Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review The Girls Guide to Homelessness, Brianna Karp

This book is the product of a blog: The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, but is not the reproduction of that blog. Instead the author, a twenty four year old, has shaped the narrative to center on the moment that began to define her new existence. A scene that a seasoned novelist would read with envy, so skillfully crafted was it. The day when she gathered her belongings from her mother’s house, boxed what she had room to take with her, donated to goodwill what she couldn’t, boarded her trailer, and drove away into a darkening street to live in a Walmart parking lot. She describes the fear of the unknown, potential predators, and how she would adjust to life without electriiciy, water, or heat. . She surveys her new surroundings and with a powerful exisistential shock realizes she is now technically homeless, and has joined the ranks of the invisible, unwanted, unknown ones. People her parents would scorn on the street, and society in general considers worthless.

She was now one of the worthless.

After this moment of existential angst she breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly:

“But then, its not really enough to tell you that I’m homeless, is it? You want to know who the hell I am and how I got here.”

The image at the beginning of the book resonates, and develops a power as the book goes on. Brianna’s story is one of many of thousands, cast out in the street by the 2008 meltdown. Her story is equal parts unique, equal parts representative.

The book then launches into her past and she begins the tale of a truly horrible, abusive family and her efforts to cope with them. A bipolar mother, a docile and spineless stepfather cowed by his wife, a sister mentally screwed up by the family religion of jehovah’s witness.

In fact, the opening scene would have served equally well as the end of the story of her managing to extricate herself from her horrible, soul crushing family. A family that she nevertheless loves but eventually recognizes her inability to save or deal with.

“I haven’t had any contact with my family in nearly two years at this point, and I don’t expect that I will anytime soon. I still love them very much, as I suspect I always will. But I realize and accept that they are not going to change, and I cant force my will or perspective on them. As a result, we are destined to live separate lives.”
The past wrongs, the ravings of her mother who also repeatedly beats her senseless, the father who molested her, and the insane logic of the jehovah’s witnesses mount as she continues her narrative of the past. By the midpoint of the book the reader is convinced of Brianna’s courage in leaving.

But s I said, though the opening scene would have served equally well as the end of her story, her story continues, despite difficult circumstances.

Prior to the homelessness, she had made a good living as an administrative assistant, earning over 50,000 a year, having put herself through college. She details her adolescence, where she would often work three jobs, and pursue her degree. She had, in 2008, acquired a house, a dog, an off and on again boyfriend, and a horse. Yes , a horse.

Having escaped her past horrors and having her success and freedom yanked so brutally away, its shocking that she doesn’t simply give up, descend into addiction, or just live in a cardboard box. But Brianna endures and continues to work hard. She installs herself at the local starbuck’s where she uses the wifi to spend 8 to 10 hour days job searching. In between for sanity sake she continues chronicling her life in her blog, but never descends to self pity.

She does not though lose all feeling and compassion. She instead joins a group of other bloggers and reaches out to people. She becomes an informal ambassador for the homeless, correcting misunderstandings and prejudices. She actually makes an appearance on the today show, wins a high profile competition to apprentice at Elle magazine, and is interviewed on NPR.

Her life gets better, but not always easier, she is dogged by vengeful Walmart employees, vindictive managers, and more often than not the absolutely brutal indifference of those who retained their status and things, or refuse to change their narrow minded views.
If this were the whole story it would be enough. Impressive in its own right, as legitimate a document for our times of the dangers of freefall in a capitalist system as Down and Out in Paris and London. And what follows has caught some criticism from her reviewers on Goodreads and other sites, but the second half of the book for me only validates her struggles to keep mind body and soul alive, and to fulfill that most basic of human needs: happiness.

She meets a guy online. Matt. Not in a pick up site but on a homeless blog group. He has his homeless story to share, and works to spread awareness and support groups. Brianna begins a long distance relationship with him. They eventually meet and make plans for the future.

She is faulted for this but I simply can’t agree. The search for love and happiness is seldom relegated to those who are financially stable. What is revealed in these pages is a simple basic human need. Brianna may be destitute, may be struggling to survive a difficult future, but she never stops being a human being. She never stops wanting to love someone, and wanting love in return.

The rest of the book is taken up with this story and it does not read like a teenage chick lit story. Its brutal in parts, complications ensue, and you marvel at this girl’s refusal to say no to life.

More significantly for me, I found the comparisons between Matt’s English existence and Brianna’s American one acute. The English universal health care and social welfare system, in place since World War 2(watch Michael Moore’s Sicko for ideas on how this was achieved) saved thousands of people from the despair and loss of life that happened in America.

