Trying to Understand, Part 4: Listen, Liberal

Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal (2016)

Listen, Liberal, my latest read from the NYT list of “Six Books to Understand Trump’s Win,” can be summarized as follows:

1. Our country is screwed.

2. Don’t go blaming those crazy Republicans for this mess. Democrats (or at least the higher levels of the Democratic Party and especially the last two administrations) are just as much, and perhaps even more to blame.

I’ve never wanted to identify with one of our traditional political parties. My first political act I can recall was voting in a mock election in fifth grade, the year that Reagan defeated Carter. I — and the majority of my class, interestingly enough — voted for for neither of them, but for an Independent named Anderson. (Who the heck was Anderson? Does anyone else remember him?) I didn’t know much about any of the candidates, but at the age of ten I was already disgusted with our two-party system and wanted none of it.

By the time I was able to vote for real, politics seemed such an ugly, morally questionable enterprise that I wanted to know as little about it as possible. But with my limited knowledge, the Democrats usually seemed the only viable choice, the party seemingly on the side of greater equality and diversity, and of environmental causes. I would prefer some more progressive options, even a real socialist party, but given the unappealing choices, what could I do but vote blue?

In his blistering critique of the direction the Democratic Party has taken over the past forty years, Thomas Frank makes me ashamed of my ignorance and inattention. The one-time party of the people has betrayed its former constituency to the point of no return, and its smooth-talking rhetoric can no longer hide the fact that what Democratic administrations have done — NAFTA, welfare reform, and increased incarceration, for example — and what they have left undone — such as imposing any meaningful restraints on a rapacious banking industry, or enforcing antitrust laws  — add up to a huge increase in economic inequality, for which they refuse to take responsibility.

Given a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, many Democrats are now mainly concerned to keep themselves on the right side of this abyss, prating of “innovation” and other meaningless solutions while they shuttle between legislative office and positions in the world of high finance and technology. In place of the working class, the highly educated “professional class” has become their new constituency, leaving most ordinary people in the situation mentioned in point #1 above, and deeply disillusioned with the party that once seemed to be on their side.

Frank’s portrait is one-sided, and should be taken with a large helping of salt. He focuses on the single issue of economic inequality and ignores others, like environmental concerns and civil rights, in which the Democratic track record might be considered a little better. And there are complexities and drawbacks to rule by “the people” — the role of labor unions, for example — that he does not attempt to go into, or that even seem to enter his mind. But as he relentlessly points out the hypocrisy, greed, and plain cruelty that pervade the policies and actions of a number of high-level Democrats, he makes the case that upholding the rights and dignity of the working class is no longer the party’s concern for many.

Such contempt for the very basis of our life on earth — for work that actually produces useful things — is a sickness of our time that threatens all of us. Instead of looking for ways to create a sound basis in physical reality for cultural life, the brightest among us are obsessed with intangible but wildly profitable fields like law and finance, or with creating companies like Uber or Airbnb that parasitically feed off of the work and resources of others. Virtue itself has become a commodity for them, a unit of exchange detatched from any basis in reality, as they reap the profits from disastrous do-good ideas like microfinance and congratulate themselves at incestuous celebrity functions.

Frank is good at complaining and ranting, not so good at offering solutions — other than to look back nostalgically to the golden age of FDR, and to suggest that the people take back their party. But even if that were possible, and even if we could figure out who “the people” are in this fractured age, what good would it do? Wouldn’t there be yet another moment of seeming triumph, followed by another creeping tide of corruption? The people are no nobler than the aristocracy, only different — and also, strangely, the same.

For a battle of extremes will always result, as this one has, in both sides mysteriously coming to resemble each other. The only way out of such a dualistic prison is not for one side to conquer the other, but for a third way to emerge — not a blending of both sides, not a compromise, not even a consensus, but a dynamic heart-center that can sense the true nature of both polarities, hold them in balance, and guide them to their rightful place. We all have both red and blue blood in our veins, after all.

And so, I think my ten-year-old self had something of the right idea. I’ll try to remain independent, while seeking for what of lasting worth might be discerned regardless of partisan polemics. I’ve started to get more involved in local Democratic groups, because at the moment this still seems like the best way to connect with people who stand for the values I support. But I will try not to judge individuals by the labels they wear, and attempt to see through political smokescreens to the real issues. I think many of us have been jolted into awareness that we need to do this, and Frank’s book, biased as it is in its own way, can be a help.

