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Will is interested in history and current events. In fiction, he's recommending some novels that are either dark or funny or both, and some that offer interesting views of society.
In the late 1970’s the Galveston Bay was plagued by chemical dumping and oil spills resulting in declining fish and shrimp populations. As Vietnamese refugees arrived in the small Gulf towns to fish, the backlash of the white fishermen escalated from harassment to arson and violence. After one fight led to a fatality, the KKK arrived to further intimidate the Vietnamese to flee the coast. This fine examination of the period tells two stories: in the foreground are the racial divisions, the bigotry, violence and dramatic courtroom trials that ensued; the backstory describes the corporate plunder of the state and towns by the petrochemical companies that benefited from the divisive distraction while they poisoned the waters and created perhaps the worst cancer belt in the country. A final toxic legacy of the era is that while the KKK was forced to shut down its militias in the near term, the then Grand Dragon left to Idaho and eventually advanced the leaderless cell and lone wolf models that the white power movement uses for terror today. And so it goes.
In stories that are oddly entrancing, Labatut examines the area where radical ideas push the limits of the human mind. He mixes historical discovery with fictional interior imaginings of some of the most brilliant scientists of the 20th century, producing a window into a strange world of black holes and unsolved mathematical proofs. The ideas of geniuses with an outsized clarity of thought may be otherwise inaccessible to others—certainly to ourselves as readers—even resembling madness. Instead, Labatut describes a lucidity that often leads to far different and more ravaging results from epiphanies which remain flickers in the darkness of a world that we continue to not understand.
Paradise, the deep background reportage of the devastating 2018 Camp Fire, is nonfiction writing at its
compelling best. Johnson sets the scene by providing life stories of many residents of the town,
Paradise California, as well as the background of the firefighters. Subsequently she reports the various
responses and fates of all who were affected by the hellish wildfire that was sparked by a faulty
electrical wires and fueled by drought-parched wooded areas. The book provides minute-by-minute and
day-by-day descriptions, and tells of the frustrations and often tragedies of a town whose individuals’
lives were touched by political decisions, the neglected and abused natural world, and corporate
culpability. A brutal, but necessary book in age an of increasing wildfires.
One day, if 21st Century America is excavated for clues to its decline, analysts will find that much of their work has been explained for them––if they are lucky enough to find Lydia Millet’s scathing novel as an artifact of this era. A large summer gathering of families leads to a generational divide in which the children seek to live entirely separate from their parents and deny their relationship to them. The parents' hedonistic holiday in the face of ignored climate change and nature itself lays bare their own decadence and complacency; yet the crisis is existential to the children who try to navigate a world ravaged by weather events, felled by a virus (not airborne!), and endangered by an unraveled society turned both cruel and violent. This wonderfully devastating novel is filled with dark humor while also exploring human frailty as well as art, science, and invention in hard times.
If there is anything to be learned from the negotiations of baseball's current shortened season, it's that––as beautiful as the game is and as talented as the players are––the aligned business interests of baseball franchise owners are always in the background performing callous acts of greed. Nusbaum tells the story of the building of the Los Angeles Dodgers' ballpark, which eliminated three neighborhoods, through the story of Mexican immigrant Abrana Arechiga, who fought the eviction which took away her home in order to complete a stadium parking lot. This fascinating history touches on topics as early as Santa Anna and the Mexican-American War, some false myths of the baseball’s origin, the history of bubble gum, the harsh discrimination of Southwest mining towns of the early 20th Century, and the Zoot Suit assaults. Eventually, Cabral's neighborhood was planned for an expanded utopian housing project in the rapidly growing city, but that was brutally squashed with 1950’s red-baiting tactics and the area was then cleared, by force in the end, to make way for one of baseball’s most celebrated parks. Stealing Home is an exceptionally American story of entrenched, moneyed interests crushing immigrants and activists in their wake.
