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Like a Rolling Stone, a memoir by Jann Wenner

No exaggeration: Rolling Stone played a huge role in making me the liberal I am today. My family was conservative Republican. Not crazy wingnuts, though we did have an aunt who was a John Bircher, but solidly Republican enough to roll their eyes at my solidly Democratic paternal grandmother. In my junior year of high school, I actually defended Nixon’s Vietnam policy in a US Government class debate. Watching the Watergate hearings on television started to turn the tide for me, but still, after wrestling with the decision, I pulled the lever in my first presidential election—in 1976—for Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter, something I recall with great embarrassment today.

But that autumn of 1976 is also when, at age 21, I moved out of my parent’s suburban home into my own apartment in a mixed neighborhood adjacent to downtown Philadelphia. At some point, an issue of Rolling Stone caught my eye on the newsstand. I wasn’t particularly into music at the time, and I can’t recall what teaser on the cover first attracted me, but I know it opened up a new world of politics, culture and writing for me. Rolling Stone in that era—the covers in the picture above are from 1977-1980—changed my life. I also started reading the Village Voice, The Nation, and more. But truly, it was Rolling Stone that first saved my life.

And so, reading Jann Wenner’s memoir, Like a Rolling Stone, published today, has been a pleasure. The book begins with a bit of defiance and a bit of melancholy. The defiance is in the brief A Note to the Reader, in which Wenner writes:

The battle about the legacy of the sixties continues, known today as culture wars. From my first days at college, it seemed we were on trial for generational crimes, and that trial has never ceased.

The melancholy comes in the equally brief prologue, as Wenner surveys the vacated Rolling Stone offices in May of 2019, after having sold controlling interest in the magazine. But then, it’s off to memory lane.

Cabin Fever, by Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin

The dawn of the Covid-19 era in some ways seems so long ago, and in other ways remains perilously present. Makes me wonder why I would be attracted to the recently published Cabin Fever: The Harrowing Journey of a Cruise Ship at the Dawn of a Pandemic, by Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin. I guess in part because I want to remember those early days, and in part simply because I love travel, and in fact, the cruise ship chronicled in this book, the Zaandam, wandered the coast of South America, being rejected at ports that I have visited in my own travels.

In truth, the idea of a cruise has never really appealed to me. Oh, the dining and dancing sounds fun, but still, being confined to a ship, with only short shore excursions, doesn’t do it for me. I’ve had just two boat experiences. One was a decidedly un-luxurious weeklong trip around the Galapagos in a small, noisy ten passenger four crew vessel. It was fabulous, thanks to the great destination and certain experiences like swimming in a vast featureless ocean that was who knows how deep beneath us, but the boat ride itself was not enthralling. And besides, there are always those news reports of food sickness outbreaks aboard a cruise ship.

Food sickness is nothing compared to the ordeal passengers aboard the Zaandam went through. The book begins with the passengers gathering in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Covid was becoming dominant in the news, including stories of outbreaks aboard cruise ships. The passengers were concerned, but on the other hand, it seemed so far away, in the Northern Hemisphere, China, Europe, and now the United States “We’re going so far south,” one passenger assured his girlfriend. “It’s going to be a bunch of Argentines aboard that ship; maybe some Chileans.”

As the day of boarding arrived, it was clear that wasn’t so. The passengers were predominantly from the US, Canada, Europe and Australia, having just flown into Buenos Aires. They were in a festive mood, hugging and gathering closely together. The majority of them were age 60 and older. And while Holland America had been sending out reassuring communications about Covid to the arriving passengers, in fact there was little health screening or even temperature checks as people boarded. Some passengers felt increased alarm at that point, but since Holland America had a no-refund policy that close to the sail date, unless you could document that you were ill or had been exposed to someone with Covid, no one wanted to forfeit the thousands of dollars they had laid out for this dream trip.

And so the Zaandam sets sail, with 1.243 mostly older passengers, 586 crew members, two doctors, four nurses, twelve oxygen tanks, a few boxes of surgical masks, and zero Covid-19 testing kits.

Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet

The New York Times reported last week that the Democratic Republic of Congo announced they were planning to auction off huge tracts of land in their old-growth rainforest for oil and gas exploration. (That NYT link should be free for all to read.) It was only eight months ago that Congo’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, pledged at the Glasgow Climate Summit to endorse an agreement to protect this same forest.

This vast ancient forest is one of the five remaining megaforests on the planet, as covered in Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet, by John W. Reid and Thomas E. Lovejoy, published in March. The other four are the Taiga, stretching across Northern Russia and Scandinavia; the North American Boreal, stretching across Canada; the Amazon; and on the island nation of New Guinea. The loss of these forests could be calamitous, as they are vital reservoirs of stored carbon. The Northern Boreal, for example, is estimated to have stored in its deep soil and peat layers some 1.8 trillion metric tons of carbon, the equivalent of 190 years of the current rate of global emissions. Imagine these vast quantities of ancient carbon being added to our current climate-changing emissions.

