Sweet Land of Liberty

If you’re holding on to the belief that we currently live in a post-racial America, you should stop reading this post.

Still with me? Good.

I love a book that teaches me something new, and Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (Thomas J. Sugrue) did just that. The concept of ‘hate strikes’—moments where, due to racial desegregation, white workers walked off the job en masse—for example. I also like to learn that academics have coined terms for things that I’ve experienced, but never had a name for—‘spatial mismatch,’ for the phenomenon of jobs being created in suburbs that are isolated from public transit, and therefore difficult for inner-city residents to attain.

Sugrue has written a sweeping history of the struggle against pervasive discrimination in northern cities and suburbs. An understudied topic in American history, to be sure—most histories of the civil rights movement focus on the struggle for African American freedom in the South, and most of us can remember images of the non-violent activism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his many allies, white and black. I found it fascinating to read about equally-compelling efforts in the North, especially the campaigns for jobs (“Don’t Shop Where You Can’t Work”) and housing.

It’s also interesting to read, in the final chapters, his analysis of why whitefolks in the US have such different perspectives on things like affirmative action and welfare reform than African Americans do, even though progress has been made. Hint–the continued prevalence of white-only, or mostly-white suburbs and schools, and the correlating lack of understanding of the devastation of federal disinvestment from our central cities has something to do with it.


July 25, 2010. books, books for grown-ups. Leave a comment.

small trades

I saw my mother-in-law this week, and she gave me Irving Penn’s Small Trades. It’s an amazing book of photography. Penn, one of the foremost Vogue photographers, spent several years in Paris, London & New York. He did fashion photography, yes.

But he also took pictures of tradespeople, wearing the clothes they wore to work, and sometimes carrying the tools of their trade. These are fantastic photos of a world that mostly doesn’t exist anymore. There are few charwomen or road sweepers left in the industrial world, anyway.

If you’re interested in a fascinating, artful depiction of the working people of sixty years ago, check this book out.

April 2, 2010. books for grown-ups. Leave a comment.

it comes and goes

I’m thinking that maybe I’ll be lucky if I post once a month in 2009.

De-lurking for a moment, on this holiday weekend, to post.

We’ve had an up and down month so far. Our spring, which has been filled with so much stress, finally exploded in the first week of May in a massive, all-out fight between me and the Bee. Which culminated in her exploding in a way that was not just inappropriate, but dangerous to herself.

For a long time, we’ve known that the Bee has issues with anger management, and dealing with frustration. I once wrote a post about feeling like the prison warden from The Great Escape, and to be utterly frank, that was not an experience that was limited to the Bee’s toddler years. As she’s grown older, it’s become more and more apparent that when she gets very angry, she loses the capacity for rational thought.

So we’ve been seeking help. I got a great parenting book The Explosive Child, which has helped me to see that our method of interacting with the Bee when she’s in a state of anger is practically the worst thing we can be doing. It’s always nice to know that your instincts are completely wrong. On the other hand, this was practically the only book that didn’t advocate being harsher disciplinarians, up to and including physical discipline—and there’s a road I just won’t go down as a parent.

We’ve also been searching for a therapist, and I think we’ve found one. Landisdad and I met with her on Friday, and we both really liked her. She’s seeing the Bee for the first time next week, so we’ll see how that goes. The Bee is not so thrilled about having to talk to a therapist—the first one we found was not really acceptable to any of us. But she’s happy that no one at school will learn about it—unlike when she was seeing the school counselor once a week.

It’s hard, feeling like we need outside help to parent our daughter. It’s also hard, imagining that we will spend the next nine years fighting like this if we don’t get help.

May 24, 2009. books for grown-ups, thoughtful parenting. 5 comments.

Christmas Cookies

Last year, I signed up for Harper Collins First Look program, which sends out advance reading copies of books for review. I’ve signed up to get a couple of different things, but the first book that I was selected to review is Lisa Zwirn’s Christmas Cookies. In a case of somewhat unfortunately timing, it came this week. On the other hand–when is it a bad time to eat a cookie? While I don’t go around making gingerbread in July, it’s certainly possible to bake cookies out of this book year-round.

Initially I groaned–I had done so much holiday baking, and it really didn’t seem fair to review a cookbook without at least making one recipe. I started leafing through, and there were a few cookies that caught my eye, but I definitely wasn’t in the mood for doing any kind of fussy or fancy baking. I decided to make a drop cookie, since those are generally simple.

Her Brown Sugar Pecan Cookies were a delight–very simple to prepare, light and buttery. The only thing I needed to get at the store were the pecans–everything else we had in our kitchen–I hate it when a cookbook requires that you scour the earth for eggnog spice mix, or hemp-washed ginger*, or something weird. My kids liked them, although they both professed their hatred of the pecan during the preparation phase.

Generally, it’s a cleanly-laid out, readable cookbook. Her opening sections on basic cookie-making and preparation were helpful, and not overly-filled with advice like “use high-quality ingredients” (duh!). I found especially helpful the advice on storing different kinds of cookies, and it’s great that she points out which of her recipes make dough that’s good for freezing and baking later.

