• Free by Lea Ypi *** (of 4)

    Lea Ypi is now a distinguished professor of political theory at the London School of Economics. She wanted to describe for readers what life in her native Albania, the last “purely” communist country aside from North Korea, was like prior to its conversion to a more democratic society. Ypi (pronounced Ooopie) begins each chapter with a vignette from her childhood and finishes each with an analysis of political forces at stake. We learn the rules of queuing for rationed commodities; the artistic and status value of owning a smuggled coke can; how the tensions of career paths assigned by the state, rather than chosen, wore down her parents’ marriage; and how something called an unalterable “biography” was deterministic for navigating society.

    It is not clear why each story has to be seen through the eyes of young girl, but I think Ypi is doing more than personalizing her experience for readers. She is writing more than a memoir. What she is saying, is that when the State decides what you can do for a living, what you can purchase in a store, or where you can live it infantilizes all of its citizens.

    For much of the book, Ypi overlooks heinous actions of Albania’s secret police. That overshadowing is made up for by her critique of capitalism. Albanians were not paralyzed by too much choice, never had to face the difficulty of desiring more than they needed, so no one, she claims, ever really felt poor. Health care and education were available to all. In fact, societal divisions caused by class, sex, or race were theoretically abolished by the communist state. By comparison the inequality meted out by the dog-eat-dog competitiveness of capitalism feels hopelessly unjust. The rich get richer and the poor seem never to break free.

    In the end, Ypi’s comparison of Marxism and capitalism criticizes both systems. Under Marxism, man dominates his fellow man. Under capitalism, it’s the other way around.

  • Goodbye, Eastern Europe *** (of 4)

    It is an enormous undertaking to try and explain the people, cultures, and kaleidoscopic national identities of a region as large as Eastern Europe. Jacob Mikanowski does as good a job as one person can do in a single volume. Beginning in prehistory, Mikanowski really settles in with the establishments of the overlapping and interdigitated religions of the region: pagans, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. For centuries communities and traditions have often lived alongside one another united by common languages while empires have redefined their borders.

    The Austro-Hungarians, the Hapsburgs, the Soviets, Poles, Yugoslavians, and Prussians in various iterations and sizes have laid claim to Roma settlements, shtetls, Byzantine churchyards, and people who might speak Ukrainian, a dialect of Hungarian, Yiddish, or who think of themselves as Albanian Muslims, Montenegrans, Latvians, Croats, or Romanians, but in any given century find themselves living in a country not the same as the one their parents or grandparents knew.

    In most parts of Eastern Europe, regions and cultures have not undergone the historical nation-making impositions claimed by Western Europe that made countries like Germany, France, and Spain what they are. (That being said, tribal fractionation is still alive and divisive in Great Britain, Belgium, Catalonia, Basque country, and so on.) This history of an enormous region is at once comprehensive and necessarily superficial, focusing on geopolitical machinations and the lives of men. Women and the daily lives of peasants are largely absent, because to include them would be another book, another volume. Still, having a spotlight swept around Eastern Europe is exceptionally informative.

  • Robert E. Lee and Me by Ty Seidule *** (of 4)

    The author, Ty Seidule, is a professor of history at West Point. That gives him real cache when he says the southern states lost the Civil War but won the battle for the narrative that followed. The South, he argues, maintains a perception that the war was over “states rights,” that the north won only because of overwhelming financial resources and personnel (the north also used unfair tactics, they claim), and that the really brave and heroic military commanders were southerners, most notably, Robert E. Lee.

    Seidule was raised in the south and growing up wanted nothing more than to become an upstanding southern Christian gentleman in the mold of Lee. Gentelmanliness was another myth of the Lost Cause, that southern life before the Civil War was best depicted in Gone With the Wind: iced tea sipped quaintly on the wide porches of antebellum plantations by women in wide skirts attended by chivalrous men.