Every so often a book is written that clarifies the world in ways that we experience, yet have previously been unable to lucidly and more fully explain. Zuboff has studied the corporate use of technology and its effects on the marketplace and produced this wonderful, scary, and necessary book. Big Tech corporations have broken apart from the controls of democratic society; in the way that the Industrial Age harnessed and exploited the natural world, now Surveillance Capitalism harnesses human nature itself by renditioning our experiences, dealing in predictive products, and eventually modifying behavior. No longer, argues Zuboff, are we the citizen, the consumer—or the product, even—but after the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Cambridge Analytica are done with us, we are more akin to an elephant carcass after the poacher has extracted its ivory tusks. (As I write this, there is a startup corporation in England proposing that for $29 they can brainwash any individual that has a Facebook page—not exactly power to the people.) It will take a much more functional democratic society than we currently have to push back against the parasitic and rapacious surveillance capitalists.
Why do the promotion of market forces and stated efforts to reduce red tape only result in more more bureaucracy, pointless meetings, more paperwork, bullshit affidavits and web-forms, and endless waiting on hold or in "virtual cues"? Anthropologist Graeber explores corporate and government workings in a series of essays that attempt to put the structural violence of bureaucracy in perspective ("Whenever someone starts talking about the "free market" it's a good idea to look around for the man with the gun. He's never far away."). Readers of The Baffler will recognize the expanded essay on technological disappointment: instead of the promise of visionary and potentially useful inventions like robotic maids (or flying cars!), modern society has not only abandoned fanciful dreams when it comes to invention, but has accepted technologies that "furthered labor discipline and social control." Corporate-inspired inventions can now track us, quantify us as consumers, and have created more bureaucratic functions to keep us working longer hours. Even science fiction has shifted from possibility to dystopia. And, finally, Graeber has some fun dissecting popular super-hero movies for their reactionary themes in service of modern bureaucracy.
This grand Icelandic epic is one of my favorite novels. Steeped in myth and darkly comic, the story involves an improverished sheep farmer's heroic but ludicrous battle for independence from the large-scale farmers, bankers and politicians that exploit the peasants at every opportunity. The farmer's absurd stubornness is matched only by his daughter's struggle to be independent from him. The novel successfully balances scathing satire with the compassionate conviction that "the source of the greatest song is sympathy." --Will
Many Americans choose to believe the myth that the U.S. is a nation-state that is merely defending itself in far-off lands. Immerwahl destroys these illusions in his biting and comprehensive history of America in various stages of Empire. The land grabs and forced removals of the indigenous people "domestically" in the 19th Century expanded to the brutal colonization abroad of the Philippines and Puerto Rico with dire circumstances for the natives. A fascinating and lesser known period of resource extraction from the "guano islands" of the Pacific and Caribbean for fertilizer led to the eventual strategic conversion of some of the islands to military functions and listening posts. The next phase of imperialism culminated in statehood for Alaska and Hawaii. Now, of course, the U.S. occupies over 800 military bases in 80 countries, a troubling situation unique to the world. This brief review merely skims the surface of this wildly readable, fact-filled history where the colonized were "shot, shelled, starved, interned, dispossessed, tortured and experimented on" and has details that most of us don't know and that will surprise many.
SAD! Cults, Hucksters, Holy Rollers and Snake Oil Salesmen, Oh My! A funny (and scary!) history of our truly exceptional cultural morass (er, I mean Republic, or Shining City on a Hill, or something).
This anecdotal history of baseball is a gem. Musings--both personal and historical--are intertwined with snippets of Americana, dashes of history, and cultural observations by an urban anthropologist. Flip through the book and randomly read about pissing in the Wrigley Field troughs, Allan Dulles' CIA coups, bubble gum and tobacco rituals, the politics of facial hair, and both religious and ideological attempts to co-opt sport. Or better yet, read it again in the way the author intended and see the connections between Baseball and Machines, Militarism, the Animal World, Nationalism, and the Corporatocracy.
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If Franzen's earlier novels showed that all unhappy families are dissimilar, then Purity goes a step further in the 21st Century to show that the nature of the post-middle class family and individual identity are even more of a mystery. Franzen has fun putting his characters into misery again, but this time they have a bit more free will than he normally affords them as they struggle in a larger, perhaps more political landscape. Pip, who is burdened with crushing college debt and haunted by not knowing the identity of her father, leaves her bullshit job selling fake green energy scams to unwitting consumers, and instead follows a path into the hacker world and investigative reporting. And Andreas Wolf is a charismatic hacker who steals the secrets of others while harboring his own. Wolf navigates two separate totalitarian worlds: first in East Germany before the fall, and then later traversing the landscape created by today's massive tech companies. It all makes for a darkly comic, compelling novel. Oh, and there's a missing nuclear warhead, too.
