundamentalists, and Trump.
Oil and gas are so tied to money and power that it becomes clear that the power people around the globe never had any plans to stop using fossil fuels. In fact nations were competing to tap oil reserves far under earth in difficult to reach places and either control the global flow of petroleum or have an independent long term supply. Putin even has dreams of getting Exxon Mobil to use their technical drilling knowledge to tap enough Russian oil and gas that Putin can become the sole supplier of oil and gas to the EU and thus be able to pull strings in as many EU countries as desired. He seems to dream of a mighty Russia, with imperialistic expansion back to the old boundaries of the Soviet Union (or even beyond) on his mind. Fascinating and frightening.
And we learn how money and powerful oil companies bought the Republican Party and turned them into the climate deniers they are, and why any attempts to bring alternative energies to the forefront and turn America into an engine of production in the emerging alternative energy markets were facing enough headwinds to keep them very small indeed. The book ends with notes on attributions for the information contained in each chapter. Blowout by Rachel Maddow is a very informative nonfiction offering by an Oxford scholar who also hosts an hour of news each night on MSNBC.
Rock stars, punk stars, even hip hop stars are being pressured to write memoirs. Patti Smith has sort of taken the literary world by storm – she’s next on my list, but Flea’s book called to me first because it was on the reader that didn’t need to be charged. Ridiculous way to pick reading priorities and likely to make you feel like your brain has experienced whiplash, but I can no longer cart around heavy piles of books, and library waiting lists are long. Besides writers make their living when we buy their books, so I like to buy books to show my respect for writers.
Michael Balzary, the bassist in the Red Hot Chili Peppers wrote Acid for Children. His fans know him as Flea. He’s actually quite a good writer whose words do not get in the way of his story. It seemed like I was sitting in a circle of his friends on an adjoining mattress on the floor of the Wilton Hilton as he told the story of his early years, before he became famous. He told the most distressing things as if they were normal events, although he was aware that his childhood was anything but normal. It began in a fairly normal way in Australia, living with mom, Patricia, and Dad, Mick, sister Karyn. In Australia Michael’s pleasures involved enjoying the riches offered by nature in Australia; a boy and his dog. When he was about eight his Dad was offered a great job in the US and the family moved to an upscale suburban home.
Michael’s mother rebelled. She left to live with Walter, a musician/artist who knew many jazz greats and jammed with them, but who could not make a living. He had a substance abuse problem and what was probably a mental illness. He was though, when sober, a far more affectionate person than Michael’s birth father, and when not sober he raged and became abusive and fought with Michael’s mom, driving Michael out of the house. Michael’s birth father and his sister went back to Australia.
Patricia and Walter had no house rules. Michael was free to run and became basically a wild young kid, shoplifting what he wanted or needed, making friends with other young men who liked to take crazy risks, all the while feeling unloved, and sometimes unlovable. Michael and his friends tried every drug, swam in every beckoning empty pool, and partied constantly. I do not know how Michael stayed out of jail or why he didn’t have a long rap sheet of petty crimes. He seemed to make it through a very tumultuous coming-of-age and to arrive safely in adulthood, still somewhat messed up, but with a career as a famous musician right ahead of him.
Michael became Flea when he became the bassist for Fear. He finished high school thanks to a love of music he had learned from the jazz he loved and all the fine jazz musicians he met at Walter’s shabby house. Michael played the trumpet in high school and his love of music kept him in school long enough to graduate. Michael and his friends lived in Hollywood which might explain how they stayed under the radar of law enforcement as they used the city as their acid-fueled playground. Eventually Flea learned to play the bass, and it became his ticket into fame and fortune.
Balzary is quite honest in telling his story; he does not hide the chaos of his early years and he obviously enjoyed much of the chaos, which suited something untamed within him. Looking back he counsels that children should not do any of the drugs he did, that it does damage to young brains. He explains that he eventually became enlightened enough to not try so hard to constantly self-soothe. Readers may find Michael Balzary’s young life too profane for their tastes. While appreciating the honesty Flea offers and his easy style of writing, I agree with his adult self, that children can be neglected by self-absorbed adults when they need oversight the most. Is a chaotic youth necessary to mold a creative spirit? Perhaps creative development does not require quite this level of free range parenting.
