Category Archives: Books

Baseless & Unidentified

                             

Nicholson Baker –  Baseless: My Search For Secrets In The Ruins Of The Freedom Of Information Act

With great pleasure, we welcome back to Life Elsewhere, acclaimed author, Nicholson Baker. His latest work of non-fiction is a remarkable hybrid of history, journalism, and a memoir. Eight years ago, while investigating the possibility that the United States had used biological weapons in the Korean War, Nicholson requested a series of Air Force documents from the early 1950s under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Years went by, and he got no response. Rather than wait forever, he set out to keep a personal journal of what it feels like to try to write about major historical events in a world of pervasive redactions, withheld records, and glacially slow governmental responses. The result is one of the most original and daring works of nonfiction in recent memory, a singular and mesmerizing narrative that tunnels into the history of some of the darkest and most shameful plans and projects of the CIA, the Air Force, and the presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. In his lucid and unassuming style, Baker assembles what he learns, piece by piece, about Project Baseless, a crash Pentagon program begun in the early fifties that aimed to achieve “an Air Force-wide combat capability in biological and chemical warfare at the earliest possible date.” Along the way, he unearths stories of balloons carrying crop disease, leaflet bombs filled with feathers, suicidal scientists, leaky centrifuges, paranoid political-warfare tacticians, insane experiments on animals and humans, weaponized ticks, ferocious propaganda battles with China, and cover and deception plans meant to trick the Kremlin into ramping up its germ-warfare program. At the same time, Baker tells the stories of the heroic journalists and lawyers who have devoted their energies to wresting documentary evidence from government repositories, and he shares anecdotes from his daily life in Maine feeding his dogs and watching the morning light gather on the horizon. The result is an astonishing and utterly disarming story about waiting, bureaucracy, the horrors of war, and, above all, the cruel secrets that the United States government seems determined to keep forever from its citizens.

Colin Dickey – The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, And Our Obsession With The Unexplained

In a world where rational, scientific explanations are more available than ever, belief in the unprovable and irrational–in fringe–is on the rise: from Atlantis to aliens, from Flat Earth to the Loch Ness monster, the list goes on. It seems the more our maps of the known world get filled in, the more we crave mysterious locations full of strange creatures. Enter Colin Dickey, Cultural Historian and Tour Guide of the Weird. With the same curiosity and insight that made Ghostland a hit with readers and critics, Colin looks at what all fringe beliefs have in common, explaining that today’s Illuminati is yesterday’s Flat Earth: the attempt to find meaning in a world stripped of wonder. Dickey visits the wacky sites of America’s wildest fringe beliefs–from the famed Mount Shasta where the ancient race (or extra-terrestrials, or possibly both, depending on who you ask) called Lemurians are said to roam, to the museum containing the last remaining “evidence” of the great Kentucky Meat Shower–investigating how these theories come about, why they take hold, and why as Americans we keep inventing and re-inventing them decade after decade. The Unidentified is Colin Dickey at his best: curious, wry, brilliant in his analysis, yet eminently readable.

Show #383

Two Disturbing Books. An Impressive Movie. Plaintive New Music.

