We the Corporations

by Adam Winkler
First sentence: “In December 1882, Roscoe Conkling, a former senator and close confidant of President Chester Arthur, appeared before the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States to argue that corporations like his client, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, were entitled to equal rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
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Content: It’s long and dense. It’s in the history section of the bookstore.

I heard about this book when it came out a few years back and thought that it’d be interesting to pick it up, just to see what Winkler meant by the subtitle: How American corporations won their civil rights. I reminded myself of this a few months back when discussion at a (virtual) book group lent itself to Citizen’s United and how people trust corporations more than government.

It took me a month to read this, not only because I was busy, but because it’s a lot more scholarly than I was expecting, and because there’s a lot of leagalese. That said, it’s a fascinating look at the history of the relationship between corporations and the Supreme Court, and how, over 200 years, corporations and corporate lawyers won corporations many of the same rights that individual citizens have, and how Citizens United and the Hobby Lobby birth control case are natural outgrowths of that.

Winkler leaves no stone unturned. He begins at Jamestown, which was essentially a corporate town, and how corporations of some sort have basically been part of US history since the beginning. He even calls the Constitution basically a corporate charter. And from the beginning, corporations have been pushing against government regulations and trying to exert their “right” to do as they please.

It’s dense, but it’s fascinating. I came away with a couple of thoughts: 1) the Supreme Court was never apolitical. If you think it’s apolitical, then you’re mistaken. They have always been influenced by outside sources, and since corporations have the money to be influential, then they have done much of the influencing. While the Supreme Court has done good things (enforcing desegregation, gay marriage, Roe v. Wade) they are also very much a problematic branch of government. Ordinary citizens have no say (as seen by the confirmations of Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett) in who gets to sit on the court, and yet the court wields an undue influence over the laws in our country. (I”m not sure that’s a take-away everyone would get from the book; Winkler does a good job of being balanced. I don’t know for sure he’s against Citizen’s United; he just sets out to prove that it’s a logical outgrowth of 200+ years of Supreme Court rulings.)

And, in spite of number 1, there are some interesting justices who understood, over time, what might happen. For me, the most interesting one was Louis D. Brandeis, in the early 1900s, who basically predicted Amazon and Walmart in a dissent in 1933. Winkler writes:

Brandeis argued that the law [a Florida law designed to limit the spread of chain stores] should be upheld because the rise of nations chains. “by furthering the concentration of wealth and power” and reducing competitions was “thwarting American ideals; that is making impossible equality of opportunity; that it is converting independent tradesmen into clerks; and that it is sapping the resources, the vigor, and thee hope of the small cities and towns.”

He went on to write that the “great captains of industry and finance” were “the chief makers of socialism.” All of which I found fascinating. Later in the book, another dissenting justice basically predicted what we have now: drug companies putting out advertisements for individual prescription drugs in the hopes that consumers would ask their doctor for them by name.

Anyway. I’m not sure how much of this will retain, and at one point I was complaining to R that it all felt hopeless: how does one change something that’s been embedded in the system since the beginning. I guess the answer is: one step at a time. And knowing that the system is this way — pretty rigged in favor of corporations having “rights” and against regulation — is a step in the right direction.

24 Hours in Ancient Athens

by Philip Matyszak
First sentence: “Welcome to Athens in 416 BC.”
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Content: There’s some frank talk about sex. It would be in the History section (I think) of the bookstore, if we had it.

This little book is a quick, accessible, peek into what life was (probably) like in ancient Athens. Beginning at midnight and going for 24 hours, each chapter (which is an hour on the clock) highlights a different person, from slaves to merchants, soldiers to priestesses, doctors to smugglers. There are “famous” people, like Sophocles and Hippocrates, but most people are invented by Matyszak, based on the research he’s done into Athens.

So, it’s not really history, because most of the people are fictionalized. But it’s also not really fiction, because the information is based in fact. It’s this weird grey area.

It’s also not something I’d usually read, but a friend of mine teaches a class about Ancient Greece and she picked it for our book group. I ended up finding it fascinating though. It’s not one that needs to be read straight through (the stories don’t really build on one another), but can be dipped into on occasion. It’s very readable and accessible, even though there are a lot of names of places and people that I had to let wash over me.

I’m not sure who I’d recommend it to, though. If you have an interest in the daily lives of the people who lived in Athens, then this is the book for you.

Audio book: Mobituaries

by Mo Rocca
Read by the author.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There may be some mild swearing. And sometimes the topics are kind of gross. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I picked this one up because I like Mo Rocca on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Which is also the reason I picked to listen to it rather than read it. I enjoyed listening to Mo tell these stories — some of which I knew, most of which I didn’t — about people and ideas that have passed on. The problem? In audio, while it was going, I was interested and entertained. Afterward, though, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about what I heard. Maybe it’s just how I retain knowledge, maybe it was a bit the way the book was structured (it was more a trivia book than anything else), but I didn’t retain a single thing. It’s very much a bathroom book: read a story while you go to the bathroom, and then put it down.