This is part 4 in an ongoing series exploring books that address the current political, social, and economic situation in the US. Part 1: The Unwinding  Part 2: Dark Money Part 3: Strangers In Their Own Land


Classics Club: Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)

This year, I decided to add some categories to my Classics Club list. Though I’m still aiming to read 50 books in 5 years, there are now 80 books on my list from which I can pick and choose. This helps me feel a little less constrained.

One of the categories I added was “Rereads from school,” i.e. books that I first read as a school assignment, but now want to encounter again at a more mature age. Many of these are from a wonderful double-period honors class I took as a senior in high school called “Humanities Block,” which covered many of the canonical works of philosophy, drama, poetry, and fiction, from the ancient Greeks to the twentieth century.

This had the benefit of introducing me to many great books at a young age, which I would certainly not have picked up on my own, being more drawn to sword-and-sorcery fantasy at the time. On the other hand, it had the drawback of giving me the impression that I had actually read these books, when at age 17 I surely picked up only a fraction of their deep and complex significance. I’ve revisited some over the years, but there others that I feel I really need to give another go.

Our very first book for the class was Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, the classic work by a concentration camp survivor who founded the “third Viennese school of psychotherapy,” which he called Logotherapy. You have very likely encountered it as well, as it’s one of the most-read, most-assigned, and most-influential books of all time — and it is well worth reading. In the face of so many forces that seek to degrade and dehumanize us, it’s an important chronicle of one who has truly been through the fire and come out not with despair, but with renewed faith in humanity and the will to heal what is broken in our world.

Frankl was convinced that the fundamental human drive was not for pleasure, nor for power, but for meaning; and his internment in four camps served only to strengthen this belief. Shortly after his release, he published a brief account of some of his experiences and of his resulting observations about the human soul and spirit, which formed the basis for his later therapeutic work. To this was later added a more thorough description of the principles and practices of Logotherapy, and even later a short “postscript” based on a lecture further summarizing Frankl’s world view. The e-book edition I read also adds a foreword by Rabbi Harold Kushner and an afterword by William Winslade that includes a biographical sketch of the author.

This collage of contents is valuable for the way it expands and elaborates on Frankl’s life and work, but the heart of the book remains the original seed-text, which in German was called “Say Yes to Life in Spite of Everything.” Adding scientific precision to a deep sense of compassion, Frankl vividly describes scenes exemplifying the extreme conditions of camp life, and draws from them observations of how paradoxically the inner core of the human being has the possibility to shine forth in such dark circumstances. That this happens only in a few cases did not matter to him; the radiance of what he observed was so powerful that its reality outweighed all the forces that were trying to hamper and obscure it.

Other than its basic premise, which has always rung true to me, I had almost completely forgotten the specific contents of the book in the 30 years since I last read it. I would not name it as a book that deeply affected me, and yet as I read it for the second time I had a strange, recurrent sense of familiarity. I had met ideas similar to Frankl’s in many places and many ways, and also confirmed them with my own life experience, paltry as it seems in comparison with his. Meeting them again was like coming home to a place I had never really left, as perhaps it must always seem when we find eternal truths in the ever-changing circumstances of life.

I’m glad I read it again, and that I can mull it over more consciously in the years to come. I’ll look forward to doing the same with more of my teenage reading.


Trying to Understand Part 3: Strangers in Their Own Land

Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land (2016)

This is part 3 in an ongoing series exploring books that address the current political, social, and economic situation in the US. Part 1: The Unwinding  Part 2: Dark Money

When sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild set out to explore what she calls the Great Paradox — why the very states which benefit most from government assistance, and which are the most vulnerable to environmental destruction, are the most resolute in opposing governmental and regulatory intervention — she knew she needed to get out of her liberal Berkeley enclave. Some serendipitous connections led her to Louisiana, an oil-dominated state with an abysmal environmental record, as well as being a bastion of the Tea Party that yet draws a substantial percentage of its funding from the federal government.

Hochschild wanted to get to know a group of people well, to speak to them where they lived and hear how they felt about their land and water and air, while focusing on the “keyhole issue” of how much, if at all, government should regulate industrial polluters. Her research occupied five years and generated over four thousand pages of interviews, which her book distills into a few selected stories and profiles. After we get to know some of her subjects, she creates profiles of types of right-wing thinking (the Team Player, the Worshipper, and the Cowboy), and an overall “deep story” that  feels true to the people she has been studying.

