Robert S. Mueller III is, at the age of 74, starting his literary career a little late in life. His authorial debute, "The Mueller Report," is the most hotly anticipated piece of writing in decades, certainly since whenever George R. R. Martin last released a "Game of Thrones" novel. Indeed Mueller may not even have set pen to paper at all had it not been for his successor at the FBI James Comey. We have Comey to thank for the genesis of "The Mueller Report." Former FBI Director James Comey set us up deliciously for "The Mueller Report" with his breathlessly atmospheric descriptions in the famous memos that he typed in 2017 after meetings with President* Trump. Comey's descriptions of the "small oval table" where he and the President* sat alone for dinner (Comey and Trump are 6'8" and 6'4" respectively) and engaged in queasily erotic psychological warfare are pretty hard to top. "(T)he President said 'I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.' I didn't move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed." Like the pretty secretary who realizes with growing dismay that she will probably not be able to leave her boss's office without being molested, Comey sits wide-eyed with fear in front of the Commander in Chief*. Comey's entire future hangs in the balance, his position as the nation's top lawman gutted and his masculinity withered through this odd, sexualized encounter with the President*. Comey's description of his dinner with Trump is a clever and emotionally-taut inversion of the literary trope of female subjugation to masculine power. It would be hard for Mueller to top THAT!
Unfortunately Mueller does not top Comey. Not by a long shot. "The Mueller Report" is a far cry from Comey's excellent memos. While Comey's memos are concise and suspenseful, Mueller's report is flat, grey, endless, and achingly disappointing. Blocks of grey print interrupted by blocks of the purest black ink marked with the letters "H.O.M." or "Harm to Ongoing Matter." These redactions, put forward by Attorney General Bill Barr, are ridiculous. On the one hand the blocks of black give a nice visual touch to the otherwise unexciting "Mueller Report" and bestow a (probably empty) promise that more explosive material hides behind the solid black ink. Barr's bars, however, don't hide anything really in most instances. In one laughable instance of redaction, Barr inks out a portion of Trump's interview with the "New York Post " that was printed in November 2018. On page 128 of Volume II of "The Mueller Report," Trump is quoted as saying "Manafort, Corsi (REDACTED). It's actually very brave." Why is that redacted? Surely I can just look up the original interview online, and the original interview is probably uncensored. Sure enough, after Googling "Trump interview, new york post, november 2018," the original quote popped up on my phone screen. "Manafort, Corsi and Roger Stone. It's actually very brave." Now why would Barr trouble to redact something that was so easy to find on the internet? I realize that Stone has an upcoming trial so technically everything Stone-related is an "ongoing matter,"..... but when the information can be found so easily elsewhere why bother to redact it in "The Mueller Report" in the first place?
"The Mueller Report" starts out with "Volume I" which deals with the investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign in 2016. The information widely released to the media was that no evidence was found linking the Trump campaign to Russian Intelligence's illegal attack on the DNC server where thousands of emails were stolen and then released publicly in an attempt to harm the Hillary Clinton campaign and help Trump. "No evidence," however, is not exactly the same as an exoneration. As Mueller notes on page 10 of Volume I of "The Mueller Report," "(T)he Office learned that some of the individuals we interviewed or whose conduct we investigated- including some associated with the Trump Campaign- deleted relevant communications or communicated during the relevant period using applications that feature encryption or that do not provide for long-term retention of data or communication records." Later on in the report Mueller identifies the dirty deleters as Paul Manafort, Steven Bannon, and Erik Prince. Was there collusion? Who knows. A whole lot of stuff got deleted. In other words, but their emails.
Volume I details how the Russian reached out multiple times to the Trump campaign in 2015- 2016 and the Trump campaign eagerly accepted their help. Did the Trump campaign know about the coordinated hack on the DNC server? Mueller and his team don't manage to find a lot evidence. This is mostly due to the diligent deleting of Manafort and Bannon. At one point the Mueller team finds a promising lead when an associate of Michael Flynn's is found to have documents on his laptop that are the DNC hacked emails.... and they were downloaded on 10/02/2016 which was BEFORE the hacked emails were released by Wikileaks publicly. At last, the smoking gun! The Trump campaign DID coordinate with the Russians to hack the DNC! Alas, like every other plot point in "The Mueller Report," this story goes nowhere. The Flynn associate states that he downloaded the files after Wikileaks released them publicly but due to some weird quirk with his laptop all the downloaded files have the date 10/02/2016 regardless of when they were actually downloaded. The Mueller team takes his laptop and downloads their own files onto the computer and yes, sure enough, the newly-downloaded files are dated 10/02/2016 even though they were downloaded in 2018. The Mueller team is forced to return the laptop and look elsewhere.
Volume I of "The Mueller Report" details the sophisticated social media campaign of the Russian IRA (Internet Research Agency). It is peculiar to keep seeing the "IRA" referenced throughout this volume because you wonder "What? The Irish were involved too?" But no. The "Internet Research Agency" was a Russian agency affiliated with Russian military intelligence which weaponized social media against American voters. The IRA didn't just push Trump on voters. The IRA was also responsible for promoting dissatisfaction with the Democrats among "Bernie Bros" and black and Latinx Americans. Even when the IRA knew that they could not get minority voters to vote for Trump, the IRA did manage successfully to promote a "They're both equally bad" message to potential Democratic voters. The IRA pushed voter apathy and encouraged potential Hillary Clinton voters to just stay home. The IRA founded twitter handles like "TEN_GOP" (stands for the Tennessee GOP but is not actually affiliated with the Tennessee Republican Party) which tweeted anti-Clinton propaganda which was later re-tweeted by Trump campaign staff including Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump Jr. (Mueller found no evidence that the Trump GOP knew that "TEN_GOP" was a Russian-affiliated account and not just a pro-Trump account).
