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The Far Land: 200 Years of Murder, Mania, and Mutiny in the South Pacific, by Brandon Presser

I’m indulging my love of travel this week with The Far Land: 200 Years of Murder, Mania, and Mutiny in the South Pacific, by Brandon Presser, his bizarre account of the history of, and of his visit to, Pitcairn Island, the isolated South Pacific island where the Mutiny on the Bounty crew took refuge in 1789. Pitcairn is still inhabited by a mere 48 people, many of them Bounty descendants.

This isn’t likely to be a place I’ll ever visit. No plane flies there, as the terrain is too rough for a runway. It’s too far away from anywhere else for a helicopter. There is no proper port for ships. Getting to Pitcairn Island is pretty much limited to a month-long voyage on a freighter that brings cargo four times a year, with goods and visitors off-loaded in small boats. Still, looking at the satellite image from Google above, I have to admit a longing to have a haircut at the Tom Selleck Salon, or some ice cream at the Adamstown.

The nine mutineers led by Fletcher Christian, along with some 19 Tahitian wives and other Tahitian captives they had brought along, stumbled across Pitcairn after months at sea. The island was listed on nautical charts of the era, but 200 miles away from its actual location. While other mutineers who had remained in Tahiti were captured by the British, the Pitcairn group eluded the hunters.

It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later, in 1808, that an American ship, the Topaz, stumbled across the island. The captain, Mayhew Folger, was shocked to see small boats paddling out towards the ship. Even more stunning was the fact that the men who paddled out spoke English. Captain Folger was invited ashore to dine with the inhabitants, and he soon realized that this island was where the missing Bounty crew had ended up.

By then, only one of the original mutineers was still alive. The rest, including Fletcher Christian, had been killed within the first three years, either by each other or by the Tahitians they had brought with them. And indeed, John Adams, the mutineer who was still alive, the one captain Folger dined with, was mysteriously not listed on the roster of the original Bounty crew. Folger pondered the possibility that Adams was actually Fletcher Christian.

The book alternates between chapters of the author’s experience during his stay on the utterly isolated Pitcairn, and a meticulous mining of source documents to reconstruct those violent first three years of the mutineers. He also covers the often violent episodes in the centuries since, and the occasional new inhabitant that comes to stay.

A fun book, part travelogue, part history, and part Lord of the Flies as it explores these humans living in isolation. 

Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth, by Elizabeth Williamson

Elizabeth Williamson’s Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth is a marvelous book, which the Sandy Hook tragedy from two equally finely-honed angles. On one level, the book is heartbreaking in its detailed account of that day in December 2014 when 20 first-grade children and six teachers were shot dead at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. On another level, it is an enraging account of the conspiracy theorists, led by InfoWars cretin Alex Jones, who caused much anguish to the parents of the slain children by their very public efforts to insist the entire massacre never happened, that it was a false flag performance by the government aimed at promoting gun control.

The details of that terrible day can be devastating. Police Sergeant Bill Cario, upon entering classroom 8:

At first it looked empty, a relief. Then he saw the bodies of two teachers on the floor. Opening the door to what he thought was a closet, he saw a damp heap of cloth that in his shock he mistook for some kind of art project.

Describing what happened next in his report, Cario’s detached official language turned ragged and anguished. “As I stared in disbelief, I saw the face of a little boy…I then began to realize that there were other children around the little boy, and that this was actually a pile of dead children.

“The face of that little boy is the only specific image I have in that room.”

It’s not just the crime details that can bring you to tears. Equally wrenching are the stories of the parents in the days and hours leading up to the shooting, and in its aftermath.

While his parents chatted, Jesse scratched “I love you” into the light frost coating Scarlett’s car door, surrounding the message with hearts. Scarlett told him to stay put and ran into the house for her camera. Her last phot of Jesse is of him squinting in the morning sun, showing off his handiwork. His ski jacket was open, revealing an untucked rugby jersey with blue and black stripes, the shirt he died in.


Emilie was a Sandy Hook student for less than a year. After her deathm her bed remained unmade and her artwork half-finished on the table nearby, as she had left it on her last morning.


Robbie lifted the scarf and unfolded it. Six frayed round holes marked the path of the bullet that entered Emilie’s neck. Her parents wept.


A few days before Noah’s death, Veronique Pozner finished bath-and-story time in the house in Sandy Hook….[Later] She was in bed with a book when she looked up to see Noah again, standing bare-chested in the December chill. 

“What are you doing out of bed, and what are you doing without your pajama top?” she asked, exasperated.

“I just wanted to give you one more hug.”

“Okay, but why is your pajama top off?”

“So I could feel your hug better,” he said.

