Becoming: by Michelle Obama. Book review.


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As we live through life under the Donald and, perhaps even worse, the Boris, it takes the breath away to read this account of an ordinary, but extraordinary, woman who rose to global prominence by a mixture of serendipity, love and intelligence.

This is the story of a woman of colour who reached unexpected levels of influence but never forgot where she came from.

It is also a true love story, not just of her wonderful husband and family, but of humanity.

And it’s a story of activism, on fairly extreme levels; activism for the rights of women and black Americans but mainly both.

From the first page we uncover a person, bit by bit, that was never prepared to accept the status quo.  Brought up on the rough side of black Chicago, in, essentially, a ghetto with a disabled dad she was fortunate enough to have parents that strove for her and her brother to pay for an Ivy League education.  This is not a normal outcome for this demographic.

Even as she becomes a wealthy lawyer she knows this is not right for her and gradually reduces her income by taking challenging but emotionally rewarding jobs in human rights and fairness.

She meets Barack, her husband, through work.  He too is an oddity in his demographic.  A mixed race Kenyan Hawaiian.  They’re made for each other but strangely and movingly they are not 100% compatible.  Conceiving their children is a challenge.

The book talks much of Obama’s success and we enjoy the Primary’s, hustings, presidential races and victories in some detail.

But this is not about Michelle’s role as a dutiful First Lady, it’s about her life story as a black woman and how she was able to use her influence to make a difference.

It’s breathtaking throughout.  Frequently I was close to tears, partly because viewing the world through the eyes of Michelle one realises that there is humanity in politics and then stepping back and asking oneself, ‘Would Trump do/think that?” one is left with an inevitable response in the negative.

It puts Melania and Donald Trump’s motives into perspective.

It makes us realise just how evil and selfish both he, and his English buffoon-like contemporary, are.

It makes us extraordinarily grateful for having lived through the greatest presidency in history.

 

 

To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine: Book review


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Viv is about 60 but she retains the spirit of her 20-something Slits guitarist days.  She wrote about that eloquently in Clothes. Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys Boys, Boys.

The title of that autobiography was drawn from her mother’s criticism that that was all she thought about as a late teenager.

It’s an absolute belter.

But now we’re considering her SECOND autobiography and it raises the bar even further.

What a thing this is.

It’s not a laugh, I have to say, but there are humorous moments.

Essentially, it takes the form of a description of the day her 95 year old mother died, told in short snippets interspersed with Albertine’s memoire of her family, and love, life.

It’s grim, abusive stuff.

Midway into the book she finds her estranged father’s diaries and later her mother’s.  Both forensically detail a period in the young Albertine’s life where they are preparing to divorce and it ain’t ‘Little House on the Prairie’ that’s for sure.

But what Albertine does most in this history of her life is reveal her inner thinkings in a way that is uncommon on autobiographies.  She was a punk, a rebel, a man-hater – that loved sex with men – OK, maybe not a man-hater, quite, but a fierce feminist for sure – and with reason.  And underpinning that personality trait is self doubt, insecurity, self loathing at times.  All explained, all considered, all consuming.

It’s gripping, utterly compelling stuff and as the death of her mother plays out we are treated to, shall we say, an unusual farewell.

It’s also beautifully crafted.  Viv Albertine can wield a pen even more successfully than she wielded guitar in her Slits days.

Highly recommended and only £3 at Fopp.

 

 

 

The Establishment (And how they get Away With it) by Owen Jones: Book Review


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I began this, now slightly out of date, polemic by Owen Jones slightly half-heartedly.  I was expecting a tirade of Trotskyite abuse that would provide some titilation before quickly descending into irritation.

I was wrong.

This is a monumental anti-Establishment treatise that is outstandingly researched, compellingly argued and carefully structured so that his observations steadily underpin each other and make the whole extremely robust as a result.

It takes us on a journey from 1979 – 2016, but he underpins it with important historical footnotes from the 19th and 20th centuries that shed important light on his views.

(One that stopped me in my tracks was that the political classes were an elite – you had to have property to vote and you had to have money to ‘serve your country’ – in fact politicians, until Victorian times, were unpaid.  Once that had changed and the Labour movement had begun, bringing working class men into the house they were paid minimal salaries so that a political career was not an aspiration, rather it was a vocation and a duty.  However, with rocketing salaries becoming an MP is now an extremely well paid job – £79,468 at the time of writing.  This has begun to attract the Establishment as a career for those who may have opted for journalism (essentially broken) or the City previously – the much despised career politician with absolutely no experience in the ‘real world’.   This is a very bad thing and results in Establishment politicians being helicoptered into seats that they care not a jot for.)

Jones’ book is essentially a deconstruction of the Free Market Capitalism that rose in popularity by a group of economic outriders in the 1970’s when socialism in the UK was at a low ebb; principally as a result of unmanageable and extremely strident trade unions and appallingly badly run nationalised industries, managed by bureaucrats.

This paved the way for Thatcher’s Free Market Capitalism policies, denationalisation of almost anything that moved, the crushing of the unions, indeed their complete vilification (and in some cases murder of their members – Orgreave anybody?) and the fuelling of an unhealthy reliance on the UK’s financial sector as its engine of economic growth, despite appalling regulation.