999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Transport to Auschwitz by Heather Dune Macadam
If you decide to read 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Transport to Auschwitzby Heather Dune Macadam, read it with a whole box of tissues handy. This is not because, as in fiction, authors know how to engage our emotions; this is a nonfiction book and the tears will be real. Despite all the times authors have written about the Holocaust, this story still has the power to horrify us, to remind us of the heroic efforts it took to survive this unimaginable cruelty and brutality, to make us wonder if we would have been a survivor, and to force us to accept that the right set of circumstances could possibly turn any one of us into a monster.
Macadam was studying the first transports to Auschwitz in 1942. She learned that a notice went out in Slovakia that spring requiring 999 young teen girls to pack a bag and report for a physical exam. The notice said that they were going to be employed somewhere just outside Slovakia and would return home in 3 months. A few parents tried to hide their daughters because they could not understand why the government was taking girls. But in the end 997 girls were collected and parted from their parents and from all they knew. Macadam made extensive use of the USC Shoah Archive and the official records in Israel to track down the girls who survived this first transport. Although rumor had it that the girls were going to a shoe factory, they actually were taken to occupy the first buildings at Auschwitz. Their small suitcases were confiscated and they were given the uniforms of dead soldiers to wear and some were given black and white striped dresses. On their feet they had homemade clumsy sandals which they called clackers.
Some of the survivors could not talk about their experiences, some could not remember the details because their minds had blocked them, but there were survivors who felt it was important to tell people what had happened in those camps. How anyone survived I cannot say. The treatment of these girls was insane and inexplicable, apparently only possible because the Nazi’s were convinced that Jewish people were less than human. But they did what they did under conditions of great secrecy, so clearly they knew well how the world would judge them. After these girls, transport after transport of young Jewish women were delivered to Auschwitz, and they, in fact, cleared the ground for the entire concentration camp by hand, without coats in winter, in those awful homemade sandals, and thousands died.
This is the most authentic book I have read so far about Auschwitz and the ‘Final Solution’ given that Macadam spoke with people who had lived there and experienced that nightmare. The slightest small misstep, a bout of illness, an injury could result in death. Eventually the girls with the lowest numbers were given indoor work in Canada, which was the name given to the buildings where confiscated Jewish belongings were sorted. This decision may have been the only reason some of these girls survived. The thing that saved their lives put them right next to the crematoriums which had now been built and operated day and night when transports arrived, eventually leaving people off almost at the entrance to the ovens. The girls could see their relatives and neighbors lined up to be killed. The ashes of other Jews filled the air they breathed. Even the comfort of an indoor job held horror.
When I read The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, I was skeptical of the things the author recounted. I also tended to see Jewish people in the camps who had light duty as possible collaborators. The girls who survived have a lot of guilt about things they did in the camps, but most of them offered a kindness when they could without putting their own life or their own survival in jeopardy. There were girls who were given power as a building supervisor, and some of these girls were dangerous and mean, but the things the girls on this first transport out of Slovakia felt guilty about were unavoidable. Now I believe that Heather Morris was just recounting a story that a survivor told her and that it was most likely as trustworthy as memories of such trauma can be. I read books about the Holocaust because it is the least I can do to honor those who lived through those inhuman camps. But also, so I will always remember that if one deranged human could decide to commit mass murder based on hate or jealousy, or some pathological construct, then it could happen again.
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight has had me in thrall since December of last year. The author’s style is not to blame for the length of time I spent with Douglass. His style is not obscure, linguistically dense, or pedantic. Frederick Douglass’s life, however, was lived with a passionate density and a dedication to freedom and equality for all Americans of African Descent. It was a life richly lived and in no way ordinary.