The book combines serious natural history and biology with evocative travel narrative. The Taiga, for example, is the largest unbroken expanse of forest on Earth. The book sets the stage by pointing out that on the flight from Moscow to the Kamchatka Peninsula on the Bering Sea “weather permitting, you can spend the next nine hours looking out the window at trees.” Also notable is that one-third of that vast expanse of trees are larch trees, which are in one respect a rarity among trees. They are deciduous conifers, trees that grow needles but, unlike most conifers, drop them in the winter. There are only twenty species of deciduous conifers, among a total of 60,000 tree species.

None of these are ‘virgin’ forests, a category that doesn't really exist. All forests have been touched by humankind; only the degree varies. There is a standard for defining a relatively intact expanse of trees: the Intact Forest Landscape, or IFL, which is defined as a minimum of 125,000 acres. Only 25% of the Russian taiga meets that standard, down 10% from the year 2000. The far north has suffered the greatest percent of losses to natural fires, followed by oil exploration. Humans have had the main impact in the southern portion, through fossil fuel extraction, mining and Chinese logging.

The Amazon is the only one of the megaforests I have visited (the Peruvian and Ecuadorean portions), and I was enchanted by the descriptions of nature. There is the White Witch moth, the largest moth in the Americas, which is so rare that scientists have not yet discovered its caterpillar. And the birds: in the 1950s, scientists pretty much felt they had identified every species of them, around 10,000 at the time. But since then, there has been an explosion of new discoveries in the Amazon, such as the musician wrens that sing a different song on one either side of their river habitat. It turns out that not only do they sing differently, they are different species, even though they appear identical. They don’t mate with each other.

Sometimes the authors’ views can seem a bit extreme. Take roads, for example:

It may seem harsh to oppose roads that could give remote forest communities easier access to the rest of the world….While access is important, the unconditional right to a community driveway has no ethical basis….

Governments can help isolated forest communities thrive without building roads. They can, for instance, subsidize air transportation, as is done for food in roadless parts of Canada and passenger travel among cities in the Brazilian Amazon. Further, satellite internet can help transfer services like education, health care, and banking to remote settlements, sparing villagers epic walks or weeklong boat rides to jungle cities.

Well, yes,,,but can that truly substitute for road access? Yet roads are a huge contributor to deforestation.

The Congo rainforest is also home to Africa’s greatest population of forest elephants and gorillas, as well several hunter-gatherer tribes collectively referred to as ‘Pygmies’ (the Bambenga, Bambuti and Batwa, for example.) All this is endangered as well, aside from the climate disaster that would result from the destruction of this forest.

The book is chock-full of information: history, forestry, biology, zoology, and the political economic forces which are leading the destruction of it all. The scale of these forests is so grand as to be almost unimaginable, but the way the book focuses on the details makes them seem so present and intimate. The loss of these forests will be heartbreaking in the near term, and disastrous in the longer term.

Body Language: Writers on Identity, Physicality, and Making Space for Ourselves

Race and gender have long been the most common entry points to our socio-political parsing of the human body. Ageism and ableism have also become more common as topics of discussion in recent years. Body Language: Writers on Identity, Physicality, and Making Space for Ourselves, edited by Nicole Chung and Matt Ortile and published last week, seeks to expand the discussion much further.

In these thirty essays, by authors of a wide range of genders, races, body types and abilities, we’ll learn about bodies living on feeding tubes and about bodies injected with hormones to facilitate the retrieval of eggs to be frozen for future fertilization. We’ll learn about living with dyscalculia, a learning disability that is to numbers what dyslexia is to letters. We hear from a woman fascinated by the pornographic fetish towards large bodies such as hers, and from a woman dealing with an eating disorder. There are essays by a gay deaf person, a very tall woman, and someone who has had a headache for over three years.

The frequent brilliance of this book comes from how the authors embed their unusual physical realities into a narrative that makes them seem a normal part of life. When Kayla Whaley writes of her slow acceptance of the approaching need for a feeding tube as her muscular dystrophy advanced. She had the surgery to implant it, but resisted using it.

So why was I so reluctant to put anything in? Why should there be any difference between my wheelchair as an assistive device and my feeding tube as an assistive device?….Maybe it was resentment, then. I missed food. I would have traded a year of my life, Princess Bride-style, for a cheeseburger with cheddar topped with ketchup and mayonnaise. When my parents cooked sausage and potatoes, of pizza, or spaghetti, or chicken and rice, the desire for those once-familiar flavors, for the heat, for the texture, drove me to swipe baby oil over my top lip to try to drown out at least some of the scent.

Or take this sweet opening to an essay by Maggie Takuda-Hall:

I’m not a likely candidate for a baking hobby. I can’t eat gluten. I’m married to a type 1 diabetic. In my culinary life, I have come to disregard for being too bossy. So when I picked up baking, it didn’t just feel sudden; it felt random. Stolen, maybe, from a better woman, a woman with no dishes in her sink.