 
James B. Stewart – Deep State: Trump, The FBI, And The Rule Of Law

There are questions that the Mueller report couldn’t—or wouldn’t—answer. What actually happened to instigate the Russia investigation? Did President Trump’s meddling incriminate him? There’s no mystery to what Trump thinks. He claims that the Deep State, a cabal of career bureaucrats—among them, Andrew McCabe, Lisa Page, and Peter Strzok, previously little known figures within the FBI whom he has obsessively and publically reviled—is concerned only with protecting its own power and undermining the democratic process. Conversely, James Comey has defended the FBI as incorruptible apolitical public servants who work tirelessly to uphold the rule of law. For the first time, bestselling author James B. Stewart sifts these conflicting accounts to present a clear-eyed view of what exactly happened inside the FBI in the lead-up to the 2016 election, drawing on scores of interviews with key FBI, Department of Justice, and White House officials and voluminous transcripts, notes, and internal reports. In full detail, this is the dramatic saga of the FBI’s simultaneous investigations of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—the first time in American history the FBI has been thrust into the middle of both parties’ campaigns for the presidency. Stewart shows what exactly was set in motion when Trump fired Comey, triggering the appointment of Robert Mueller as an independent special counsel and causing the FBI to open a formal investigation into the president himself. And how this unprecedented event joined in ongoing combat two vital institutions of American democracy: the presidency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. At stake in this epic battle is the rule of law itself, the foundation of the U.S. Constitution. There is no room for compromise, but plenty for collateral damage. The reputations of both sides have already been harmed, perhaps irrevocably, and at great cost to American democracy. Deep State goes beyond the limits of the legally constrained Mueller report, showing how the president’s obsession with the idea of a conspiracy against him is still upending lives and sending shockwaves through both the FBI and the Department of Justice. In this world-historical struggle—Trump versus intelligence agencies—Stewart shows us in rare style what’s real and what matters now. And for the looming 2020 election.

Julian E. Zelizer – Burning Down The House: Newt Gingrich, The Fall Of A Speaker, And The Rise Of The New Republican Party

When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, President Obama observed that Trump “is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party.” In Burning Down The House, historian Julian Zelizer pinpoints the moment when our country was set on a path toward an era of bitterly partisan and ruthless politics, an era that was ignited by Newt Gingrich and his allies. In 1989, Gingrich brought down Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright and catapulted himself into the national spotlight. Perhaps more than any other politician, Gingrich introduced the rhetoric and tactics that have shaped Congress and the Republican Party for the last three decades. Elected to Congress in 1978, Gingrich quickly became one of the most powerful figures in America not through innovative ideas or charisma, but through a calculated campaign of attacks against political opponents, casting himself as a savior in a fight of good versus evil. Taking office in the post-Watergate era, he weaponized the good government reforms newly introduced to fight corruption, wielding the rules in ways that shocked the legislators who had created them. His crusade against Democrats culminated in the plot to destroy the political career of Speaker Wright. While some of Gingrich’s fellow Republicans were disturbed by the viciousness of his attacks, party leaders enjoyed his successes so much that they did little collectively to stand in his way. Democrats, for their part, were alarmed, but did not want to sink to his level and took no effective actions to stop him. It didn’t seem to matter that Gingrich’s moral conservatism was hypocritical or that his methods were brazen, his accusations of corruption permanently tarnished his opponents. This brand of warfare worked, not as a strategy for governance but as a path to power, and what Gingrich planted, his fellow Republicans reaped. He led them to their first majority in Congress in decades, and his legacy extends far beyond his tenure in office. From the Contract with America to the rise of the Tea Party and the Trump presidential campaign, his fingerprints can be seen throughout some of the most divisive episodes in contemporary American politics. Burning Down The House presents the alarming narrative of how Gingrich and his allies created a new normal in Washington. 

Disclosure

Disclosure, a new independent movie from Australia asks the question, what would you do if your child came to you and began telling you a story about something that happened to them, that is one of your worst nightmares as a parent? And what would be the consequences of your actions? This is director, Michael Bentham’s debut full-length film, set in the lush tropical landscape of Victoria. The story is a dark psychodrama, yet Bentham shooting in 4K captures startlingly colorful scenes with unobtrusive camerawork and exceptional acting. Norman B was so impressed with Disclosure, he wants you to know all about it. In this edition of Life Elsewhere, you’ll hear his review.