Volume I of "The Mueller Report" does have moments of comedy. The deeply stupid Michael Cohen had multiple phone conversations with a "Dmitry Klokov" whom Cohen assumed was a Russian Olympic weightlifter by the same name. Cohen's conclusion was not because Klokov told him so but because Cohen googled "Dmitry Klokov" and went with the first name that popped up on his search results. Actually, the man Cohen was speaking to was a completely different Dmitry Klokov. As Mueller dryly observes in a footnote: "During his interviews with the Office, Cohen still appeared to believe that the Klokov he spoke with was that Olympian."
Volume I of "The Mueller Report" also has moments of sheer fear, like when Mueller details on page 37 how "Officers from Unit 74455 (Russian military intelligence) separately hacked computers belonging to state boards of elections, secretaries of state, and U.S. companies that supplied software and other technology related to the administration of U.S. elections." On page 51 Mueller once again states how Russia was able to "gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government." Statements like these makes the reader doubt the validity of the results of the 2016 election. How strange that the polls were reliable only for non-swing states like Illinois and Alabama.... but were unreliable for all the swing states like Florida and Michigan. Indeed other important elections like the Florida gubernatorial election where the top-polling anti-Russian candidate Andrew Gillum mysteriously lost to the pro-Putin candidate DeSantis despite polling ahead of DeSantis all year suddenly make a lot more sense when examined in context of Florida's hacked voting machines.
Volume II of "The Mueller Report" is a comparatively easier read. Volume II just deals with the President* trying to obstruct justice multiple times and failing because unsung hero Don McGahn (whom Mueller is clearly fond of) simply refused to carry out the White House's panicking orders. Unlike in Volume I, the evidence of wrongdoing (obstruction of justice) in Volume II is clear, obvious, and well-documented. One of the most heinous (and illegal) acts that Mueller uncovers is that the White House encouraged Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, a crime that could land Trump with three to five years in the clink. The online newspaper "The Daily Beast" broke this news before "The Mueller Report" came out. Oddly, Mueller went public to dispute the story.... yet his report shows that "The Daily Beast" was right. The White House did on multiple occasions review and approve Michael Cohen's false testimony to Congress. As page 143 of Volume II of "The Mueller Report" shows, Cohen's phone records showed multiple phone calls before Cohen testified to Congress which corroborated Cohen stating that the White House had asked him to lie to Congress. "Cohen recalled that the President's personal counsel said 'his client' appreciated Cohen, that Cohen should stay on message and not contradict the President, that there was no need to muddy the water, and that it was time to move on....... (T)his Office sought to speak with the President's personal counsel about these conversations with Cohen, but counsel declined, citing potential privilege concerns." "The Daily Beast" got it right.
If there is any hero who emerges from "The Mueller Report," it is not Robert Mueller (who comes off as pedantic and weak, throwing down analysis after analysis about why Trump isn't getting charged despite ample evidence of obstruction) but White House counsel Don McGahn. It is clear that Mueller has a lot of respect for McGahn and after reading McGahn's interview with the Special Counsel it is hard for the reader to not be impressed by McGahn's moral character. On page 85-86 of Volume II of "The Mueller Report," Mueller states "McGahn was concerned about having any role in asking the Acting Attorney General to fire the Special Counsel because he had grown up in the Reagan era and wanted to be more like Judge Bork and not "Saturday Night Massacre Bork." McGahn stood up to Trump in a way that not even the towering (in the literal sense only, alas) James Comey could not. After Trump repeatedly asked McGahn to fire Robert Mueller, McGahn refuses, offers to resign, and then gives his full testimony to Robert Mueller. When Trump later tries to gaslight McGahn ("The President asked McGahn 'Did I say the word "fire"?' McGahn responded,'What you said is "Call Rod (Rosenstein), tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can't be the Special Counsel."' The President responded, 'I never said that.'" (page 117 Volume II of "The Mueller Report")).. McGahn isn't buying it.
In the end Mueller brings no charges against Trump or Don Jr. His reasons for not charging the president are frustrating. DOJ protocal is that a sitting president shouldn't be indicted. But the real reasons for Mueller not crossing the Rubicon with indictments is that Mueller is in his early seventies. Mueller served as a Marine in Vietnam and had a distinguished but stressful career as head of the FBI. Robert Mueller is also the father of two daughters with his wife of fifty years. One of his daughters is severely disabled with spina bifida and Mueller early in his career had to move around a lot in order for his daughter to get the treatment she needed. If anyone has served our country well, it is Robert Mueller. If anyone deserves a relaxing retirement, it is Robert Mueller. And yet Mueller was yanked out of retirement and made to head a long and exhausting investigation that spanned across the globe and entangled many powerful and dangerous individuals. Mueller worked his investigation while his name was dragged across the mud by the right wing media and Republican punks like Jacob Wohl conspired to smear Mueller with false rape charges. Also, and perhaps equally stressfully, the left put Mueller on a pedestal, portraying him as Captain American and Superman. "Save this country Robert Mueller, it's all on you!" Any man would crack under these pressures and it is a huge credit to Mueller that he kept it together and finished his work. But Mueller is tired. Bringing charges, well-founded though they may be, against a sitting President will take years more work and exhaustion, years more of Mueller being in the crosshairs of an increasingly power-mad and desperate President. Most frustratingly of all, the people who wish for Mueller to bring down Trump are the same people who refused to vote for the one woman who could defeat Trump in 2016. How many Jill Stein voters wailed for Mueller to bring down Trump? How many "Oh, I'm not voting. I can't vote for the lesser of two evils" were stated by people who then, without a single hint of irony, shamed Robert Mueller two years later for not going through the exhausting and possibly impossible process of bringing indictments against a president? If we could not do the minimum effort of voting for Hillary Clinton, why should we have any ground to stand on when we ask Mueller to sacrifice the rest of his retirement, maybe the rest of his life, fighting court battles against Trump?