The one complaint I had is that not every recipe is accompanied by a picture–for regular cookies, that doesn’t bother me much, but for Christmas cookies–if I’m gonna give them as gifts, I want to see what they’re supposed to look like in advance. On the whole, if you’re looking to change up your Christmas cookie repertoire, or just add a new favorite or two, check this one out.

January 11, 2009. books for grown-ups. 2 comments.

the nudist on the late shift

The first time that I went to San Jose was in 1992, when the city was still mired in its big transition between the Cold War economy and the new IT economy. I remember commenting to a friend at the time that it reminded me of Poughkeepsie. It seemed very much like a rust belt city, with a practically abandoned downtown, and a circle of suburbs that frankly had no there there.

Over the course of the next 7 years, I had occasion to go to San Jose a lot, first as an organizer for the peace movement (sooooo much fun, talking to those guys like DFNS from Falling Down, who were losing their jobs right and left as the military industrial complex shed positions overnight), and later as someone who was doing electoral and other political organizing in the Valley. During that time, the area changed dramatically.

I just re-read Po Bronson’s Nudist on the Late Shift, a book I read when I was getting ready to leave the Valley in 1999, and I have to say, it’s stood the test of time.

While I never actually worked in the hi-tech industry, I spent a bunch of time in the early- to mid-90s with people who did. A good friend of mine, for example, once dated a woman who worked for Oracle. After they broke up, she put up a website denouncing him, and warning other women not to see him. That might not sound like a strange story today, but this happened in 1994–long before the advent of blogs, or LiveJournal, or any of the kinds of social networking that we have available to us now.

There was definitely a sense permeating the Bay Area at that time that anyone with half a brain could get hired by a high-tech company and make a killing. Friends of mine who had no computer training of any kind–other than that they were capable of operating a word-processing program–were snapped up by software and hardware firms alike. Some of them still work in related-industries–some of them got burned out and moved on to other things.

Bronson’s book gives a good look into the crazy, speculative culture that was Silicon Valley in the ’90s. It made me curious about what life is like there now, and whether there is an ongoing current of hopeful smart people, migrating to the shores of San Francisco to chase a mad dream of high-tech fortune.

September 15, 2008. books for grown-ups. Leave a comment.

Happy Dad’s Day

to all my favorite dads out there (including the one I’m married to, of course).

It’s a little odd, but I feel like I’m delurking on my own blog to post today. I think I’ve reached that phase, which seems to happen to so many bloggers, of wondering whether there is really any there there, in blogging.

But not today. Today there is free snark, no waiting.

As I posted a few days ago, the end of the school year is kicking my butt. Still happening, as the end of the school year seems to last from roughly May Day through September 1. Last week, in my role as PTA president, I had the great joy of attending sixth grade commencement (I’ve also had the joy of attending 8th grade commencement and the high school’s academic awards night, in my role as distributer-of-US-savings-bonds).

With all this end-of-year activity, I have a whole new understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of various members of the school community. Particularly the weaknesses. Particularly in the area of public speaking.

NOTE: I realize that many people do not enjoy the public speaking. I am not one of those people. While I wouldn’t characterize myself as particularly gifted, I get to speak in public in various settings a dozen or so times a year, and I think I’m moderately okay at it.

However, if you are the superintendent of a school district of any size, you should probably know that you are going to have to speak at a graduation or two. You might want to, in that case, consider visiting superintendentgraduationspeeches.com, or whatever, and cribbing something. Because lecturing the parents of incoming middle-schoolers about how they (the parents) just need to keep an eye on who their kids are friends with? is not going to endear you to those parents. Especially when you, the superintendent, look as if you may be about to enter middle school yourself.


Also? Giving the same speech to the graduating elementary school kids that you give to the graduating middle schoolers? does not bode well.

June 15, 2008. books for grown-ups, family life, the joys of PTA. 5 comments.

another book meme

I saw this meme over at Penguin’s place, and had to do it. Here are the directions:

What we have here is the top 106 books most often marked as “unread” by LibraryThing’s users. As in, they sit on the shelf to make you look smart or well-rounded. Bold the ones you’ve read, underline the ones you read for school, italicize the ones you started but didn’t finish.

I was a fan of LibraryThing, until I realized that to categorize my whole library, I’d have to pay to join. I’m not sure why I’d do that, when I can do it for free on GoodReads. I do like their book recommendation engine though.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina
Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Wuthering Heights

The Silmarillion
Life of Pi : a novel
The Name of the Rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov

Guns, Germs, and Steel
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations
American Gods
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Atlas Shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales

The Historian : a novel (I do have this on my to-be-read shelf, though)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum

The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys

The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible
Angels & Demons

The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s Travels

Les Misérables
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes : a memoir
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present

Cryptonomicon (also on the to-be-read shelf)
A Confederacy of Dunces

A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter

Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake

Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud Atlas
The Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye

On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit
In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequencesWhite Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield

I guess my tendency to read a book to the end, whether I like it or not, has served me in good stead.

At least in completing this meme.

May 22, 2008. books for grown-ups, memes. Leave a comment.

It did not take me 13 years to read this book.

Although at times I thought it might.

