book review: only one thing can save us – why america needs a new kind of labor movement

Only One Thing Can Save Us is a book about organized labour in the United States. Thomas Geoghegan, the author, is a labour lawyer in Chicago and thinks labour is the biggest thing facing the US. This was written in 2014, so before the spectre of Trump, and focused more on the technocratic bullshit of the Obama administration rather than the existential terror circus we’re all dealing with today.

His main argument is that people need to be paid more, not just by raising the minimum wage. Investing more in workers that are not replaceable widgets through professional development and the like is what he thinks the US economy needs, not just more people going to university. Actually being mentored in your job was something that used to exist within organized labour but has been destroyed in the name of replaceable workers. He also draws attention to the fact that a future labour movement makes sense to be built with nurses, and would look fundamentally different from the remnant white dudes of the automotive industry.

My main issue with the book was disappointment with how US-focused the book was, very focused on Democrat vs. Republican party fighting rather than wholesale class issues.

book review: the divide

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap is Matt Taibbi’s book about how economic inequality affects the American judicial system. How if you have huge amounts of money you will never go to jail but if you have no money you will be hounded by the police for walking down the sidewalk. It was incredibly depressing, but a good read (especially as a companion to Piketty’s Capital which was talking about how the wealth gap grows).

I don’t have the experience of getting thrown in the back of a police van for walking home from work as part of a commercial fishing approach to policing. I also don’t think that the laws should turn away from companies that steal and commit fraud just because there might be collateral consequences to the economy (which is something the Obama administration argued and has become part of banking prosecutions such as they are in the U.S.).

Part of the most depressing part of this book is that it was written in 2014, so pre-Trump. All the deportations and massive fraud investigations and fuckups that hugely and disproportionately affect poor americans, that was under Democrats. Trump deporting people isn’t new. Obama deported thousands and thousands by letting states use traffic stops to get immigrants into Immigration’s clutches. Yes the jackbooted thugs are ever more fascist, but it’s not like America has been a good place for non-white people before 2017-01-20.

book review: days of destruction, days of revolt

Some days, most days really, I want to be a journalist. Not the kind that writes press releases, but the kind that goes out into the world, sees something and tells everyone else what it looks like. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is exactly that kind of book, created by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. It’s about the United States and the people who are at the bottom of a destructive economic system designed to enrich only the already rich. It culminates in Zuccotti Park with a chapter on Occupy, but it gets there via coal-mining, land claims, agricultural work and for-profit urban decay.

It’s not a scholarly book, but it has data to go with its interviews. Sacco illustrates the whole thing, which contributes to the personal feeling of it all. I loved the Sacco bits where he went into the full on comics as oral history treatment, drawing the stories the person was telling them.

This was an unabashedly political and very good book about 21st-century recession-era America. Highly recommended.

book review: doc

I was looking for westerns to send to another branch of our library system a while back and came across the book Doc by Mary Doria Russell. I loved her book The Sparrow, which is a science fiction & religion mashup on the first contact story. Doc is not like that.

It’s the story of John Holliday and how he came from the south to Dodge City and got in with the Earps. There’s a small flash forward to the O.K. Corrall and the narrator talks a bit about his eventual death too, but the bulk of the story is about life in Dodge.

It’s all right. It’s good at doing the whole “stories about a person are not a person” theme. The writing keeps you involved. There’s a mystery but the plot is hardly the point. It’s a story about people in a shitty place, more of a document of what things might have been like than anything very plot-driven. Selah.

book review: father and son

Larry Brown’s Father and Son is a novel about a small town in the american south in the ’60s. A man comes back from serving three years for running over a little boy while drunk driving. His mother died while he was in prison. He gets stopped by the sheriff coming into town and warned to be good. He kills some people and rapes some more.

Also in the story is the sheriff, who is the killer rapist’s half brother. He wants to make a life with this woman who works at the diner, but who said she’d wait for the killer rapist to get out of jail to be with his kid.

The sheriff and killer rapist’s father lives in a shack and takes his illegitimate grandson fishing some times. He can’t walk so well and life is hard.