And honestly, in the end, I think this is Robert Mueller's position too. He has done his job. Now it is time for America to do ours. You want Trump gone? Vote. Protest, Register voters, Raise funds. Get the word out. But for God sake leave Robert Mueller alone. He's done his work. Now it's time for us to do ours.
So I finally read "Birdbox" It's ….. not a good book. The characters are so cardboard that they make SpongeBob SquarePants look like Macbeth. The dialogue is mundane to the point of blankness. In fact, this whole book is forgettable. Just writing this review I assumed that the main character's name is Michelle. It's not. It's Malorie. Thank goodness I looked it up. That's how forgettable everything and everybody in this book is.
It is a scary book though. This book is meant to be a horror novel and it succeeds in bringing the horror. It checks that box. But it also makes me suddenly appreciate books like "World War Z" which is not only a horror novel but very well-written, full of great settings, characters and realistic dialogue... or realistic enough when combined with zombies that is. A horror novel that brings the horror and nothing else (and even the horror is not quite satisfying in spots for reasons that I will go into later) can come off being very depressing. Like just watching a four hour documentary about 19th century slaughterhouses. Bloody, horrifying, and in the end numbing with no real contentment.
In the beginning of the book "Birdbox" Josh Malerman tries to turn up the heat on the fearful atmosphere waaaay too early. The apocalypse starts in Russia. A mother in Siberia sees something, goes insane, and kills her family and herself. Then in the Ukraine a truck driver sees something, goes insane and chews through his co-worker's neck before killing himself. At this point the entire world is afraid. People in Michigan put blankets over their windows and blindfold their eyes when they go outside. The entire world is on alert, because a few people went nuts in Russia. That's just dumb, and not how things work in real life. Right now as I type this close to a thousand people have died in the Congo from an Ebola outbreak and as far as I know Americans aren't even washing their hands more often. If a rabies outbreak kills 200 in Belarus and Ivanka accidentally flashes her panties on Twitter, guess which story the evening news is gonna lead with.
In the book "Birdbox" a young woman named Malorie is shut up in a house with five or six (don't remember the number, don't really care) individuals while the world outside is stalked by mysterious "creatures." I don't really know who the other characters in the house are despite the fact that 60% of "Birdbox" involves the taut psychological atmosphere within the household v. the monsters outside. That sort of indicates how badly the book is written. There are guys in the house named "Jules" and "Felix" and "Don" and "Victor" (oh wait, Victor was the dog) and a woman named "Cheryl." Don't ask me what defines these characters. They're all pretty much the same. Ori, Oin, Gloin, Bofur and Nori in "The Hobbit" had more memorable unique characterizations than Jules, Felix, Don and Cheryl.
The monsters in "Birdbox" are called the "creatures." Nobody knows what these creatures look like exactly because anyone who sees them goes immediately insane and kills themselves and everyone around them. One character describes the creatures as "Infinity." "Creatures..... infinity... our minds have ceilings, Malorie.... these things.... they are beyond it.... higher than it.... out of reach."
As I said before, "Birdbox" competently brings the horror. It meets the minimum requirement for a horror novel. The writing, plot, and characters are so bad, however, that the horror is blunted in certain scenes and even kind of unintentionally hilarious. One man is determined to see a creature. He records a creature on videotape and then decides to watch the tape while tied to his chair to keep himself from committing suicide, like Ulysses tied to the mast while listening to the songs of the Sirens. This guy isn't as lucky as Ulysses, however. As his friend later describes: "He'd pressed so hard against the ropes that they had gone THROUGH his muscles all the way to the bone. His entire body looked like cake frosting, blood and skin folded over the ropes in his chest, his belly, his neck, his writes, his legs." Forgive me if I find that funny. It's just stupid because it's impossible. Ropes can't do that. Maybe if the guy were tied with concertina wire, probably, but not ropes. Speaking as someone who has seen seatbelted car passengers unclick their belts and walk away from a car accident where the car went from 70 mph to 0 mph in a hurry, restraints don't work that way on the human body. The restrained human body doesn't turn into "cake frosting." It's just physically impossible, insanity or not.
The concept of a force causing humans to spontaneously commit mass suicide was done already, and better, by M. Night Shyamalan's 2008 movie "The Happening." Now granted that movie had its share of silliness but trust me when I say that the movie "The Happening" is better, more visually amazing, and more original than the book "Birdbox." The fact that plants are releasing poison pollen to make humans commit suicide is at least a good concept. Saying that humans are committing mass suicide/ homicide through creatures that may be aliens or trans-dimensional beings or even just natural phenomena not encountered before (this is never explained in the book) is a half-baked concept. It needs to be reworked a bit more. Also, "The Happening" was released in 2008 and "Birdbox" was published in 2014 so I think M. Night Shyamalan may have decent grounds for a copyright infringement lawsuit against Josh Malerman here.