The book takes the key pillars of the Establishment and systematically challenges their morality, efficacy and value.  It clearly makes the point that this country serves a small and wealthy elite at the expense of fair societal sharing of opportunity.  In turn he deconstructs:

  • The political outriders of the 70’s, and later, who espoused free market economics
  • The Westminster Cartel (now bubble), and not purely the Conservatives.  The entire thing is roundly criticised with New Labour coming in for particular vilification and Nick Clegg’s selling out of the Lib Dems – indeed the whole rise of neo-Liberalism is roundly attacked
  • The police with their endemic racism, (stop and search gets a right good kicking and rightly so), bullying, the harassment and occasional death of protestors – including trade unions, the forming of undercover sexual relationships and so on
  • The oligarch-driven media ownership of the UK and their cosying in with Blair, Brown and Osborne in particular
  • The appalling abuse of corporate tax laws, including the, again, cosying up of the ‘Big Four’ to create tax laws for government that only they understand and can quickly exploit through the loopholes they know for their corporate clients
  • The finger pointing at state-‘scroungers’ whose collective abuse is but a grain of sand compared to the tax avoidance of the wealthy Establishment elite
  • The destruction of the NHS and the outrageous funding of corporations through lucrative private sector deals and the ongoing scandal that is PFI
  • The lining of politicians’ pockets by private industry in non-exec or other paid roles that seem wholly a conflict of interest – particularly in healthcare and defence
  • The Banks – he calls the City ‘Masters of the Universe’.  Here’s a fact for you.  The bonuses of London City bankers (even after the crash) far exceed the combined bonuses of all of Europe’s banks put together.  The post-crash regulation is limp-wristed and ineffective and it was The State that took the toll, not the banks through completely unjustified ‘Austerity’.

Throughout he argues how Free Market Capitalism despises the state yet uses it as its mop to clean up the failures of the banks through the public purse.

But it’s not just a rant, indeed it’s not EVEN a rant.  At all times Jones is calm in presenting what is essentially a one-sided argument; but of course it is.

In his brilliant conclusion he posits clear and compelling arguments for media control, police control, re-nationalisation with employee and customer boards, a re-empowerment of the Unions – or at least reasonable rights for them and an impassioned plea to support left wing Outriders.  Right wing policy was not popular (even on the right before the 70’s) and he argues that everything is cyclical.

We need not give up.

This is a powerful polemic and is a superbly enjoyable read.  I only wish it was up to date and included the whole Brexit catastrophe that the Establishment and The Westminster Cartel has created.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher: Book Review.


I finished this short Penguin Modern Classic (written in 1956) in the cafe of the National Library of Scotland and as I climbed the stairs to the reading room I spotted this incredibly apt advertisement for one of the Library’s WWI exhibitions.

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It’s apt because the book is about a group of people seeking a ‘land of milk and honey’ in the aftermath of a global disaster wherein all of the grass on the planet (and therefore food for all the ruminants we eat) dies.

It’s a post-apocalyptic vision about environmentalism that is indeed, as the cover suggests, prescient.

It was written in the Cold War era where nuclear annihilation was a real and present danger and the future of civilisation genuinely threatened.  Indeed, one of the government’s strategies to deal with the loss of cereal crops is to drop ‘atom bombs’ on all of Britain’s cities in a bid to wipe out half the population and leave the rest, post-apocalypse, to live on fast-growing and nutritious potatoes, other root vegetables and pigs.  (The impact of nuclear fallout radiation was neatly overlooked as a potential flaw in this strategy.)

It’s a novella really, easily consumed in rapid order and although it suffers terribly from the rather proper vernacular of its time, it’s great.

It’s institutionally racist and terribly, terribly sexist, not to mention class-biased and awfully niaive.  You won’t find a single bally swear word in its entire 194 pages, although you will find murder, rape and underage sex.

Nonetheless, if you forgive its ‘product of its times’ flaws it is an undeniably clever book, a good yarn and a pretty scary (and strangely believable) vision.

It has precursors of Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road (it’s essentially a road trip from hell to heaven) and chimes with The Lord of The Flies as it speculates on who would take control in times of martial law and civilisation breaking down.

I have to say I galloped through it, chuckling at times at the dated language.  It’s even more of a museum piece in that respect than Dickens, but it’s a compelling read and I recommend it, flaws and all.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: Book Review


6dd2691efe3dd93d052f16345fe4364badd03c26-book.jpgI wanted to like this ‘ornery Joe memoir.  I really did.

It started reasonably well with a recounting of JD’s childhood in Hillbilly country; Ohio and Kentucky specifically and in the Appalachian Mountains precisely.

Brought up in a small town called Middletown known locally as Middletucky, because it’s ‘in the middle of Kentucky’ this is a story about JD’s remarkably impoverished childhood with a narcotics abusing mother, a hugely aggressive grandmother and a series of stepdads.  It’s not easy.

JD had an unremarkable schooling largely due to the string of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that he had to endure. But several stars aligned to help him escape this awful childhood, firstly his grandparents, then the marines, then college and finally an unlikely entry to Yale where he studied law and walked into a high level job.

So it’s got to be a can’t put down page turner, right?

I’m sorry to say it isn’t.  The early momentum that Vance establishes gradually turns into a bit of a lecture about poverty, lack of opportunity and just downright dull storytelling.

It needs judicious editing because even though it’s not very long it becomes a Groundhog Day read with endless reploughing of the same old furrow.

By the end I was bored to tears and most of my sympathy had deserted me.

I can’t recommend this, although the sentiment is admirable.

Also, the front cover puff suggests insights into both Brexit (Brexit? It’s set in Rust Belt America) and Trumpism.  Trump isn’t even mentioned.