Big Money Rules

Two recent books—Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America and Gordon Lafer’s The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time—seek to explain several puzzling aspects of American politics today. Why do people of modest means who depend on government-funded health care and Social Security or other supplements to their income continue to vote for candidates who promise to privatize or get rid of those very programs? Why do people who are poor vote for politicians who promise to cut corporate taxes?

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Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose “Little House” books are sweet, yearning stories of a bygone childhood on a vanished American frontier. They are also dark tales of crushing adversity in a land gained by dispossession of others and hostile to the purposes to which it was being put. Scenes of a loving, self-sufficient family working, talking, and eating together are offset by those of starvation, sudden blizzard, frigid cold, wildfire, drought, disease, blindness, infant death, isolation, madness, plagues of locusts: loss after loss. The books, written for children but read by the world, are autobiographical, with some jiggering and embellishment. But the tribulations they describe are only a portion of those endured by their creator, as described in absorbing, if distressing, detail by Caroline Fraser in Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Born on a farm in Wisconsin in 1867, Laura Ingalls was the second of Charles and Caroline Ingalls’s eventual five children, four whom survived to adulthood. Charles began to chafe under Wisconsin’s growing population, never seeming to grasp, as Fraser observes, “that his ambition for a profitable farm was irreconcilable with a love of untrammeled and unpopulated wilderness.” He moved the family to Missouri, then Kansas in 1869, to territory assigned to the Osage in the 1830 Indian Removal Act; thus the Ingallses became squatters, the government’s “weapon of choice,” in Fraser’s words, for displacing Indians. Unlike most of the would-be settlers, the Ingallses did not stick it out to see white settlers legitimized by the government — as, of course, they were. After two years, the Ingalls family returned to their farm in Wisconsin and from there to Minnesota, and thence to small-town Iowa to run a hotel, where the general insalubriousness of the place and their own indebtedness caused them to vamoose in the night and return again to Minnesota. In 1879 they moved to De Smet, in the Dakota territory, land promoted by the railroads in “one of the greatest boondoggles of all.” All told, by age eighteen, Laura had lost something like a dozen homes, thanks, in part, to her father, a dreamer and master of miscalculation, but thanks, also, to some of the worst luck imaginable, including the most severe drought and most destructive swarm of locusts in recorded history, along with bruising economic conditions.

In 1885 Laura Ingalls married Almanzo Wilder in De Smet. Soon enough her trials resumed, beginning with the discovery that her husband had taken on a frightening debt to build an overelaborate house — which they then had to rent out, moving to a claim shanty where Laura gave birth to a healthy daughter, Rose, in 1886. Their troubles continued: their crops were destroyed by drought and in one case hail, for three successive years. In 1888, both Laura and Almanzo nearly died of diphtheria, and Almanzo suffered a stroke that left him partially crippled. They had a second child who died in infancy. Their house burned down. They moved to a larger town, Spring Valley, but soon sold up and moved, disastrously, to Florida, seduced by railroad propaganda, much as Laura’s own parents had been. They lasted less than a year there and returned to De Smet. They were buffeted by a “free-market” economy gone awry, spinning off panics and “price famines.” Two years later they sold up again and traveled by covered wagon across drought-blasted Nebraska and Kansas to Missouri, eventually ending up in Mansfield, Missouri, a little town in the Ozarks. It was 1894, and here they stayed, first in town and later at a farm. Times remained very hard.

Wilder’s professional writing career began in 1911 with a regular column for the Missouri Ruralist that she kept up until 1924. With its harking back to pioneer days and the concreteness and clarity of style that she gained from having served for years as the eyes of her blind sister, Mary, the column was an excellent apprenticeship for the subsequent books. Just how those works came to be obliges Fraser to lay out the story of Wilder’s daughter, Rose’s, astoundingly messy life; and in this way, the latter part of the book becomes a dual biography of mother and daughter, the latter of whom Fraser clearly despises.