In conclusion, watch "The Happening." Watch the Netflix movie "Birdbox." Don't read the book. This is one of those rare occasions where reading the book will definitely make you more stupid than watching TV.
Have you ever read a graphic novel and think "Damn! I wish I had drawn that!" That was exactly the feeling I had reading "Illegal." "Illegal" was written Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin and drawn by the EXCELLENT Giovanni Rigano. It is the story of two young migrants from Niger, Ebo and Kwame, who make the desperate trip across the Mediterranean in order to find a better life.
The story alone is fascinating enough. The book opens with Ebo and Kwame stuffed into an under-fueled, overstuffed rubber raft in the middle of the ocean. "Seahawk Inflatable Rubber Dinghy," the narration box states, "Maximum safe load 6 people. Currently carrying 14 passengers." How Ebo and Kwame, two young boys, managed to get from their rural village in Niger to out in the middle of the ocean is an odyssey in itself. The storyline is harrowing. Traffickers abandon them in the middle of the Sahara after taking their money. Street gangs in Agadez and Tripoli try to rob them as they use all their energy to earn money to get to Europe. And for all their suffering Ebo and Kwame are more fortunate than other refugees. They're teen boys and thus less vulnerable to rape. A small, self-contained novelette at the end of "Illegal" tells the story of one refugee woman who had to endure not just starvation and exhaustion on her journey but rape, pregnancy and miscarriage. Ebo and Kwame were at least spared that horror.
For all the terrifying parts of "Illegal" you can't help but admire the sheer resourcefulness of Ebo and Kwame as they make their way towards Europe. Ebo uses a box of wet wipes that fell off a truck to offer skin-cleaning services around the slums of Agadez. Kwame works as a day laborer. Ebo uses his beautiful singing voice to sing at weddings. In this way they collect a little more money each day.
There are a few parts of "Illegal" that made me scratch my head. Unlike refugees from Iraq or Syria, Ebo and Kwame are traveling to Europe for economic reasons only. They are in no immediate danger in Niger, which is a poor but fairly stable country. Why not simply stay in Agadez for a couple of years, earning money, maybe buying a small house, and then travel to Europe by safer means? Like a plane ticket? Why trust the brutal human traffickers who care nothing for your life once they have your money?
The best part of "Illegal" are Giovanni Rigano's illustrations. Rigano evokes a wonderful sense of place with his drawings. It's clear that he did a lot of visual research for "Illegal." Every setting is spot-on. A dusty village in Niger. The inside of a rusty, overcrowded bus going to Agadez. A slum in a North African city. A storm drain in Tripoli. The inside of a jeep filled with desiccated corpses in the Sahara sun. An overcrowded fishing boat filled with refugees. A peaceful underwater view of drowned corpses, small fish nibbling on their dead fingers. Rigano's ilustrations are masterful.
"Illegal" is an amazing book. I cannot recommend it enough.
J. D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy" is a very easy read. It can be read in a day. The prose is pedestrian and the best phrase of the entire book is the excellent book title. The words "Hillbilly Elegy" are so poetic with such lovely assonance and so applicable to the subject matter that you get hopeful about the rest of the story. Unfortunately Vance, while not a terrible writer, does not write in a very memorable style. The book isn't burdensome to read, however. Vance is straightforward, his subject matter is compelling and his message is so tied to current trends that the book zips by quickly.
Many people have already written about JD Vance's autobiography where he describes his difficult childhood in the nineties being raised by a heroin-addicted mother in impoverished southern Ohio. In the book Vance reveals his political affiliation (Republican) up front and early. Consequently Vance unfortunately advances a lot of myths about what's wrong with American workers today. People are lazy. Not willing to put in extra hours. People talk on cell phones while buying free food with food stamps. It's the usual smug complaint of white males in their early thirties who have no childcare issues. "I can work 60 hours a week, why can't you?" The problems of single mothers being unable to work due to the high cost of childcare doesn't even occur to him. The fact that cell phones have become almost as essential as clothes in modern society- and often cheaper than a lot of food- blows past Vance's tiresome GOP victim-blaming arguments.
Vance is on firmer ground when he describes his mother's struggles with addiction and the complicated feelings that he continues to have towards family members that failed him in many ways during his childhood. He describes one disgusting and infuriating scene where his mother, still a licensed RN, shoveled food into her mouth during a restaurant dinner while she was too stoned to close her mouth and swallow. She would wake up enough to spoon potatoes into her mouth and then nod out again, potatoes dripping out of her open jaw while her children and husband looked on in shock.
A few of Vance's opinions feel like gaslighting. Vance insists that his working class white neighbors' resentments of Obama was class-based against Obama's Harvard background rather than race-based. That simply doesn't ring true. Vance's downplaying of racial hatred continues in other passages. While describing his flirtation with liberalism as a student at Yale Law, Vance described how "I'd vacationed in Panama and England. I shopped at Whole Foods. I tried to break my addiction to 'refined processed sugars.' I worried about racial prejudice in my family and friends. None of these things is bad on its own. In fact, most of them are good- visiting England was a childhood dream; eating less sugar is good for your health." Ooo…. the missing items that Vance neglected to list as "good" are subtle but disturbing. The whiter habits of liberals (visiting England, cutting sugar in your diet) are "good." The more woke activities (visiting Panama, worrying about racial prejudice in your family and friends) do not make the cut as "good" in Vance's estimation. Bits of uncomfortably unaware phrases like the one I quoted above litter "Hillbilly Elegy" to a great extent.