Jess Williamson ft. Hand Habits – Pictures Of Flowers

To round out the show, new music from Jess Williamson featuring Hand Habits with the lovely and plaintive, Pictures Of Flowers. Written by Jess and performed by Jess Williamson (acoustic guitar, vocals), Meg Duffy (electric guitar), and Jarvis Taveniere (bass, drums, mellotron) remotely from their homes during quarantine. In her bio, the Texas-born, L.A.-based singer-songwriter is described as making “…deeply felt songs that orbit around her powerful voice, a voice that’s strong and vulnerable, big room flawless, quietly ecstatic, and next-to-you intimate.” We agree. 

Please let us know what you think of Life Elsewhere, we want to hear your feedback, your questions, queries, and comments. Write to normanb@lifeelsewhere.co

Show #381

Too Fantastic To Be True

                   

The next Presidential election will be in less than four months, or it is supposed to be. That something unforeseen could delay or even prevent an election has now become a concern in some quarters. After all, since the last Presidential election, how many times a day have you said, “This is all too fantastic to be true”? Pundits on cable TV visibly scratch their heads and are often at a loss to compose articulate sentences. The frowns and nervous laughs are a daily part of recounting the latest bizarre antics of a man and his administration that defies all semblance of normality. Revered, brilliant scholars stare dead-eyed into their Zoom-enabled cameras to offer up nothing more than frazzled apologies for not having a better explanation as to why the world we once understood is upside down and inside out. “You couldn’t make this up!” Is repeated constantly, followed by, “it’s hard to separate fantasy from reality!” 

Fantasy vs. reality is a mainstay of another cultural phenomenon, Science Fiction.  A series of interviews we conducted last year with top writers of the genre, prompted a return visit to examine how they view fantasy vs. reality. Christopher MariJeremy K. BrownKameron Hurley, and Meg Elison each have a captivating perspective on our world and the blurred line between fantasy and reality. Yes, this edition of Life Elsewhere is a conscious diversion from the real-life absurdity we are all living in. Optimistically, we will all get through and rise above this dire period, and like most good science fiction stories, we’ll venture on to a better world.

Show #380

A Deadly Virus & A Disturbing Truth

                           

New York Times-bestselling author Robin Cook wrote Pandemic, his medical-thriller more than two years before Covid-19. The pulse-pounding story begins when an unidentified, healthy, well-dressed woman is struck down by a sudden respiratory illness on the subway as opportunist thieves snatch her phone and backpack. By the time she’s rushed to hospital, she’s dead. Ending up on forensic pathologist Dr. Jack Stapleton’s autopsy table as the potential victim of a contagion, reveals surprising findings. Fearing what could be the first in a severe outbreak of a deadly virus similar to the 1918 influenza pandemic, Jack works in overdrive for a diagnosis and to identify the woman. A task made more urgent when two other victims succumb to a similar rapid death. But nothing makes sense until his investigation leads him into the fascinating realm of CRISPR/CAS9, gene-editing biotechnology that’s captured the imagination of the medical community. . . and the attention of its most unethical members. Cook’s critical opinion of the greed dominating the business of the medical professions and the sad politics of health care in the United States makes this so pertinent now, as we live through a real pandemic.

For too long the Religious Right has masqueraded as a social movement preoccupied with a number of cultural issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage. In her deeply reported investigation, Katherine Stewart reveals a disturbing truth: this is a political movement that seeks to gain power and to impose its vision on all of society. America’s religious nationalists aren’t just fighting a culture war, they are waging a political war on the norms and institutions of American democracy. Stewart pulls back the curtain on the inner workings and leading personalities of a movement that has turned religion into a tool for domination. She exposes a dense network of think tanks, advocacy groups, and pastoral organizations embedded in a rapidly expanding community of international alliances and united not by any central command but by a shared, anti-democratic vision and a common will to power. She follows the money that fuels this movement, tracing much of it to a cadre of super-wealthy, ultraconservative donors and family foundations. She shows that today’s Christian nationalism is the fruit of a longstanding anti-democratic, reactionary strain of American thought that draws on some of the most troubling episodes in America’s past. It forms common cause with a globe-spanning movement that seeks to destroy liberal democracy and replace it with nationalist, theocratic and autocratic forms of government around the world. Religious nationalism is far more organized and better funded than most people realize. It seeks to control all aspects of government and society. Its successes have been stunning, and its influence now extends to every aspect of American life, from the White House to state capitols, from our schools to our hospitals. The Power Worshippers is a brilliantly reported book of warning and a wake-up call. Stewart’s probing examination demands that Christian nationalism be taken seriously as a significant threat to the American republic and our democratic freedoms.

