Category Archives: Books

Considering America’s Soul

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In his new book, American Rule – How A Nation Conquered The World But Failed Its People writer and political analyst Jared Yates Sexton takes us on a journey through the history of the United States, from the nation’s founding to the twenty-first century. He examines and debunks the American myths we’ve always told ourselves. In recent years, Americans have faced a deluge of horrifying developments in politics and culture: stolen elections, fascist rallies, families torn apart, and locked away. A common refrain erupts at each new atrocity: This isn’t who we are. Jared Yates Sexton upends those convenient fictions by laying bare the foundational myths at the heart of our collective American imagination. From the very origins of this nation, Americans in power have abused and subjugated others; enabling that corruption are the many myths of American exceptionalism and steadfast values, which are fed to the public and repeated across generations. Working through each era of American growth and change, Sexton weaves together the origins and perpetuation of these narratives still in the public memory, and the acts we have chosen to forget. Stirring, deeply researched, and disturbingly familiar, American Rule is a call to examine our own misconceptions of what it means and has always meant, to be an American. Here we are on the eve of the most consequential of elections, listen carefully to Jared’s conversation with Norman B. He does not shy away from displaying his concern and emotions.  

The subtitle to David Treuer’s latest book, Heartbeat Of Wounded Knee, explains the American history you should know: Native America From 1890 To The Present. Sadly, as Treuer meticulously shows in over 500 pages the history of Native Americans is the history of the United States. David Treuer grew up Ojibwe on a reservation in Minnesota, he trained as an anthropologist, and researched his Native life past and present for his nonfiction and novels, he uncovered a different narrative from what he had been told. His heritage had not disappeared, despite but rather because of the intense struggles by Native peoples to preserve their language, their traditions, their families, and their very existence–the story of American Indians since the end of the nineteenth century to the present is one of unprecedented resourcefulness and reinvention. In The Heartbeat of Wounded KneeTreuer melds history with reportage and memoir. Tracing the tribes’ distinctive cultures from the first contact, he explores how the depredations of each era spawned new modes of survival. The devastating seizures of land gave rise to increasingly sophisticated legal and political maneuvering that put the lie to the myth that Indians don’t know or care about property. The forced assimilation of their children at government-run boarding schools incubated a unifying Native identity. Conscription in the US military and the pull of urban life brought Indians into the mainstream and modern times, even as it steered the emerging shape of self-rule and spawned a new generation of resistance. Make sure you do not miss Norman B’s interview with David as he talks emotively about the past, the present, and the future of Native America.

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The New Map & White House Inc.

                                 
Daniel Yergin – The New Map: Energy, Climate, And The Clash Of Nations

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and global energy expert, Daniels Yergen offers a revelatory new account of how energy revolutions, climate battles, and geopolitics are mapping our future. The world is being shaken by the collision of energy, climate change, and the clashing power of nations in a time of global crisis. The “shale revolution” in oil and gas–made possible by fracking technology, but not without controversy–has transformed the American economy, ending the “era of shortage”, but introducing a turbulent new era. Almost overnight, the United States has become the world’s number one energy powerhouse–and, during the coronavirus crisis, brokered a tense truce between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Yet concern about energy’s role in climate change is challenging our economy and way of life, accelerating a second energy revolution in the search for a low carbon future. All of this has been made starker and urgent by the coronavirus pandemic and the economic Dark Age that it has wrought. The chessboard of world politics has been upended. A new cold war is emerging with China; and rivalries grow more dangerous with Russia, which is pivoting east toward Beijing. Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping are converging both on energy and on challenging American leadership, as China projects its power and influence in all directions. The South China Sea, claimed by China and the world’s most critical trade route, could become the arena where the United States and China collide directly. The map of the Middle East, which was laid down after World War I, is being challenged by jihadists, revolutionary Iran, ethnic and religious clashes, and restive populations. But the region has also been shocked by the two recent oil price collapses–one from the rise of shale, the other the coronavirus–and by the very question of oil’s future in the rest of this century.

Dan Alexander – White House Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned the Presidency Into A Business

Dan Alexander is a senior editor at Forbes, where he leads the magazine’s coverage of Donald Trump. His news-making exposé that details President Trump’s efforts to make money off of politics, taking us inside his exclusive clubs, luxury hotels, overseas partnerships, commercial properties, and personal mansions. Alexander tracks hundreds of millions of dollars flowing freely between big businesses and President Trump. He explains, in plain language, how Trump tried to translate power into profit, from the 2016 campaign to the ramp-up to the 2020 campaign. Alexander explains, just because you turn the presidency into a business doesn’t necessarily mean you turn it into a good business. After Trump won the White House, profits plunged at certain properties, like the Doral golf resort in Miami. But the presidency also opened up new opportunities. Trump’s commercial and residential property portfolio morphed into a one-of-a-kind marketplace, through which anyone, anywhere, could pay the president of the United States. Hundreds of customers—including foreign governments, big businesses, and individual investors—obliged. The president’s disregard for norms sparked a trickle-down ethics crisis with no precedent in modern American history. Trump-appointed an inner circle of centimillionaires and billionaires—including Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Wilbur Ross, and Carl Icahn—who came with their own conflict-ridden portfolios. Following the president’s lead, they trampled barriers meant to separate their financial holdings from their government roles. Dan Alexander has written a page-turning, hair-raising investigation into Trump and his team, who corrupted the U.S. presidency and managed to avoid accountability. Until Now.