As Matt says at one point to Brianna “In England we actually care about people.”

At the end of the book we can see his point.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, Review


Without a doubt this is the most revolutionary text I have read thus far this year. To evoke a biblical allusion the scales have fallen from my eyes and I see the "war on drugs" for what it really is: a means of racial social control as repressive as Apartheid in South Africa.

The author, a former supreme court justice aid, meticulously describes and delineates the "War on Drugs" as being a system designed to 1) repress inner city lower income communities and effectively turn them into red zones, 2) place "criminals" under constant supervision and monitoring of the state, 3) prescribe harsh and unhelpful sentences for drug use and possession beyond the range of 'justice,' 4) criminalize poverty, 5) reward state and local drug enforcement agencies in the form of cash (federal subsidies for picking up and prosecuting drug criminals), and 6) effectively remove on third of the population from being able to vote in elections.

The more I read the more i felt like a fool for once upon a time falling for all the war on drugs rhetoric. I am ashamed to admit just how taken in I was by the stereotype of the black man as drug criminal and i see now that in many ways our society, under the guidance of corporations and neoliberal policies reinforced this.

This book has forced a brutal self reckoning in my personal life and made me choose a new path of existence rather than participate in a culture of mass enslavement. I can no longer in good conscience pretend that any of this, this system built on a culture of caging human beings, is capable of accomplishing any good.

In the pages of this book I found the diagnosis of the ills of my own community: a rural area devastated by the neoliberal policies that sent its factories and industries overseas and replaced them with prisons as the only means of gainful employment. Predominantly white communities that see no other means of self sufficiency than locking up people of color, and in the process turn a blind eye to the damage caused to the lives of the incarcerated, to the society as a whole, and to the nation. In a 50 mile radius from where i live there are 3 state prisons, 2 Federal prisons, and 4 Juvenile correctional facilities. Solzenhietzen's phrase, 'the prison industry, comes to mind.

Each chapter introduced more to be angry about. Not least of which is the way the drug war makes local communities wealthier by allowing them to keep whatever monies they seize in raids. So instead of wiping out the drug trade in their towns they raid them periodically to increase coffers. No wonder tv is so full of cop shows: lets villainize the black inner city person and heroize the police who lock them up.

I hope for meaningful change. And will find ways to be active in the future. But I will vote for any candidate that can help bring about meaningful change.

Thank you, Ms. Alexander, for waking me up.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Rich and the Rest of Us Review

I agree wholeheartedly with the major premise of the book: to change poverty we must first change the language we use to think and communicate about poverty. Drawing parallels with the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, and the women's liberation movement the authors insist that change beginsby aanalyzing the stigmas and connotations and images conjured in our current lexicon. Since the great recession has impoverished so many many formerly hard working middle class Americans we must seek to eradicate the image of the poor as lazy or irresponsible and instead simply define it as not having enough money. More than a simple analysis the book also offers clear advice foe not just changing the dialogue about poverty but the reality of it. There is the authors maintain a lot we can do.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Review of Habibi by Craig Thompson

Sometimes a book comes along and it is so good, so profound, so heartbreaking and redeeming it stuns you into silence. You have no idea what to say about the book. That $20,000 English degree might as well be a placemat for all the good its doing you now. The silence that follows is profound, deep, and reverential.

I read this in one sitting. Beautiful inspiring unapologetically foreign and heartbreakingly humane. One of the few books I read this year that gave me hope for the species. Will no doubt reread and dip into for years to come.

It is about: two orphans.

It takes place: in a third world urban landscape in a middle eastern country. But it is also as timeless and placeless as the arabian nights or Grimm's Fables.

It is not for the faint of heart: rape, war, murder, mutilation, insanity stalk its pages.

But so do love and understanding. And regardless of the medium, that is hard for an artist to pull off.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Review of A Language Older Than Words by Derrick Jensen

Derrik Jensen's books are not really an enjoyable experience. He comes across as a bit of a crank at first and a militant eco advocate reformer. The prose style is engaging though. He has a definite voice. That voice is not shrill, and does not cry about the end of the world. A technique perhaps better expressed on a soapbox on a street corner. Instead the voice that comes across is rational, precise, scientific(he was an engineer in college), sarcastic and ironic, but not in any way shape or form delusional.

I was worried when I began the book about how he seemed like he was going to tie his own experiences of being a victim of childhood abuse(his father raped and beat him and his siblings and their mother) to the larger issue of the destruction of the planet and indigenous people. I felt myself backpedaling and wanting to say "Uh dude, I don’t think they are connected. I think that what happened to you has made you think of the world in this way."