For anyone who also questions how on earth our country has gotten into such an impossible and unhealthy situation, Hochschild’s approach is enlightening. She brought both empathy and objectivity into her research, seeking first to simply observe and describe, rather than immediately argue with or contradict the people whose logic ran counter to her own. Her genuine interest drew forth their trust, and allowed her to get behind the usual liberal stereotypes of conservatives to a more nuanced, compassionate view.

This helped me to see how blaming one political party is not a full or helpful explanation of the situation. I learned about the role that “blue” states have played in pushing environmental polluters into states with looser regulations, thus displacing rather than truly solving the problem, and about the betrayal and frustration felt by people who experience the government as addressing everyone else’s woes rather than theirs. Coupled with the wish to ally themselves with the rich “plantation owners” who still rule the South, rather than with the descendants of poor slaves and sharecroppers, this has caused them to identify the government rather than industry as their oppressors. (I believe the clever manipulation of conservative ideas by the fossil fuel industry and libertarian extremists, as detailed in Dark Money, has also been a strong factor — though Hochschild does not take up this theme.)

Hochschild ended by feeling great admiration for those she met, and believing that when we meet each other in human terms, the wall between liberal and conservative can start to come down. As a reader, it was hard for me to fully enter into this view; perhaps because I did not have the opportunity to meet her subjects in person, I remained baffled and frustrated by the illogical, backward thinking so often on display. I found their impulse to throw out all government childish and egotistical, their faith in a self-regulating free market naive and self-deluding, and their un-Christian, pseudo-religious belief system sadly deficient.

Still, I also have to admit that the system has not served them well, and that as a nation we have never addressed the terrible legacy of cruelty and exploitation upon which our much-vaunted “American Dream” was actually founded. Though the Tea Party response is not notable for logic or common sense, at least it’s forcing us to confront some of the issues that have long been tearing us apart from within. The question is how to address them, when a purely intellectual approach is clearly ineffective and even counterproductive.

Logic and intellect, it’s becoming increasingly clear, have very little to do with American politics. It’s the feelings that matter, and we need to learn how to work within that realm, to find common ground there rather than in our wildly divergent perceptions and ideas, and so work our way toward a world where we can perhaps exist together. If we can get to the level where we are all simply human beings, and not slaves of one ideology or another, we might have a chance of starting a dialogue rather than a war. For as Hochschild points out, “many on the left feel like strangers in their own land too.”

When will we learn to meet each other, to welcome the stranger into our hearts, and make our place of exile into a home for all people? Such a goal may seem impossibly far away, yet each of us can make a start. We don’t have to go to a faraway state, but can begin in our own neighborhoods, our own homes, even within our own selves.

For I have to admit that in me, too, there is a stubborn separatist who doesn’t want to hear reason. Rather than battering her with logical arguments, I can admire her tenacity, her fierce drive for independence, even as I wince at the ways in which this one-sided impulse is hurting her, her neighbors, and the planet. I can try to make her feel safe, to enable her to tell her story, and to model the compassion that she so sorely needs to learn. Maybe from this point of departure, I will find the strength to listen to others’ stories as well.

Another recent review of this book can be found at The Book Stop


New Release Review: May Cause Love

Kassi Underwood, May Cause Love (2017)

At the age of nineteen, Kassi Underwood had an abortion. She was a directionless college student, drinking too much and pursuing a road-to-nowhere relationship with a drug dealer in the absence of her childhood sweetheart from her Kentucky home town. Abortion seemed the only logical, the only compassionate option, yet she could not let go and move on. Her choice continued to haunt her, especially after her ex had a child with another woman. How could she find peace, go through the grief and pain that the world told her she either shouldn’t be feeling or was feeling for the wrong reasons? How would she get through to the other side without losing her mind?

One problem was that it was so difficult to find other women who were willing to talk honestly about their abortion experiences, even though according to statistics they should be walking around everywhere. Kassi desperately needed to feel she was not alone, that she was not the only person who had terminated a pregnancy without wanting to either subsume herself in religious shame or toe a feminist party line. But those voices seemed to be silent, including her own.

I was sorry about the abortion, not necessarily because I’d made the wrong choice, but because other voices had been so loud that I hadn’t been able to hear my own. Nineteen years of listening to the schizophrenic collective conscience about girls and pregnant people and motherhood and money had filled my head with opinions that did not belong to me.