How did Douglass make his way from slavery to national fame, treasured by many and hated by some. He believed in the value of hard work and telling an important story, at even the cost of his own health sometimes. In the days before there were radios, getting out a message took more effort, more arduous travel, often by rail, in all kinds of weather, than we can even imagine. How did Frederick Douglass learn to read and speak to crowds? It was illegal to teach slaves to read. It was said that once a slave could read he became useless as a slave. These masters, who liked to argue that the Negro race was inferior in intelligence, were afraid to teach a slave to read and write, to make a hash of their white supremacy claims, which, as Blight admits, linger stubbornly to this day.
Douglass, with some help from his master’s son’s wife, Sophie Auld in Baltimore, the Bible, some friendly white boys in Baltimore, and a book he poured over called The Columbian Orator, taught himself to read and speak, as an orator speaks, with power and effective rhetoric while he was still a slave. Eventually Douglass (born Fred Bailey) escaped north and fell into the helpful hands of some very active abolitionists, who dedicated themselves to speaking and writing against using any humans as slaves. He renamed himself after Clan Douglas from Walter Scott’s poem Lady of the Lake, because he liked their strength, and added an ‘s’ to make the name his own, says Blight. Late in the slave days of Douglass his master died and his estate was broken up. Since slaves were considered property all the master’s slaves were put on display and examined by other slave owners, purchased and hauled away like furniture, or tillers. While Douglass already understood that slavery was wrong, this atrocity imprinted graphically on his mind, along with a memory of being allowed in to visit his mother before she died. Frederick Douglass never knew his birth day and when slavery was done he went to see the Aulds who remained, but no one could enlighten him.
I will not tell you all the names of every abolitionist Douglass met because he knew all of his contemporaries. He was in demand as an orator who used Biblical cadences and even humor to insist that no man should be owned by any other man, that only freedom for all would suit the idealism of the American republic. There were often disputes among abolitionists about whether to advocate peaceful protest or a more robust activism so friends were made and lost and even Douglass changed his views on this, but, even so, Douglass’s focus on freedom and equality for all of the people being held as slaves propelled him through the next 6o years, with time out for a few jobs in the government after the Civil War. Douglass traveled and spoke constantly, first widely in the North and Midwest sections of America, passed from church to church and abolitionist to abolitionist for his own safety, in England, and Ireland, and Scotland (where slavery was already illegal), and again in America.
He spoke up before the Civil War, all throughout the Civil War when he also fought to have black soldiers who would fight for their own emancipation, and he could not rest in the disheartening aftermath of emancipation. He became owner/publisher/writer of a newspaper which included articles from most of the other activists in the anti-slavery movement. He wrote books, autobiographical in content, still in print today and still popular. He struggled constantly to support himself and his family. His wife Anna (Murray), who was born free, and his young children kept a home base that Douglass rarely got to enjoy. He was propelled by his mission and could not sit and rusticate.
Many wealthy abolitionists contributed to keeping Douglass’s newspaper alive and in that way helped support his family. Eventually he moved his family to Rochester, NY. Anna’s garden in Rochester was extensive, productive, and apparently lovely. Some of Douglass’s best friends in the cause and financial supporters were female activists. At least two of these women spent time staying at the Douglass home in Rochester. Ottilie Assing a well-educated German woman, seemed to have been enamored of Douglass and spent summers at the Douglass homes in both Rochester and later in the family home near Washington, DC. Blight found no descriptions of any untoward intimacies that survived, although it is possible to imagine that there may have been some, perhaps when Douglass went to stay at times with Ottilie and her circle. Anna Douglass left no clues about how she felt about these visitors, but Ottilie sometimes complained about Anna.