There is much to say in Rose’s favor from our perspective: She was intrepid, leaving home, becoming a telegraph operator and eventually traveling the world as a freelance journalist. She married Claire Gillette Lane, a traveling man and ne’er-do-well — but dumped him, preferring her independence. She contributed her editing prowess to her mother’s work. And, indeed, in all the “Little House” books, it was, Fraser writes, “the unique combination of [Laura’s and Rose’s] skills that created a transcendent whole.”

Still, Rose Lane was a thoroughly bad egg. The reader — this one at least — begins to look forward to her next laughably awful crime against decency. Among them were the “autobiographies” of Charlie Chaplin and Jack London she fabricated, making up quotations and incidents to the horror of Chaplin — upon whom she conferred a “vicious drunk” for a father — and the deceased London’s sister. After the success of Little House in the Big Woods, her mother’s first book, Rose wrote her own, poaching the stories from her mother’s past, “competing with her . . . over her material, first in secret and then openly, trying to put her own imprimatur on the family stories before her mother could.” Though her book sold, it lacked the peculiar genius of Wilder’s vision of the West, which Fraser describes perfectly as having been drawn “from her inner life” and “a work of pure folk art.” After her mother’s death Rose claimed to have been the true author of the books, thus setting in train a controversy that lasts to this day — and which Fraser’s tireless sorting-out of the record should lay to rest. Though it probably will not.

As Fraser points out, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work takes an en ever-changing place in our culture. The novels have always appealed to readers for the feisty girl at their center, for their absorbing material detail and scrupulous attention to the mechanics of domestic and farm life, and as celebrations of home and, indeed, of the national obsession: home ownership. But where once they were read chiefly as stories that exalted independence and hard work, we, in our time, are more likely to notice what is also there: the dispossession of Native Americans, the rape of the land, the extortionate terms of homestead claims, and, in general, the use of poor settlers by the government in league with the railroads for opening the West. Fraser discusses all this, devoting special attention to the ecological and climatological mayhem caused by plowing up the great grasslands of the prairie to plant wheat. The result was desiccating climate change, soil erosion, and the monstrous dust storms that beggared the land. (In 1935 alone, winds swept away 850 million tons of topsoil.)

Prairie Fires is a brilliant contribution to our understanding of Laura Ingalls Wilder and of how her influential books were conceived, composed, and understood over time. Beyond that, it presents a great slice of American history — cultural, economic, political, demographic, climatological — and of the role of women in the agricultural sphere. It is an extraordinary book, far richer, deeper, and more complex than anything but actually reading it can convey.

 

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Sylvia Plath’s Different Shades

Brunette Sylvia was certainly the way Plath felt a serious woman writer should present herself. In any case, a representation of Plath is still a blank slate on which readers, curators, observers, and fans project their views of her and their assumptions about the proper portrait of the young female artist. Plath anticipated that she would become famous for her sexuality and her suffering, as well as for her poetry. In “Lady Lazarus,” she speaks in the voice of a terrifying alter ego, a suicide survivor and femme fatale who rises from the ashes with her red hair and eats men like air. Lady Lazarus angrily warns the voyeuristic spectators that they must pay to see her.

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Michael Flynn and the Turkish Connection

Flynn faces possible fraud and money-laundering charges for failing to disclose a payment of $530,000 from the Turkish government. Flynn could also face conspiracy and kidnapping charges for allegedly negotiating a payment of $15 million to deliver to Turkey Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric and political foe of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. If indicted on these charges, Flynn could end up in jail for a long time. But knowing there is a potential presidential pardon in the works could dissuade Flynn from telling the truth as a cooperating witness in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

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God: A Human History

In Behind the Moon, his recently published peyote trip of a novel set in the desert West, Madison Smartt Bell explores the atavistic allure of cave paintings and the roles they play in an inchoate dreamscape. For Bell, the images exist outside of time: they’re porous membranes between realms, between the living and the dead, between mortal and divine.