Another unintentionally unaware passage in "Hillbilly Elegy" is a cameo by controversial Yale law professor Amy Chua. Vance describes Prof. Chua with great affection. Vance, understandably, had no knowledge that Prof. Chua was about to be investigated by Yale for allegedly grooming pretty female law students for Judge Kavanaugh. Nevertheless, Vance's descriptions of his conversations with Prof. Chua show that Chua seemed to get oddly inquisitive when it came to her students' romantic lives. "(Chua) got personal. She knew that I had a girlfriend and that I was crazy about her. 'This clerkship is the type of thing that destroys relationships. If you want my advice, I think you should prioritize your girlfriend.'" Vance, with this description of Prof. Chua's advice (which she apparently okayed prior to "Hillbilly Elegy" going to press), lends a great deal of credence to Chua's female accusers who described Chua requiring them to have "model-like" appearances before she okayed their clerkships with Judge Kavanaugh.
For all of "Hillbilly Elegy"'s flaws there is a strong and interesting theme. Young Americans tend to underestimate their own abilities in the 21st century. Young white men especially seem to undervalue their potential, spiraling down behind video game consoles and loneliness. Young white men are finding solace in alt-right chatrooms and incel online groups. (Vance doesn't mention "incel" groups in "Hillbilly Elegy" but the incel fuel of frustrated while male despair is a theme with which Vance is familiar.) Vance himself, a flabby internet troll in high school struggling to maintain a "C" average, decides to enlist in the Marines after graduation. When Vance gets accepted into Ohio State he has no way to pay tuition except through the GI Bill. Used to a sedentary existence of six hour video game sessions and pizza pockets, Vance surprises himself by managing to make it through boot camp. Vance morphs from fat teenage to US Marine able to run a 6 minute mile and complete a tour of duty in Iraq. Invigorated by his new sense of discipline, Vance throws himself into college life at Ohio State. Vance graduates with a BA in three years, gets accepted at Yale with a full scholarship, and is an Ivy League educated lawyer by the book's end. Not bad for an impoverished hillbilly child with a junkie mother. But Vance argues that he is not special and that most young Americans can pull off what he did if they had more faith in their potential. It's a good argument and one I find largely convincing with a few caveats. Vance was lucky that he was still childless when he applied for college instead of trapped in early motherhood or fatherhood. That played a large part in his success and Vance offers no real solutions to other who find their opportunities hamstrung by family responsibilities. Still, Vance's own personal story is inspiring and he should be applauded for his accomplishments.
Okay, here's a question. What happens when two Harvard-educated lawyers who are making six figure salaries before the age of thirty meet? Who's going to become President and who's going to start a vegetable garden? Hint: Barack Obama does not have to brush up on his trowel skills. In Michelle Obama's memoir "Becoming" it impossible to feel anything but raw admiration for the achievements of the former First Lady. But if there is another emotion that peeks through occasionally while reading "Becoming," it is a limp, depressing realization that when an equally talented woman and man start a relationship together.... it will always be the woman who defers to the wishes of the man.
When Michelle Robinson met Barack Obama in Chicago in the early nineties, she was one of the youngest executives at the law firm where she worked. She later became an outreach director for the University of Chicago Medical Center, a necessary and fulfilling job. But Michelle Obama slowly gave all of that up as her husband's political career took off. Michelle Obama, executive director, became Michelle Obama, Senator Barack Obama's wife. Michelle Obama gently but straightforwardly admits that this was painful sacrifice for her. When Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president (a decision Michelle Obama was not entirely happy with) on a cold Illinois winter morning, Michelle Obama chose the knit caps her daughters would wear for the occasion. "It was a small triumph but it was a triumph nonetheless, and it was mine," She wrote. Michelle Obama had no control over her husband or her life at this point. She had control over her daughters' hats though. Little had changed since 1964 when Michelle Robinson was born and the 21st century. It still hasn't changed much.
Throughout the second half of "Becoming," Michelle Obama describes the incredible hoops she had to jump through in order to keep her public persona within the ridiculous standards dictated by the US media. Michelle Obama referred to how her wearing an outfit exposing her upper arms created an idiotic scandal in conservative media. While I was reading this another stupid "scandal" hit Fox News when Michelle Obama, during her book tour, dropped the word "shit" while discussing the feminist "Lean In" theory during a speech. The dust-up over the former FLOTUS' use of an expletive only serve to grimly outline the pressures she and her husband faced while in the White House.
Michelle Obama never returned to her high end administrative position at the University of Chicago's Medical Center after President Obama's two terms ended. It would be stupid of me, however, to reduce her legacy as First Lady to vegetable gardens and school lunches. There was something truly inspirational about First Lady Michelle Obama that went beyond anything Laura Bush or even Hillary Clinton could achieve. It is an inspiration that is hard for me to put into words. I do know that after I read "Becoming," I lent the book to my coworker. My coworker has a wife with severe bipolar depression. According to him she had not left her bedroom in over a year. This morning he sent me an email. "Thank you so much for the Michelle Obama book. My wife has been leafing through it all morning. It's the first time I've seen her read a book or been interested in anything in months!"
Never underestimate Michelle Robinson Obama.