    As Seidule makes clear in his introduction, the more research he has done, the more shocked he is by the effectiveness of southern propaganda. Plantations are nothing more than enslaved labor work camps. The Civil War followed a free and fair election that displeased the south so much, they started an insurrection and fought a bloody war against the United States Army. From that perspective, no southerner deserves a statue or recognition of any kind, and yet as he digs into the records, he sees that enslaved girls and women were subjected to sexual violence at will by southern gentlemen, and for decades, onto today, black men and women face an unfair electoral and judicial system of terrifying efficiency.

    His point is made early enough in the book that reading the whole thing may not be necessary. Worse still, at the very opening, he admits that southerners wedded to Lost Cause mythology have rarely if ever been persuaded to change their perceptions when presented with facts.

  • The End of October by Lawrence Wright *** (of 4)

    The End of October is shocking because of its initial accuracy and publication date. Coming into print just before the pandemic, Wright’s novel describes a global pandemic caused by a rapidly evolving corona virus that results in the deaths of millions worldwide. Which means that all of the indicators necessary to predict exactly how such a pandemic would play out were fully available to anyone willing to do the research and with a desire to write what should have been science fiction.

    The scenarios that Wright must have investigated, and which he included in his novel, included military conflicts that erupted as Shia muslims blamed Shiite countries for releasing an incurable disease leading to military strikes between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Simultaneously, Americans and Russians, who have maintained, or deny maintaining, biowarfare units accused one another of releasing deadly diseases and managing Putin’s ruthlessness and unpredictability weighed heavily on the American administration. As the disease spreads without any means of redressing it, aggrieved countries retaliate with conventional weapons for perceived attacks with bio-weapons.

    Reading the book with all of the hindsight of the pandemic is eerie. The wars that erupt in Wright’s book feel unbelievable, but only because they did not happen. The fact that nearly everything else Wright prognosticated did occur suggests that when millions of people die, societies and governments can collapse under the loss of leadership or the designs of Machiavellian politicians. About halfway through the book the intensifying plot overtakes the exceptionally well-done and finely presented research turning the book into something of a slog. But then again, surviving Covid was also a slog.

  • A Fever in the Heartland by Timothy Egan **** (of 4)

    Following more than 100,000 American casualties in WWI and the death of 450,000 Americans from viral influenza in 1918, most Americans roared into the 1920s with abandon. They drank, they danced to America’s indigenous musical invention – Black jazz, they smooched in the back seats of cars and in public. The backlash from Christian Nationalists was swift, brutal, and shockingly widespread across the heartland.

    By the early 20s, Indiana alone boasted more than 400,000 Klansmen, Klanswomen, and KlansKiddies. Colorado, Texas, Pennsylvania added hundreds of thousands more. The Klan grew in status and popularity under the spell of D.C. Stephenson: a fabulist with no allegiance to truth, an abuser of women, an orator who reflected the fears and desires of white Americans concerned for the purity of “their” nation, a money-hungry businessman anxious to make the next deal, a strong desire to become America’s dictator, a virulent anti-woke activist who said clearly and repeatedly that America was threatened by Jews, Catholics, foreigners, and especially Blacks, and a politician who dominated and controlled other politicians. Ultimately, Stephenson said aloud, and believed completely, that he was above the law.

    Timothy Egan never mentions any contemporary politicians with similar proclivities, but makes clear that Stephenson was as much a man of his time and place as he was a leader of it. In response to Reconstruction, the Klan and Jim Crow were born. In the 1920s, the Klan rose again. In the 1940s, as Ultra makes clear, American Nazis were more prevalent in society and in Congress than most of us realize. For those who care about the rights of racial, ethnic, sexual minorities, and others deemed unacceptable, Timothy Egan’s well-told history is a reminder that vigilance remains a necessity in America.

  • These Truths by Jill Lepore **** (of 4)

    It is no small feat to write a history of the United States. Choose any event, say, for example the Presidency of George Washington, The Civil War, the long, and ongoing struggle for Civil Rights in America and you will discover that on just a single subject there are hundreds, if not thousands, of books on the subject. What Jill Lepore does so expertly in this book is summarize key events, lots and lots of them, and place them in a political continuum that is America’s history.