It took years and much searching and soul-work for Kassi to find her voice, but through many small steps she has come there — and in the process created the community she was looking for. Her account of her “unexpected journey of enlightenment” is woven of her learning from therapists and healers and religious leaders, from protesters and haters as well as listeners and supporters. It’s also an account of her life and love and work journey during this time, of her own growing confidence in writing and speaking about her abortion, of encouraging others to do the same, and of her evolving relationship with God. It moved me to tears at times, but also made me laugh at the ridiculous antics we go through in running away from who we were meant to be. With honesty and trust, Kassi lays it all out before us, and may help us to look at some of the buried truths that lurk in our own pasts.

Some will complain that most women don’t have the resources or the opportunities that Kassi did, that not everyone can attend multiple retreats or have personal rituals created for them or fly across the country looking for answers to their questions. But that doesn’t mean that Kassi shouldn’t have done those things. The fact that she needed to take extraordinary and sometimes expensive measures in search of healing simply indicates that finding our one true self is worth everything we can give, whether that everything be much or little. For Kassi to share her story lays her open to attack and misunderstanding, and may even endanger her life. She does it not as an act of self-aggrandizement or pride, but in the hope that it will empower and strengthen others, and for that I personally can only be grateful.

Not everyone will want to read a book like this. You’ll need to be willing to read at length about abortion, and to consider it not as a fixed, immutable watershed of moral virtue or political values, but as a gateway to the complex, unstable, confusing business of what it means to be a human being in this world. You’ll also need to be willing to contemplate the contributions of many different religious traditions to the journey, along with psychics, energy healers, and a “midwife of the soul.” There are swear words (even if some of them are disguised with asterisks). There are drinking and drugs and addiction and infidelity. But if you can keep an open mind and heart, as Kassi so beautifully does, you may find that it’s all part of the quest to disentangle the mixed-up mess of joy and pain and ecstasy and suffering that is this earthly life, and find the thread of love.

Why was I here? Because I had quit running. Because you can run from grief and sorrow and responsibility and rush headlong into a new relationship or a new city or stalwart friends who will love you while you run, but if you want happiness, if you want love, if you want to become the figure you see in the distance, the future self calling your name, if you want to live the life you chose, one day you will have to stand still and hold all of it — scorched heart and broken brain, bones and skeletons of the past, the black wave of grief and the lucid thoughts of forgiveness.

Like Jacob with the angel, Kassi has wrestled her torment to the ground and extracted from it a blessing of untold value. May her story inspire each one of us to do the same, knowing that truly, we are not alone.

Thanks to the publisher and to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review May Cause Love. For more stops on the tour, click here.

For information from the publisher, HarperCollins, click here.


Trying to Understand Part 2: Dark Money

Jane Mayer, Dark Money (2016)

As my highly non-political brain tries to grasp what is really behind the political and social upheavals of our time, I’m grateful for the books that are helping to give me some insight into these difficult and complex topics. Such a book was the first entry in this series, The Unwinding by George Packer, which created a kaleidoscopic narrative impression of the experience of ordinary and extraordinary Americans over the last forty years.

Packer pictures the economic and social disintegration of our time as a complex web of small and large interacting forces that makes it hard to blame any one person or group. That view has its own validity, but it’s also important to recognize the influence of certain wealthy individuals who have methodically worked to subvert liberal tendencies and swing the government sharply to the right, in service of their own self-interest. In Dark Money Jane Mayer brings this secretive group — centered around the Koch brothers — into the limelight, painstakingly piecing together a story that they would much rather not have uncovered, but that everyone needs to know. The Kochs and their ilk form an incredibly powerful, single-minded, focused force that has already changed our country in manifold ways, and intends to do so even more in the future.

Mayer first delves into the family history and character of the main operatives, most notably Charles and David Koch, two of four brothers born into a fortune built on fossil fuels, but now reaching its ever-expanding tentacles into a dizzying array of companies and enterprises. Rich in material goods but poor in empathy, compassion, and social conscience, the Kochs are typical of an emerging class of American plutocrats who follow their own version of the Golden Rule: The ones who have the gold rule.

For all of their adult lives, the Kochs have been doggedly fighting to eliminate legislation and constraints that would hurt their personal and business interests. A failed bid for a Libertarian vice-presidency and some damaging environmental lawsuits (as well as bitter family in-fighting over their inheritance) formed temporary setbacks, but with the Obama presidency and the country’s alarming swerve towards liberalism, their cohort of conservative donors expanded, and their efforts gained momentum. The 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United tremendously magnified their impact, as it enabled them to pour massive undisclosed contributions into political campaigns and candidates. And as our present situation makes clear, they’ve now risen to unprecedented heights of influence, and are close to achieving the goal of destroying all governmental checks on their power.

