THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeannette Walls

And over here to your right, ladies and gentlement, we have the quintessential dysfunctional family, with the requisite alcoholic father who drinks up all the family money, and steals from his kids to buy more alcohol.  Seems like a common theme, doesn’t it.

This is a memoir,  sad, engaging, and full of questions like why?  why?  and WTF?   The two parents are basically hippie types, they live off the land, meaning they don’t pay their rent and are always moving, sometimes living in camping style out in the desert.  Mom has a teaching certificate which doesn’t do much good as she doesn’t like to work, preferring to stay home and paint.  Dad works sporadically, that is until he gets fired, usually for anger management issues.  Well, that and drunkeness.

The four children are left to raise themselves, and the book is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, but also spotlights that not everyone has the same amount of resilience in their bucket.

After living in horrifying poverty in Appalachia,  where the kids ate by foraging in trash cans and being fed by neighbors, the kids manage to escape, one by one, to go to college.  All of the kids became successful, while the parents never rose above their addiction and poverty, and never really wanted to.   One day in Manhattan, the author came across her parents rummaging in the trash on the street.  All efforts on the part of the kids to help them were in vain.   The parents wanted no help, and preferred their homeless lifestyle.  Eventually, they ended up as squatters in an abandoned building, where they found a community of other squatters, and lived there for years.  The youngest sister developed mental problems, and spent a year in a psychiatric institution after trying to stab her mother with a knife.  On her release, she disappeared into California.

It was a truly compelling story, one you couldn’t put down, something like watching a train wreck.   Loved the book.

The author was a  former gossip columnist for MSNBC.com .  This memoir was made into a movie, with a bunch of famous actors.  It is supposed to be released in August, this year.

.

SPOOK by Mary Roach

Mary Roach writes non-fiction about some fun topics.  You can read about Packing for Mars here.   And Stiff here,  Six Feet Over-Adventures in the Afterlife here,  and My Planet here.

Now here is a curious thing, in a world of curious things.  Spook seems to be the same book as Six Feet Over.   As I was reading Spook, I kept having the idea I had read some of it before.   I read Six Feet Over  in 2015, which is 14 years ago in Old Lady Years.  So I went to her website to see if I could find anything about the book being retitled.  Nothing.  There is no reference at all to Six Feet Over on her site.  I tried Wiki, my Lazy Goto for all purposes.  Same result.  I find this very spooky.  So to speak.  When you ask for Six Feet Over on Amazon, you get Spook.

Well, all I can say is thank Buddha for a short memory, because although quite a bit of it felt familiar, some was seemingly ‘new to me’.  Perhaps, back in the days when I watched television, that was why I always liked reruns, because I pretty much didn’t remember the original broadcast.  New to Me TV.

So if you want to know what Spook is about, and what I thought of it, pop on back via the handy dandy link to Six Feet Over.  Maybe I am just living in an alternate universe in which Six Feet Over is marketed as Spook.

 

THE DEEP STATE by Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren’s cogent and frightening jeremiad against the forces which are chiseling away at the country and at democracy strikes a warning bell for us all to open our eyes and see what is really going on.  The strapline is The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, and he proceeds to show us just how this is happening, and how it started back during the Reagan years.

He says  that the political theater that is endlessly tweeted and blogged about has nothing to do with actual decision making. The real work gets done behind the scenes by invisible bureaucrats working for the vast web of agencies that actually dictate our foreign policy, defense posture, and security decisions.

Actual power lies in the Deep State, Washington’s shadowy power elite, in the pockets of corporate interests and dependent on the moguls of Silicon Valley, whose data-collecting systems enable the U.S. government to spy on our every move, swipe, and click.

He laments the rise of corporate profiteering in the “War on Terror,” calling back to warnings from decades’ past about the U.S. military industrial complex, which warnings go back as far as Eisenhower. Corporate and political actors profit from hundreds of billions a year spent on a bloated “national security” state, at the expense of social spending on education, health care, and infrastructural needs. In an era of record inequality, the fixation of U.S. political and economic elites on militarism exacts a huge cost, draining much needed financial resources that could be allocated toward rebuilding the country and providing for the basic needs of the citizenry.

He focuses on the dangers of the growing national security state, coordinated largely through the NSA and other agencies, and to condemn their assault on citizens’ privacy rights.