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The Secrets Of Groceries & The Passion For Baking

Benjamin Lorr – The Secret Life Of Groceries  – The Dark Miracle Of The American Supermarket

What does it take to run the American supermarket? How do products get to shelves? Who sets the price? And who suffers the consequences of increased convenience end efficiency? In his alarming exposé, author Benjamin Lorr pulls back the curtain on this highly secretive industry. Combining deep sourcing, immersive reporting, and compulsively readable prose, Lorr leads a wild investigation, revealing the secrets of Trader Joe’s success from Trader Joe himself. He talks about why truckers call their job “sharecropping on wheels” and the truth behind the alarming slave trade in the shrimp industry. Benjamin’s book is a page-turning portrait of an industry in flux, filled with the passion, ingenuity, and exploitation required to make this everyday miracle continue to function. The author’s enthusiasm for his story is evident in this engaging conversation with Norman B.

Chef Kelly Fields – The Good Book of Southern Baking – A Revival of Biscuits, Cakes & Cornbread

Celebrated pastry chef Kelly Fields has spent decades figuring out what makes the absolute best biscuits, cornbread, butterscotch pudding, peach pie, and, well, every baked good in the Southern repertoire. In her first book, Fields generously shares her boundless expertise and ingenious ideas. With more than one hundred recipes for quick breads, muffins, biscuits, cookies and bars, puddings and custards, cobblers, crisps, galettes, pies, tarts, and cakes—including dozens of variations on beloved standards—this is the new bible for Southern baking. Chef Kelly talks about pastries, pies, and puddings but also gets into why she is so passionate about her culinary skills, and the star chef also explains how the pandemic has helped her take a fresh look at life and being inspired by the music of Sleater-Kinney.

 

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Martha Graham, The Dancing Diplomat. A Tribute To Toots.

 

 

Martha Graham’s Cold War frames the story of Martha Graham and her particular brand of dance modernism as pro-Western Cold War propaganda used by the United States government to promote American democracy. Representing every seated president from Dwight D. Eisenhower through Ronald Reagan, Graham performed politics in the global field for over thirty years. Why did the State Department consistently choose Martha Graham? As with other art forms such as jazz or avant-garde paintings, modern dance was seen to demonstrate American values of individualism and freedom; the choreographer used the freed body to make a new dance technique that could find the essence of human narratives. Graham targeted elites and its youth with modern dance to propound the ‘universalism’ of human rights under the banner of American democracy. In her choreography, argues author Victoria Phillips, Graham recast the stories of the Western canon through female protagonists whom she captured as timeless, seemingly beyond current politics, and in so doing implied superior political and cultural values of the Free World. Centering on powerful yet not demonstrably American female characters, the stories Graham danced seduced and captured the imaginations of elite audiences without seeming to force a determinedly American agenda. When her characters grew mythic on stage, they became the stories of all mankind, as Graham termed it. “My dances are ages old in meaning,” she declared. But Graham took the pro-American argument one step further than her artistic compatriots. She added the trope of the frontier to her repertory. In the Cold War, Graham’s particular modernism and the woman herself ossified, as did political aims of cultural diplomacy based on an appeal to foreign elites. Phillips lays bare the side-by-side trajectories between the aging of Graham’s choreography, her work as an ambassador, and the political dominance of the United States as a global power. With her tours and Cold War modernism, she demonstrated the power of the individual, immigrants, republicanism, and freedom from walls and metaphorical fences through cultural diplomacy with the unfettered language of movement and dance.