I had the great pleasure of meeting Mariko Tamaki at the "Queers and Comics" conference last May. I didn't know Tamaki was an LGBTQ cartoonist. Finding out that she was leading a panel at the conference was a wonderful surprise! I only knew her as the writer of the excellent comic book "This One Summer," one of the most beautifully drawn and written comic books I have ever read. "This One Summer" is not LGBTQ but Tamaki's other comic books ("Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me," "Skim") are part of the gay graphic novel genre. Mariko Tamaki as a writer has a beautiful, meditative and wonderfully human way of narrating the moments of people's lives. Mariko Tamaki in person is bold, loud, and funny as hell. When I sat down in the audience to listen to the panel which Tamaki lead, Tamaki, kicked off the discussion by turning to the audience, winking, and saying "Hello homosexuals!" The audience, almost entirely LGBTQ college students holding some form of sketchbook or freshly-purchased graphic novel, laughed loudly. I then realized that I was probably the only straight person in that room. Feeling deeply dowdy and uncool, I slumped down in my chair a bit. At that point Mariko Tamaki briefly made eye contact with me, shot me a skeptical glance, and then turned back towards the panelists. My only thought was "Oh shit! I've been made! They know I'm not gay!!!"
Fortunately I was not asked to leave. I felt a little guilty about invading an LGBTQ safe space, but the feeling soon passed. The panel with Tamaki and other panelists was a delight. During the panel Tamaki described how she went to her high school reunion after she wrote her first book "Skim." She described how all her former classmates and even former teachers eagerly asked her which teacher she was talking about in "Skim." Which teacher romanced her when she was an underage high school student?? Tamaki said that she was surprised at the questions because the book was not about her high school years. Tamaki states that the book is fictional. Still, after reading "Skim," I can understand Tamaki's teachers' curiosity. The story of "Skim" really does appear to be about Tamaki's own teen years. The eponymous main character resembles Tamaki strongly. "Skim" is a delicate, beautiful, uncomfortable, and quietly funny story about a year in the life of Skim, a plump high school girl and aspiring witch who finds herself falling in love with her female English teacher Ms. Archer.
Skim is a very appealing character. She is devoted to becoming a Wiccan while uncomfortably aware that witchcraft may be bullshit. She attends a witch's coven in the middle of the woods with her friend, only to find out that the "coven" is actually an AA group. She builds an alter full of Tarot cards and candles in her room. "I sprinkled some glitter over my alter and then realized it looked stupid. It took me an hour and two rolls of tape to get it off again." Skim is sullen, cynical, and is generally pissed-off at everyone but at the same time very likeable for the reader.... or at least to me. She's a pretty normal teen girl. Undercutting Skim's sour viewpoints is Jillian Tamaki's beautiful illustrations. Skim may be unhappy but she lives in a beautiful world. Jillian Tamaki is especially skilled at drawing those lovely, realistic touches of plants and leaves and trees crowding against 20th century clapboard houses that make up the Southern Canadian town where the story takes place. Weeds pop up against the porch of Ms. Archer's appealingly cluttered house. Silhouettes of oaks and maples tangled with long grass wave in the evening light as Skim and her friend Lisa walk home from school.
The generally unhappy and irritated way that Skim lives her life is interrupted when her teacher Ms. Archer discovers Skim smoking behind the school. Ms. Archer immediately lights up too. Skim and Ms. Archer start to meet regularly in the beautiful wood grove behind the school. Skim becomes infatuated with Ms. Archer and they share a romantic kiss. There is no indication that the relationship goes further than that but after the kiss in the woods Ms. Archer immediately starts to keep her distance from Skim. The reason for this is pretty obvious. Skim is underage and it is clear that the school is getting a little suspicious of their relationship. A new teacher appears in Ms. Archer's class. A school therapist asks Skim questions. Ms. Archer disappears from school entirely and coolly dismisses Skim when Skim finds her house and asks to visit. When Skim gets her term paper back at the end of the semester, Ms. Archer's words keep their relationship at the teacher-student level. "I'm glad to see you have developed an appreciation for Romeo and Juliet, as your work here clearly demonstrates. Excellent work. -Ms. Archer" Skim is heartbroken.
"Skim" is a story with many layers, emphasized both by Mariko Tamaki's words and Jillian Tamaki's drawings. Jillian Tamaki imitates the 18th century okiyo-e Japanese woodblock style when she draws Skim, however Skim is no demure beauty delicately clutching a fan. If Chobunsai Eishi were to draw a grumpy unhappy schoolgirl whose loveliness is finally revealed, his painting would probably look like Jillian Tamaki's two-page illustration showing Skim and Ms. Archer's first (and last) kiss. No worries though, "Skim" does have a happy ending. "Skim" may not be the amazing masterpiece that "The One Summer" is but as a debut graphic novel it is fantastic. I thoroughly recommend this beautifully drawn, romantic, and endearing story.
It's odd when a book detailing a medical breakthrough that has saved countless lives reads like a tragedy. But that's how Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" comes off..... probably intentionally. In Skloot's excellent, gripping and exhaustively- researched book the story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells that miraculously survive and divide (in every sense of the word) to this day is laid out in full. Henrietta Lacks, a young wife and mother, came to Johns Hopkins Medical Center in 1951 because she felt a "knot" in her lower pelvis. She had cervical cancer, for which she was treated. Also (and herein lies the controversy), cancer cells were scraped from her cervix without Lacks' knowledge nor permission and sent to a medical research lab. The cells' incredible rate of growth led to many countless medical breakthroughs in cancer, blood pressure and heart conditions. Scientists previously could not test medications on human cells because cell lines tended to die off after a few cycles of reproduction. Not the HeLa line, as Lacks' cells were called. And thus medicine advanced by massive bounds in a relatively short span of time.
