Monthly Archives: October 2012

#43: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I managed to avoid all spoilers about this book.  I refused to read any interviews, book reviews, or any other posts about what people thought.  I didn’t look at any ratings, other than to note that it’s averaging 3.4 out of 5 on Goodreads.

The main reason (maybe the only reason) I read this was because J.K. Rowling wrote it.  Unless it showed up on a ton of OMFG YOU GUYS HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!!! lists, it wouldn’t have appeared on my radar.  I don’t know how to categorize this type of book.  I guess it’s realistic fiction, and maybe I don’t read much of that.  Looking at this year’s CBR, the only two fiction books like this I see are The English Major by Jim Harrison and  Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler.  Everything else has a twinge of faerie or fantasy or alternate reality, or historical fiction with the author’s own bias.   But this book was written by Rowling, so here we are.

One way a casual vacancy happens is when a current council member dies. The seat must be filled by special election, unless the remaining council members are able to appoint someone through majority.  Our story starts with Barry Fairbrother dying from an aneurysm and creating a casual vacancy.

All the joys of small town politics pour over the pages, heavily laced with small town gossip.  It quickly becomes apparent that there’s going to be a fight and an election will have to be held.  But that’s not what this book is about.

And it’s delightful when you realize this.

Like in many small towns, there is a group of politicians that feel they are always in the right.  They understand what the town needs, where it came from and where it must go.  They often want to preserve the integrity of the town and you get the sense that they are worried about…well… other people.  Outsiders.  They absolutely belong to the NIMBYs.  Things need to be done, of course, but it’s important to take care of those who make a difference.  Why use resources on something that won’t give back?  They will gladly spend money to plant flowers in the middle of town, but to put up a bus stop shelter in a lower income area?  Why, that would be wasteful!  It would be vandalized within a week, so why waste time and money?  Besides, they and their families have lived in this town for generations and there’s never been a bus stop shelter before, so why do these interlopers deserve one?

These people are happy with their power and surround themselves with like-minded thinkers and admirers.  The know how to work the system and do everything they can to make sure people know that they are the important ones in town.  They throw perfect parties.  They intimidate the hell out of other people, and they know it.  And they get a thrill every time it happens.

On the other hand, you have people who also care about the town, but they care about all parts of it.  They recognize that many people don’t fit in to this upper tier.  Perhaps they came out of a lower socioeconomic status themselves.  They believe in investing in people and that money spent on services will help everyone.  Why plant flowers when you can offer scholarships for the poor kids?    Why spend money on people who can spend it on themselves?  Perhaps they are idealistic, but with the right personality, they can fight as hard as the other group.

Add some bad blood to the town’s history, and welcome to Pagford.

Again, you might think that this is a book about politics and power and elections, but it’s really not.  It is about power, and lack of power, but it’s also about secrets and the lives we live behind closed doors.  All it takes is for one little tremor to knock things over.  Barry Fairbrother’s death is far more than a little tremor.

Barry  is solidly in the second group and believes that you give back to where you came from and help up the next generation.  If you found success, it is your responsibility to reach back and teach someone else how to succeed.  When everyone takes a step forward, everyone wins.

The problem is the people who need to take a step forward aren’t very pretty.  Or educated.  Or polite.  They don’t speak properly.  They don’t have the right accents or clothes.  They’re poor.  And frankly, many in town feel that they should be left where they are, or, even better, handed over to the adjoining town.

This is what the election circles around.  Which camp will win and will social services be cut or will the methadone clinic stay open.

But, again, that’s not really what’s going on.

The true story is who people really are and what happens when secrets come out.

Each chapter is told by a different community member, so we get to see all different sides of the town.  From the powerful politicians to the powerless teenagers, everyone is either hiding something or bursting to tell their story.

No one is safe and when messages from The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother start appearing on the council’s webpage, things get ugly.  Publicly ugly.  Gossip is gleefully passed, especially among the upper echelon.  Of course this changes when they realize they are also targets.

The election gets closer and closer, but we don’t see campaigning or back room deals or speeches.  Instead we see the very deepest secrets of town members and what happens when truth is forced out.  Sometimes it happens over a kitchen table and sometimes it happens in public, but truths are revealed and nothing can be the same.

