Sunday Bookchat

March 22, 2008

The fine art of muckraking is on display in some new books. One such is Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration, edited by Tara Herivel and Paul Wright (interviewed in the YouTube clip above). You may not feel much sympathy for prisoners, but listen to Wright (himself an ex-con) talk about the way prison privatization has created a network of little hells across the nation, as well as an underground labor market that’s only a few steps removed from slavery, then factor in the news that the vast majority of prisoners are behind bars for non-violent offenses, and ask yourself what this says about America as a society.

Meanwhile, John Gorenfeld has delved into the life and times of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and come back with the bizarrely fascinating story of a man who combines the least appealing aspects of Jim Jones and the Emperor Caligula. David Neiwert hosts a chat with Gorenfeld about his book, Bad Moon Rising: How Reverend Moon Created the Washington Times, Seduced the Religious Right, and Built an American Kingdom.

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Russell Baker reviews three new books on Condoleeza Rice’s career illustration of the Peter Principle: “Failure often seemed to be the high road to success in the Bush administration, but no one has failed so gloriously upward as Condoleezza Rice, whose prize was the State Department. Bush made her secretary of state at the start of his second term, and though it is much too soon to judge whether she can end her Washington career with a success, the outlook cannot be encouraging.”

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Hmmmm . . . an unpopular Republican incumbent who’s tanking in the polls, a lousy war that everyone hates, a Democratic challenger who can galvanize the party’s base — everything was in place for a Democratic victory, but the landslide went the GOP way. Read here if you want to see how history could repeat itself.

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Credit Amity Shlaes with boldness, if nothing else: in The Forgotten Man, Shlaes argues that the Great Depression would have blown over lickety-split if only Hoover and Roosevelt had been content to sit by and let the magic marketplace fairies do their magical marketplace fairy thing. Kim Phillips-Fein finds Shlaes’ arguments a little short of persuasive.

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Melissa Ben offers an appreciation of The Book of Daniel, E.L. Doctorow’s historical novel about the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case, told from the viewpoint of the fictionalized couple’s wounded and bitterly resentful children:

Even now, almost 40 years after the book was written, it feels like a risky, potentially tasteless, enterprise to take on such a famous moment in history in imaginative form. The Rosenbergs were survived by two sons, Robert and Michael; the novel’s portrait of the Isaacsons and their brutally bereaved children is frequently harsh and unflattering. But Doctorow makes this risk, and the possible resultant confusion, work in his favour. He never tells the story straight. Daniel is, in every sense, an unreliable narrator, as well as an unreliable subject. But that very unreliability, given full expression in wordplay and a raging irony, allows Doctorow to tell several overlapping stories, and to talk of politics not simply as the play of ideas and events, but as the play of persons and emotions. It is in this exploration of intimacy that we can truly grasp the meaning of the public story.

Doctorow is a supremely political writer. In the words of cultural critic Fredric Jameson, he is “the epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past, of the suppression of older traditions and moments of the American radical tradition; no one with left sympathies can read these splendid novels without a poignant distress that is an authentic way of confronting our own current political dilemmas in the present.” This radicalism may account for the puzzling lack of widespread public acclaim for his work.

For that matter, Sidney Lumet’s 1983 film version of the novel (scripted by Doctorow) has all but fallen off the map. At the time, it was overshadowed by the publication of The Rosenberg Files, Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton’s study of the case, which eliminated any doubts about Julius Rosenberg’s guilt in the atomic espionage case.

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Philip Pullman returns to the world of His Dark Materials — at least one of them, anyway. Some fond farewells to the late Arthur C. Clarke, the man who showed Stanley Kubrick (and the rest of us) the way to the stars. Have a laugh on David Mamet, who announced he is no longer a “brain-dead liberal,” but proved only half right.

One Response to “Sunday Bookchat”

  1. Thanks for the great plug. Was just editing some Caligula footage today for a short film I’m doing on the book.

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