These sorrowful details in the early chapters serve as a poignant reminder of that terrible tragedy, but in fact are meant to set the scene for the real story the book wants to tell. That begins in Chapter Four, just 70 pages in, with the introduction of a “barrel-chested, vain man” with a combover “making wagging, chopping gestures with hands resembling inflated rubber gloves” a “diagnosed narcissist” with “roots planted in the globalist paranoia of the far-right John Birch Society”, who glommed onto the tragic massacre of children to  gain “attention, and a chance to spin a myth of official fraud and cover-up starring himself as crusading truthteller.” Enter Alex Jones and InfoWars, and for the remaining 400 pages we are shown how the personal, private individual tragedies of the Newtown parents and community became years of a very public and very cruel torment that continues to this day.

This wasn’t Jones’ first hijacking of a tragedy to attract publicity for his special brand of conspiracy. Just five months earlier, he had promoted the idea that the mass killing in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, in which twelve were killed and seventy injured, was a hoax perpetrated by actors in a plot to give a green light to the government to start confiscating guns.

Just five days after the Sandy Hook massacre, as Robbie and Alissa Parker were preparing for their daughter Emilie’s funeral, Jones was on the air, mocking Robbie as “a soap opera actor” who in a televised statement was simply reading a card provided by the government. On his broadcast, he repeatedly played a six-second-long clip out of the grief-stricken father’s eighteen-minute media appearance the day after the shooting.

“We’re going to play a clip from a CNN press conference with Robbie Parker,” Jones said. Mischaracterizing Robbie’s appearance as being somehow organized by CNN, a big Infowars target, was another way of undermining its credibility.

“I’ve seen this before, and he’s laughing, looks really excited,” Jones said, frowning. “And then he walks up like he’s an actor, and then breaks down on camera.”

Jones launched into a hammy, concocted rendition of Robbie facing the media, focused on Robbie’s brief smile and side comment to his family as he stepped to the lectern that night.

“I mean, it’s like ‘HAHAHA! Yeah, huh? Oh, I read this card? Okay, OOOH HOOOOO’” Jones said, wailing in mock grief….

“Unbelievable,” Jones said. “I mean, he does look like a soap opera actor. Handsome guy, he has a very suave walk. Perhaps that's how you handle it when you’re really nervous, but that is a smile of absolute satisfaction….So he’s really smiling, he looks happy, and all of a sudden, suddenly—it looks totally fake.”

The hatemongers who follow Alex Jones lead began to act on their conspiratorial beliefs. One person, Wolfgang Halbig, emailed the school nurse: “Are you a registered nurse? Why in the closet for four hours? Why close your eyes when you have seen blood before you are a nurse?” He went on to email and call Newtown officials and victim’s families, to file hundreds of requests for public documents, and to become one of Jones’ favorite ‘experts.’

Soon the families were being harassed. Posts would show up on their social media, such as this one on Veronique Pozner’s (mother of Noah) family Facebook page:

This interview was the point where I KNEW that Sandy hook was a Hoax. When I saw Veronique Pozners shawl and perfectly matched earrings...Even her shade of lipstick is the exact red shade for the color of her olive green outfit.

No mother who had just had her baby shot through with holes would take care to match an outfit”

Noah’s father Lenny was one of those who fought back most ferociously against the conspiracy gang.  Messages began to turn up in his Google Voice mailbox: “DEATH. You’re going to die. Death is coming to you real soon, motherfucker.” “”Did you hide your imaginary son in the attic? Are you still f**king him, you f**king Jew bastard?

Four years after the massacre, a man stopped Robbie Parker in the street in Washington State, where he and Alyssa had moved, and asked if he had lost a child at Sandy Hook.

“Yeah, that was my daughter, Robbie said, extending his hand.

The man ignored it. “How do you f**king live with yourself, you f**king piece of shit?” he hissed.

The man trailed him for blocks, “jabbering in my ear,” Robbie recalled.

You f**king liar. Sandy Hook never happened; how much money did you get from the government, you evil son of a bitch?


Robbie later describes how it felt: “I was randomly walking down the street in a random city three thousand miles away from Newtown. For him to see me, recognize me, put me in the right context, I can’t imagine how many videos or how many things he had read and seen about me. I can’t say directly who Alex Jones’s audience is, but I have seen the effects of people who absorb that content and what they do. And that’s a direct impact.”

Author Elizabeth Williamson goes on to detail how the hate, driven by false news and media-hammered conspiracies has metastasized into the toxic political brew that put Trump in the White House and that we continue to suffer under. Early in the book, she writes:

From a decade’s distance, Sandy Hook stands as a portent: a warning of the power of unquenchable viral lies to leap the firewalls of decency and tradition, to engulf accepted fact and established science, and to lap at the foundations of our democratic institutions.

It is a remarkable book, and I highly recommend it.