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Sometimes one has to leave a place to discover truths that are hidden by its myths and propaganda: in the case of America, fairy tales spun about exceptionalism and indispensability have allowed U.S. imperialism to cause destruction abroad and increasing austerity at home. A highly educated young journalist, Suzy Hansen had to move to Turkey and explore the surrounding region to fully take stock of the corruptions and coups caused by American foreign policy and to realize America’s place in projecting power and creating chaos in world events. Hansen's loss of illusions make her a fascinating guide to empire in relating her own travels--and using James Baldwin's works and experiences as political and cultural touchstones--to examine America’s outsized, almost willful ignorance of the world. Deceptive policy narratives, where foreign occupations and support for right-wing dictatorships are dressed up as modernization and “good intentions abroad”, are created primarily to be sold domestically. These false stories only serve to obscure the measure of American decline in the world and decay at home—a decay made ripe ironically for authoritarian and kleptocratic figures, similar to strongman dictators that America has promoted abroad, that now ominously threaten our own republic. Hansen's engaging work is necessary for our times.
Eggers has created a thoughtful--and at times darkly humorous--idea novel that aspires to challenge the all-encompassing corporate rule of the present day, in the way that Orwell confronted the authoritarian state of the previous century.The Circle is an amalgamation of several recognizable tech/marketing/social media companies, which is led by corporation's "3 Wise Men," seemingly benevolent Big Brothers whose twisted Utopian mission involves making everyone's actions transparent to all. Young Circle hire Mae Holland is ecstatic to join the powerful company and she gradually gives up her own identity in a progressive series of Pavlovian work assignments and lifestyle compromises. Mae leans in eagerly to the slick, soft embrace of The Circle, a totalitarian world where those who acquiesce receive material benefits to drape over their hollow, media-addicted lives--but all are subject to a nightmare of surveillance, attacks on privacy, and assaults on human dignity. But, Mae? She wins the victory over herself. Like Winston in 1984, she loved The Circle.
Packer has gathered the stories of Americans across social and economic classes in this narrative history of American institutional decline over the past few decades--a decline that has created a more divided, less equal, and more downwardly mobile country. At the heart of the book, Packer focuses on the quixotic journeys of three people: a laid-off factory worker who becomes a community organizer, a gas station-convenience store owner who reinvents himself into a biofuel evangelist and entrepreneur, and an idealistic political aide turned lobbyist who ditches easy street in a doomed attempt to enact just political reform. Interspersed throughout the stories of these people's adversities, Packer weaves in reportage of some of the major influences of the last quarter century by chronicling the crash of the housing market and the resulting displacement of citizens, the crushing of labor and the manufacturing industry, and the corrupting of the political system. Packer lays the responsibility for institutional failure at the doorstep of "a decadent kleptocracy" and an insulated elite class represented in profiles of celebrities: haughty entertainers (Jay Z. and Oprah), hubris-filled Wall Streeters (Robert Rubin), hustling corporate magnates (Sam Walton), hyperbolic propagandists (Andrew Breitbart), huckstering politicians (Gingrich and Biden), and a huckstered frontman (Colin Powell). The Unwinding is a disturbing examination of the real human and societal costs of late-stage financial capitalism.
Osborne's compelling story of decadent Westerners carousing at a luxurious villa plopped into the harsh desert of Morocco is one of the fine overlooked novels of the past few years. The descriptions of lavish lifestyles in lush settings contrast with the rigid landscape and the bleak lives of the desert dwellers.The extended weekend-long party allows for a variety of revealing and savage character depictions. Post-Colonial (or really, updated colonial) tribes intersect uneasily, but their contact only yields greater cultural misunderstanding: native and foreigner, Western and Islam, privileged and servant, modern and traditional, European and American, male and female, straight and gay, and importantly rich and poor. But centrally--and fatally--it is the collision of East and West and their disparate values and concepts of justice ("between the two men there existed a mental chasm--centuries of antagonism and mutual ignorance"), that vexes and leads to devastation.