The history of Henrietta Lacks and the wounds felt by her family even now in the present day is hard to read but gripping. Would Lacks have been treated differently by the doctors at Johns Hopkins if she had not been a poor black woman? Her family says yes. Johns Hopkins says no. Skloot takes a more nuanced approach, acutely aware of her whiteness as she attempts to tell a black woman's story without being accused of appropriation. It's a very delicate line.
Skloot uses an interesting device where the medical boom in America that the HeLa cell line produced is told interspersed with chapters about Henrietta Lacks' family and the family's sad downfall after the death of Henrietta. The story of the Lacks family transcends medicine and even race. It is a story about the utter destruction that children experience when they suddenly lose their mother.
Not a single one of Lacks' four children escaped trauma after their mother died. Henrietta Lacks' widower husband married another woman who was extremely abusive towards their children. Their father never intervened or even seemed to care when his new wife beat and starved his children. The oldest child, Elsie Lacks, was diagnosed with "idiocy" and sent to an insane asylum. Judging from descriptions of Elsie by her contemporaries Elsie was probably a nonverbal autistic child. Elsie's sad fate in the "Hospital for the Negro Insane" is too awful for me to detail here. Suffice it to say that the "hospital" functioned as a de facto concentration camp. Elsie passed away at fifteen years old, according to records scraped up by Deborah Lacks and Skloot. Elsie's family never knew what happened to her.
Henrietta's oldest son emerged relatively unscathed, joining the army and marrying a woman who became a protector and mother of sorts to Deborah Lacks, a young girl who desperately needed a protector. Deborah herself suffered an adolescence filled with sexual abuse and outright rape from both a male friend of her father's and her male cousins. Deborah later endured an abusive marriage with a drug-dealing husband. When Skloot later meets Deborah Lacks, Deborah is a grandmother, divorced, and warmly surrounded by her community and her grandchildren. But it is clear that Deborah Lacks still bears the scars of her childhood abuse and the sudden death of her mother. Skloot describes Deborah Lacks suddenly suffering a psychotic break during a road trip, requiring a detour to the hospital. More sadly, Skloot describes to Deborah Lacks how the HeLa line cells are being cloned. Deborah Lacks asks hopefully if they can clone her mother and bring her back to life. Though in her sixties and a grandmother, Deborah Lacks still longs for her mother, wondering if Henrietta Lacks in her neat skirt, collared shirt and late-forties woman's suit jacket can somehow step out of a petrie dish and hold her little daughter once more. Skloot has to disappoint Deborah Lacks again. No. They can only clone the cancer cells. Not Henrietta Lacks herself. This sad exchange stuck with me far longer than the pages of medical successes in Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."
In the end the title "Immortal Life" comes off as a tragic irony. Henrietta Lacks was a matriarch and mother and a caretaker to many young black workers who left the South and moved to Baltimore for jobs. But she missed so much of her children's lives because of her early death from cancer. And her family suffers so much for it. Deborah Lacks passed away before Skloot's book went to press but her children and grandchildren remain to carry on Henrietta Lacks' legacy. If there is any hope to take away it is through the Henrietta Lacks Foundation (http://henriettalacksfoundation.org) where Henrietta Lacks' grandchildren and great grandchildren are going to college and starting businesses with help from the foundation's funds. It is small compensation for what Henrietta Lacks gave the world, but it's something.
I just finished Derf Backderf's excellent graphic novel "My Friend Dahmer." "My Friend Dahmer" is a memoir about Backderf's teenage years in Ohio during the late seventies. During this time Backderf was apparently good friends with classmate and future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Backderf's memoir is compellingly drawn. Backderf, like his contemporary Allison Bachdel, has a real gift for illustrating the everyday details of suburbia in Jimmy Carter's America.
Backderf inserts actual photos of himself and Dahmer at Revere High School in between chapters. One especially chilling group photo shows the clean cut, smiling high school students of the National Honor Society posed in an orderly, tiered crowd. One student in the photo has his face blacked out. This student was Dahmer, a failing alcoholic "D" student, who photo-bombed the National Honor Society group picture. Dahmer had snuck into the photo on a dare from his friends. A teacher, furious that Dahmer was in the photo but unable to retake the picture, blacked out Dahmer's face with a marker. The result, which was printed in the '78 Revere High School yearbook, is truly creepy.
Backderf's recollections of Dahmer show a great deal of red flags.... though to be fair it is impossible not to see red flags since no reader comes into the memoir innocent of Jeffrey Dahmer's reputation. Backderf blames the teachers of Revere for not intervening in Dahmer's slow slide into alcoholism, truancy, sadism and eventually murder. Dahmer's first murder occurred shortly after Dahmer and Backderf graduated from high school. Backderf is also straightforward in how he and his friends would also occasionally torment Dahmer. The relationship between Backderf and Dahmer was never a friendship of equals. Backderf would patronize, tease and manipulate Dahmer frequently. The picked-upon Dahmer would put up with Backderf's ersatz companionship just to have any relationship in high school that resembled friendship.