Stalking the Atomic City, by Markiyan Kamysh

As we view the horrific images on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the leveled cities, the destroyed lives, the massacre of civilians, this week brings us the hallucinogenic Stalking the Atomic City: Life Among the Decadent and the Depraved of Chornobyl, by the Ukrainian writer Markiyan Kamysh, translated by Hanna Leliv and Reilly Costigan-Humes. The briefest description of the book would describe it as a look at the Luxembourg-sized dead zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor after the 1986 accident. In fact, it is a crazed account of the people who have flocked to the Exclusion Zone over the decades, a narrative reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson.

Take, for example, these scene-setting snippets from the opening chapter:

[Chornobyl’s] satellite town soon grew rapidly, its neat apartment blocks towering in their exemplary excellence, enormous slogans flowing high on the rooftops, and boisterous children running around cozy playgrounds….

In the wilderness, the Atomic City looked like something out of a sci-fi novel promising rapid growth, further improvements, and outrageous opportunities...the apotheosis of joy and happiness looming on the horizon.

Until things got fucked, and nuclear reactor No. 4 blew the hell up. The area by Chornobyl lit up like the Wormwood Star and turned into a poisonous emerald in the precious crown of Polissya….

The Exclusion Zone was fenced off by barbed wire and patrolled by watchful soldiers. They raced around like predators on their armored vehicles in search of looters, but then the turbulent 1990s exploded with even greater force than the reactor, and the Zone’s borders loosened.

That’s when the first illegals appeared. Haggard drunkards would steal pickled food from the cellars in the villages just outside the Zone….Prypyat was packed with daredevils, bums, deserters, looters and fugitives. They hid in the villages for months, munching on rotten apples and dreaming of hunkering down until all the troubles of the world melted away.

Kamysh is of the generation that grew up since the date of the explosion in 1986. He describes his generation’s complicated relationship with Chernobyl: for some, it represents the shattering of their childhood, for others it is a toxic radioactive zone, a mysterious land where zombies and homicidal soldiers are rumored to reign, and for others a money-making opportunity in illicit tourism. And for Kamysh?

In my case, it’s even worse. For me, the Zone is a place to relax. Better than the seaside, the Carpathians, the gob piles or the Turkish resorts drowning in chilled mojitos. Countless times a year, I am an illegal tourist in the Chornobyl Zone, a stalker, a walker, a tracker, an idiot—you name it.

He is one of the several dozens of people addicted to the draw of exploring the dead zone. These adventurers sneak in, hoisting their backpacks to venture into desolate ruins of isolated former villages, breaking into abandoned buildings, banging out music on pianos left behind, smoking and getting drunk, and exploring even the ruins of the reactor itself.

They are seekers of forbidden thrills, or of a visceral manifestation of the spiritual alienation they feel in the decadent, consumerist corruption of daily life. They know it’s crazy, with danger from the radiation, the wild animals, the criminals and looters and scrap hunters who still roam the area, the police and military patrols. But they keep returning, pushing ever deeper while mocking the tourists who descend briefly, shallowly into the zone and fill social media with repetitive photos. (The published book has photos by the author, which were not included in the digital advance copy I have used here.)

It is a stunning narrative, both in the wild landscape and the equally wild inner workings of those who venture in. Towards the end of the book, Kamysh writes:

I firmly believe that, in two decades, I will meet those boys and girls who kept me company during my travels around the Zone in the chemotherapy room of a nice cancer clinic in Kyiv. And I know we’ll smile at each other. We’ll smile at a life that challenges you and dictates where you should walk, how you should live, and what you should breathe. After all, we’re the children of our time. Where else could we be?

This was all, of course, before another cataclysm shook the country, one with far-reaching consequences much greater than Chernobyl. Kamysh is in Kyiv, and has posted from there on his Instagram account as recently as last week. I hope he survives this bitter war, and at some point can offer another hallucinogenic journey in the psyche of survivors.

A True History of the United States, by Daniel Sjursen

There is no shortage of books aimed at telling a more accurate general history of the United States, one not constrained by red, white and blue-tinted glasses. Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States, first published 42 years ago, is a classic example. Jill Lepore’s 2018 These Truths: A History of the United States is a more recent entry.

Now we have A True History of the United States, by Daniel A. Sjursen, published last year. The Republicans are really going to hate this one, going by its subtitle alone: Indigenous Genocide, Racialized Slavery, Hyper-Capitalism, Militarist Imperialism and Other Overlooked Aspects of American Exceptionalism. And the author’s bio will infuriate them even more: a retired Major in the U.S. Army, with tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a history instructor at West Point Military Academy.

It was his role as instructor that inspired Sjursen to write this book:

Poll after poll demonstrates that year after year Americans’ basic historical knowledge reaches newly obscene lows…. Frankly, it is embarrassing to watch, and often tragic in its consequences.