Toots Hibbert died of complications due to Covid-19 at University Hospital, Kingston, Jamaica on September 11, 2020. The 77-year-old reggae legend is widely credited as the genesis of the genre name reggae, after his 1968 song, Do The Reggay. The youngest of eight children, he became an orphan by the age of 11 and went to live with his brother John in the Trenchtown neighborhood of Kinston. In 1962, while working at a local barbershop, he was heard singing by Ralphus “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel “Jerry” Matthias. They become a trio, The Maytals, named after Hibbert’s hometown May Pen. In 1962 the trio was discovered by producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, who signed them to his Studio One label.  Hibbert’s soulful lead vocals were often compared to US soul icons, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. After two years with Studio One, The Maytals briefly worked with producer and ska pioneer Prince Buster before signing on with another Jamaican record man of note, Byron Lee, in 1965. The Lee-produced material showed that The Maytals were developing a more mature and polished approach, but the group hit a serious roadblock in 1966 when Hibbert was arrested for possession of marijuana; he was convicted and would serve a year behind bars. This experience provided the inspiration for one of his best-known songs, 54-46 That’s My Number. Hibbert was one of the first artists to use the word “reggae”, in 1968’s Do The Reggay. Reunited with Matthias and Gordon, the trio became known as Toots & The Maytals.  Hibbert’s stay in prison coincided with ska fading from the musical landscape in Jamaica as the proto-reggae sounds of rocksteady took its place. The new style suited Toots & The Maytals, and they signed with producer Leslie Kong, with whom the band would record some of their biggest hits, including Pressure Drop, Sweet and Dandy, Monkey Man, and 54-46 That’s My Number. Chris Blackwell, whose Island Records label was enjoying success releasing reggae material in the U.K. and U.S signed Toots & The Maytals releasing a revamped version of the album Funky Kingston in the United States in 1975. By the mid-’90s Hibbert had assembled a new version of Toots & The Maytals without Gordon and Matthias and toured extensively while recording a handful of albums for various reggae specialist labels. Toots & The Maytals made a high-profile comeback in 2004 with the album True Love, in which Toots re-recorded a number of his best and best-known songs with a stellar collection of guest stars, including Eric Clapton, No Doubt, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, and The Roots. After this Grammy-winning collection of duets, Hibbert stepped back to the spotlight on his own for 2007’s Light Your Light, and in 2012 his latest edition of The Maytals set out on a global acoustic tour to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their recording debut. A pair of concert albums, Reggae Got Soul: Unplugged on Strawberry Hill and Live! appeared that same year. After a 2013 incident in which Hibbert was hurt by a vodka bottle thrown by an intoxicated fan, he eased back on his career, performing occasionally but staying away from the studio. However, when noted musician and reggae fan Zak Starkey launched a new label, Trojan Jamaica, one of the first acts he signed was Toots & The Maytals, and their first release for the company, Got to Be Tough, arrived in August 2020. Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert, O.J. will be long remembered as one of popular music’s most important contributors.

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Us & Them & Them & Us

                                

Ian Buruma – The Churchill Complex – The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit

It’s impossible to understand the last 75 years of American history, through to Trump and Brexit, without understanding the Anglo-American relationship, and specifically the bonds between presidents and prime ministers. FDR of course had Churchill; JFK famously had Macmillan, his consigliere during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Reagan found his ideological soul mate in Thatcher, and George W. Bush found his fellow believer, in religion and in war, in Tony Blair. And now, of course, it is impossible to understand the populist uprising in either country, from 2016 to the present, without reference to Trump and Boris Johnson, though ironically, they are also the key to understanding the special relationship’s demise. There are few things more certain in politics than that at some point, facing a threat to national security, a leader will evoke Winston Churchill to stand for brave leadership (and Neville Chamberlain to represent craven weakness). As Ian Buruma shows, in his dazzling short tour de force of storytelling and analysis, the mantle has in fact only grown more oppressive as nuanced historical understanding fades and is replaced by shallow myth. Absurd as it is to presume to say what Churchill would have thought about any current event, it’s relatively certain he would have been horrified by the Iraq War and Brexit, to name two episodes dense with “Finest Hour” analogizing. In The Churchill Complex, distinguished author, Ian Buruma offers more than a reflection on the weight of Churchill’s legacy and its misuses.  It’s never been a relationship of equals: from Churchill’s desperate cajoling and conniving to keep FDR on the side in the war on, British prime ministers have put much more stock in the relationship than their US counterparts did. For England, resigned to the loss of its once-great empire and the diminishment of its power, its close kinship to the world’s greatest superpower would give it continued relevance, and serve as leverage to keep continental Europe in its place. And now, even as the links between the Brexit vote and the 2016 US election are coming into sharper focus, the Anglo-American alliance has floundered on the rocks of the isolationism that is one of 2016’s signal legacies. Ian Buruma is a keen observer and a delightfully informative guest.

Wendy Holden – The Royal Governess  – A Novel Of Queen Elizabeth Ii’s Childhood

In 1933, twenty-two-year-old Marion Crawford accepts the role of a lifetime, tutoring the little Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.  Her one stipulation to their parents the Duke and Duchess of York is that she brings some doses of normalcy into their sheltered and privileged lives. At Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and Balmoral, Marion defies stuffy protocol to take the princesses on tube trains, swimming at public baths, and on joyful Christmas shopping trips at Woolworth’s. From her ringside seat at the heart of the British monarchy, she witnesses twentieth-century history’s most seismic events. The trauma of the Abdication, the glamour of the Coronation, the onset of World War II. She steers the little girls through it all, as close as a mother. During Britain’s darkest hour, as Hitler’s planes fly over Windsor, she shelters her charges in the castle dungeons (not far from where the Crown Jewels are hidden in a biscuit tin). Afterwards, she is present when Elizabeth first sets eyes on Philip. But being a beloved confidante to the Windsors comes at huge personal cost. Marriage, children, her own views: all are compromised by proximity to royal glory. Best known for her comic novels, Wendy Holden’s diversion into what she calls “hybrid” writing, is almost a self-effacing description of a brilliant melding of fact and fiction. You’ll be enchanted by the bestselling author’s enthusiasm for her story of a progressive young teacher who became governess to children of a family frozen in time.

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