Underlying this story is a decades-long campaign to transform the intellectual landscape through the manufacture of radically conservative ideas, which are incubated in think tanks and university programs controlled by the billionaire donors, placed into the culture through respectable-seeming books, and made effective through legislation. The whole process takes place under the aegis of non-profit organizations that serve as tax breaks for the rich while pushing their self-serving agenda. These anti-social institutions mask their true intentions behind benign-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the Institute for Humane Studies.

Mayer carefully uncovers this secret history by making connections that others might have overlooked, putting together the existing pieces and filling in the blanks where necessary, always being careful to reveal both her evidence and the gaps where it is missing (which are sometimes just as telling). Her conclusions will surely be challenged by those who are threatened by them, and a number of her sources have to remain anonymous due to the severe repercussions they would sustain if they were named. Mayer herself became the subject of a smear campaign that bore traces of Koch involvement, as usual hidden beneath layers of obfuscation and secrecy. Investigative journalism like hers is under attack, naturally, so we should appreciate it while we  can, and do our best to make sure it can still exist in the future.

Fascinating, chilling, and infuriating, Dark Money is a must-read for anyone who wants to know what is behind some of the more puzzling developments of our time, such as the sudden drop in public concern about climate change, one of the most insidious products of the Kochs’ ideological mill, and the rise of the Tea Party, an ersatz grassroots movement grown in the soil of big money. Mayer methodically and convincingly traces the fingerprints of the robber barons who profit most from our oil-based economy, and provides an essential awareness of some of the hidden forces that shape our lives.

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of such power, but I keep coming back to the thought that such outward phenomena are given us to try to wake us up to our inner tasks and responsibilities, and to reveal what lies beneath our unexamined habits of thought and action. Just as Donald Trump is the logical president for a society that values money above all else, the Koch brothers are the logical rulers of a system with self-interest and selfish materialism at its very core. Both are symptoms of the pervasive illness of our time: alienation from the true sources of life and the true nature of the self. We can rage against their excesses and blame them for their abuses, but the uncomfortable fact remains that to get at the root causes of this illness, we have to look within, to grapple with it in ourselves. Otherwise, even if we manage to contain and control it in one place, it will soon break out in another.

It’s up to us to reconnect to the inexhaustible source of creative energy, to unflinchingly face the ways that unconscious greed shapes our actions and motivations, and to overcome the weakness of egotism with the strength of love and compassion. If enough of us would take up that task with as much energy and determination as these two men have devoted to their dark pursuits, it would create a far greater light, and illumine much more that presently remains unseen.


Trying to Understand Part 1: The Unwinding

George Packer, The Unwinding (2013)

This post is part of a series based around the New York Times’s list of “books to understand Trump’s win.” Rachel of Hibernator’s Library suggested doing a readalong of these six books, and I thought it was a great idea. So did several other people, and I hope that we’ll see some interesting and enlightening discussions coming out of this dark time.

Right at the outset I would like to say that my purpose is much larger than just understanding a single election or political movement. Forces are at work that are pushing humanity in directions that are ultimately self-destructive, and we need to stand up against them. How did we come to this point, and where do we go from here? How can we penetrate through the delusions that pit us against one another? How do we see clearly the sickness that lives within our culture and each one of us, and learn to speak a language that heals rather than divides? Voters of all persuasions are welcome here, as long as the discussion can be civil.

The first book on the list was The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer, which tells the story of disintegrating social, political and economic structures in America from the 1970s to today. It’s a gigantic and unwieldy topic, but Packer deals with it brilliantly, focusing on a few individuals and places whose stories encapsulate common experiences of decay, hope, disillusionment, betrayal, and rebellion. There’s a lawyer and sometime Washington politico, a working-class single mother from the Rust Belt, and a “think-and-grow-rich” entrepreneur — ordinary people whose hopes and mistakes and achievements and failures can cause us to think about the shape of our own lives and how it fits into the biography of our country as a whole.