That does’t mean it was bad. Mo is very entertaining, both as a writer and a reader, and some of these stories were quite fascinating. But it just didn’t stick with me in the long run.

So: entertaining, but not really informative.

Stamped From the Beginning

by Ibram X. Kendi
First sentence: “Every historian writes in — and is impacted by — a precise historical moment.”
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Content: There is some swearing, including a few instances of the f-bomb and many of the n-word. It’s in the history section of the bookstore.

I picked this one up after listening to Stamped, which is a remix for younger readers of this history. I didn’t know what to expigect, but what I got was a book that made me rethink my perceptions of race, race relations, and class, and rethink what I was taught in history classes.

The basic idea that Kendi sets out to demonstrate is this: racial discrimination leads to racist ideas which lead to ignorance and hate. It’s the reverse of everything I had been taught which is: ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas which lead to discrimination. It’s a lot to wrap a (racist) brain around at first, but over the course of the 500 pages, Kendi does an excellent job showing how, throughout history, racism starts with racist people being self-interested and creating racist policies. I learned a ton.

I don’t know if there are any solutions to be found in the book. Except for the conclusion that self-sacrifice (of Blacks) and uplift suasion (Black people being “more like White people”, which is a racist idea), and educational persuasion (if white people just had “all the facts” about racism they wouldn’t be racist) don’t work. It will take a concerted effort of White people and Black and Brown people to realize that it’s in the best interest of ALL people to do away with racist policies.

I don’t know what the political and economic solution for this is (except maybe tax the wealthy and refund all the social programs that have been axed over the years). But I do know that it is important for corporate media (!) and White people to stop generalizing and stereotyping Black people.

As for me, this book made me rethink ideas I’ve had in the past, rethink the way I interact with the media and politics, and perhaps made me a little more antiracist. I can only hope.

Audio book: Stamped: Racism, Anti-racism, and You

by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
Read by Jason Reynolds
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is frank talk of slavery and rape and they use the n-word a couple of times. It will be in the Middle Grade History section of the bookstore.

The publishers — and Reynolds himself — are calling this a “remix” of the National Book Award- winning Stamped, by Kendi, and a brilliant remix it is. Reynolds takes the ideas in Kendi’s book — which is a look at racism from the first recorded instance in the 14th century to the present day — and distills them down so that kids == it’s aimed at the 10 and up crowd — can easily grasp the ideas and the history.

And Reynolds makes it fun. It’s a “not history history book”, one where Reynolds talks about IDEAS and how they fit into the grander scope of history. It’s incredibly engaging to listen to (and read!) — Reynolds is a fabulous narrator — and it made me look at history in a new light. It’s an important book — I’ve checked the original out from the library because I’m interested in what Kendi’s research — especially in this day and age. It’s incredibly helpful as a white person to understand that racism is systemic and built into the framework of our society. And maybe by understanding that, we can all become a bit more aware.

Excellent and highly recommended.

Queen of the Sea

by Dylan Meconis
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: June 25, 2019
Content: It’s a historical graphic novel, so it’s a bit long. It will be in the graphic novel section of the bookstore, though I’m sure a younger reader, interested in English history, would be interested in this one.

On the one hand, I finished this. And didn’t dislike it. I liked the art, I liked the humor, and I liked that the main character wasn’t the queen or a courtier, but rather an orphan girl, Margaret, stranded on an island with a bunch of nuns. It was an interesting story — of the exile of Queen Eleanor of Albion (read: England) after her sister takes over the crown. Eleanor befriends Margaret, or rather, Margaret befriends Eleanor, and they figure out a way to escape and take back Eleanor’s crown. Kind of. It’s mostly about Margaret’s relationships she has with both the island and those on it.

On the other hand, who is the audience for this? Really? A graphic novel loosely based on the childhood of Queen Elizabeth I, no matter how excellently done, is really really niche.

Hopefully, it will find its audience — whoever they are — and there will be people to enjoy this well-done, but really rather odd book.

American Dialogue

by Joseph Ellis
First sentence: “Self-evident truths are especially alluring because, by definition, no one needs to explain why they are true.”
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Content: It’s a work of scholarship, even if it’s written for a mass audience. There are footnotes and endnotes, etc. It’s in the history section of the bookstore. 

I picked this one up because I was curious after hearing an interview with Ellis on the New York Time Book Review podcast. I’m not quite sure what it was that he said that made me want to pick it up, but after hearing it, I put it on hold at the library. 

The basic premise is this: Ellis takes a look at four of the American founders — Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Washington — each through a prism of an issue that is both relevant back then and today. Jefferson gets race; Adams, equality (monetary, not gender); Madison, law; and Washington, war. Ellis dissects each man’s letters (easiest to do with Adams, most difficult with Washington), speeches, and papers, in order to come up with what they were thinking about when they framed the country — from the Declaration to the Constitution, but especially the latter — and what we can learn from that. 

And I think that the take-aways are striking. Ellis starts from the position that slavery and the genocide of the indigenous peoples are America’s original sin, the things that we have yet to redeem ourselves from. We (especially today) have forgotten that the Constitution was never meant to be written in stone, but is, in fact, a living document that’s supposed to change and adapt to the needs of a growing and changing country. He admits that the founders were geniuses, but they were also human, with flawed logic and changing opinions. 