First it was chocolate cake. It was pretty, but too simple. Then came the macarons. Hundreds of them. Pale pastel treats topped with edible gold leaf or glitter, beautiful and intricate.

And where is this leading us? To the fact that she first started making macarons after a miscarriage. To her fertility treatment, which went wrong and induced ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. To a feeling of being violated by this medical malpractice which paralleled a sexual violation by a trusted friend years before.

“I couldn’t make a baby, so I made macarons” is too simple. “I was raped, so I made macarons” is also reduction to the point of absurdity.

But with no precious, tiny shoes to buy, no birth announcements to send, no baby bump to show, I post endless pictures of these confections, delicate and precise.

In an essay about gender transitioning, Callum Angus begins by musing about climate, bringing up the spring-in-autumn after the Allied firestorms in Hamburg during World War Two, when plants were stimulated into a second flowering, or the gradually earlier running of sap in maple trees.

How to tell a story about climate? By necessity, it is an average drawn over a long period of time. It’s not a fixed point. There is no inciting incident.

In this way, a story about climate is a lot like a story about gender….

When I was younger, I was like an anthropologist observing my own body. I’d look at my chest and wonder if the top surgery scars fell too low, if my nipples stretched too far vertically. I was always under observation—by family, by doctors—but most of all, by myself. I filled journals comparing myself to others, always collecting data for an experiment of one. I watched the seasons march across my body, the shelf of my breasts calving in the surgeon’s office, the sprouting of male privilege and a five o’clock shadow after just a few weeks on testosterone.

In all, I found it a very interesting book, giving me a window into the experiences of so many. Recommended.

Take Up Space: The Unprecedented AOC, by the editors of New York Magazine

With the devastating Supreme Court decisions over the past week and the continuing horror show of Trump revelations, I needed to kick back and enjoy a multifaceted appreciation of a young politician who is one of our greatest voices today, and who I like to dream may someday be president: Take up Space: The Unprecedented AOC, 370 pages of words and pictures put together by New York Magazine, and published in February.

The book is divided into multiple sections, fitting for our social media world and for one of its best practitioners. The first two hundred pages are a comprehensive biography by Lisa Miller, studded here and there with pointers to subsequent chapters in the book by other authors on various topical subjects.

And the book’s mostly celebratory tone is set by the introduction by Rebecca Traister, entitled Before AOC, After AOC: Politics can be divided into two eras

It can be maddeningly difficult to write about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez without sounding extreme, like a fangirl or a hater. That’s because her trajectory is itself extreme; to simply lay out the facts of her three-year entrance into and rise within American politics is to trace the path of a rocket….I often have to remind myself—every time I tune into one of her speeches, like one of her tweets, watch an Instagram video of her dog stealing bites of dinner, and then wait for whatever it is to send her critics into apoplexy and her fans into ecstasy—that however powerful she is, however solid her political base feels, the fact is that there is no model for what she’s doing. Going from zero to Congress, primary victory to superstardom, political neophyte to fetishized celebrity, the Bronx to Vogue, bartender to House floor, Democratic Socialists of America member to souvenir votive candle. And all that unprecedented power—all that extremity—is also what makes her position so precarious.

In the biography section, we learn of her Nuyorican childhood, and her parents move from the gritty Bronx to the suburban Yorktown Heights, aiming to give their children greater opportunity. We see high schooler Sandy Ocasio, Harry Potter fan, taking the improvisational approach to prepping for her winning science fair presentations, grounded in deep learning used to engage and connect with her audience. We see her starting a pre-med curriculum at Boston College, with the thought of becoming an OB-GYN, but returning home when her father became gravely ill at age 48. She was 18 when he died. We learn of the effect her junior year study abroad semester in Niger had on her.

We learn of her struggles after college, as she realized that all her science fair wins, her graduating cum laude, her leadership program fellowships, didn’t necessarily translate into success for a young Latina woman. Exhausted and needing to pay her bills, she turned to waitressing and bartending.

We learn of her growing political activism, her trip to the Standing Rock pipeline protests, and her ultimate decision to enter politics. And all that is just in the first hundred pages. The second half of the bio offers an in-depth account of her House career thus far.

For the remainder of the book, we get all sorts of treats. We get looks at her political development and beliefs.

We get a look at her boyfriend—and as of last month, fiancé—Riley Roberts. We get a series of stills from the ‘dance scandal,’ where some MAGAhead on Twitter dug up an old video from her undergrad days of AOC reenacting a dance scene from the movie The Breakfast Club, captioning it “Here is America’s favorite commie know-it-all acting like the clueless nitwit she is.” She responded to the stupid attempt to humiliate her by posting a response video of her dancing to Edwin Starr’s War outside her Congressional office. “I hear the GOP thinks women dancing are scandalous. Wait till they find out Congresswomen dance too! Have a great weekend everyone :).”