There is such a wealth of detail in Blight’s biography that if you really want to know Frederick Douglass you need to read Blight’s well-documented book. I will say that I became very nervous about what would happen when Reconstruction was undermined by the assassination of Lincoln (who Douglass knew personally and who he was able to influence and educate about the true conditions of slavery) and the rapid acceptance of former slave states back into the Union. I knew what atrocities ensued and I dreaded watching Douglass’s heart break when emancipation became violent racism. But Douglass was a man of his times and more pragmatic than me. He hated the violence, but he tried to keep the nation on a path to granting equality to freed slaves. He celebrated the 15th Amendment with a Jubilee even as he grieved the bloodshed, the terrorism, and the lynching that turned the South into a death trap for black folks who tried to exercise their new right to vote. So many battles still to be fought.
But in his final years, even as Frederick Douglass traveled and spoke as often as his health would allow, even as he faced the disapproval from both citizens and family when he married (after the death of Anna) a younger white woman, Helen Pitts, who he had worked with in Washington, even as he represented the federal government in Haiti, – he won the fame and reverence that he had earned in a lifetime of dedication to fighting for the freedom he did not have, for both himself and every black man. Douglass knew women who fought for the rights of women. He knew Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but he was not distracted. The needs of slaves were more pressing in his mind and I don’t think most of us would argue with this focus. When Douglass died in 1895, “the Hutchinson Family Singers, who had many times appeared with Douglass, sang ‘Dirge for a Soldier’: ‘Lay him low, lay him low/Under the grasses or under the snow: /What cares he? He cannot know./Lay him low, lay him low.” – page 753.
I will say that I did not actually read this book; I studied it. The author’s words were so compelling and so impelling that I could not think of rephrasing them. The way the story is told is just as essential to understanding Frederick Douglass as the facts themselves are. It was a pleasure to spend these many hours with Mr. Douglass and the travails and joys of his life. I was told he was a great man, now I know why he was considered a great man. Frederick Douglass would possibly understand the refresher course we are experiencing in racism in America because it has never really been put to rest. But he was enough of an optimist to hope that this might be the last hurrah for white supremacy.
I was attracted to the book Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right by Anne Nelson because I already knew that Evangelicals (white evangelicals in particular) shared Republican ideology, and liked this ideology better as it got more extreme. What I did not know is that Evangelicals, also called Fundamentalists, were prime movers in turning Republican politics into a well-oiled voter turnout machine.
Anne Nelson is on the faculty at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. She acknowledges the help of colleagues and students in the end notes. Although I have written on these subjects many times Anne Nelson had access to resources I did not. Her work is important to me because it offers proof that my “cheap seats” interpretations of recent events in our government have merit. It would be more satisfying if the truths did not back up the facts that the church has been meddling in our federal government and that they grew from scratch into a very effective organization, using tools both legal and possibly illegal to get Republicans elected.
Southern Baptists were not leaving the church the way other Americans were. The advent of church on TV had given birth to the megachurch phenomenon. Pastors with large numbers of followers became almost religious rock stars. For decades there had been a strong church presence on the radio, especially across the South and Midwest. Stardom can go to your head, at least that seems to be what happened. At first churches met, “convocated,” held conventions, and church leaders talked about the moral decline which they linked to the decline in religious observance in many parts of America. They felt that religion would cure our moral “slippage.” They were angered that it was no longer legal to pray in school. They began to understand that their numbers and their media network gave them power to change the things they did not like about America. Their natural allies were the Republican Party, even more so with the advent of the Tea Party.
Evangelicals began to found a series of social organizations which were ostensibly formed to deal with aspects of America’s slippage, things like the disintegration of the nuclear family, abortion, contraception, the exclusion of religious teachings from school, the increasing concentration of power at the federal level when it could benefit the church’s ability to thrive if power was concentrated instead at the state level (small government).
Evangelicals came to see that if they could get Republican voters to the polls they could get everything they wanted because the Republican agenda matched the Evangelical wish list. They eventually went digital and collected data on a house-by-house basis in places that leaned right.
One problem with this (among many) is that these groups are classified as 501 c3 (nonprofits for religious reasons) and 501 c4 (nonprofits for social welfare reasons). These groups, in order to keep their tax exempt status, are not supposed to be partisan or participate in getting members of any particular party elected. These groups, in an incestuous relationship with the Republican Party and rich Republican donors like the Koch brothers and the DeVos family, were violating their tax exempt status, not to mention colluding to have an outsized effect on our national, state, and local politics. This story is essentially a political thriller, except its real.