He voices his concern about  the rise of Wall Street power,  stating that financial deregulation is one of the greatest threats to our economy, and the failure of both political parties to limit the power of financial elites is one of the great tragedies of modern times. The American banking system has historically been a parasitic force in the American economy. Wall Street’s speculation on vital goods such as oil, housing, internet stocks, and other goods has fed stock market bubbles, the collapse of which wreak havoc on the economy and American workers, draining their retirement savings, and fueling the rise of unemployment and underemployment. Financialization undermines the economy – which is now largely driven by speculators and characterized by anemic to non-existent economic growth. What profit gains exist are now largely captured by financial and other corporate elites. Meanwhile, the masses of Americans find themselves working longer hours, with increased productivity, for stagnating to declining wages, amidst huge increases in cost-of-living via out-of-control health care and education costs.

What he says is scary and he has the references to back it all up. I found it a very hard book to read, because of the bleak picture it presents not only of our present time, but of the future as well.

Lofgren is well qualified to address these issues.  He is an insider, he knows the principal players.  He was military legislative assistant to Republican former House representative John Kasich in 1983. In 1994 he was a professional staff member of the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness Subcommittee. From 1995 to 2004, he was budget analyst for national security on the majority staff of the House Budget Committee. From 2005 until his 2011 retirement, Lofgren was the chief analyst for military spending on the Senate Budget Committee.

In September 2011, Lofgren published an essay entitled Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult on the website Truthout. In it he explains why he retired when he did, writing that he was “appalled at the headlong rush of Republicans to embrace policies that are deeply damaging to this country’s future; and contemptuous of the feckless, craven incompetence of Democrats in their half-hearted attempts to stop them.” He charged that both major American political parties are “rotten captives to corporate loot,” but that while Democrats are merely weak and out of touch, the Republican Party is “becoming more like an apocalyptic cult.” He particularly described Republicans as caring exclusively about their rich donors; being psychologically predisposed toward war; and pandering to the anti-intellectual, science-hostile, religious fundamentalist fringe.

 

WAITING – Edited by Ghassan Hage

waitingThis is a collection of essays by academics across the fields of political science, philosophy, anthropology and sociology for an examination into the experience of waiting. What is it to wait? What do we wait for? And how is waiting connected to the social worlds in which we live?

There is a wonderful examination of Beckett’s comic play Waiting for Godot, a discussion of the perpetual waiting of refugees to return home or to moments of intense anticipation such as falling in love or the birth of a baby.  There are are  many ways in which we wait.
Think about it.  Waiting can be passive, or active.  It can be waiting ON someone or something, or waiting FOR someone or something.  It is an amazing group of essays that approach the idea of waiting in so many ways that may never have occurred to you.   It contains what for me is the best think piece on Waiting for Godot that I have read.
If ideas of a philosophical and academic bent appeal to you,  I highly recommend the book.  I am not going to review each essay, because (a) I am lazy, and (2) I don’t want to.  BTW, I am working on being more consistent.
Ghassan Hage is Future Generation Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne. He has held many visiting professorships around the world including at Harvard and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He is the author of many publications on the comparative anthropology of nationalism, migration and inter-cultural relations.

MY PLANET by Mary Roach

my-planetI love Mary Roach.  I am totally a Mary Roach fan.  I have already read three other books by her,  Six Feet Over  – Adventures in the AfterlifeStiff, about bodies and dead people, and Packing for Mars – The Curious Science of Life in the Void.

My Planet is not a one topic book.  It is actually a collection of her articles from Reader’s Digest over the years, and yeah, it is funny as all get out.  I was reading it in my horizontal office (that would be my bed where I also check email and Facebook on my laptop),  with the Kindle perched on my stomach, and had difficulties keeping it in focus as my innards went up and down as I literally LOL’d.

As the intro tells us,

What you can expect from Roach is a curious curation and condensation of life’s little mishaps — all of which are filigreed with her humor.  She details first dates, rants about marital differences, and dissects the stellar process that is getting older (or, as Roach puts it, entering “the Age of Skirted Swimwear”).

I usually am disappointed in varying degrees of disappointment with books purporting to be humorous.  Generally, I find they try too hard,   especially the ones touted as Laugh Out Loud Funny!.  I almost never laugh out loud when I read them.  But I do laugh out loud with Roach’s books.  Must be she has a sense of humor which taps my funny bone.

Want a couple of examples?  I’m glad you asked.

I bought Ed [her husband] earplugs and a black satin sleep mask. “It’s dashing,”  I said of the mask. “You look like Antonio Banderas in Zorro.”  This was a lie.  He looked like Arlene Francis in “What’s My Line?”