We get her makeup tips posted with Vogue Magazine, and we get her razor-sharp Twitter takedowns of politicians and journalists. We get her skillful grilling of high-profile witnesses in Congressional hearings.

We get the text of her Instagram Live chat following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, in which she bonded in grief with her viewers while also offering ways to keep fighting the long game. We also get her Instagram Live recounting of her harrowing experience on January 6th, as the Capitol was under siege.

In all, this book gave me the boost I needed in these perilous times, which too often seem to border on the hopeless. AOC’s passion, her intellect, her command of the issues, her adeptness at communicating in the modern age, and her fearless way of being herself, whether serious or goofy, is an inspiration. It makes me want to believe, and, more importantly, it makes me want to do my part in the work that needs to be done.

Funny Business: The Life & Satire of Art Buchwald, by Michael Hill

Over the past several decades, with the rise of cable television and then of the internet and social media, we’ve come to enjoy an abundance of political satire. At least on the left. It’s painfully obvious the right can’t do satire.

But in that once upon a time earlier era, Art Buchwald was one of the luminaries of the art. People by the millions would wake up and read his latest column at breakfast, as it appeared in over 500 newspapers. But just because he was writing decades ago, beginning in the 1960s and continuing up until his death in 2007, doesn’t mean he doesn’t continue to speak to us in the present day.

On Roe v. Wade in 1973: “The Supreme Court ruling on abortion did not have the calming effect on people that the justices on the majority had hoped for. More Americans want to kill each other in the name of ‘right to life’ and ‘freedom of choice’ than ever before.” In 1976, he proposed ‘Art’s Gun Control Plan’: a federal mandate to amputate everyone’s trigger fingers at birth. “The Constitution gives everyone the right to bear arms. But there is nothing that says an American has to have ten fingers.”

Noting that it was estimated that the cost of killing every Viet Cong soldier was $332,000, he proposed that instead of bombs, the Pentagon should drop recalled American automobiles on the enemy. And he had one of the many imaginary experts he created, Dr. Heinrich Applebaum, muse about the uses of history: “You can’t learn from history unless you rewrite it.”

Funny Business: The Legendary Life and Political Satire of Art Buchwald, by Michael Hill, is a biography, not a compilation, and alas, examples of Buchwald’s satire appear only occasionally throughout the work. Still, it is entertaining, illuminating, and full of history as refracted through the life of one of its finest chroniclers. We follow him through multiple presidencies and a variety of DC, Hollywood and New York social circles. We read his entertaining letters. We read about the lawsuits brought against him, and of the time he infuriated J. Edgar Hoover with a column stating the FBI director was actually “a mythical person first thought up by the Reader’s Digest...They got the word ‘Hoover’ from the vacuum cleaner—to give the idea of a clean-up; Edgar was the name of the publisher’s nephew, and the J. stood for jail.” We also learn of his lifelong battle with depression, something he only acknowledged later in life.

The book makes me wonder how Buchwald would feel—or fit in—in today’s era of vicious polarization. On the one hand, he fits in perfectly with the greats of today. But on the other hand, he had a sense of ethics that kept him from crossing a line into viciousness. Here is how he explained it in the 1960s:

It is criticism with a difference. You don’t satirize innocent weaknesses, sufferings or misfortunes, nor would you criticize a man for being born lame or losing a child through some act of nature. Some satire is designed to knock the wind from your sails.  Other satire will reduce the object to ruin. The trick of satire is to unmask the victims and show them as they really are. But the trick in satire is to do it cleverly so the intended victim will not be able to protest without giving himself away…. The best way to do this is to abuse people and make them laugh while you’re doing it. It indicates that the writer is just having a good time and he’s really your friend. The abuse will stick.

Buchwald grappled with political correctness even in the early years, and expressed a disdain for some elements of the Left to take themselves too seriously. “The extreme Left is very ridiculous right now, just as ridiculous as the extreme Right,” he said in 1969. “But when you make fun of the Left you find all the people who believed in you suddenly turn against you and say you sold out and everything. That’s where it takes a little more guts.”

Buchwald’s many books now seem to be out of print, unfortunately. I hope his publisher will consider issuing reprints now that this fine biography is there to rekindle an appreciation.

Ten Tomatoes That Changed the World, by William Alexander

Summertime is upon us, and one of the things that means is tomatoes fresh and ripe from the fields. In theory, anyway. In reality, much of what we find in the supermarkets are even in summertime those overbred and under ripened billiard balls that pass for tomatoes these days. How did we get here? The newly published Ten Tomatoes that Changed the World: A History, by William Alexander, brings the paste to bind the story together.

In truth, the book tells its story as much through tomato products and recipes, such as Heinz ketchup and pizza, as from an actual ten tomatoes, but the abovementioned supermarket tomato—the Florida Green Mature—does indeed get its own chapter.