    Lepore says at the outset that her focus is politics and beginning in 1492 when Christian Europeans planted flags on the American continent in the name of Christian conquest for Europe. At nearly the same time America became a far away home for Europeans, and then others, some of them enslaved, seeking freedom from religious and state orthodoxies. America started as a country of contradictions. A country of immigrants, wherein a very significant portion of the population today is anti-immigrant.

    From the first days when Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…” Lepore makes clear that internal inconsistencies and conflicts were going to be papered over with daub and wattle. At the time of the writing of the Constitution, a first of its kind, the notion that citizens were not inferior to noblemen was truly revolutionary. Yet, “all men” failed to include enslaved men, or women.

    The title of the book is so multilayered as to become an unbreakable wire threading the entire book together. Especially interesting are the final fifty years of American politics (perhaps because I have lived them and can observe how Lepore selects and summarizes the events she highlights) when the notion of truth has become so personal that the question of whether we can hold together as a nation that believes in something unifying feels like it might be hanging in the balance. The expansion of the Internet and with it Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, 4chan, and Truth Social (Trump’s personal twitter), has allowed both the insertion of genuine Fake News (see the work of Russian troll farms during the 2016 election) and the selection of personal, unedited news selected by each and every consumer to suit her or his preconceived beliefs. The book was published before the January 6 uprising and attack on Congress, which is the predictable outcome.

    These Truths is not an optimistic book, and the work of right wingers to promote hundreds of years of inequality, racism, sexism, anti-foreigner sentiment, misinformation, and objection to facts is wholly dispiriting (I suspect the right dismisses Lepore’s book precisely because it raises uncomfortable truths). The new Left’s closed-door approach to speakers and writers whose views they find dangerous to insecure minorities or their definition of an illegitimate history is scarcely more encouraging. Still, there is nothing like observing a master putting history into a clear and readily accessible context.

  • Ultra by Rachel Maddow **** (of 4)

    Not a book or, at least, not yet a book, but a podcast.

    The genius of the production is that it is ostensibly a recounting of the hidden history of American duplicity and sedition during WW II, during which members of Congress in collusion with right-wing nationalists tried to abrogate American democracy, overthrow the Constitution, and install a fascist President.

    Armed insurrectionists, whipped up by pro-Nazi, virulently anti-Semitic, extremely popular media hucksters attacked Congress, American industries, and Jews.

    An American munitions plant blown up by Americans who supported the Nazis in WW II.

    Congressmen used their political privilege to distribute Nazi propaganda (while being paid by the Nazis to do so) to tens of thousands of their constituents.

    Do those look like ordinary Congressional waves to the crowd to you?

    Every episode of this podcast is a masterpiece of storytelling and revelation of a chapter in America’s past most of us were unaware of. The value of the U.S. Justice Department’s ability to withstand overwhelming political pressure becomes paramount (powerful Senators forced the Justice Department to end its investigations of the events outlined in Ultra). The actions of journalists and ordinary citizens committed to protecting democracy cannot be overstated.

    The consequences of right-wing politicians willing to condone insurrectionists, remain silent, or lie following acts of violence against Jews, Blacks, and law enforcement officials instigated by their rhetoric is horrifying. The direct line from what was then called America First to today’s MAGA is self-evident.

    I challenge you to listen to the first episode, and resist listening to the next one.

  • The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich **** (of 4)

    A fictionalized account of Louise Erdrich’s grandfather, who worked as a night watchman in a factory on the Chippewa nation in North Dakota. He battled the U.S. Senate as the American government made one more effort to remove Indians from their native lands: In the 1950s, a Mormon senator, with considerable support from his colleagues, decided it was time to “emancipate” America’s Indians. In practice, emancipation meant absolving the U.S. government of support for any Indian activities – like healthcare, housing assistance, food security. Equally valuable to the U.S. government and its supporters, emancipation included tossing “independent” Indians from their reservations. Imagine the land rush afforded non-Indians if Indians were no longer recognized, but “emancipated.”