It took me a while to get into this book because town politics both bore and frustrate me.  With the Presidential election happening, I’m about ready to crack.  I didn’t want to get involved with a fictional election, but then I realized what this book was really about.  Once stories started being told, I was in.  I especially enjoyed seeing the same events from different points of view, and I liked that some characters didn’t get a voice at all.  I think Rowling very pointedly did not write from Barry’s widow’s point of view.  Although the story starts with her husband’s death and events happen around her and because of her, this is not her story.  Hers is a tale of mourning, of reconstructing, of building a life for four children and no husband.  We know that tale.  That’s not the one Rowling wanted to write about.

Another thing I liked about the multi-POVs were the different voices.  We have sullen teenagers, exhausted blue collar workers, business owners, social workers, and more. They each have a different view of Pagford and their role in it and I enjoyed seeing the town through the eyes of so many people.

There are times when I think authors use death simply as a plot device to get to the next thing.  Two characters need to reconcile or split up forever, so someone dies.  I hate it.  It’s a cheap trick.  Here however, Rowling uses death to prove a point.  Things do change when people die, but not always in the way you think.  Of course Barry’s widow will be forever changed, but what happens to the people who never even knew him?  How do we view death and why is one person’s passing more important than another’s?  Why is it OK to make some people a hero after they die while others are distasteful and their passing a dirty inevitability?

Truth and death.  Secrets and gossip.  Love, friendship, sex, anger.

Reality is all over these pages and I love how Rowling used a simple political moment to capture the layers of this imaginary town.

#42 Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by by Kenzaburō Ōe, translated by Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie that you knew wasn’t going to end well, but for some reason you stuck with it?  You had a sinking feeling in your stomach that slowly hardened into a rock and just sat there, pressing down, letting you know that things were not going to be OK at the end.  Bad things were coming.  You know it, but you’re going to stand here and watch.

That’s this entire book.

As soon as I started reading I kept asking myself “Are you sure you want to do this?”  For some reason I decided that yes, I did want to keep reading.  I prepared myself to be shocked, sad and depressed.  I knew before I even finished the introduction to the author and his writings that this was going to be one of those books that you can’t shrug off and walk away from and it was going to leave me physically affected.  I was going to be twitching off the sensation of not wanting to remember.  The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien did this to me.  I kept wondering why I was reading the book and I had a sick feeling in my stomach, but the book felt important and I felt like I should know what happened, and that’s why I kept reading Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids.

I haven’t even gotten to the part where I talk about the book and my face is already twisted into a grimace of not wanting to think about this anymore.

Here’s Goodread‘s summary:

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids recounts the exploits of 15 teenage reformatory boys evacuated in wartime to a remote mountain village where they are feared and detested by the local peasants. When plague breaks out, the villagers flee, blocking the boys inside the deserted town. Their brief attempt to build autonomous lives of self-respect, love, and tribal valor is doomed in the face of death and the adult nightmare of war.

I read this and thought Lord of the Flies.  I can handle this.  I read Lord of the Flies.  Once.  In high school.  I don’t remember being freaked the fuck out by it.  I’m debating picking it up now to see if it will wash away the sadness of  Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids  by not being as horrible.

I don’t even know how to review this book.  There are semi-spoilers, but not specifics.

Basically if there’s anything in the book that you like, don’t.  It’s going die, or be killed, or get ruined, or go away.  There is no lasting happiness in this book.  A small event would happen that would be nice and a character would be happy and I would be destroyed because I knew something horrible was on the way.  The youngest, sweetest boy finds and falls in love with a dog.  Yep.  We all know what’s going to happen there.  A girl is left behind in the village with the boys.  Yep.  Although I was pleased that she didn’t get raped to death, so there’s a bonus.  The boys have a small victory by finding food and having a festival?  Yeah, that happiness will be done by the time the sun comes up.