I was first struck by the severity of this problem when I returned to my alma mater, the United States Military Academy—West Point—to teach freshman (“plebe”) American History 101….

Most cadets entered West Point having been taught—and thus understanding—a rather flimsy brand of US history. These otherwise gifted students’ understanding of the American past lacked substance or depth and pivoted on patriotic platitudes. Such young men and women hardly knew the history of the country they had volunteered to kill and die for. That, I thought to myself, is how military fiascoes are made.

This book aims to be a correction to the shallow, white-washed story that the current Republican Party increasingly wants to legislate as the only history lessons our youth should be exposed to. In its 39 chapters, the author not only explores the “indigenous genocide, racialized slavery, hyper-capitalism, and militarist imperialism” of the subtitle, but explains how that history is connected to the rising income inequality, poor healthcare and scanty social benefits, high incarceration rates, persistent racism, low political participation, and overseas militarism that are dominant in the United States today.

There are times when it reads like what is described as its origin story—a freshman history course—but for the most part it is well-written and entertaining, and unafraid to examine any number of the sacred cows of the US past. The early chapters recount the roots of American racism in the commercial endeavors of the Virginia colonies and the religious zealotry that arose in the New England colonies. He unravels the various tangled self-interests that led to the American Revolution in a chapter entitled “Patriots or Insurgents,” a phrase at the heart of today’s political divisions.

And so it goes, looking at “Andrew Jackson’s White Male World and the Start of Modern Politics”, “The Fraudulent Mexican-American War”, “Lies We Tell Ourselves About the Old West”, and “Wealth and Squalor in the Progressive Era.” He is even unafraid to ask the question about World War Two: “Just How Good was the ‘Good War’?

The United States’ role in the Second World War has been so mythologized that it is now difficult to parse out truth from fantasy. There even exists a certain nostalgia for the war years, despite all the death and destruction wrought by global combat….

However, there is a significant difference between a necessary war—which it probably was—and a good war. In fact, good war might be a contradiction in terms. The bitter truth is that the United States, much as all the combatant nations, waged an extraordinarily brutal, dirty war in Europe and especially the Pacific. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt cut nasty deals and allied with some nefarious actors to get the job done and defeat Germany and Japan.

The final third of the 600+ page book deals with history in the living memory of many potential readers, from the Cold War, JFK, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, the two Bushes, Clinton, Obama. and Trump. You can judge his observations on recent decades from your own perceptions. Certainly, much of what he recounts was already familiar to me, but I learned a lot as well. His arguments were not always persuasive, but were always interesting.

Expect Republicans to include this one on their lists of books to ban.

Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol, by Mallory O'Meara

This week’s book is Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol, by Mallory O’Meara, so why don’t you get yourself a cocktail first. I’ll wait. Make mine a Manhattan.

I enjoyed this book more than I expected. O’Meara hits just the right combination of scholarship and entertainment. Her previous book, a biography of Milicent Patrick, was more narrowly focused on the life of the the early Disney animator and designer of the costume in the classic monster movie Creature of the Black Lagoon. In Girly Drinks, she covers thousands of years of history spanning the entire globe.

(That earlier book, if you are interested, is The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick.)

The book opens in a way that made me think of the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which an ape changes history by picking a bone up off the ground and realizing it can be used as a weapon. In Girly Drinks, however, it is rotting fruit that the prehistoric simians pick up off the ground, changing history with the realization that it was high in calories, so vital for survival...and had an interesting side effect as well.

Humans later made this same discovery: leave food out and it starts to ferment, which adds calories to the food and, yes, has that side effect. O’Meara demonstrates than in the early millennia of human history, it was the women who dominated the making and distribution of alcoholic beverages. She points to what may be the earlies depiction of a person drinking, the 25,000 year old Venus of Laussel, carved into a cliff in France, and writes:

This carving depicts a nude woman, with one hand on her belly and holding what looks like a drinking horn in the other. Some male historians posit that it is not a drinking horn but rather some kind of musical instrument that the woman is holding incorrectly. Imagine being so staunch in your belief that women aren’t drinkers that you think someone would take the time to immortalize a picture of the world’s worst hornblower into the side of a cliff.

In the Mesopotamian cradle of humankind around 8000 BC, archeological evidence shows that deliberate fermentation was taking place, and it was women who controlled the process of making wine and beer. Agriculture evolved to grow grains specifically meant for fermentation, given the benefits to survival of alcohol’s higher caloric and nutritional profile. Some even theorize that writing itself was developed in order to record and track the production of beer. The Sumerian deity Ninkasi was the Goddess who presided over beer.

The earliest known poetry was written by a Sumerian woman, Enheduanna, around 2286 BC. The 42 clay tablets of her writing that have survived offer paeons to drinking and the rituals around it.