    Erdrich’s fictionalized Indian characters are full of life, defiant in the face of daily trauma and mean-spirited hardships. What makes The Night Watchman such a fine read is that the Chippewa, in addition to having devilishly great senses of humor, tangle with love, jealousy, envy, icky-bosses, shifting friendships, relatives gone off the rails, and making dinner. In short, The Night Watchman makes us recognize the fundamental humanity of Native Americans and all people whose cultures are different from our own. Erdrich deals truth to power calling out elected officials bent on setting up walls, real and invisibly enforced by laws and economic restrictions around people whose history has been torturous, and whose difference can be distinguished by their skin color.

  • How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith *** (of 4)

    Clint Smith educates white Americans who likely never learned the true extent and depth of slavery in the foundation and enduring legacy of the country. He does so, however, with poetic passages rather than a two-by-four across the side of your head. He applies the same gentle approach as he makes clear that never in America’s history – today included – has a Black person ever felt complete freedom. Skin color defines every interaction on the street, in a store, at a bank, during an interview, or in front of a jury. Consider for even sixty seconds, the strain that must induce.

    Using the same understated approach, while visiting seven important landmarks in the history of enslavement, Smith establishes that there never was, nor could have been, such a thing as acceptable or benevolent enslavement of other human beings, despite numerous enduring attempts to suggest otherwise. If enslavement as it was practiced in America cannot be justified by any rational or compassionate human, how, asks Smith can any veneration of The Lost Cause, Confederate Soldiers (and their reenactors), so-called defense of state’s rights, or idolization of Confederate leaders be tolerated? Wasn’t every Confederate, in essence, a subversive fighting to overthrow the rule of law. Wasn’t the Civil War fundamentally an armed insurrection in defense of the right to hold other human beings in conditions to which they could be flogged, starved, detached from their families, or worked to death?

    At his best, Smith interviews white tour guides at Monticello (working to teach anti-Racist history) and white Daughters and Sons of the Confederacy and does so without malice or confrontation, an act of noble restraint. He reminds each person he speaks with, however, what it has meant to him to grow up in a country that has never taught him, or itself, about its true history.

  • State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny *** (of 4)

    As the book opens a new President of the United States has just taken office, displacing a hulking, bombastic, ignorant, self-aggrandizing, bloviating, possibly crooked predecessor, now living in a tasteless mansion in Florida. The new President appoints a late middle-aged, female, opponent in the run up to the election as his Secretary of State. He wants her to fail and he wants to keep her close in his administration to prevent her from doing additional damage. A normal day in politics.

    What isn’t normal is that soon after assuming their offices a series of bus bombings in Europe succeed in killing scores of civilians. The Secretary of State and her staff must act quickly to calm fears of European allies (still reeling from former President Eric Dunn’s snubbings and ineptitude) and to figure out if another attack could land on U.S. soil. As the threat to Americans grows in likelihood and magnitude, Secretary Ellen Adams hustles around the world engaging in politics and diplomacy with world leaders in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Europe.

    While external actors have clearly targeted the United States, the wrinkle appears to be that so-called American Patriots, right-wingers intent on restoring what they perceive as the good old days of white, male, gun-carrying, sovereignty may well be in league sworn enemies of America: Russians, Al Qaeda, ISIS and so forth.

    The descriptions of political brinksmanship feel insanely accurate — Thank you, Hillary — and Louise Penny has written a page-turner: a surprisingly strong team. Periodically, I wondered if the text was taking too many liberties in imagining an insider plot to overthrow America’s legally elected government. Then I listened to the House Committee hearing on the January 6 uprising and looked at the flags flying defiantly all across my local landscape: Fuck Biden; Gun Owners for Trump; I’ll Help You Pack (as in pack up so you can leave the country, there’s an American flag above the offer); Marxist Lives Don’t Matter; Trump 2024 – I’ll Be Back!

    Maybe State of Terror doesn’t go far enough. At least all of the female characters in State of Terror are reliable, if understated, heroines.