Anne Nelson’s very interesting book may not be to everyone’s taste but should be read by anyone who believes that we should participate in our democracy/republic.
When I post on Linkedin.com I often see posts from Bill Gates. Lately it seemed that he kept trying to get me (yes me personally ha-ha) to read The Moment of Lift, a recently published book by his wife Melinda Gates. Sometimes I leave billionaires out of my personal pursuits because their lives are so distant from mine that they don’t really feel like real people. It is exclusionary but I always figure they don’t really mind because it doesn’t impact their lives in any negative way and I am not real to them either. But prejudice in any form is probably not good for the soul and billionaires who are also philanthropists, trying to make life better in some way for all us on this tiny planet at the edge of this universe deserve some attention, even if it is just to see whether or not they are just making huge cosmic errors out of misguided arrogance. Now I am being arrogant. Anyway I read Mrs. Gates’ book and it really did give me a moment of lift, in fact more than one moment. When people use their huge fortunes to make a difference for people at the bottom of the economic heap it makes the inequalities of our current economy seem less obscene. And their experiences can teach us about realities in places we can’t afford to go.
I was deep into Chapter 3 of Gates’ book when Alabama decided to make abortion illegal in that state except in rare cases for the health of the mother. Melinda Gates was talking about the effect of women’s lack of control over their reproductive health and what a profound effect that has on the success of an entire family and even the village in which the family lives. If a women gets pregnant many times with little space in between it means she can’t pay proper attention to each child so the children often do not thrive. Infant mortality rates are really high in such cultures and the family is not able to progress, to send the children to school, to grow more crops or work harder to save money and the family does not thrive either. Generation after generation this is a reality that keeps families poor.
Gates was working in Africa and Asia, in countries where these patterns are very noticeable and small efforts can make a big difference. She began with finding ways to provide free vaccines to children. But she found that the mothers were begging to get regular access to contraceptives so they did not wear themselves out having baby after baby. Access to contraceptives is not something you might think would have such profound positive outcomes wherever it is available, but evidence shows us that it does.
So I cheated a bit and made use of Melinda’s new book to try to drum up readers for my recent blog post “Alabama and Melinda Gates” because I wanted to shine a light on what is happening with Roe v Wade.
Melinda Gates is a very spiritual person. She is a devout Catholic who completed her college degrees at a Catholic college. But she is not a missionary. If she was about the business of spreading Catholicism she might not be so open to listening to women in the African and Asian places she visits, she might care more about fulfilling her own needs than the needs of the people she meets. However she has learned to let socially active people she meets at conferences and in her travels, people who know where to look in Africa and India to enlist the Foundation’s help for programs that already exist. These people become her mentors and they take her with them to meet the village people and see programs that are successfully allowing poor people around the world to have a future that is not simply a repeat of the lives people in that area have lived for generations, lives that can’t plan ahead, lives that can only get through each day and sometimes not even that.
There is no sense in talking about this as a work of literature. It is not intended to be considered in that way. But the book made me aware that not all billionaires are selfish people sailing around on yachts, drinking and dining at swanky restaurants, or building survival dwellings in isolated places. It gave me a lift to learn about the intimate problems of women on other continents (although we certainly have some of these problems on our own continent) and to hear about programs that were trying to lighten women’s loads and free them up to enjoy feeling that they could make personal contributions to their families and their culture, that life did not have to be drudgery and heartache or full of repetitive and difficult tasks that wear down the spirit.
So you might find that you also get to experience some of The Moments of Liftthat Melinda Gates offers in her book if you spend a few days immersed in the life of the wife of a billionaire. One more point – just because this book is mostly about the things women face does not mean that men should not read Gates’ book. Perhaps they need to hear about these issues even more that women do. Many women’s lives are still under the control of men, and men’s lives also change for the better when women become partners rather than property.
Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Goodreads