There were similar developments in ancient Egypt, where the Goddess Hathor ruled over the sky. women, fertility, love...and drinking. The annual Drunkenness of Hathor festival was two weeks of binge-drinking and revelry participated in by both genders. The book wanders through the early intoxication of ancient Greece and Rome, and mentions that Cleopatra had an amethyst ring engraved with the word methe, which means intoxication. And in ancient Japan, the female deity Konohana Sakuya Hime is credited with the creation of saké, by chewing mouthfuls of rice to ferment them.

A number of other famous women of history were steeped in the culture of alcoholic drinks. Hildegard von Bingen, the famous nun of the Middle Ages, is known for her mystic visions, theological writings and musical compositions. She was also a dedicated beer drinker, so I imagine that both Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett would find pleasure in her company. Hildegard von Bingen’s scientific writings included an analysis of barley as beneficial to the digestive system, and of hops as producing a calming effect, both of which were used in the making of beer. She also wrote that hops worked as a preservative, which gave beer a longer shelf life. Her medieval observations have been confirmed by modern science.

In China, the famed woman poet Li Qingzhao, born in 1084, wrote extensively, deeply and lovingly about drinking alcohol. As O’Meara writes: “Sorry, Charles Bukowski. Li Qingzhao is the reigning monarch of booze and writing.”

And so the book goes, a mix of feminist and alcoholic history told with an often hilarious verve. The chapters travel through history organized around a specific woman of an era. The chapter on the Renaissance focuses on the Englishwoman Mary Frith, a larger-than-life female criminal, but also manages to bring in the brewing cultures of the Netherlands, Scotland, southern Africa and more. The Eighteenth Century chapter nominally revolves around Catherine the Great and the vodka empire of Russia, but also manages to work in the gin craze in London, chicha brewing in the Andean regions of South America and the development of rum in the Caribbean. The Nineteenth Century chapter highlights Barbe-Nicole Clicquot in France and the development of sparkling champagne, but you’ll also learn about ‘Ladies’ Entrances’ in frontier taverns in the United States, and the great Japonese saké brewery run brilliantly by a woman, Tatsu’uma Kiyo.

The entire second half of the book is devoted to the Twentieth Century and up to our own time. There are tales of the Golden Age of Cocktails, including Ada Coleman, bartender at the American Bar in London’s Savoy Hotel. We visit the underground brewing and imbibing of the American Prohibition years, the great jazz performers who worked the nightclubs, the Tiki culture of the Fifties, and on into the craft cocktail renaissance of today. Throughout, the role of women is at the forefront, and, while the examples I give in this paragraph may seem Euro- or US-centric, the book keeps its global sweep

It’s truly a fun book, and, if you are so disposed, best enjoyed with a craft beer, a glass of wine, or a classic cocktail. Right now, I could go for a Negroni.


Should this book give you the yearning to learn more about alcoholic beverages, The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails was published late last year. Its 864 pages of alphabetical entries provides almost everything you might want to know. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed browsing at random through its pages.

Books and Ukraine: Some links

Here are some links to news about Ukraine publishing, Ukraine books, and books about Ukraine.

P.S. My family is sitting in the bathroom now, because russian tanks are trying to break into the city not so far from us (it was write February 25, 2022). Now February 26. 2022 at 14.04 p.m. we are  in the basement. Shooting probably tanks nearby. And they turned off the light. We are sitting in complete darkness, looking at our phones who still has a charge of energy in the battery and mobile internet. We live in Kharkiv Ukraine.❤

The Marauders: Standing Up to Vigilantes in the American Borderlands, by Patrick Strickland

You’ve seen the plot in plenty of movie Westerns: a peaceful town is besieged by outlaws, often working for some powerful interest, and struggles to overcome the threat. That is also the plot of Patrick Strickland’s The Marauders: Standing Up to Vigilantes in the American Borderlands, published today by Melville House. But this is no made-up story. The powerful interest is Trump and the white supremacist movement emboldened by him, the outlaws are several different militia and vigilante groups, and the town is Arivaca, Arizona, on the Mexican border.

Yes, after last week’s joyous, nostalgic visit with Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen via Renegades: Born in the USA, I'm back in the horrors of our violent, fragmented, hate-fueled present reality.

The book opens cinematically, with the town‘s sole bar kicking militia members out, with signs posted saying the town didn’t want them around, and the various militias threatening, and posting of social media about how the town was a nexus of evil drug traffickers, human traffickers and child sexual exploiters. There are references to an incident nine years earlier, in which some right-wing militias had been involved in gunning a town resident and his nine-year-old daughter.