It’s hard to imagine a vegetable—or, for that matter, any food—with a worse reputation than the Florida tomato, which for over half a century has been derided, demonized and vilified. Yet, even while becoming the embodiment of tasteless and soulless factory food, ”a general metaphor for our dissatisfaction,” in the words of journalist Arthur Allen, the Florida tomato changed the way America eats. Fresh tomatoes were once an eagerly awaited seasonal—and local—treat to be enjoyed a precious few months out of the year, their first appearance at farm stands signifying for many the true beginning of summer.

Now we eat tomatoes year-round, consuming a billion pounds per year, while sneering with nearly every bite. Alexander visited a tomato factory farm in Florida to learn as much as he could about the Florida tomato from start to finish. Out in the fields, he watched migrant workers stripping green tomatoes off a bush, filling a 32-pound bucket, carrying it to a truck in return for a token worth 60 cents in wages, and then on to more plants, all in just 90 seconds. He watches tomatoes tossed into bins that hold 1000 pounds of the greenies, dumped onto conveyor belts, bounced around and battered as they are sorted—one 1977 study found that Florida tomatoes could withstand an impact greater than 2 and a half times the federal standards for car bumpers. And he watched them get gassed with the ethylene gas used to ripen them (in fact, he’s shocked to learn they’re being gassed as he stands there in the room; at these levels, ethylene—used in the making of plastic and Styrofoam—is not harmful to humans, he is assured by the company men accompanying him.)

Though these commercial tomatoes are bred to be picked unripe and hard and able to withstand long-distance shipping and weeks in storage, all at the cost of flavor and texture, in the end Alexander comes to the conclusion that the real culprit is Florida itself. The sandy soil requires massive inputs of pesticides and fertilizers, and the December Florida sunshine provides 40% less sugar-producing photosynthesis than a summertime Jersey tomato receives. While breeders continue the search for a better indestructible tomato, it is doubtful it will ever make that much difference. The Florida tomato, like the Florida Man, will remain an object of derision.

Of course, the tomato was not always prized as a foodstuff, and much of the early part of the book tells this tale. A native of the New World, the tomato, unlike such other discoveries as chocolate and tobacco, met with initial disdain in Europe, even in Italy. The Conquistador-era missionary Bernardino de Sahagún compiled lengthy studies of the Aztecs, including the use of tomatoes in cuisine, but the Vatican suppressed his work until 1829, labelling it too sympathetic to the heathen culture. The Renaissance also re-embraced some Ancient Greek notions of health, particularly regarding the connection between various foods and the ‘humors’—blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Tomatoes were categorized as a cold, wet food unconducive to health. In the early years of the United States, tomatoes caught on earlier, in part perhaps due to its use in cooking by slaves. The well-known folklore about early Americans believing tomatoes were poisonous until a certain Robert Gibbon Johnson stood on the steps of the Salem, New Jersey courthouse and ate a basketful before a stunned crowd gets a solid debunking in the book.

We learn lots of history, and the author has a sardonic tone that leavens the tale with a lot of humor. The rise of the San Marzano tomato and its ascent to a central place in Italian cuisine gets told. Tomatoes were at the center of a mid-1800s health craze, labeled the “Popular Health Movement,” that was set off in part by a cholera epidemic, and which fostered a widespread mistrust of science and conventional medicine. The author doesn’t shy away from pointing out the parallels to today.

Canning and food safety come into view, especially in the chapter about ketchup. The condiment was originally made from the slop and floor sweepings left over from canning tomatoes, and thus was a very localized product, with hundreds of brands around the country. Enter Henry Heinz to revolutionize the industry both in production and marketing, and in reluctantly taking the lead in national food safety standards. We learn, that the Heinz put up the first large electric sign in New York City, and that at the beginning of the 20th Century, Heinz was a faster-growing Pittsburgh company than even US Steel, Carnegie and Westinghouse. We learn why Heinz ketchup is so slow to pour out of the bottle, and we learn that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh puts ketchup on spaghetti.

The penultimate chapter of the book takes a look at the rise of the heirloom tomato to be found in summertime farmers markets in the country, small towns and big cities alike. So go get yourself some if you can, make a nice salad, and sit back to enjoy this fun book.

His Name Is George Floyd

What is most striking about the recently published His Name Is George Floyd: One Man's Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice, by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa, is how ordinary so many of the details are. The two Washington Post reporters have interviewed hundreds of people involved in Floyd’s life, starting with the family, teachers, coaches, co-workers, and friends who made up his childhood. Yes, these years are marked by poverty, and a broken home, but in America, such childhoods are common, and that’s what comes across in the early chapters. George Floyd was a typical kid in so many ways, playing with friends, helping his family, going to school, playing sports, developing his personality, dreaming of his future. He was tall and big as teen, and always made sure to try and put people at ease. “I can’t go into a room like you, because of my size,” he told his brother. “People look at me and they’re nervous and scared, so I open up to them and let them know I’m okay. I’m a good person.”