The most painful and beautiful thing about this book is the love the nameless main character has for his little brother.  The narrator is older than most of the boys and is one of two unofficial leaders.  Minami is the other, and he is quickly revealed to be calculating and quick.  He doesn’t care for much other than survival and while he has moments of kindness and fun, you know he’ll drop it in a second if he thinks he can profit from cruelty   With the narrator, you get the sense that he is cold and you know that he has committed crimes because he is part of the reformatory school, yet he doesn’t come across as being as hard as Minami.  We see him cradle his little brother when he sleeps and tries to protect him from being cold and scared.  His brother is able to keep a piece of innocence even though he is surrounded by war and violence and the criminal boys.  The younger brother is not part of these boys.  When his father found out that they were being evacuated, he dropped the boy off, figuring he would be better provided for.  He is excited and enthralled by their tales, seeing them as daring creatures and not understanding the danger.

When the plague hits and the boys are left behind, Goodreads lies.  “Their brief attempt to build autonomous lives of self-respect, love, and tribal valor” doesn’t happen.  They realize they are alone, they are pissed, and they break into all the houses to wreck things in their anger.  They don’t put anyone in charge, although they do listen to the narrator when he tries to organize things.  They eat and wander around and are bored.  There is no plan to create some sort of society.  They just kick around and wonder if the adults will come back.

I wonder what would happen if the adults hadn’t come back.  A Korean boy who was also left behind joins the group and teaches them how to hunt for birds and there was some food left behind, but there are no long term plans.  When people start to get sick, the boys panic.  Minami quickly moves into survival mode and will do anything to protect himself.  He works to gain the support from other boys, although I’m sure he’d easily knock them aside if he needed to.  If the narrator didn’t have his brother, he’d probably be the same way.  Minami is a great mirror character for him and I’m curious what this book would be if it was told from Minami’s point of view.

In the end, the adults do come back.  And of course they bring their power and their rules to these boys that they detest and were forced to take in.  They crush any semblance of independence they have created and the boys are immediately placed back into their powerless, outsider roles.

This brings us to the central question of this book: What would you do for the greater good?  For Minami, it’s about survival.  Will he stay independent if he thinks it will lead to escape and freedom, or will he stay put knowing he has a sense of power over the other boys?  Will the narrator fight for himself and his brother?  If you know that you will be defeated, is it better to fight and be knocked down, or to be silent and safe?  The villagers have no connection to these boys at all.  They could easily kill all of them, although they do fear the government and they soldiers who will return to check on them, but will they kill a boy or two if it means protecting their own families and friends?

Part of me wishes I hadn’t read this because it’s so horrible, but at the same time I’m glad I did because it is so powerful.  Having the story told through the boys gives it this sense of innocence even though they are anything but.  There are a lot of penises getting waved around.  But they are boys and this makes them powerless when adults are around.  But the adults are powerless when the soldiers are around.  And the soldiers are powerless when there is war.  People latch onto whatever is going to give them comfort or a sense of control, even if it means others are killed.  Will people protect a group, or will they kill everything if it means they individually get to live?

Having the introduction to Ōe, his life, and his writing was incredibly helpful.  I didn’t know anything about him, and reading this made me understand the story.  I think that’s the reason why I stuck with it and didn’t immediately return it to the library when I realized how ugly it was going to be.  It was truth, it was his truth and I felt by reading it, I was honoring it.

I don’t know who I would recommend this book to.  In a way, I don’t want people to read it because it’s so harsh, but at the same time, it should be read.  Just don’t pick it up if you’re feeling emotionally fragile.

#41: Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done by Susan J. Douglas

Why oh why do I not keep a stack of little sticky notes next to the bed, especially when I’m reading a book like this?  I kept thinking “Oooh, I’m going to want to talk about this part!” and then I guess I thought I’d magically remember the page when I sat down to write my review.  I’m awesome, but I’m not that awesome.

I love non-fiction books that are solidly researched and then written in a conversational tone.  There’s a time for textbook-like writing, but I prefer non-fiction where the author’s voice comes through.  Sarah Vowell does it and whenever I read her historical books I feel like we’re hanging out and she’s all “Oh, hey!  Did I tell you about President Lincoln getting assassinated?  Check this out…” and then we laugh and laugh and are best friend forever.

Douglas writes in this same way here and I really enjoyed it.  A different author could have easily made this a book of facts and I would have zoned out quickly and put it aside as things I sort of already knew, but am not interested in reading about in terms of numbers and percentages.  Instead, Douglas pulls from the research and applies it to pop culture and media and says “OK, look.  Here’s what the data tells us, but let’s look at what’s happening on TV.”  I appreciated this approach, and while it still didn’t make for a quick read over a day or two, it was a pleasure to spend time with it and think about my own stance on feminism.