We also spend some time in Tampa, Florida, where rampant real estate speculation and banking fraud are destroying a city; in Silicon Valley, where eccentric, antisocial tech millionaires plot how to save their own skins while playing the world like a video game; and on Wall Street, where the initially inspiring Occupy movement fizzles to a disappointing end. Interspersed with these ongoing narratives are brief profiles of prominent figures — Newt Gingrich, Sam Walton, and Oprah, for example — who bring out key aspects of American life during this period. Unlike the more lengthy portraits, through which we get to know the subjects from the inside, these are biting and critical, which brings a jolt of piquancy that helps to enliven the complex and lengthy narrative (though sometimes they seem a bit unfair).

The Unwinding was all the more fascinating to me because it covers pretty much exactly the span of my own life. During this time boredom and disillusionment have caused me to avoid politics and economics as much as possible, with the result that I’m massively ignorant in these realms. It’s embarrassing to admit how many people and events in this book I knew next to nothing about, but Packer’s storytelling method made learning about them effortless. I’m still not sure what I can personally do to counteract huge disasters like the housing bubble or the corrosive influence of big money in Washington, but knowledge is perhaps the first step to action. Certainly, remaining in ignorance can’t do much good.

Packer’s narrative is so well-constructed, and feels so sweeping and comprehensive, that it’s easy to see it as the definitive word on the subject. But however much one puts into a book like this there’s still even more that has to be left out. Packer’s focus was very much on money, on the quest for dollars as the American dream. Some of his people have lots of money and are showered with even more, some lose the little they have, some go through cycles of riches and bankruptcy, but money is always there, defining and shaping their experience. Whether they are haves or have-nots, their ideals are cramped by it, their higher purpose is lamed by it.

This made me realize that to the extent that money is all we Americans really care about, Trump is actually the perfect president for us. He is a golden idol, a god for his supporters, a fetish that they touch in the hope that they will acquire what he has — though even if they became billionaires overnight it would never be enough, for this is a lust that feeds on itself. Those of more moderate or even progressive views are not immune from it either. Even if we campaign for a socialist utopia, with free health care and higher education for all, isn’t it still worldly comfort and material prosperity that we seek?

But what is the deeper meaning of this obsession? What is the real hunger that is masked and obscured by it? What do we truly value, and how do we stop mistaking the symbol for the thing? Packer doesn’t overtly touch these questions, but I think we have to start asking them, or our nation will continue to cannibalize itself and go on to devour the world. We cannot look wistfully back to the age of postwar middle-class prosperity, as Packer tends to do — that growth was built on the spoils of war and the rape of our natural resources, a Ponzi scheme that cannot continue indefinitely. America cannot be great “again” if we’re always looking back to a golden age that never really was. We have to move forward into something truly new, which is what terrifies those who cling to the old order of things.

But as a start, it’s good to look with clear eyes at where we’ve been, and for me reading The Unwinding was a first step on that path. I hope you will read it too, and please let me know your own thoughts.


Reading New England: Mayflower Discussion Part I


Welcome to Part I of the Reading New England/Nonfiction Book Club discussion of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower. I’m so pleased that Katie of Doing Dewey agreed to co-host this readalong with me! Please hop over to her blog to see her answers to the following questions, which were written by me after reading parts I and II of the book. Katie will create another set of questions about parts III and IV of the book, to be posted on December 23.

The questions are listed below by themselves, and then repeated with my own answers. A linkup follows for your own posts, or please feel free to join the discussion in the comments.

  • What was your previous understanding of the Pilgrims’ journey and landing in North America? Did Philbrick’s presentation change or amplify anything for you?
  • In his preface, Philbrick states that his initial impression of the period was “bounded by two conflicting preconceptions: the time-honored tradition of how the Pilgrims came to symbolize all that is good about America and the now equally familiar modern tale of how the evil Europeans annihilated the innocent Native Americans,” but that he found that the reality was less predictable than that. Given that we’re only talking about the first half of the book so far, have you found him successful in conveying a more complex view?
  • Do you think that any characteristics or concerns of the Pilgrims still persist in our national character today? How do you see these manifesting?
  • The Pilgrims’ relationship with the Native Americans, and specifically with Massasoit, was crucial to their survival. What stood out for you in this aspect of the narrative? Were there any surprises, or anything particularly interesting or disturbing?
  • Do you think the title “Mayflower” fits the book so far? If not, would you have a different title to suggest?


The Pilgrims’ First Winter – 19th century engraving

What was your previous understanding of the Pilgrims’ journey and landing in North America? Did Philbrick’s presentation change or amplify anything for you?

