My September book reviews offer three different vantage points of America, from the rich and powerful and their political interests to the recently repatriated reconnecting with the American landscape on the fabled Appalachian Trail to the rural poor Latino figuring out his place in the world.
- Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer is a good book about an important subject—money in politics—but I couldn’t help feeling depressed as I read it. Mayer has done the research and followed the money trail. She meticulously shows how rich men (especially Charles and David Koch, but also many others such as Richard Mellon Scaife) have used their fortunes to fund and influence the political conversation towards their preferred policies. A lot it comes down to tax avoidance. Scaife, for instance, and his sister received their large inheritances from their father in the form of two trusts of $50 million apiece. The money sat in the trusts for 20 years accruing interest. The interest had to be spent on charitable nonprofits, but after the 20 years were up, the children would get the entire $50 million tax free. The Koch brothers received a similar arrangement from their parents. Scaife and the Kochs used the interest from the trusts to fund nonprofits that aligned with their political views. One way they did this was to give to new, more ideological think tanks in the 1970s. Before this, research think tanks had been driven by social science research for the general public interest. The new think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute had a much more ideological bent. It didn’t stop at think tanks. Then the Kochs and like minded rich philanthropists started funding programs in higher education in order to compete with the liberal agenda they saw in academia. Most of these billionaires were in the energy sector, whether oil, coal, or natural gas. They were most determined to fight any research that conflicted with their bottom line. Mayer details the political fights of the Obama presidency, showing how the influence of the money and operations of the Kochs and other billionaires has stymied progress. The total opposition to Obama began as soon as he took office, not in reaction to anything he did, but the very fact that he had won the election. The Koch brothers’ group Americans for Prosperity and another group FreedomWorks, funded by other billionaires and companies like Philip Morris, helped organize and promote the Tea Party. It wasn’t a grassroots uprising. The sea change in thought on climate change was especially profound and evidence of the power of monied interests. John McCain in 2008 actually ran on a platform of acknowledging climate change and advocating for a cap and trade bill, a relatively conservative solution to curbing green house gases based on free markets. A year later when Obama supported a cap and trade bill that passed the House, the opposition in the Senate became intense. It was never even brought up for a vote because it wouldn’t have passed. By 2012, Mitt Romney had to reverse his previous position of acknowledging human caused climate change in order to be acceptable to the conservative side of the Republican party. It was no longer acceptable to the big donors who funded the party. The Koch brothers believe that they are fighting for their libertarian free market principles when they fund attacks on regulations of the fossil fuel industry. It just so happens that all of the issues that they fight the hardest for and put their money towards would also help them avoid taxes or responsibility when accidents happen. The amount of money involved is truly astounding, made more so by the recent Supreme Court decision Citizens United which breaks down barriers to pour even more money into politics. It’s depressing that those with the most money have so much power and influence on our political system and even political opinion. Mayer focuses her attention on what she calls the “radical right,” but the problem of money in the system goes both ways. It is especially evident on the right at the moment. She does point out at various times some of the liberal billionaires who have attempted to use their money in a similar fashion, but it is mostly a reaction to the efforts of the Kochs and their like minded billionaires, and not nearly as well coordinated or funded. The book is solid research, but I would only recommend it to someone who can stomach it.
- A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson is a fun travel memoir about friendship and nature. After spending roughly half his life in Britain, Bryson embarks on a hiking trip with an old friend from his hometown who he hadn’t really kept up with. Neither of them has much experience with hiking and the wilderness, though Bryson has done a lot of research for the endeavor. Bryson’s narrative is very funny and compelling as he relates how they eat the same meals over and over, encounter a bear one night, and face the difficulty of carrying everything on their backs mile after mile in spite of being out of shape and overweight when they begin. I especially liked the parts where Bryson gave the history of the AT and the challenges of nature conservation. It’s true that Bryson didn’t complete the whole trail. I don’t hold that against him, though he could have been more up front about his plans. Sixteen years ago, fresh out of college, I joined an experienced friend to hike the John Muir Trail in California (itself a part of the Pacific Crest Trail). Unfortunately, we had to quit the trail before we had even exited Yosemite National Park because my friend was experiencing knee pain. Those three days on the trail were one of the hardest things I’ve ever done physically. It took real effort to continue putting one foot in front of the other. We probably would have hit our stride in a few days, and it would have become easier. I often wish I had gone back to do the JMT in full. I would like to read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, her account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as a comparison and contrast to Bryson’s tale. Some of the crudity of Bryson’s friend Stephen Katz is presented as “boys will be boys,” which was distracting in parts. It’s another reason I’d like to read Strayed to get a different hiking experience. But overall I enjoyed Bryson’s travelogue.
- Julio’s Day by Gilbert Hernandez is a fascinating look at one man’s life and the life of a century in a graphic novel that is exactly 100 pages long. Julio himself lives to be 100, born in 1900 and dying in 2000. The story of the century is also there, but the focus is on Julio and his family and friends. It begins in blackness, and then we see Julio’s open crying mouth; it ends in the same open mouth and blackness when he dies. The artwork, done in black and white, is somewhat cartoony, but it’s never simplistic. The approach is spare and clean. Julio grows up in a poor rural area of the country that is never specified (my guess is California). He is closeted and complex, not really acknowledging the love of his life, his childhood friend Tommy. He never marries and lives with his mother. But the story continues along various paths, tracing the history of his family and community: his evil uncle, his friend Araceli who goes off to nurse soldiers in multiple wars, his sister’s family, including her grandson Julio Juan. Julio Juan is an interesting contrast to Julio, as he is also gay, but since he came of age in a different era, he can live freely. There are multiple stories and characters, so sometimes Julio drifts to the background of his own story, but he and his life ground it all. It’s a rewarding read that I would definitely recommend. [Read an excerpt here at NPR.]