Back in March of 2011, I wrote a review for Six Myths of Our Time: Little Angels, Little Monsters, Beautiful Beasts, and More by Marina Warner.  As I was reading I was already formulating how I would talk about this book in a way where I could refer to being a feminist without sounding like That Type of feminist.  Here’s what I managed to stammer out:

It’s a huge pain in the ass that I can’t just be a feminist anymore.  I have to be a humanist.  Or I get to be a “feminist AND” or a “feminist BUT”. Everything is so watered down and angry that you have to explain what you are by immediately pointing out what you aren’t.

So…I’m a feminist BUT I don’t hate men.  I’m a feminist AND I think we need to work to make sure everyone is treated fairly.

Mostly I just hate people.  But I try to do it equally.

I think I really nailed it with those last two sentences.

So here we are again.  The conservative right wing has infiltrated the media so thoroughly that feminists back away from the word and try to come up with something more politically correct and not off-putting.  We all know that feminists hate men, don’t wear makeup and wear ugly shoes.  They have no sense of humor and will drag your ass to HR if you only use male pronouns.  And of course they are all exhausted from killing their children, practicing witchcraft, and becoming lesbians.

This really pisses me off.  Not only has “feminism” become a bad word, but I’m totally on board with trying to find a new word!  Why do we have to reclaim our own word?  For fucks’ sake people!

However, this isn’t a book arguing about the merits of defending feminism.  It is a book about how many of us have been tricked into setting that term aside, and now we can put on booty shorts and beat the shit out of each other on reality TV because it’s our choice, not any man’s.

We won, you guys women!  We totally won!!!

There’s so much to talk about with this book, but I think I’m going to stick with reality TV.  Douglas brilliantly deconstructs the roles women play on reality TV and I was pretty pissed that I didn’t always realize what was happening.  There are shows where women are put together for the sole purpose of getting drunk and ripping out each other’s hair.  The producers carefully pick girls who they know will be combative, then fill the house with booze and cameras, sit back and wait.  These shows are easy to identify and can be avoided.  After all, we’re not all those kind of girls and we can roll our eyes at immaturity and location.  It sucks that girls aspire to get onto that kind of show, but we know what we’re getting into if we stumble onto a marathon.  And we can laugh about how much better we are than the participants.  Need examples?  The Bachelor, Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire, Bad Girls’ Club, Super Sweet Sixteen, later seasons of The Real World… I don’t want to continue.

But then there are the supposedly balanced shows, and here’s where things get scary.

The Survivor and The Apprentice, chose to show women and men equally.  Here was a reality where everyone came in at the same level and anyone could win.  But what happens?  The women all turn on each other.  Women are “emotional”.  They are “bitches”.  They are “two-faced”.  They criticize each other using women-only terms.  And there’s always the double standard where men are aggressive and powerful but when women behave the same way they are ball busting bitches.  There’s a way to win, ladies, and you don’t do it by behaving like a man.  Say “please” and “thank you” and guide activities.  Don’t ever demand and don’t be too assertive.

The message these “balanced” shows teach us is that reality always ends up with women backstabbing each other and refusing to work together.  Even if all-female teams win challenges, they do it with name calling and are dysfunctional.  And since this is a reality show, this what all women are like.  No one scripted these fights.  No one told a woman what to say.  These are real women behaving in real ways that happen in real life.

This is reality.

And how frustrating is it that real women watch these “reality” women and cringe when they act this way?  “Oh me?  Well… I wouldn’t call myself a feminist…  At least not that kind feminist.  I mean, I wouldn’t ever act like she does.  It’s so… off putting.  She should be nicer.  People would like her if she would just be nicer.”

There’s so much more to talk about with this book, but I really want everyone to just get it and read it.  If you’re turned off by the term “feminist” then this book is for you.  If you identify yourself as a feminist, then this book is for you.  If you’re curious about how mass media shapes decisions women make and how males view us, both positively and negatively, this book is for you.  Especially the sections where women are in power positions on TV dramas.  If you hate women and think we should all be having babies and making sandwiches, well… first, you’re going to get voted out of office, and second, you’re probably not reading this.  But you should, because you’re ignorant and should be embarrassed.  And stop talking about vaginal ultrasounds and deciding what the true definition of rape is.