My knowledge of this period in history was scanty and vague. I knew some English Puritans went to America in order to be able to worship as they wished, and that they sailed on a ship called the Mayflower — it didn’t occur to me to inquire further into the details. I was surprised at how perilous a scheme it really was, with difficulties finding a seaworthy ship, delays resulting in a late start, arrival in an unexpectedly cold winter, and differences of opinion among the passengers and crew. I didn’t realize they didn’t even mean to land in present-day Massachusetts, or that they tried to sail south and couldn’t pass the treacherous shoals. I also didn’t know that the Puritans were backed by commercial interests, which expected them to make a profit rather than simply sustain themselves. These were just some of the new insights that I gained — so, yes, I’d say my understanding was greatly expanded and enriched.

In his preface, Philbrick states that his initial impression of the period was “bounded by two conflicting preconceptions: the time-honored tradition of how the Pilgrims came to symbolize all that is good about America and the now equally familiar modern tale of how the evil Europeans annihilated the innocent Native Americans,” but that he found that the reality was less predictable than that. Given that we’re only talking about the first half of the book so far, have you found him successful in conveying a more complex view?

I did think Philbrick did a good job here, with the limitation (as he admits himself) that the historical record comes to us through the white settlers; we don’t have the first-hand Native accounts that would help to create a truly rounded view. The uneasy, fragile alliance between the Pilgrims and some of their Native neighbors was not a simple thing, and I’m curious to see in the second half what happens as it disintegrates.

Do you think that any characteristics or concerns of the Pilgrims still persist in our national character today? How do you see these manifesting?

I think the twin demons of fanatical separatism and commercial greed, both of which sped the Pilgrims on their way, are still with us today. A certain inability to work with and adjust to one’s neighbors, independence to the nth power, is showing itself in the ugliest and most divisive way in the political sphere, while our unsustainable consumer-driven lifestyle is driving us to the edge of environmental collapse.

On the other hand, the ability to imagine a different future, strike out against incredible odds, and create something new is also a very real part of our heritage, and one that we need to transform into a positive impulse that benefits all of humanity instead of just one group.

The Pilgrims’ relationship with the Native Americans, and specifically with Massasoit, was crucial to their survival. What stood out for you in this aspect of the narrative? Were there any surprises, or anything particularly interesting or disturbing?

Profile Rock in Assonet, MA, said to be an image of Massasoit.

I thought it was telling that almost the Pilgrims’ first act upon setting foot on New World soil was to steal a stash of Native corn, intending to pay for it later, but not doing so until confronted with their illicit action. That’s another national tendency, I’d say.

I’d heard (vaguely, again) of Squanto as a helper and interpreter for the Pilgrims, but I didn’t know about his bid to replace Massasoit as leader of the tribe, or about the rival warrior, Hobbamock. I though it was fascinating that both were named for the Native spirit of darkness and death, and that the self-righteous Pilgrims in a sense had to make a contract with the devil (according to their own worldview).

This culminated in the massacre of the rival Native faction at the end of this part of the book, which started with Miles Standish’s extremely dishonorable act of killing enemies he had invited for a meal. It made a rather sobering counterpoint to our Thanksgiving meal celebrations.

Do you think the title “Mayflower” fits the book so far? If not, would you have a different title to suggest?

I think “Mayflower” was a bit misleading as a title, as the journey on the ship was a relatively small part of the book. I think Philbrick meant it as a metaphor for the overall journey of the Pilgrims and their colony, and in that sense it might work. Perhaps the book could have been called “The Pilgrims” or “Plymouth”? “Mayflower” is more inviting, and carries connotations of spring growth and new life, but since the second part of the book is going to involve an incredibly bloody conflict I’m not sure that’s appropriate.

Have you read Mayflower? What did you think? Link up your posts below, or join the discussion in the comments!

Nonfiction November: New To My TBR Round-up


It’s been another wonderful Nonfiction November, and we all have piles of books to read. There were different ways to handle all the recommendations that came our way this month…

The most common method was to assemble a fairly random collection of tempting titles:

But it was also possible to focus on a single title:

Or pick one book for each of the five weeks of Nonfiction November:

Organize by theme:

  • Unruly Reader (medical, aviation, Supreme Court, amazing women)

Or express appreciation for the discovery of new blogs, as well as new books:

Some titles that turned up on multiple lists were:

  • The Inkblots
  • Symphony for the City of the Dead
  • Hillbilly Elegy
  • Lab Girl
  • A Thousand Naked Strangers

Thanks once more to everyone who participated — and especially to Katie of Doing Dewey, who got the ball rolling this year, and also hosts a monthly Nonfiction Book Club (co-hosted by me this month, in conjunction with the Reading New England challenge). I hope you might join us, in case you can’t wait till next November to share some great reading and discussion!