The religions scholar Reza Aslan opens his clear-eyed if uneven God: A Human History with a riff on “The Sorcerer,” a portrait of a hybrid man-stag-bear, discovered in France’s Cave of the Trois-Frères and dating to about 13,000 B.C.E. Aslan argues that this somewhat nightmarish figure — combining padded paws, owlish eyes, and branching antlers with a human-like stance and genitalia — may be the first known representation of God. “The Sorcerer” is a creepy yet affecting starting point for Aslan’s book, a breezy tour through humanity’s compulsion to create God (or gods) in its own image, to render the ineffable as familiar as a king or wife or merchant.

The first third of God is bland, as Aslan guides us through his own investigations into early creeds and practices, decoupling them from the rise of agriculture but with silly incarnations of Adam and Eve conveyed in the tone of a TED talk or a PBS documentary: “Why does Eve think she has a soul in the first place? . . . Theory of Mind may explain why she would ascribe her own soul to the tree.” (Earlier this year Aslan produced and narrated Believer, a series on religion for CNN, but the network shut down the show after he tweeted a slur about President Trump.) This television voice is meant to make the book accessible but instead waters it down.

Only when Aslan the scholar asserts himself does his narrative stir from its doldrums, offering vibrant set pieces on Turkey’s Göbekli Tepe, the world’s oldest temple complex, and on the first civilization, the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, sprinkled with odd bits on neurobiology. There’s an engrossing chapter on the pharaoh Akhenaten, whose embrace of the Sun-disc Aten marks the first stab at monotheism. Akhenaten’s son, Tutankhamen (King Tut), wiped out his father’s cult and restored Isis and Horus and the rest, but the notion of one God was percolating elsewhere. Around 1000 B.C.E., in what is today Iran, Zarathustra founded a sect, Zoroastrianism, that was monotheistic but also allowed for other kinds of forces; eventually the religion reverted back to a pantheon of deities.

In the sixth century B.C.E., the first enduring monotheism took root among a people that had been conquered in their native Palestine and forced into Babylonian captivity, where they recast their beliefs. As Aslan notes, “The God that ultimately arises from the Babylonian Exile is not the abstract deity that Akhenaten had worshipped. It is not the pure animating spirit that Zarathustra imagined. It is not the formless substance of the universe written about by Greek philosophers. This was a new kind of God, both singular and personal . . . An eternal, indivisible God who exhibits the full range of human emotions and qualities, good and bad.” Here Aslan arrives at his strongest, sharpest material, as God deftly charts the merger of the Canaanite deity El and Yahweh, a god of murky “Midian.” (In the King James Version of the Old Testament, for instance, El is rendered as “God” in English, while Yahweh is translated as “the LORD.”) Aslan lays out how the displaced Hebrews jerry-rigged their religion, creating a profoundly influential if often contradictory scripture, with myriad writers putting their stamp on the same stories and rules. From there Aslan segues into the sudden rise of Christianity, initially a peasant-driven reformist movement within Roman-ruled Judaism but quickly morphing into a major faith, one that caught its big break with the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 324 C.E. Aslan can’t quite disguise his disdain for Christianity and especially his exasperation with St. Augustine of Hippo, whose genius he acknowledges but whose writings on the Trinity affirm, in Aslan’s view, a straight-up polytheism.

Given how brilliantly Aslan has written on Islam over the years — his first book, No god but God remains his best — his treatment of his own faith here feels desultory, a dutiful recitation of Muhammad’s story and the author’s own personal journey to Sufi mysticism. Aslan concludes as he began, with an all-encompassing-animistic-pantheistic-something-something: “Do not fear God. You are God.” Juggle the nouns and verbs in these sentences, and they could drop out of the mouth of an evangelical preacher. A retreat into metaphysical vagueness just doesn’t cut the Communion wafer; it changes the book’s tone from solid scholarship to abstract, ecstatic vision — or pious, self-serving sermon, depending on your perspective.