It’s also a childhood that was beset by the background of structural racism. Floyd grew up in the 1970s and 80s, after the Civil Rights movement began to dismantle some of the worst of Jim Crow racism, but his world was still one of segregated neighborhoods, segregated and underfunded schools, and the over-policing of the ‘war on drugs.’ All this would play out in the struggles of his adult life, but still, in the book’s opening chapters, George Floyd is just a kid, a kind, playful, thoughtful kid.

Before the book moves to Floyd’s adulthood, we are presented with Chapter Three, a masterful look at past generations of Floyd’s family. Both parents were descendants of slaves, and in fact were enslaved by white landowners who themselves had come to America as indentured servants before working their way up the ladder of economic opportunities available to them. After the Civil War, these white landowners continued to profit from the system. For one thing, the Freedman’s Bureau set up by Congress after the war, ostensibly meant to offer economic assistance to ex-slaves, in reality only benefited a mere 1% of freed Blacks in North Carolina. The rest of the money went to the white relatives of deceased Confederate soldiers. More importantly, the white landowners continued to benefit from the labor of their former slaves, who now worked as sharecroppers, subject to low pay and a rigged system.

Such was the sharecropping life of George Floyd’s ancestors after the Civil War, But despite the challenges, they managed to save and purchase land for themselves during the Reconstruction era. In fact, Floyd’s ancestors were among the wealthiest former slaves in North Carolina, with hundreds of acres of land that at one point represented what would be the equivalent of $400,000 in today’s currency. But with the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow racist laws and policies, they were steadily cheated out of their holdings. By the 1920s, their wealth was gone. This was the norm in the era, as the vast majority of Blacks were cheated out of their wealth and excluded from civic participation by white reprisals.

All of this--the decades of barring Blacks from the accumulation of wealth, and the continuing devastating effects of that even after the Civil rights era slowly began to redress some of those wrongs--sets the stage for the struggles of George Floyd’s adult life.

Floyd’s first arrest came after he dropped out of Texas A&M-Kingsville, where he had been recruited into the sports program. It was Floyd’s own courage and tenacity that got him into a four-year college in the first place, Between his underfunded schooling and his responsibilities helping to take care of his siblings, and of poverty in general, he struggled to even graduate high school. But he did it (several months late, after retaking an exam), and parlayed his skill in basketball and football into gaining entry to college. Unfortunately, his need for remedial courses in college, which did not count towards the necessary academic benchmarks for the sports program, kept him off the playing field. In the end, he decided to drop out and return home to Houston after nearly two years of frustration.

It was during that summer of his return that Floyd was arrested for the first time. He was trying to make some money by working for some of his friends in the drug trade. Those friends felt Floyd was not much of a hustler, lacking the hard attitude to hold down a drug corner, but they knew he needed money and wanted to help him out. This was the height of the drug war, and Texas was one of the leaders in arresting and incarcerating young Blacks on minor charges. Floyd’s bust by undercover cops led to a six month stint in prison, and even after his release he was saddled with large debts for court expenses.

It was Floyd’s first criminal conviction, and despite the relatively short sentence, he left jail with the psychological wounds that come from spending day after day locked in a tiny cell. In addition to a bout of anxiety and claustrophobia that would follow him for the rest of his life, Floyd walked out of jail in 1998 with a label he would never be able to expunge: convicted felon.

As the years went by, Floyd battled poverty, more stints in jail, and drug addiction. But he also kept striving to rise above it, dabbling in music, working different jobs, making the move from Houston to Minneapolis to try and make a break with the past. And throughout, he was valued by his friends and family, who knew the good to be found in his heart. Floyd always told those in his circle that he loved them.

Expressions of love were among his last words as he was suffocated with his face pressed to the pavement by police: “Mama, I love you!” “Reese, I love you!” “Tell my kids I love them!”

As I said at the outset, this story of George Floyd is filled with ordinariness, of a playful kid, a striving teen, an adult trying to persevere through hardship. It is a life lived against the backdrop of structural racism that closed paths to opportunity, a social condition that is all too ordinary in the lives of so many. It is a life that should never have been snuffed out the way it was.

The book is peppered with references that are painful in light of Floyd’s death. “I want to read about you in the newspaper,” one of his teachers told him. “I’ll probably be old then. But I want to read about you in the newspaper that you have made history and done something to contribute to society.” And at the end of his junior year in high school, as he and his friends talked about their hopes and dreams, Floyd said “I’m going to be big. I’m going to touch the world.”

Our Unfinished March, by Eric Holder

As the 2022 election season heats up, our book review today is very timely: Our Unfinished March: The Violent Past and Imperiled Future of the Vote-A History, a Crisis, a Plan, by Eric Holder, with co-writer Sam Koppelman. Holder was Obama’s Attorney General, the first Black man to hold that position, and is now involved in voting issues.