And about automated commercial answering services:

Thank you for calling VeriCom Customer Care.  Your call is important to us, though not as important as it is to you.  If you are calling from a touch-tone phone, press or say 1.  If you are calling from a rotary-dial phone, please stay on the line while a customer care representative makes mocking, derisive faces.  Para assistencia en español, go to South American and try your call again.

On men competing for fastest arrival time:

“You know if you take Clipper Street,” Dan is saying, “you can shave six minutes off the drive”.  These minutes go into a special account, where they can be redeemed for chest hair, leather gloves with holes cut out of the back, and other bonus masculinity awards.

Lots of fun.

I still have Bonk – The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex Gulp – Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, and Spook in my queue.  (Don’t you just love the word ‘queue’?  Sounds so much classier than ‘Books I Hope To Get Around To Reading Before I Die List.’

 

 

GALILEO’S DAUGHTER by Dava Sobel

galileos-daughterI seem to have stumbled into something of a history turn of mind lately.  Several historical novels, and now Galileo’s Daughter.  This is not fiction.  It is the story of Galileo… and one of his daughters.

Galileo, as of course you know, wasn’t some tinpot scientist.  He was a well known mathematician,  a man of infinite curiosity, a scholar, a scientist, an author.  And a guy with a fascinating personal life.  He never married the mother of his three children, and for that reason could not arrange any kind of marriage for his daughters, so as things were heating up for him, heresy-wise, he put them in a convent basically for their own safety at the ages of thirteen and fourteen.  One of them was a little batty, frankly, but he had a close relationship with the elder which lasted all their lives.

This older daughter, who was named Virginia in honor of his sister, adopted the name Maria Celeste when she became a nun, in a gesture that acknowledged her father’s fascination with the stars.  But life at the convent was not all skittles and beer.  In fact, it was a terribly poor convent, and they were in danger several times of actually starving to death.  It is certain that the sisters often suffered bouts of malnutrition.  She lived out her life in poverty and seclusion.  All his life, Galileo did quite a bit to support his daughters and the convent financially.

The younger brother, meanwhile, Vincenzio, had been legitimized in a fiat by the grand duke of Tuscany and went off to study law at the University of Pisa.

Galileo kept up a prolific correspondence with Maria Celeste all her life.  Fortunately for us, he saved every letter, and that is how we come to learn of her life, as well as his.  There are no letters extant that he wrote to her.  There was a tricky time during the heresy trials when it seems the Mother of the convent burned them all in order to protect the girls and the convent.

This is a wonderful vehicle for a biography of Galileo, and for descriptions of daily life in the 1600s in Italy.  They talk of selling some of the wine, how some harvests weren’t any good, how Maria Celeste was sewing garments for him.  Just so fascinating.  History can be so 8th grade textbook dry, but really, history is stories,  and I love a good story.

Dava Sobel is the author of Longitude,  another of her books that I just loved.  I talk about it here.

 

ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT by Jeanette Winterson

orangesThis is an autobiographical novel written in 1985.   It is about a young woman who is raised by an assertive  Christian fundamentalist mother and a quiet unassuming father, in England, where she is absorbed into the evangelical community, eventually even doing her own preaching.

It is terribly funny in places, and terribly sad in others,  a well-written examination of the life, secret and public, of a girl who slowly learns and reveals to us that she is a lesbian.   It was made into a BBC television drama in 1989.

The writing is witty, drizzled with irony and sarcasm,  and the first three quarters of the book are so much fun, but in that last part she gets kind of sermonizing, which I always find unpleasant.  I dislike officious personal philosophy dressed up as character dialog.  I developed that aversion back when I read Any Rand, and it has never left me.  Well, my aversion to Ayn Rand in general has never left me, but that is for another post.

Oh. Yeah.  And it has Sparknotes.   I also have an aversion to the idea that we readers can’t read anything deeper than Harlequin romances and understand them without somebody else explaining to us what it all means.

Let’s see, how about a couple of clever quotes?  OK, you talked me into it:

[About a famous missionary whom the church supported] — To celebrate his ten thousandth convert, the pastor had been funded to take a long holiday and tour his collection of weapons, amulets, idos and primitive methods of contraception.  The exhibition was called ‘Saved by Grace Alone.’

And

I was just in time to see the retreating shapes of Mrs. Spencer and Mrs. Sparrow, ripe plums of indignation falling from them.

And finally,

I had won yet another Bible quiz competition, and to my great relief had been picked as narrator for the Sunday School Pageant.  I had been Mary for the last three years, and there was nothing else I could bring to the part.

And since there is nothing else I can bring to the part of reviewer here, I bid you adieu.   Have fun reading this lovely book.