It did, however, take me over three years. In fact, the only New Year’s resolution that I made this year was either to finish it, or to stop even trying to read it. And I’m finally done.

I feel a huge sense of accomplishment, not least because I’ve already in my life abandoned one of Jane Smiley’s books (The Greenlanders—oy, the names, it’s worse than a Russian novel) , and I like her too much as a writer to have two unfinished books by her on my shelf.

Now, having finished it, I wish I had read it backwards. But first, the back story from the dust jacket:

…in the wake of 9/11, Smiley faltered in her hitherto unflagging impulse to write and decided to approach novels from a different angle: she read one hundred of them, from classics such as the thousand-year-old Tale of Genjii to recent fiction by Zadie Smith, Nicholson Baker and Alice Munro.

If I had read it backwards (or if Smiley had organized the book differently), I think I would have had a more successful experience, and not felt the need to drag out my reading of it for such a prolonged amount of time. While there’s no question that Smiley is more widely read than I am, it would have helped me, in reading her analysis of various forms of fiction, to have first read her essays about the 100 novels she read in the post-9/11 world.

It’s not that I expected that both of us would love the same books. But it might have, for example, helped me to understand her writing about writing better, had I known in advance that she is not a fan of The Great Gatsby, which is one of my favorite books. I can’t explain my love of that book in as clear a method as she explains her disdain for it, but still, knowing her feelings about that–and the other books that are in her 100 that I’ve read–would have helped me to better understand the arguments she was trying to make about the novel.

That being said, I’m happy to have read it (and happier still to be done with it). And now, I can finally go back to reading her fiction—I’ve had a copy of Ten Days in the Hills for about six months, but I vowed to get through this opus (or give it up for good) before I cracked the cover.

May 8, 2008. books for grown-ups. 2 comments.

how is the war in Iraq like a well-established piercing?

Landisdad and I went to see Stop Loss last night. It’s a pretty good movie, especially if you like your propaganda wrapped around a center of chewy eye candy (mmmm….Ryan Phillipe….). After the movie, landisdad and I grabbed a bite, and during our post-movie debrief, he told me that he feels as if, because he is not doing everything in his power to end the Iraq War, he must at some level be okay with the war. And about his frustration that millions of other people are the same way.

When I was washing my face before bed, it occurred to me that the Iraq War has become something like a well-healed piercing. It started as something painful and bloody, but now that it’s five years old, it’s become a familiar, numb hole.

On Friday night, we had some friends over for dinner–one of them was a political scientist, who told us about a study she had just read that contrasted the effectiveness of political persuasion when it was presented as fiction, as opposed to news. That people are more moved by political arguments that are presented dramatically (and not first and foremost as political arguments) should not be news–after all, political propaganda has existed since at least the time of the Greeks. But it did give me hope that this movie might heighten the urgency of ending the war for some of the people who aren’t feeling that urgency now.

It’s been a war-filled weekend, in a weird kind of way. My MIL came in on Friday, and she brought me a book called Street Art and the War on Terror: How the World’s Best Graffiti Artists Said No to the Iraq War, which is basically pictures of all kinds of graffiti that appeared around the world in the period before and during the war. Each photograph is accompanied by a short description that includes the location and artist, if known, and the date the photo was taken. The blurbs are spare, and so far, my favorite (annotating a picture that just combines a picture of Bush and the single word, “FUCKER”) has to be: “Anti-Bush stickers seem often to have a pretty direct message; it’s all in sharp contrast to the normality of the street sign. Few previous US presidents have been treated with so little respect.” Perhaps because few US presidents have treated the US population with so little respect?

All this thinking about our current war made me go and dig out a letter that my oldest step-brother, who was deployed to Kuwait in Gulf War I, sent to me after that war had ended but when he was still in Saudi Arabia, waiting to get shipped home. I doubt that his sentiments would be foreign to most of the soldiers fighting in Iraq today. I’ll close this post with his words:

I frequently wondered if the objectives here were worth dying for. Unfortunately though, I came to the conclusion that there isn’t much of anything worth that.

I volunteered, so here I am.

March 30, 2008. books for grown-ups, politically motivated. 5 comments.


I’ve been reading two books lately that are..interesting…to read together: Falling Man, by Don DeLillo, and The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein. The DeLillo book takes place in the days immediately following September 11, and one of the main characters is someone who walked out of the Twin Towers, and reunited with his estranged wife.

The Klein book is about how neoliberals have been using the aftermath of various natural or man-made disasters–including 9/11, the tsunami of 2005, and Hurricane Katrina–to do massive social re-engineering that privileges big corporations and displaces the poor. I’m not that far into it yet, partly because I can’t read more than a chapter at a time without having my blood pressure rise into a dangerous neighorhood.

The interesting thing about reading it in conjunction with the DeLillo book is the feeling of being pushed back into that week, when the shock was new and ever-present. The point of the Klein book is that the Administration (and global capital) used the shock and dislocation of that time to rush through the abrogation of our civil liberties, and to enter into contractual relationships with companies like Blackwater and Halliburton to engage in war in Afghanistan.

It’s thought-provoking, to say the least.

February 27, 2008. books for grown-ups. 3 comments.

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