He doesn’t shy away from the fact that in the time he has been writing this book, the crisis in American democracy has accelerated, especially since Trump’s coup attempt after the last election:

This note shouldn’t need to be in the book.

In fact, it wasn’t in our original outline.

Because, for most of recent history, the basic rationale for democracy did not need to be defended….That was the American myth—and though it wasn’t always true, both parties embraced the aspiration that we were the world’s most democratic nation. Democracy, in other words, was the American brand, And we’re proud of it.

But in recent years, Republicans have begun to question this idea—asking why we ever thought voter participation was such a good thing to begin with.

While there are indeed plenty of racists and outright crazies in the pool of GOP politicians, Holder also believes that much of their drive to suppress voting rights in purely a power grab. But while much of it is “rooted in cynical self-preservation, millions of their acolytes aren’t in on the con. They actually believe the nonsense, which is why the vast majority of them, in poll after poll, say they want voting to be harder.” The Republicans have perfected the art of keeping their base in a manufactured constant state of outraged grievance.

The book is divided into the three themes spelled out in the subtitle: history, crisis, and plan. In some 70 pages, Holder recounts four stages in US history when voting rights were expanded. First was the fight to expand the vote to non-landowner and poor whites in the early days of the nation. Many of the founding fathers were resistant to the idea, using sometimes contradictory arguments that the poor would profit by simply selling their votes to the rich, or that they were too ignorant to do anything except vote to rebel against the wealthy.

Next came the expansion of the vote to Black men after the Civil War. Holder gives a nice overview of that brief Reconstruction era when some Black participation in elections soared, when some 2000 Blacks were elected to public office, when public school enrollment among Blacks went from 91,000 to 571,000. All of which was met with lynching and other violence, and with discriminatory Jim Crow laws, both of which devastated Black participation. In Mississippi, for example, of the 147,000 Blacks who should have been eligible to vote, only 9,000 were registered.

The third expansion, of course, was women’s suffrage in the early 20th century, and finally, the Civil Rights Act and other laws and court cases in the 1950s and 60s, which went far to restoring the vote to those it had been stolen from. Within mere hours of the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the federal government was dispatching officials to the southern states to make sure impediments to Black voting registration was ending (and he points out that the fall of barriers to registration also helped boost poor white voters).

Which brings the book to its crisis section, our current era in which history is repeating the cycle of violence and suppression which followed the Reconstruction period. You can get a good sense of Holder’s take on this crisis simply from the two chapter titles in this section: Backlash to a Black President: The Obama Years; and Democracy in Descent: The Trump Years.

Before Obama, Congress regularly and even routinely reauthorized the Voting Rights Act, even during the Nixon and Reagan years. In 2006, the reauthorization vote was 390-33 in the House, and unanimous in the Senate. While there were some Republican efforts to push for voting restrictions and to gin up fear of voter fraud, for the most part, the expansion of voting rights was a source of American pride.

That is, until 2008, when a record number of Americans showed up at the polls and made a man named Barack Hussein Obama the first Black president of the United States.

After that election, the Republican Party switched to the single-minded goal of tearing down and obstructing President Obama. By the time the 2010 midterms arrived, their nonstop hate and lies brought the Republican landslide that gave them Congress and greatly expanded power in the states. Now they not only had the rhetorical tools to derail Obama’s presidency, they also had the legislative tools to take real action, not only in opposition to Obama, but also against that huge, expanded pool of voters who had put him into power. And when those voters had the impudent audacity to nevertheless reelect Obama, the gloves were off.

This dismal recent history is followed by Holder’s prescriptions for the restoration of expanded voting rights as well as of the legitimacy of our governmental institutions. None of his ideas are surprising, though to hear them argued forcefully and articulately by someone who clearly deeply loves his country is refreshing. He supports automatic voting registration, same-day registration, and pre-registration for sixteen and seventeen year olds. He supports expanding the vote to the formerly incarcerated, and making it easier to vote, whether early, by mail, and by making Election Day a holiday. He also wants to make it harder to pass laws that make it harder to vote. He is in favor of ending the filibuster, of doing away with gerrymandering, and in favor of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact to reform the Electoral College. He is in favor of an expanded court and term limits for Justices.

A tall order, but Holder aims to inspire us to pursue these ambitions:

But now we are faced with a more important question—not what would we have done to right the wrongs of the past, but what we will do to right the wrongs of today, with our democracy one again at risk of destruction. And I believe we have it in us to continue that march.

That means going door to door organizing our neighbors, registering them to vote, and bringing them to the polls on Election Day. It means calling our representatives and demanding they pass legislation that will protect the right that protects the rest….

But in a fight like this, progress isn’t measured over seasons, or years, or decades. It’s measured over generations….This is not to say there isn’t urgency in this mission. Indeed, patience is not a virtue now.