This book is smart, funny, incredibly well-written, unapologetic and thoroughly researched.  Even if you only have time to flip through it the next time you’re in the library or a book store, check out the table of contents and find something you’re curious about.  We need to get this reality out there.


#40: Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

How did this turn into this?

Because Hollywood!

I haven’t seen the movie Practical Magic in years, but it’s one of those movies that makes me stop and watch if I’m ever flipping channels and it’s on.  I’m not actually sure if I’ve seen the entire thing.  I like it a lot though and picked up this book on a whim after reading some heavy non-fiction.  I thought it would be nice to relax with a good couch read.

As I read I kept wondering if this was the book the movie was based on or if there is another book called Practical Magic that was used.  I even went to  IMDb to check because, seriously… how?  My friend Jenn figures that  the script for that movie was waved NEAR a copy of the book once.  A few things stuck, but then they just did whatever was going to test well.

Happily, I liked both the book and the movie, but I really wish when Hollywood gets  a book and changes it, they should rename the movie and add Inspired By The Book “Blah Blah Blah”.  You’re just confusing people and making die-hard book snobs snobbier.

Here come spoilers, but you probably already know the plot, right?  And if you read it, you still won’t know all the hows and whys.

Gillian and Sally Owens have lived with the aunts ever since their parents died during a second honeymoon love fest.  There were never any rules and the girls did whatever they wanted to.  Sally is the oldest and decides it’s up to her to create and enforce rules for her sister and to try and bring some sense of normality to the house.

The problem is the aunts are witches and everyone knows it.  Although people go out of their way in order to avoid the house during the day, lovesick women will creep to the backdoor under the cover of darkness to beg for spells to grant their hearts’ desires.  Sally and Gillian peek into the kitchen to watch these women kill doves if it means the man they want will follow them no matter where they go.

Disgusted, the two sisters vow to never let a man ruin them this way.

Now older, Gillian fulfills this promise by sleeping with any man she fancies and getting married over and over.  You can’t get ruined if you’re the one in charge.

Sally, on the other hand, resigns herself to a solitary life until she crashes into a man and falls sick in love.  Luckily he’s felt the same way about her for years.  They get married, have two daughters, and then he dies.

Gillian is long gone at this point.  Random postcards show up and Sally never knows where she is, but she calls every single week, urging Sally to get out of bed and live.

Sally, finally broken by her outsider life, grabs her girls and runs.  She doesn’t want them to have the ostracized life she had.  She never had friends, she was constantly teased and she always longed for something normal.

Years pass and Sally lives her normal life in her normal house with her normal teenage daughters (whatever normal is for a teenage girl) and everything is the same and she is happy.  Or at least content.

And then Gillian shows up with a dead body in the car.

So that sucks.

Turns out Gillian finally fell in love with the worst guy possible.  He was violent when he was alive and he’s still fucking things up now that he’s dead.  Remembering lessons from the aunts, they bury him under the lilacs in the backyard and Gillian decides to crash with Sally for a little while.

When Gillian appears though, everything changes.  Sally’s youngest daughter falls madly in love with her cool aunt, much to the terror of Sally.  Sally knows that if Gillian is given an afternoon, she will undo thirteen years of mothering.  The two sisters pick up arguments they’ve been having since they were girls and it’s hard not to be on Sally’s side.  Gillian is a mess.

And then the dead guy in the backyard starts haunting them and un-burying parts of himself.  And then Gillian falls in love, which is impossible since she’s Gillian.  And then a cop shows up to find out where the boyfriend went.  And then Sally falls in love with the cop.  And then things get even crazier and it’s time to call the aunts.  So they show up and do witchy things and everyone lives happily ever after.

I really did like this book although I liked the movie better.  Keeping Sally in the aunts’ house instead of having her run off was a nice touch.  I liked that her girls became teenagers in the book, but I also liked them being kids in the movie to echo Sally and Gillian.  Nicole Kidman and her super short skirts were perfect for Gillian and Sandra Bullock’s crazy beautiful hair was made for Sally.  I liked having them in mind while reading.