I’m not sure it’s a book everyone Must Read, but I found it fascinating to learn about these men and the ideas they had. 

March (Book Two and Three)

by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
First sentence: “Brother John — Good to see you.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there (book 2, book 3).
Others in the series: March (Book One)
Content: There is a lot of violence, and use of the n-word. It’s in the non-fiction area of the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

This picks up where March (Book One) leaves off. Lewis is part of student non-violent protests in Nashville in the early 1960s, but soon leaves that to join the Freedom Riders: a group of African Americans who, in 1961-1962, put supposed desegregation to the test. They rode Greyhound buses though the south, stopping at cities in Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, with — as you would guess — pretty disastrous results. They were yelled at, beaten, arrested, thrown in jail, loaded up in cars and left in Klan territory, and the buses were blown up… let’s just say that, in short, white people in the south were TERRIBLE people.

All through this, Lewis (and others) preached the gospel of non-violence (which just makes white people look like terrorists. Really.): they didn’t fight back, they didn’t talk back, they just exercised their right (!) to do what they feel they had a right to do.

The book also follows Lewis through the March on Washington in 1963. (I didn’t know he was there, or even that he spoke! In fact, there’s a side note by him that out of everyone who spoke, he was the only one still living.) It was fascinating, learning about the politics behind that march, and about Robert Kennedy’s change of heart as well.

It’s a well-done graphic novel, one that is still very timely to read. As a white person, it definitely made me more aware of what people went through in the 1960s to get just basic rights, and I’m more aware now of how those rights aren’t still completely equal

March (Book Three) picks up after the church bombing the beginning of 1964 and goes through the march from Selma to Birmingham. My thoughts are pretty much the same as after reading book two: white people are so entrenched in their “way of life” that they can’t abide by change at all. And the thing I kept coming back to was that, in the intervening 54 years, that white people are still entrenched in their “way of life”, we just call it by different things now. It’s still racism. And it still is wrong. This one was difficult to read, and made me think, over and over, that an eye for an eye just makes everyone blind. I hope I’d have the courage to stand up to those who use their power to make others “less than”, those who call others “animals” or “dirty” or “from s-hole countries”, those who want to abuse their power to keep themselves in power… even if it means sacrificing my life. John Lewis and all those who stood by him are true heroes, and I wish there were more people like them now.

Excellent.

Module 11: Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX

letmeplayBlumenthal, K. (2005). Let me play: The story of Title IX. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division.

Genre: Non-fiction, history.

Book Summary:  A history of how Title IX came to be passed as law, the reasons behind why it was proposed and the effects it had on girls’ education and sports, focusing mostly on sports equality.

Impressions: I loved this! Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I vaguely knew about Title IX, but I didn’t really pay attention to the details. Going back and reading this made me realize just how much work not only had to be done but how much progress was made. I liked the insets featuring the people who were the primary movers and shakers behind the law. My only complaint was that it wasn’t terribly diverse, but maybe that was a side-effect of the times. The effect of Title IX on minority populations would be an interesting topic to explore, though.

Review: The reviewers called it a “thoughtful, enlightening and inspiring” look at Title IX and the effects it had at on womens’ education in America. They were really critical of the design of the book calling it an “absolutely criminal treatment from the designer”, which effected their overall view of the book.

Staff. (2006). Let me play: The story of Title IX: The law that changed the future of girls in America. Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved from: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/karen-blumenthal/let-me-play/

Library Uses: This one would be good on a library display about sports, feminism or in a women’s history month display or programming.

Readalikes:

  • Undefeated by Steve Sheinkin –  The story of the Carlisle Indian School Football Team in 1907 and how they became the “team that invented football”. Written by one of the great non-fiction writers of our time, this is a remarkable story.
  • Women in Sports by  Rachel Ignotofsky –  A collection of one-page biographies of women in sports from the 1800s to today. It also includes interesting facts about muscle anatomy and statistics about pay.
  • Rising Above: Inspiring Women in Sports by Gregory Zuckerman – A series of short biographies of women who rose above challenges in their lives to compete at the top of the game in their various sports.

Lincoln: A Photobiography

by Russell Freedman
First sentence: “Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the sort of man who could lose himself in a crowd.”
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Content: It’s written for a slightly older audience, maybe 4th grade and up. It would be in the middle grade biography section if we had it in the bookstore.

Since everyone knows all about Lincoln — seriously: I didn’t learn anything new — I’m just going to stick with my impressions here.

First: I’m not sure why it’s called “A Photobiography”, unless — and this may be the case — biographies before this didn’t include pictures and documents. BUT, everything I’ve read that’s come out recently pretty much follows this format. So, if this was the first one, then I’m glad Freedman changed it! It makes for a much more interesting biography then just text, especially for kids.

Second: this read a lot like Steve Sheinkin’s work. It was simply written, but not condescending to its readers, and included fascinating facts and information told in a way that would compel a kid to keep reading.

It was a good, quick read, even if I didn’t learn anything.