In any event, enjoy your new discoveries, and keep the conversation going. We have a lot to offer one another in our nonfiction reading journey.

Nonfiction November: New to My TBR Link-Up


It’s my honor to be the host for Nonfiction November this week, with our final topic: New to My TBR.

It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR list? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!

More than ever, I’m looking for nonfiction books that expand my view of the world and illuminate unfamiliar perspectives. Here are just a few of the books I’m inspired to read now, with many thanks to the bloggers who brought them to my attention:

  • Lab Girl recommended by Doing Dewey: “It gives the best idea of what it’s like to do science in academia of any book I’ve read, but it was also accessible, moving, and beautifully written.”
  • Hillbilly Elegy recommended by Sarah’s Book Shelves: “It achieves a delicate balance of entertaining dysfunctional childhood memoir and social analysis that’s pertinent to this election cycle.”
  • Nothing to Envy recommended by Novels and Nonfiction: “The stories of despair and love, unity and self-sufficiency, family and individual survival are compelling, terribly sad and at the same time hugely revealing of the state of affairs in North Korea over the past two decades.”
  • In Other Words recommended by Words and Peace: “Even if English is your only language, I think this would be a remarkable exposure for you, a discovery of the world of languages, and maybe a gentle incentive to learn another one.”
  • Committed recommended by Reading the End: “Committed provides an insightful, balanced look at the many complex factors that influence involuntary mental health care. If you’re remotely interested in mental health or civil liberties, I highly recommend this excellent book.”
  • On Living recommended by Books on the Table: “Hospice chaplain Egan has written a beautiful and inspiring book about her experiences working with dying patients.”
  • Dark Money recommended by ipsofactodotme: “This was just plain ‘scary’ ! Wealth has given the super-rich the power to steer the economic and political direction of the United States and undermine its democracy.

I’m also interested in reading the NYT’s list of Six books to help understand Trump’s win, as suggested by Hibernator’s Library. If you’d like to join us, check out Rachel’s post.

Below, you can link up your own posts — whether they are answers to this week’s topic, or reviews of nonfiction books — and I’ll do a round-up on Friday, December 2.

Thanks to everyone who participated this month; I so much appreciated the chance to share it with you. And thanks to Doing Dewey, Sarah’s Book Shelves, Hibernator’s Library, and JulzReads for hosting. If you haven’t already, be sure to visit their posts for even more great nonfiction suggestions.

Nonfiction November: Become the Expert


This week, the Nonfiction November topic is Be the Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert, hosted by Julie of Julz Reads.

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

I have 94 books on my Goodreads nonfiction to-read list, so I thought I’d start there and see if I could find any common theme. One topic I seem to want to read about is “Amazing Journeys.”


Lois on the Loose by Lois Pryce
Unlike my husband, I am not a motorcycle aficionado — but this tale of an adventuresome “biker babe” who ditches her safe BBC job and takes off across the Americas sounds like a fun ride anyway.


The Old Ways by Robert McFarlane
Subtitled “a journey on foot,” this is the story of the author’s rambles from his Cambridge home across the old paths and byways of Britain, and further afield on the pilgrimage ways of Europe. I’m interested in how it illuminates the interior path as well as the external journey.


Worlds Elsewhere by Andrew Dickson
Exploring “how Shakespeare became the world’s writer,” this literary travelogue delves into the cultural history of many lands, showing how one playwright changed the world and how his works have also been transformed thereby.


Mother Tongue by Christine Gilbert
A language-mad mother boldly uproots her family in order to learn Mandarin in China, Arabic in Lebanon, and Spanish in Mexico. They seem to have survived the experience, and even gained some fascinating insights into language and culture.


In Search of Mary by Bee Rowlatt
After reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark,” the author (toddler in tow) sets out to see how the early feminist may have influenced those countries, then forays to France and America for more musings on life and motherhood.

Isn’t it wonderful that reading can take us all over the world, sharing in these incredible experiences? Looking at my TBR reminded me of how fascinating these books sounded when I added them — I’m newly inspired to hunt them out and “become the expert” now! What’s on your list?