In the end, however, there is really no one to blame for Jeffrey Dahmer's murderous fate except Dahmer. Though Backderf tries to lay blame on Dahmer's parents' messy divorce and the Revere High School teachers' lack of involvement in their students' lives for Dahmer slipping through the cracks... Backderf's explanation rings a little weak. There is only so much the teachers could have been expected to notice. Dahmer was very manipulative and oddly charismatic in his own weird way. In one amazing scene Backderf describes Dahmer managing to sweet-talk his way into a meeting with Vice President Walter Mondale during a class field trip to DC. Dahmer was very adept at hiding his alcoholism, necrophilia and mental illness from the people in his life. Whether it be smoothly manipulating Walter Mondale or distracting several traffic cops from the suspicious garbage bags in the trunk of his car, Jeffrey Dahmer was that most dangerous breed of psychopath: insane enough to murder and stable enough to meticulously hide his deranged crimes from even those obsessed enough with him to remember every detail of his life forty years later.
I finished "We Were Eight Years in Power" by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is not an easy book to read an not just because of the harsh subject matter. Coates has a stiff style of writing despite a few poetic turns of phrase (Coates calls America's jails "The Grey Wastes" and white supremacy "The Bloody Heirloom"). Nevertheless the book was not written for a reader's pleasure. It was written to show that America was founded on white supremacy and that has never changed, not even with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Coates shows that America tends to rely on black politicians to fix the country after it lies in tatters. This happened after the Civil War. Black congressmen were elected during Reconstruction after the South lay in ruin. After the South got rich enough to get racist again Congressman Thomas Miller sensed the dangerous shift in tides as the South shifted away from Reconstruction and towards the KKK and the Jim Crow laws He pleaded to the South Carolina constitutional convention: "We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed upon the road to prosperity."
Unfortunately Miller's speech fell on deaf ears. And the South turned once again to deepest racism after having benefited from black leadership during Reconstruction. Coates draw a devestating parallel between the "eight years in power" in Miller's speech where black congressmen were called upon to fix a country in ruins and Obama's election in 2008 where he was called upon to fix a country in ruins after the Great Recession and Iraq War. The backlash against Obama with the Trump presidency should have been as predictable as the backlash against Reconstruction in the 1890s. "We Were Eight Years in Power" is basically eight essays written during each year in Obama's presidency by Coates for the "Atlantic." Some are pretty mediocre like "American Girl" about Michelle Obama. Even Coates acknowledged the essay has not "aged well," but it really suffered from the fact that Coates was not able to interview Michelle Obama before he wrote the article. Insight is painfully absent.
Better is Coates' main tentpole essay about Reparations. While reparations for slavery is obviously impractical (though Coates argues that it still needs to be studied, praising Congressman Conyer's bill asking for funding for the issue of Reparations to be studied. Unfortunately "We Were Eight Years in Power" was published a month before Congressman Conyers was forced to resign for sexual harassment). Nevertheless the black communities and black homeowners who were devastated by the Federal Housing Authority's "redlining" of districts that purposefully denied mortgages to black homeowners are still very much alive. Unlike those who suffered from slavery, those who suffered from mortgage discrimination and their children are around today. The denial of mortgages to black homeowners torpedoed any chance for a black middle class to flourish alongside a white middle class during the sixties, seventies, eighties and up to the present day. Those abused by the FHA deserved reparations according to Coates and it's hard to disagree with his reasoning.
Most beautiful and heartbreaking of Coates' essays is his last one where he recounts several conversations he had with President Obama during 2016. Obama had been steadfast in his belief during that time that Trump simply couldn't win. It was impossible. Coates was more skeptical. Coates makes an interesting observation about Obama's upbringing and Obama's faith in the white electorate to make the right choice. Unlike the vast majority of the black experience in America when it comes to interacting with white people, Obama's experience with white America was kindness and love. His case was exceptional in every sense of the word. Obama's mother and grandmother and grandfather never gave him any sense that he was not a family member during his childhood. Obama's white family members, according to his autobiography, never once gave the impression that black Americans were lesser than white Americans. This is so at odds with the experience of the majority of black Americans that it gave Obama, perhaps, a dangerously naive attitude when it came to placing his trust in the ultimate goodness of white people. "America will make the right choice, don't worry." Coates remembers how he became suddenly nervous when he heard Obama say that. Really?
It took me a long time to read this book because I really hated it. I loved Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" because it had a truly original premise. It was an alternate history where after WWII the Jewish state in Israel was established in a remote part of Alaska instead of the Middle East. Some problems in this history remain similar to our own (there are fights between Jewish settlers and Alaskan Inuit populations over land) and obvious differences (boy it's cold!). I love the book but the climax was unfortunately complicated and a little difficult to understand. "Summerland" has the same problems. It's too complicated in the way Chabon mashed up various mythologies and adventures and tries to make it all about baseball. He aims for a baseball-themed Neil Gaimon sort of story and instead gets a mess where any sort of forward momentum in the story gets held up by yet another game of baseball. Baseball is dull enough to watch but it's even more dull to read about. Even more annoying is that Chabon draws a lot on Native American mythology but the only Native American character, a truly interesting, touch, and competent young girl named Jennifer Rideout, has to step aside and let a very uninteresting and weak white boy named Ethan Feld save the day. it's the Hermione problem. "But Hermione is the better wizard! Why is it always Harry Potter saving the day?" Plus here again the climax is too complicated for me to understand, but the world is saved in a way that is supposed to be both mythic and cute. I guess. I didn't understand it. Ugh. Go read "Anansi Boys" instead.