Alas, I was wrong.

Derrik Jensen's A Language Other Than Words is not just a chronicle of his childhood abuse, how he carried the scars with him and what it has taken for him to heal. It is rather, and amazingly so, an investigation into why Civilization and Abuse seem so closely connected to each other.

He draws parallels between what his father had done and the father's justifications: to make you stronger, you made me do it, etc, and our culture's justifications for what it does to the planet and general population. If one looks at our culture writ large, and the damage done on a daily basis by corporate entities who deforest, pollute and use up without a single shred of guilt, remorse, or in any way shape or form concern over what their actions are doing to the planet, then it is hard not to see his father's justifications tied into some mentality that arises in civilization.

In essence then the book becomes more an examination of not so much abuse as of use. The idea and mentality that has arisen in our history of just using the world around us, the people around us, all to further goals and ends that benefit the few. This idea that it is ok to disregard entire species and populations in order that a select group thrives, is something he looks at closely. He sees it everywhere civilization "thrives."

And it’s the idea that what has happened is that civilization itself seems to have a chronic lack of awareness regarding what it does that the book's argument truly hinges on.

In a section I found particularly disturbing(which, after all, is what he plans to do), perhaps because of my philosophy interests, he takes on Descartes famous claim to subjectivity "I think, therefore I am," as one of the starting grounds for this sickness of use. The idea that since I know I exist, but don't know if you do, its ok for me to act as though you don't exist. And when you do that, he warns, you become dangerous. From that simple philosophic declaration its easy to start the culture of use/abuse.

When an author announces that Civilization is doomed my inner ear shuts down and I stop listening even though I may keep reading. But there is a difference here.

In the preface he states that he wanted to write a feel good book, about his experiences with coyotes. But then question led to question and before he knew it these questions led him down some dark paths and he was questioning the whole basis for civilization. Why does it seem, he writes, to stem from this crazy impulse to control and regulate, and in essence abuse our environment.

And that journey is disturbing, profound and thought provoking. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but for sheer skill and force with which he makes you look at these questions from an entirely fresh angle, the experience is not to be missed.

In another of his books which I took to heart, Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution, he states his number one writing mantra, and the message he tries to teach his writing students, is DON’T BORE THE READER.

Be prepared not to be bored. Outraged. Shocked. Disturbed. Forced to have thoughts you'd rather not have at 3 am, but most certainly not bored.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Why Orwell Matters, by Christopher Hitchens

I prefer the title of the English edition of this book: Orwell's Victory. That title more accurately covers Christopher Hitchens' purpose. The book consists of a series of rebuttals to Orwell's critics and their respective 'camps:' the Left, the Right, Feminists, Colonial apologists, Americans, literary critics, and others. Each one of these respective schools are targeted by Hitchens, and their arguments against Orwell the writer and the man are addressed.

The description of the book on Goodreads and Amazon contained a blurb which said that Hitchens removes the image of Orwell as a plaster saint, and draws a portrait of the man as he was.

This is not strictly accurate. Instead of a biography that meticulously details Orwell's life and writings Hitchens here instead writes a defense of Orwell's basic positions on the various above topics. In doing so he highlights how Orwell's comments and writings, were co-opted, misinterpreted, or in some cases even blatantly misquoted and used to support arguments and positions he never supported The book digs down through the actual writings and shows what it was Orwell actually said or wrote, as opposed to what he is rumored or others claimed he wrote.

Hitchens is like a Homeric Fighter defending the fallen Orwell's body from all who would 'strip him of his armor.' The fights with some of Orwell's detractors are bloody, as in the section where he defends Orwell from an allegation that he supplied a blacklist of English civil servants who might be communists to the BBC(he didn’t. It was an entry in his journal of a parlor game he and his friends played as to who they suspected were communists or collaborators and who would most quickly cave in the face of a dictatorship or invasion).

What emerges more than anything else in these pages is the idea that Orwell's great enemy and the great evil of his time was Stalin and Stalinism. Orwell witnessed first hand during the Spanish Civil War the lies and propaganda and atrocities committed by the communists against other left leaning groups fighting alongside them. The communists ruthlessly attacked and tried and executed all other groups who had been united in fighting Franco's Fascists. Orwell recognized the need to write of what happened. He saw Stalin's agents everywhere subverting, destroying, and attacking all non communists. This zero toleration of other's political views is what most galled him. And later, during WW2 when the allies saw Stalin as the savior against the Germans Orwell was quick to point out the record of the man, and what his regime had done. There were members of the British government who were working with and for Stalin and some had an active hand in repressing Orwell's books.