If people of all faiths and no faith can agree on one thing, it should be this: Hitler wasn’t God. Neither was Stalin, nor Pol Pot. God unfolds as a concise, learned primer on the impulse to comprehend God by investing Him (or hims and hers) with superhuman powers, a pattern that transcends cultural divides and even across species, as evidenced by Neanderthal archeological sites. And Aslan’s passion for his real subject, the entwined histories and tropes of the Abrahamic faiths, gives his book a much-needed lift. But ultimately God fails to offer a fresh argument on God, the afterlife (which Aslan neglects), or even morality. Perhaps the reason we’ve humanized God for millennia is that on some neuronal level we yearn to see and speak with the divine as to a parent we’ve never been allowed to meet — rather than be blinded by an enveloping luminosity that can’t quite deliver the crumbs of wisdom we need to grow.

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It’s the Kultur, Stupid

In a poll shown on German television on election night, 95 percent of Alternative für Deutschland voters said they were very worried that “we are experiencing a loss of German culture and language,” 94 percent that “our life in Germany will change too much,” and 92 percent that “the influence of Islam in Germany will become too strong.” Feeding this politics of cultural despair is a milieu of writers, media, and books whose arguments and vocabulary connect back to themes of an earlier German right-wing culture in the first half of the twentieth century. This is a new German right with distinct echoes of the old.

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Lewd and Ludic: the Stampography of Vincent Sardon

The Stampographer, a new catalogue of Vincent Sardon’s work, is exuberantly bizarre, often foul-mouthed, sometimes boring, sometimes tender. There are jolly naked cowboys, and blue-and-red biff-boff cartoon fights (Republicans and Democrats?), obscene photos and deliberately blasphemous images—not that anyone would disagree with Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa as an illustration for “the orgasm over time.”

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The B&N Podcast: James Patterson

Every author has a story beyond the one that they put down on paper. The Barnes & Noble Podcast goes between the lines with today’s most interesting writers, exploring what inspires them, what confounds them, and what they were thinking when they wrote the books we’re talking about.

In 1976, a 29-year-old writer published a debut book called The Thomas Berryman Number  that went on to capture the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. But James Patterson didn’t quit his day job until two decades later — after he’d launched his series starring detective Alex Cross, and set out to work full time as the architect of the modern blockbuster.  More than 350 million books sold later, he’s now indubitably one of the most widely read fiction writers on the globe, writing and co-writing a vast array of propulsive stories  — not only thrillers but middle-grade humor, dystopian fantasy, and even picture books for the youngest readers. On the occasion of his new thriller The People vs. Alex Cross, James Patterson sat down with Bill Tipper to talk  about where his astonishing career started.

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Alex Cross has never been on the wrong side of the law-until now. Charged with gunning down followers of his nemesis Gary Soneji in cold blood, Cross is being turned into the poster child for trigger-happy cops who think they’re above the law. Cross knows it was self-defense. But will a jury see it that way?

As Cross fights for his professional life and his freedom, his former partner John Sampson brings him a gruesome, titillating video tied to the mysterious disappearances of several young girls. Despite his suspension from the department, Cross can’t say no to Sampson. The illicit investigation leads them to the darkest corners of the Internet, where murder is just another form of entertainment.

The People vs. Alex Cross: the trial of the century

As the prosecution presents its case, and the nation watches, even those closest to Cross begin to doubt his innocence. If he can’t convince his own family that he didn’t pull the trigger with intent to kill, how can he hope to persuade a jury? But even with everything on the line, Cross will do whatever it takes to stop a dangerous criminal…even if he can’t save himself.

Click here to see all books by James Patterson.

Like this podcast? Subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher to discover intriguing new conversations every week.

 

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Smile

Roddy Doyle is feeling his age — or, at least, his generation’s. His debut novel, 1987’s The Commitments, had a youthful, pogo-ing energy, chronicling the rise and speedy fall of a scrappy Dublin soul band. But since then his working-class heroes have increasingly taken on ballast, managing families, careers, bad marriages, lowered expectations, and, more recently, impending death. In 2014’s The Guts, the manager of the Commitments is in his late forties and facing bowel cancer. Whenever he’s asked how he is, he routinely says he’s “grand.” He isn’t.