This book is a doozy, a colorful history of a specific time and place, which continues to have major implications today. New York in the early 1970s was facing many of the same economic problems as the rest of urban America: simultaneous blows of recession, inflation, and suburban flight sucked revenue out of the city and provided an economic shock that provided the circumstances for the financial sector to impose its will on the political system. In order to ride out the immediate crisis, political choices eventually led to austerity in regards to public spending combined with subsidization of the financial and real estate sectors. These fateful, pressured decisions subsequently provided a blueprint for succeeding decades of neoliberal hegemony. Public good was sacrificed at the altar of the banking industry and economic stratification resulted. The hundred-year-plus practice of free college tuition was hurriedly discontinued and spending on the departments of parks, police, fire--and, famously, sanitation--were all drastically cut, as garbage piled high in the streets. Emblematic of this period was the rise of rich redlining heir, Donald Trump. His real estate projects were gifted with massive local tax abatements (and his subsequent misadventures have been buoyed by federal tax and bankruptcy law). In stark contrast was President Ford's harsh response to the city's request for federal public aid, which was summed up by the iconic '70s newspaper headline, "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD." Phillips-Fien describes increasing institutional distrust in the wake of austerity measures with examples of major events of the time: garbage strikes, blue flu, and a particularly trenchant comparison of the contrasting political responses to the blackouts of '65 and '77.
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The fall of the Soviet Union left a power vacuum in which organized crime and former KGB agents coalesced in the newly capitalist state.The 2006 London assassination by poison of dissident Alexander Litivinenko served as a lethal threat to Russians who would defy the kleptocratic state and also displayed the willingness of some Western politicians to acquiesce to Putin's authoritarian regime in order to keep new Russian money flowing.Litvinenko had reported on the alliance of Russian mobsters and state actors and he was a potential witness in a related criminal case in Spain.Harding details multiple oafish poisoning attempts and recounts how Litvenenko, while dying in a London hospital, solved his own murder, and how Scotland Yard subsequently followed the radioactive trails to connect the dots.British politicians, however, slow-played the legal proceedings during a period of rapid investment and eventually dodged leveling punishments in deference to Russian capital and power. Over a decade later, as authoritarianism and bloated, predatory tyrants take root in Western governments, the brazenly public murder of Litvinenko may serve as the proverbial canary in the coalmine to those countries who acquiesce to strongmen who issue grave threats against free speech and the rule of law.
McCann uses his poet's eye for describing the people, place, and history behind the 2016 armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. He takes the reader down the various ideological and religious rabbit holes that bound together these seemingly superfluous people—armed interlopers who believed themselves to be infuriatingly ignored in an increasingly corporate and global economy. The followers of Ammon Bundy were radicalized by media myths and fueled by Facebook and Youtube; the overlapping conspiratorial ideas that attracted the extralegal posse members pieced together cowboy martyrdom, John Birch screeds, fringe religious beliefs, white supremacy and most commonly sovereign citizenry, which extracts a partial passage from the U.S. Constitution and ignores the context and meaning of the document. As the occupation developed, it resembled a bizarre recreation of Manifest Destiny in which most local Oregonians, but more specifically Native American tribal members (who were, of course, earlier displaced by, among others, ranchers) objected to the takeover of public lands by a self-described patriot movement. The eventual Bundy acquittal in court highlights the arbitrariness of the justice system and has emboldened a cultural movement that has increasingly dangerous consequences as it embeds itself within state and national government and inspires armed, individual actors.
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Ever since his brilliant debut, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Richard Powers has established himself as one of the most interesting contemporary novelists. Gain alternates between two narratives: the background tale involves the growth of a business over two centuries from a family-run soap company to a multinational conglomerate: the foreground story centers on a woman's discovery that her ovarian cancer may be linked to that corporation's growth. Powers adroitly manages to make the evolution of American business entertaining, while he devastatingly describes the underbelly of the American dream.--Will
With beguiling wit and a compellingly bizarre plot, Under the Skin turns the crank on contemporary society in this dark, and at times comic, parable. Male hitchhikers are being picked up for the ride of their lives. As the nightmarish story unfolds, a wide range of social ills are held up to a looking glass: the randomness and harshness of society to its most disenfranchised, the evil of multinational corporations, the inability to make moral decisions in an amoral world, and the failure to recognize the natural beauty of the places we inhabit. This eerie novel will not only keep you up at night while you are reading it, but will also haunt you long after you have finished.--Will