The tension is set, but you’ll have to be on edge for a while, wondering how this will turn out, because the book now takes a more journalistic approach. Strickland devotes the following chapter to an overview of anti-immigrant and white supremacist attitudes throughout U.S. history. Even Ben Franklin, generally one of the more revered founding fathers (though in fact he too owned slaves for most of his life), gets called out: he described German immigrants as “the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own nation”, and expressed fears that the white Protestant majority of the U.S. could be diluted, saying “The Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion, as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted.”

He covers the first anti-immigration laws in the US, in 1790 and 1795, violence against Irish Catholics in the early 19th Century, the heyday of the racist Know-Nothing Party, more spasms of anti-immigration laws later in the 19th Century. We learn of the vigilantes who patrolled the Mexican border in the 1850s, seeking to intercept escaped slaves seeking passage to Mexico. There are the Palmer Raids in the early 20th Century, arresting European and Russian immigrants on the suspicion of being Communists. We read of Madison Grant’s 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race, which Hitler later used as inspiration for Mein Kampf, and of the Klansmen who took to patrolling the Mexican border in the 1970s. In short, we learn how racist, anti-immigrant thoughts and actions have been an ever-present thread throughout US history.

An intervening chapter heightens the sense of dread by recounting in full the 2009 deadly incident when an action by a militia to secure financing by eliminating a family they saw as a rival drug dealer ended with the death of a father and daughter. The incident both divided and traumatized the residents of Arivaca, and set up the confrontation nine years later when the militias returned.

The book next focuses on some of the more notorious militia leaders, both their early activities and their rise to prominence in the Trump years, emboldened and energized by the racist rhetoric coming from the White House. As we learn of their past, we see them inexorably coming to focus on the town of Arivaca. [READ MORE BELOW]

Renegades: Born in the USA, by Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen


This week, I’m just kicking back and chilling with this coffee table book published last year featuring two magnificent Americans: Renegades: Born in the USA, by Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen. The intelligence and decency woven throughout their conversations is just so refreshing after surviving four years of Trump and the continuing daily barrage of the inane, hateful and utter dishonesty spouted daily by rightwing politicians and media. It’s just two guys who can express their love of country while also recognizing its faults and challenges; two guys who are proud of their work while also being able to express their doubts, and to acknowledge how much of their success was built on the support of others; two guys who think deeply and honestly about life.

Two guys you wish you could sit and have a beer with.

I’ve never been much of a podcast listener or video watcher, so I never listened to the original Renegades: Born in the USA podcast on Spotify. Perhaps you did. If so, much of the material in this book will be familiar to you. Even so, the book adds the pleasure of reading, rereading and savoring, as well as additional material and glorious photos of both Obama and Springsteen at all ages.

Their attitudes about their accomplishments and fame are expressed in the first chapter:

President Obama: If a musician is looking for a way to channel and work through pain, demons, personal questions, so is a politician getting into public life.

Bruce Springsteen: But you gotta have two things going, which is very difficult. One, you’ve got to have the egotism—

President Obama: The megalomania—

Bruce Springsteen: The megalomania to believe that you have a voice that is worth being heard by the whole world. Yet on the other hand, you’ve got to have the tremendous empathy for other people.

President Obama: It’s a hard trick to pull off. You start with ego, but then at some point you become a vessel for people’s hopes and dreams. You just become a conduit.

The book is filled with personal reflections about their childhoods, their absent fathers, their marriages, their experiences of being a father. But always, the personal is mixed with the political. Springsteen recalls the racism in the small New Jersey town where he grew up, the Newark riots in the 1960s which spread to his town of Freehold, and to the Jersey Shore town of Asbury Park, where Springsteen first found fame. Photos in this section include very evocative shots of a group of mostly young Black women, hands on hips, staring at the armed white National Guardsmen patrolling the streets, and of the smoking wreckage in the street outside the Milk Bar in Asbury Park in 1970. Asbury Park businesses had traditionally employed Blacks as part of the summer beach season, but more and more the jobs were given to whites instead, leading to the outbreak of frustrated rage.

Here is a snippet of their discussion of masculinity:

President Obama: And I talk a lot with my male friends, but, after about an hour, I kind of run out of stuff and then we’ll turn on a ball game or we’ll play a ball game, so there is some activity. But the sort of sustained ability to share and connect—we don’t teach our boys to do that.

Bruce Springsteen: From when I was a young man, I lived with a man who suffered from that loss of status and I saw it every single day. It was all tied to lack of work, inconsistency working, and I just watched the low self-esteem. That was part of my daily life living with my father. It taught me one thing: work is essential. That’s why if we can’t get people working in this country, we’re going to have an awfully hard time.

President Obama:  It is. It is central to how people define themselves in the sense of self-worth.

And I think about young men coming up behind me. For all the changes that happened in America, when it comes to “What does it mean to be a man?” I still see that same confusion, and the same limited measures of manliness today, as I had back then. And that’s true, whether you’re talking about African American boys or white boys. They don’t have rituals, road maps, and initiation rites into a clear sense of a male strength and energy that is positive as opposed to just dominating.