Orwell's supposed unflattering portrayal of women as a significant of his anti woman attitude is addressed and effectively demolished. He wrote of a certain type of female in certain type of settings(bossy, domineering, with a hint of cruelty) but this is, as Hitchens points out through letters, journals, and others accounts of Orwell, not representative of how he felt about women in general. He did in fact marry several beautiful, intelligent, and independent women through the course of his life.

Hitchens is fair though. In the book he shows that Orwell did indeed dislike homosexuals and homosexuality and often raved about them. Hitchens acknowledges this but also is quick to point out that perhaps his experiences at English prep schools might have created this.

As a defense for those familiar with Orwell's writings against those who would misuse him the book is worthwhile. There are some intriguing biographical details, but the book works better as a history of Orwell's ideas during and after his death. Hitchens is pugnacious and stubborn enough to go toe to toe with respected literary figures, politicians, and critics, and like a Homeric hero he permits no quarter and gives no mercy.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, and New Directions


When I started the blog I originally intened to review and discuss sci fi and fantasy novels, because those were what I devoured at the time. I still read them, with immense pleasure, but other concerns have sent me to books and areas of interest. Mostly political science, social science, and economics.

Which in a weird way is a kind of homecoming.

Let me explain.

When I was younger, in my in between college days(that is, when I was in between colleges after having dropped out for a few years), I read a lot of George Orwell. A book I read and reread over and over was The Road to Wigan Pier.

Now as I've stated on the blog before, I grew up and currently live in a former coal mining town in Pennsylvania, which for you Non American Readers is about 250 miles from New York City. I can get to NYC in about 2.5 hours by car.

I mention this because the subject of Orwell's book is a mining community and the lives of the people he finds there, and what forces have come together to make such a brutal existence.

I remember being entranced by the book, captivated by the lives of the people and descriptions of the ugly coal hills and dirty conditions that to me seemed as though I were reading an accurate description of my hometown. One line in particular moved me deeply, when he described a young woman in winter with threadbare clothes trying to unstuck a drainage pipe in the freezing cold and looking into her eyes he saw she knew how miserable she was. Not ashamed of her poverty, but aware of just what a situation her life had been forced into. But in the same book Orwell focused on the Mine owners and operators, the exploitation, and the possibility of change. He broke down the system by which a few prosper and the many starve.

I learned a great deal from that book, and learned to question my previously held belief that the mines were just another step along the way of American Progress and the inhabitants were either too lazy to change their existence or just unfortunate.

Orwell, by his arguments, descriptions, and analysis, opened my eyes to the very real truth that what may appear to be the misfortune of others is often the culmination of calculated effort designed to maximize a profit.

I ended up back in college not long after, determined to "make something of myself." I pursued my English degree and studied Shakespeare, Chaucer, Eliot(George and T.S.)and others, and from them also learned a great deal. Many were masters of prose, and insightful into the human condition. But Orwell was never really mentioned on any of the lists. He was often sneeringly referred to as a 'political writer," as if having a political agenda were an inhumane method by which to approach the making of art.

What has drawn me back to Orwell, and to the political writers, social scientists, economists, and other like minded thinkers is the same absolute clarity, the same awareness that something is indeed very, very wrong. That our system is not just going through a series of ups and down with this being one brutal down cycle, but that the system itself is flawed, and unless we learn, educate ourselves, it will only get worse.

I am going to read as much Orwell as I can find. He is, in a sense, my Virgil on this journey. Though I am not sure I will agree with all of his political views, I do think I can learn much. Nor do I think I will hold him in overly high esteem. I do not intend to found a cult of Saint George. He will show I’m sure his failings as a writer and thinker as any other human who tries to write and communicate.

But more than read Orwell I intend to open the blog up some. Write essays about the times, things I see, people I meet, situations that for lack of a better term, are as miserable and squalid as those I read about in Road to Wigan Pier, or its companion piece, Down and Out in Paris and London. Strip away the cant, and the corporate coded version of reality, see the ugliness as well as the hopefulness underneath.

Lionel Trilling once wrote of Orwell that he "had a kind of genius to look at things in a simple, undecieved way." He was not a master stylist(or so Trilling complains. I think his style is effective). He could not create characters with such life and power as a Dickens, a Bronte. Yet I cannot help but think that in our own times, when what we see and hear and read and watch is so controlled by a group of media giants who want to force fear and consumerism down our throats, that this ability, this looking at things in a his own simple, undecieved way, is something we sorely need.