Show #378

Two Compelling Books

                    .    
Peter Bergen – Trump And His Generals; The Cost Of Chaos

Peter Bergen

It is a simple fact that no president in American history brought less foreign policy experience to the White House than Donald J. Trump. The real estate developer from Queens promised to bring his brash, zero-sum swagger to bear to cut through America’s most complex national security issues, and he did. If the cost of his “America First” agenda was bulldozing the edifice of foreign alliances that had been carefully tended by every president from Truman to Obama, then so be it. It was clear from the first that Trump’s inclinations were radically more blunt force than his predecessors’. When briefed by the Pentagon on Iran and the Strait of Hormuz, he exclaimed, “The next time Iran sends its boats into the Strait: blow them out of the water! Let’s get Mad Dog on this.” When told that the capital of South Korea, Seoul, was so close to the North Korean border that millions of people would likely die in the first hours of an all-out war, Trump had a bold response, “They have to move.” The officials in the Oval Office weren’t sure if he was joking. He raised his voice. “They have to move!” Very quickly, it became clear to a number of people at the highest levels of government that their gravest mission was to protect America from Donald Trump. Trump and His Generals is Peter Bergen’s riveting account of what happened when the unstoppable force of President Trump met the immovable object of America’s national security establishment–the CIA, the State Department, and, above all, the Pentagon. If there is a real “deep state” in DC, it is not the FBI so much as the national security community, with its deep-rooted culture and hierarchy. The men Trump selected for his key national security positions, Jim Mattis, John Kelly, and H. R. McMaster, were products of that culture: Trump wanted generals, and he got them. Three years later, they would be gone, and the guardrails were off. From Iraq and Afghanistan to Syria and Iran, from Russia and China to North Korea and Islamist terrorism, Trump and His Generals is a brilliant reckoning with an American ship of state navigating a roiling sea of threats without a well-functioning rudder. Lucid and gripping, it brings urgently needed clarity to issues that affect the fate of us all. But clarity, unfortunately, is not the same thing as reassurance.

Colin Woodard – Union: The Struggle To Forge The Story Of United States Nationhood

Colin Woodard

Union tells the story of the struggle to create a national myth for the United States, one that could hold its rival regional cultures together and forge, for the first time, an American nationhood. It tells the dramatic tale of how the story of our national origins, identity, and purpose was intentionally created and fought over in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On one hand, a small group of individuals–historians, political leaders, and novelists–fashioned and promoted a history that attempted to transcend and erase the fundamental differences and profound tensions between the nation’s regional cultures. America had a God-given mission to lead humanity toward freedom, equality, and self-government and was held together by fealty to these ideals. This emerging nationalist story was immediately and powerfully contested by another set of intellectuals and firebrands who argued that the United States was instead an ethnostate, the homeland of the allegedly superior “Anglo-Saxon” race, upon whom Divine and Darwinian favor shined. Their vision helped create a new federation–the Confederacy–prompting the bloody Civil War. While defeated on the battlefield, their vision later managed to win the war of ideas, capturing the White House in the early twentieth century, and achieving the first consensus, a pan-regional vision of U.S. nationhood in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. This narrower, more exclusive vision of America would be overthrown in mid-century, but it was never fully vanquished. Woodard tells the story of the genesis and epic confrontations between these visions of our nation’s path and purpose through the lives of the key figures who created them, a cast of characters whose personal quirks and virtues, gifts, and demons shaped the destiny of millions.

Show #377

 

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