I talk to my daughters’ friends about boys growing up, and much of the popular culture tells them that the only clear, defining thing about being a man, about being masculine, is excelling in sports and sexual conquest—

Bruce Springsteen: And violence.

President Obama: And violence. Those are the three things. Violence, if it’s healthy at least, gets subsumed into sports. Later, you add to that definition: making money. How much money can you make?

The discussion continues, as they examine how in their lives they have sometimes perpetuated these attitudes (Springsteen: “we sort of ended up being just sixties versions of our dads, carrying all the same sexism”) and how they’ve struggled to overcome it. Just the sort of conversation I imagine Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan having in the halls of Congress.

I don’t know. It’s hard to distill the pleasure of this book into a review. They both are so honest, intelligent, informed, thoughtful and open. They display decency, goodness, empathy, intellectual curiosity. They display humanity. The pleasure they have in each other’s friendship is very evident. It certainly made me long for a better politics, and a better social conversation, and made me feel how oh so very tired I am sometimes of the corrosive politics of the day.

The book has great photos, as well as Springsteen lyrics and Obama speeches, sometimes presented as marked-up edits of the original texts, as in Obama’s speech in Selma on the 50th anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery March. Lots of other nostalgic ephemera as well, such as the playlists of In Performance At the White House series in 2009, with performances by Stevie Wonder, India Arie, Gloria Estefan, Lin Manuel Miranda, Los Lobos, and more.

Oh, what a time it was. A time of hope, of belief in the possibilities of a better future. The backlash to those times, so frustrating during the Obama presidency, and so perilously toxic in its aftermath, is a burden of grief I carry around every day. But also a source of strength and continuing hope. Yes, We Still Can, if only we do the work.

I highly recommend giving yourself the tonic of this book, and/or of the podcasts that it draws on.

How I Survived a Chinese "Reeducation" Camp: A Uyghur Woman's Story

At the risk of dampening your enjoyment of the XXIV Olympic Winter Games, this week’s book is How I Survived a Chinese "Reeducation" Camp: A Uyghur Woman's Story, by Gulbahar Haitiwaji, coming out February 22nd from Seven Stories Press.

It is a harrowing story, made all the more harrowing by the fact that Ms. Haitiwaji and her family had been living safely in France as political refugees since 2006. But in 2016, China lured her back with a claim that she had an administrative issue from her former oil company job that had to be cleared up.

Her husband had long sensed the repression by China against the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region would worsen, and in 2002 he emigrated, first to Kazakhstan, then Norway, and finally France. It took a year for him to get his asylum papers, and during that time he often lived in Paris homeless shelters, or slept in the Metro or in airport terminals. His wife Gulbahar and his daughters finally joined him in 2006.

Gulbahar still retained a sense of attachment to her homeland. While her husband had quit his job before emigrating, she had arranged a long-term leave of absence before joining him. While her husband sought permanent residency in France, she opted for a renewable ten-year residency permit. In the first years, she made yearly trips back to Xinjiang to visit her family.

By 2016, the repression in Xinjiang had worsened, and she hadn’t gone back to visit for several years. Still, the demand that she come back to deal with these “administrative issues” didn’t seem too outlandish. It was just the way the Chinese bureaucracy worked. And she would have a chance to see her family again. She booked a two-week trip for November of 2016. “They’re bound to ask questions,” her husband said of the Chinese police. “But don’t worry. There’s nothing they can do to you. Your family is in France.”

She was indeed called in for questioning, but it did not go as she or her husband had believed. The police showed her a photograph of her daughter at a Paris pro-Uyghur demonstration. "Your daughter is a terrorist!" They took her passport. For two months she waited for them to conclude their 'investigation' and allow her to return to France.

But then, she was arrested and imprisoned. She would not return to France for over three years.

During those years, she was subject to disgusting food, harsh conditions and frequent interrogations. People taken from her shared cell for interrogation sometime did not come back. She was shackled around the ankles. At one point, she was shackled to her bed for two weeks as punishment for some unspecified infraction.

After six months, Gulbahar was transferred to a reeducation camp, which at first subjected the inmates to long, grueling physical exercise. Those who collapsed during the exercises were dragged away and not seen again. Later, the daily regimen shifted to eleven-hour days of classes and indoctrination. Interrogations continued, now ranging over her life back to the 1980s. In her entire first year of imprisonment, she was only allowed two brief visits from her mother and sisters, and no contact with her husband and daughters back in France.

After two years, she was transferred to another camp, where she was strip-searched, and then imprisoned to await trial. When the trial finally came, it lasted nine minutes, and she was sentenced to seven years. She continued to face hundreds of hours of interrogations, and ultimately forced to make a filmed ‘confession.’