If you’re looking for a relaxed beach read, snag this from the library.  Or if you just want to sink into the couch and not turn pages, find the movie.  It’s a nice rainy day activity.

#39: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Illustrated by Jim Kay, Inspired by Siobhan Dowd

How do you grieve for something that isn’t over?  If you acknowledge your fears, does that mean you’re giving permission for the end to happen?

Thirteen year old Conor has been having nightmares.  12:07 on the dot.  Wide awake, trying not to scream, wishing he  had someone to talk to.  He’s been alone since everyone found out his mom has cancer.  The kids at school figured out that the best way to deal with their own unease is to ignore him.  The bullies know he won’t fight back or tattle, so he spends his school time invisible and bloodied.  His only friend betrayed him and he can’t look at her without feeling angry, and he doesn’t want to feel anger because that reminds him of the dreams.  Reminds him of the monster.

But then a different monster appears.  Huge, reaching branches.  Roots that could crush his house in a moment.  A gaping maw that can swallow him whole.

But he doesn’t care.  He’s not even afraid.

This isn’t the real monster.  It’s not his monster.

But why is it here and why does it insist that Conor has a story to tell?

This book is beautiful, and that’s before the illustrations.  Siobhan Dowd began to create this book but died before she could start.  Patrick Ness, who never met her, was asked to complete her work.  Wisely, he realized he couldn’t tell her story in her voice.  What he could do was take her ideas in, let them grow, and tell a different story to honor her characters.  It’s not Dowd’s story, but it is her reflection.  Jim Kay finishes the tribute with black ink and textures to capture Conor’s fear and hope along with his helplessness and isolation.  It’s painful and perfect and I had to keep putting the book down to scrub away the tears that were running back into my ears and into my pillow.  The hazards of reading in bed.

There is so much to like about this book.  My favorite genre is folklore and retold tales, and Ness pulls from the Green Man legend to create a character that is made of shades of gray.  There are stories within the stories and Conor, and you, aren’t sure who the bad guy is.  What enemy are you supposed to be paying attention to?  What do you hold on to and what wishes to you make when nothing makes sense?  Maybe the new monster is actually black and white with nothing in between.

The most powerful thing about this book was the idea of grief as permission.  Conor and his mother refuse to let her cancer take them down, but things are getting worse.  She’s fighting and she’s pulled through before.  But what if…  What happens if you finish that sentence?  If you admit that bad things can happen, are you letting them in the door?  If Conor allows himself to feel fear, does that mean he’s giving up on her?  If you grieve for something that’s in process, does that mean you’re admitting that it’s over and you no longer trust your mother to live?

Did I mention I had to keep putting the book down to deal with the tears?  Have you ever gotten to that point where you’re not actively sobbing anymore but tears continue rolling down your face?  And then you think you’ve pulled yourself together so you can keep going and you take a deep breath to steady yourself and you hear your breath catch and skip and you realize you’re not done crying but you’ve got to finish this book because who is the monster and what is going to happen to Conor’s mom?

It hurt so much because the story and words were so true.  Kay’s artwork is a perfect match to the fear and overwhelming helplessness that Conor feels.  When you’re thirteen, you have moments where you already feel minuscule and when you add cancer to the mix, you might as well disappear.  Kay pulls these feelings in and his pictures capture those moments where you’ve trapped all of your emotions into a tight ball into the center of your chest, but you know at any moment it’s going to explode.  He smears blackness across the pages and it is a perfect companion to Ness’ story and Dowd’s beginning.

I highly recommend this book, but you probably don’t want to read it in public.  So much sniffling and tears.

#38: Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow

This one is really hard to review because I had the audio version and couldn’t tag parts I wanted to talk about when I sat down to write my review.  I’m worried I’ve got it all jumbled together and I know I have facts wrong.  Feel free to call me out on my version of the facts.

This is a really important book and I’d like to see it become required reading.  While everyone knows Rachel Maddow is part of the liberal media, hell bent on world domination and probably destruction, I didn’t feel like this was a liberal “Fuck You!” to the world.  Although if it was written by Rush Limbaugh, I’m sure I would say the entire thing was right wing bullshit.