All of that makes up the novel, but the art to the thing is in the sentence by sentence construction. Brown is good at describing this terrible claustrophobic ominous little place I would never ever want to live anywhere near as a place where someone could try and be happy. It definitely reminded me of No Country for Old Men, but even more strongly of the X-Files episode Home.

book review: american elsewhere

Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere is about a little town in New Mexico called Wink. Wink is full of white picket fences and lots of rules, one of the most important of which is “stay inside at night.” Mona Bright has just inherited a house in Wink and the day she arrives is the day of the funeral of one of the town’s oldest residents. Oh, and thrity years ago there was some sort of accident at the lab up on the mesa. And Wink isn’t on any maps (because of that lab and its sensitive government work from decades past).

This all sounds like a pretty standard Stephen King-ish horror novel, and in a lot of ways it is. There’s nothing frighteningly innovative going on with the text. Challenges mount, characters rise to meet them in the face of sanity blasting beings we would go mad to perceive. Occasionally as a reader, you’re a few steps ahead of Mona, which can be annoying as you wait for her to catch up. But Bennett is very good at telling the story. The “seeing something impossible and it wrecks your brain” is described in a way that makes it sound scary rather than just a magic eye or what have you. It’s good neo-Lovecraft.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

The viewpoint shifts between a number of characters and even the drug dealers are basically root-for-ably written (apart from one character who is quite vile, but he’s mostly there so Mona can get a high-powered rifle in the final third of the book). If you like Stephen King novels, this is less dark than those (though there’s a lot of death around the climax), but similar. It’s less about mythic resonance than a Tim Powers book, but there’s a lot of shared DNA between them. What I liked best about it was that it was a fairly serious examination of how we (people and pandimensional beings) try to be happy. That probably excludes it from a real Lovecraftian vibe, since by the end the monstrosities are somewhat knowable.

I received my copy of American Elsewhere as an Advance Reading Copy through LibraryThing.com‘s Early Reviewers program.

book review: red mars

Photo Credit: Mars, once by kevin dooley, on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/4410885928/ shared under a cc-by-2.0 license

I’m one of those people who loves a good frontier story. The idea of going somewhere new and pushing the edges of what the people you know have seen appeals to me. I’ve also heard that idea being described as a Western-centric colonialist/racist perspective so yeah, there are problematic issues there. But the beauty of science fiction is getting to do some of that bold infinitive splitting in places where there are not cultures to feel superior to. Which brings us to Mars.

I love a good Mars story. Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road, and Kage Baker’s The Empress of Mars are the two I can see on my shelves, but I’ve got my own Douglas Quaid thing going. Which makes it weird I’d never read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I have now begun.

The first novel, Red Mars, begins with a murder once a colony on Mars has been established, then it jumps back in time to show us the trip from Earth and the training the First Hundred went through, then the work of starting a colony and the politics of science. Eventually the story takes us past the opening murder into greater politics and dust-storms and mysticism. The whole book spans decades (they also develop longevity treatments on Mars, while Earth is tearing itself down in overpopulated war).

We read about these decades through the perspectives of a bunch of the first settlers, and their perspectives are all very different. What I really liked about the book was that the political choices were real and taken seriously and not very much was solved easily. Getting into these characters’ heads made a difference and it was very clear how few villains there were, just people trying to make life work in a cold harsh place.

One of the things I found disorienting was some of the 1990sishness of it. There was still an assumption that in the 2040s the important nations would be the Americans and the Russians. There’s literally one Asian person in the first 100 colonists, and she becomes a mystic orgy saint pretty quickly. Hm. Maybe that’s not such a typical ’90s thing. There’s definitely a bunch of otherization going on with the Sufis and Bedouin that feature in parts of the story, which does get in the way of some of my pure enjoyment (this is a problem that Ian McDonald’s Mars books don’t have, FYI).

The science in the book was intriguing. Robinson really delved into what it would take to make Mars habitable and how that changes the unspoiled nature of a lifeless rock. That geology (sorry, areology) has purpose beyond being fit for people and commercial interests.

Very good book, though I’ll wait a while to read the next ones. I like to make this kind of story last.