But beginning back in 2017, reports began to leak to the West about the Chinese repression of the Uyghurs, and international outcry was increasing. In 2019, Gulbahar’s daughter went on French television demanding the Chinese reveal what had happened to her mother. Her family was trying everything they could think of to exert pressure for her release.

In the end, the Chinese transferred her to a sort of monitored freedom in the town in which she was originally imprisoned. After nearly three years, she was finally allowed to phone her family back in France, with a dozen Chinese police listening in. And then, suddenly, her sentence was revoked, her passport returned, and Gulbahar was allowed to return to France.

It is a harrowing and shocking story, even if it could have been worse. The Chinese are estimated to have detained over one million Uyghurs in their “reeducation camps.” Many have been killed, many have been tortured.

We now return you to your Beijing Winter Olympic programming.

Black Cowboys of Rodeo, by Keith Ryan Cartwright

Welcome to Black History Month! While the rodeo may seem like an absurdly oblique way to examine Black history, Keith Ryan Cartwright’s Black Cowboys of Rodeo: Unsung Heroes from Harlem to Hollywood and the American West, published last November by the University of Nebraska Press, manages to be illuminating on a wide range of subjects, and very entertaining as well.

Yes, the rodeo is a competitive sporting event, but it is one based on the real-life skills used by working cattle herders and cowhands, such as horseback riding and steer roping/wrestling. History, amply aided by Hollywood, has literally whitewashed the image of the American cowboy as John Wayne/Gary Cooper Caucasian, but the reality is that as many as 25% of those working the cattle ranges in the latter decades of the 19th Century were Black. After the Civil War, freed slaves who had worked the fields possessed agricultural skills useful in the frontier. They also quickly mastered, so to speak, the horseback riding skills previously used as a means of control by their slave owning oppressors.

In 38 brisk chapters, the author portrays the lives of dozens of these Black cowboys. Though the book’s angle is the rodeo, these cowboys were also entrepreneurs, settlers, founders and business owners. Their stories parallel the broader social issues of Jim Crow laws, segregation, discrimination and other aspects of the struggle for civil rights.

For example, the book’s first vignette focuses on Bill Pickett, a skilled cowhand from the late 1800s until his death in 1932. Pickett was a pioneer of ‘bulldogging’ cattle, jumping from horseback to wrestle a steer to the ground by its horns—and back in his day, a full-grown steer weighed 800-1000 pounds, unlike the smaller cattle bred in today’s accelerated factory ranching. He did get to display his prowess on the Wild West show circuit as well.

Pickett was finally inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame, but not until 1971, nearly forty years after his death. To this day, only three other Black rodeo riders have received this honor.

Among the Black cowboys we meet in this book, we learn about:

  • Roy LeBlanc, who won a steer-wrestling event in the late 1940s. It was one of the handful of times he was allowed to compete in a main competition, only to see his winnings given to the second-place finisher, a white man.
  • Nathaniel ‘Rex’ Purefoy, who loved the all-white cowboy movies he watched as a child in the 1940s, but was truly inspired when he chanced to see Harlem on the Prairie, a 1937 movie western with an all-Black cast. He taught himself the tricks of the trade and did some touring on the entertainment circuit, and also had a brief Hollywood career on such programs as The Flip Wilson Show in the early 1970s.
  • Cleo ‘Mr. Black Rodeo’ Hearn, who was appointed as one of the first Black soldiers named to serve in the casket-bearing military Honor Guard in 1961. President Kennedy was still reluctant to get behind pushing for civil rights legislation. Instead, he nibbled around the edges by desegregating the Secret Service and the Honor Guard. Hearn was an accomplished rodeo performer, one of the founders of the American Black Cowboy Association, and was a key player in producing the first all-Black rodeo in Harlem in 1971. A three-mile-long parade of Black cowboys paraded through uptown New York City, and the event itself drew thousands.
  • Glynn Turman, born in Harlem in 1947. His childhood was spent watching horse-mounted police from the front stoop and reveling in cowboy movies. He and his mom later moved down to the East Village, where his mother was part of the artist community and was friends with James Baldwin. She arranged to have the eleven-year-old Glynn audition for A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, and soon he was acting in the role of Travis Younger alongside Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Louis Gossett, Jr.  As an adult, he moved to Hollywood and performed regularly on television. He was considered for the part of Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie, but because George Lucas had storyboarded a romance between Solo and Princess Leia in the trilogy, he was hesitant to cast an interracial liaison, and gave the part to Harrison Ford instead. He was also an accomplished horseman, and owned a twenty-acre ranch near Los Angeles. His IX Winds Ranch Foundation, begun on the recommendation of Coretta Scott King, hosts inner city children for a summer camp. His acting career continues.