What fascinated and scared me about this book was how quickly the interpretation of the Constitution was able to change in just a few presidential terms.  Lyndon Johnson was able to reinterpret the definition of war, simply by not calling up the Reserves.  If he wanted them, he would have had to go to Congress.  If he went to Congress than they would have had to formally declare war in Vietnam.  Instead, he kept it a police action and left the Reserves at home.  The draft was cranked up and everything changed.

The Reserves were meant to seriously inconvenience America if they were called up.  These were (in this case) men who held jobs in the community and if Congress decided it was time to pull them in, the effect would be felt.  Life for civilians would be impacted and because of the absence of Reserve members, civilians would notice what was happening and potentially question the government’s actions.  This was not a mistake – it had been designed this way to keep a standing army small and make long term wars difficult.  By skipping this part, Johnson redefined the armed services and paved the way for Ronald Reagan to do pretty much whatever he wanted.

Reagan was, to say the least, an interesting man.  If he said something, he believed it, even if everyone else in the world knew he was wrong.  He’d keep saying it and believing it until a few other people started to believe it too.  Then he’d say it even more and louder and to more people, and suddenly it became the truth for many people.  This is what politics is about, and you can see it today with the belief in Welfare Queens and subsidized housing that’s better than expensive apartment in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  Reagan said it, he believed it, and he got elected.

This is the section of the book that I really wished I was able to tag.  Reagan surrounded himself with people who would agree with him and help him “interpret” the Constitution so he could pretty much do whatever he wanted with the armed services.  This led to the Iran-Contra Affair and weapons for hostages.  That second part not only didn’t work, but weapons were returned to us for not being good enough.  Ouch.

The saddest/scariest part of Reagan’s presidency is his Alzheimer’s.  When called in to testify, he honestly didn’t know who he had talked to or what he had done.  The parts he did remember, he of course knew he had done the right thing because he said it was the right thing.  It’s impossible not to wonder how lucid he was during strategy sessions.

As interpretations of the Constitution shifted, the most important decision was the definition of the Commander In Chief.  Reagan and his advisors decided that if the President of the United States of America truly was the Command In Chief, then he did not have to go to Congress to get permission to do anything in regards to the military.  He was in charge, so screw everyone else.

Apparently there is an unwritten rule that when you become president, you do not give up any power that was given to the Office by the presidents who came before you.  Even if this power goes against the spirit of the Constitution, you keep it and you do your best to make it bigger.

It’s insane to me to comprehend at how the military was seen during WWII and the post-war role of a standing army to our lives now with ongoing war.  Maddow really wanted to explain what in the fuck happened.

She continues following the path of Bush, Clinton, and Bush the Second.  They all continue to redefine the military, the role of the president, and how war will now work.

The privatization of war is fascinating to me.  According to Maddow, it’s the fault of toddlers.  I knew kids couldn’t be trusted!!!  Members of the military were entitled to benefits for themselves and their families.  A major part of this was childcare.  The government realized how much it was spending on this and was not happy.  They realized they could turn over operations to private companies who would take their money and step in to run things.  From dining facilities to housing to support for families back on base to childcare, the government was able to step further and further back while private companies grew richer and richer and took more and more control.  This led to the business of war and the continued privatization of destruction worldwide.  Companies would hire ex-military and send them to countries to train leaders in non-warfare topics like how to run your first democratic election.  And then, later, if there just happened to be a military action in that country, and say, for example, the winners somehow used tactics that mimicked American tactics and were able to crush their opponents, then… huh, well that was weird.  The government certainly didn’t have anything to do with it since we aren’t over there and the private companies certainly didn’t have anything to do with it since they are only there to build voting booths.  How strange.

This, of course, is seriously hurting our global image.  The States has decided it has no legal power over companies that aren’t in our country, and the companies have decided that the country they are in has no legal power over their employees, so there exists a free-for-all.  Sex slaves are commonplace and the locals can’t do anything about it.  How odd that they hate all of us.

I got this book on audio because I wanted to hear Maddow read her own words.  The way she explains things is smart but accessible.  Although I feel like I don’t understand any of this, I feel more informed about how things have changed, and that’s a start.

Oh, and I’ll leave you with this.  The United States officially admits that we have lost eleven nuclear bombs some where on the planet.

That’s just our country.  And our official number.

Good luck sleeping tonight.