The Guts turned out to be an expansive, funny novel about mortality. By contrast, Doyle’s new novel, Smile, is a taut and somber novel about a subject that’s usually treated lightly and satirically — the midlife crisis. It’s a story with a twist, and part of the reason the twist gets over is because we’ve been trained not to take characters like its narrator very seriously. Victor is fifty-four and returning to single life after a split from his longtime girlfriend, Rachel, a celebrity caterer and TV host. He’s had his own media career, but with little to show for it in terms of either money or fame. He made his name on ill-tempered record reviews, some reportage, and radio commentaries where he developed a knack for saying “one controversial thing.” As the story opens he’s sunk to being best known for an unfinished jeremiad about his homeland’s flaws, with the working title Ireland: A Horror Story.

In other words, we’re sure we know this guy. And Victor knows we know this guy, too, because he doesn’t want to become it, the occupant of “the sad nest of a new, forced bachelor.” He’s alert to his small apartment and impoverished shopping list (“milk — small carton”). He knows there’s an air of the pathetic to his solo trips to the local pub, where he’s buttonholed by Ed, a former schoolmate he’s not sure he remembers. As the two share schoolboy stories, Doyle captures Victor’s slow-motion recognition that he’s starting to lapse into a dotage he resents yet sees as a kind of destiny. “There was something about him — an expression, a rhythm — that I recognized and welcomed.”

How did Victor get to this point? We expect a flashback to an affair, or a revelation that Rachel was too good for him. Instead, Victor repeatedly looks back to his Catholic school days, where survival required proving one’s masculinity to your peers and suffering the various abuses of the Brothers who ran the place. Those two demands are distinct but inseparable: When Brother Murphy smirkingly tells him in class, “Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile,” he immediately becomes the target of homophobic taunts. “I was stuck with it, what Murphy had said; I became the Queer.” The abuse was physical as well as verbal — in a last-gasp effort to regain some media attention in middle age, he goes on the radio to reveal that he was once sexually assaulted by a Brother at the school.

In that regard, Smile is less a midlife-crisis story than a return-of-the-repressed story, and for such a short novel there are miles of geologic strata between who Victor is and what he’s trying to avoid. Victor is a master at the pat utterance — at saying enough provocative things to keep getting invited back onto the radio, at pecking away enough at his Ireland-savaging opus to convince Rachel he’s a real writer, at proclaiming his sexual prowess, at acknowledging his sexual abuse while pushing it to the side. (“Even being felt up by a Brother was just bad luck or bad timing,” he insists.) Practically from the start Doyle makes clear that this eagerness to swaddle ourselves in a protective bubble of narrative has negative consequences. What he withholds until very final pages is how devastating and delusional that bubble can be.

In exploring this, Doyle sees plenty of parallels between masculinity in adolescence and middle age. Manliness is a desperate, performative act at fourteen, where Victor has to prove himself in a cutthroat environment: “The wrong word, the wrong shirt, the wrong band, an irresistible smile, could destroy you. You had to have something useful, your size or a temper.” Doyle suggests that the competition is just as fierce forty years on: Victor is only as healthy as his ability to spar with pub mates, to flirt, to keep up appearances, to keep filling notebooks.

Smile is a remarkable feat of characterization for Doyle, who’s taken great care to make sure Victor is neither accomplished nor pathetic, a living echo of his boyishness but not a child. As ever, he delivers his characters best through dialogue, where the profane, pint-soaked bantering exposes how we try to make sense of the harshness of the world while at the same time keeping it at bay. Victor struggles to figure out how to talk to Ed, who seems sympathetic but also has a bottomless supply of taunts. (“You creative types — fuckin’ writers. You must always be working on some fuckin’ book — I’d say, are yis?”) As a plot point, the struggle to pin down Ed is a MacGuffin. But as a thematic point, it gets to the heartbreaking core of the book — what it means to be a man, and how much pretending happens in the name of calling yourself one.

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