Sounds Wild and Broken, by David George Haskell

I already live on a knife-edge of awe, stunned disbelief and overwhelmed incomprehension when it comes to the natural world we inhabit. A passage such as this, near the beginning of David George Haskell’s wonderful book Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution's Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction, can stagger my mind:

The first living sounds came from bacteria that sent infinitesimally quiet murmurs, sighs, and purrs into their watery surroundings. Bacterial sounds are now discernible to us only with the most sensitive modern equipment. A microphone in in a quiet laboratory can pick up sounds from colonies of Bacillus subtilis, a species of bacteria commonly found in soils and mammalian guts. Amplified, these vibrations sound like the hiss of steam escaping from a tight valve. When a loudspeaker plays similar sounds back into flasks of bacteria, the cells’ growth rate surges, an effect whose biochemical mechanism is as yet unknown.

In short, we are surrounded by the voices of nature that we aren’t even consciously aware of. And, at the risk of being anthropomorphic, it appears that bacteria talk to each other

I’m the sort of person who can’t even drink a damn cup of coffee without my mind sometimes being carried away, thinking about the fact that each tablespoon of fertile soil has some 50 billion microorganisms in it, all working to help nourish a bush that is gathering energy from a giant orb of chemical fire 93 million miles away. That bush, itself one of over 400,000 species of plants on Earth, produces a bean that human beings, themselves an absurd culmination of so many complicated biological evolutions that it is incomprehensible, somehow figured out that if they roast it, grind it and pour boiling water over it, makes a beverage that their digestive systems, itself host to some one trillion microbes, sends washing through the bloodstream chemical reactants that provide a feeling of enhanced alertness to the minds, minds which themselves are incomprehensible in how they work. Throw in the civilization aspect of the gathering, transporting, manufacturing, merchandising and marketing that goes into getting that cup of coffee to my lips...well, yes, it can overwhelm me.

And that's just a cup of coffee.

Haskell takes us into an amazing world of sound, from the bacon-fat sizzle of snapping shrimp in tidal marshes, a cacophony created by water bubbles generated by the slamming shut of a tiny claw—a cacophony unheard by us as we sit on the shore or in a boat enjoying the view, to the deep rumblings of elephants—a rumble too low to be heard by humans—which other elephants can hear transmitted through the ground kilometers away through sensors in their feet, which transfers the sound up their skeletal structure to their ears.

Or consider the undersea sound conduit:

To human eyes, the open ocean seems uniform. We might imagine this sameness penetrating all the way to the ocean bottom. Yet for sound, the ocean contains an invisible conduit, a passageway through which sound travels for thousands of kilometers. This “deep sound channel” is about eight hundred meters below the surface. Gradients of water temperature and density—cooler and denser in the depths—trap sound within the channel. When sound waves veer up or down, they are bent back into the channel by either warmer water above or denser water below. This watery lens transmits sounds across entire ocean basins, especially low sounds whose passage in water is unhindered by water’s viscosity. Whales take advantage of this channel, and their moaning, rumbling, throbbing calls were, until humans invented the telegraph, the only animal signals capable of crossing the ocean.

As you can imagine, the sonic waves of modern shipping do indeed create havoc in the sensory environments of ocean creatures.

Along with the multitudes of amazing sounds of nature, Haskell provides lots of practical information on how our ears work (I’m getting harder of hearing as the years go by, and I was marveling at the fact that simply brushing my thumb slowly and gently over the page of the book somehow created enough air turbulence to generate a sound wave that traveled the couple feet to my ear and was loud enough to hear), and how sound itself evolved. From eons in which the only sounds were those generated by wind and waves, with no living creatures to hear it, through the gradual rise of the hum of bacteria, the noise of insects, and the sonic burst of the development of animals. He hypothesizes that the latter was partly linked to the evolution of flowering plants, which flipped animals’ evolutionary advantage from being silent to avoid predators toward being able to communicate sources of food.

The book also examines the extinction of sensory diversity that accompanies the other forms of extinction we are inflicting on the planet. It is a form of extinction that tends to be overlooked.

Our ears are directed inward, to the chatter of our own species. Introductions to the sounds of the thousands of species that live in our neighborhoods have no place in most school curricula. We generally regard human language and music as outside nature, disconnected from the voices of others. When a concert starts, we close the door to the outside world. Books and software that teach us “foreign” languages include only the voices of other humans. Public monuments to sound are rare and honor a handful of canonical human composers, not the sonic history of the living Earth.

(Even with the opinion expressed in the above passage, I note that Haskell devotes much appreciation to the catalogues of birdcalls.)

In short, a remarkable book which will give you a deep appreciation of the fact that what we commonly perceive as our lives is really just a tiny sliver of a vastly greater reality. We don’t even fully understand the workings or our own human brains, and yet somehow we use those brains to discover the workings of complex systems of physics, biology, biochemistry and more. The diversity and intricacy of it all is indeed a wonder.