Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism: Haynes Johnson (Harcourt paperback, 2006). In the wake of the recent elections, some casual commentators suggest the political worm has turned, that the descent toward neo-fascism has been diverted. Indeed many of the forty thieves are unseated, indicted or in a few satisfying instances, locked up in prison. Yet, most of the worst of them are still around. Right-wing power holds fast. Arguably the two most important branches of the government remain in the hands of the Republicans. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is effectively de-fanged. The Age of Anxiety shows we have been here before, and how we survived and defeated the American proto-fascists the last time around. Haynes Johnson is hardly a newcomer to historical journalism. He made his mark as a journalist covering the civil rights movement, specifically the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965. Since then he has published more than a dozen books on subjects ranging from the Bay of Pigs to Clinton’s aborted health care initiative. Nevertheless, most of his previous efforts have not been as opinion laden as this latest excellent effort. The Age of Anxiety is Johnson’s philosophical masterwork, and yet it remains firmly based in journalism. He knows how to tell a story, and with great care he retells the story of Joseph McCarthy and his demagogic rise to power and his rapid shameful fall. Recently some revisionists have attempted to revamp McCarthy’s pitiful image, but Johnson shows how misguided such fanatics really are, despite the fact that these revisionists are the current vanguard of what remains of the party of Lincoln. Johnson’s historical analysis was one of the crucial works of 2005. Now it is finally available in this more affordable, easier to handle paperback format.
Letter to a Christian Nation: Sam Harris (Knopf). The land of the free, home of the brave, U.S. of A. is nothing if not an odd, paradoxical place. Money driven, obsessed by technology and sex crazed, our country has as many churches as burger joints. In Sam Harris’ not so tempered words we now appear “like a lumbering, bellicose, dim-witted giant” to an increasingly secular Western world. Harris is one of a new breed of anti-religious zealots bent on driving a stake into the heart of this Christian Nation. At the risk, strike that, the certainly of offending many a good Christian, not to mention the Muslims, Jews, and the rest, I say good luck to him and his kind. Letter to a Christian Nation is the follow-up to his previous delirious attack upon the faithful and their faith, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and a companion to the like minded Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. At a mere 96 pages this might be the best place for the novice secularist to begin before delving into those heftier, earlier polemics. Though this is presented as an answer to his Christian critics, it is not likely to convince anyone. It is the proverbial example of preaching to the black hooded anti-choir. Critics of Harris and Dawkins accuse them of not saying anything new. Perhaps there is some truth to the criticism, but where else are these supposedly obvious things being said? Where are the critics of every politician of the so-called-left or the very far right when they start slobbering on about their faith? What the heck does faith have to do with the war in Iraq? I almost forgot. Faith is in fact the cause of that war, and most of the rest of the problems in the world today and for the last several thousand years of recorded history. This small book is nothing but a poke in the belly of the beast known as Christianity.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Here is my “ten best” CD’s & LP’s of 2006.

1. Tom Waits: Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, & Bastards (Anti CD)
2. Cat Power: The Greatest (Matador L.P.)
3. Fonotone Records: 1956 – 1969 (Dust-to-Digital Box Set)
4. John Fahey: Sea Changes and Coelacanths: A Young Person's Guide to John Fahey (Table of the Elements L.P.)
5. John Cale: New York in the 1960’s (Table of the Elements Box Set)
6. Erase Errata: Nightlife (Kill Rock Stars)
7. Vietnam: Past Away (Scared CD)
8. Grace Braun: Rose of Sharon (CD)
9. Hub Cap City: Superlocalhellfreakride (Ponce de Leon CD)
10. Jon Langford: Nashville Radio: Art, Words, and Music (Book with CD)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Peter Case: As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport (For Now, 2007). Disclaimer (and it’s a big one): For Now is an imprint of everthemore Books. Everthemore is the publishing arm of the bookstore where I work and pretty much live when I am not at home reading books or sitting in front of this computer thinking about books. My ability to eat and put gas in my car and buy more books (and records) depends on the sales of this book, and a bunch of other books, thank you very much. Despite all of that, I would not say this new book was great, if I didn’t think it was great. I do say it is great, though there is not much to it: 51 pages. Really, it is nothing more than an article between covers. As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport is/was published and perhaps written in the tradition of all those delicious, slender City Lights paperback classics. It is as good as any of them, better than a lot of them. Appropriately enough, most of the action takes place more or less at the doorstep of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. Peter Case is an extremely talented bluesman singer/songwriter, but you really don’t need familiarity with his discography to read and enjoy this, his first book. The distinctive sound of his guitar comes across loud and clear and beautifully upon the printed page. It is the usual, familiar American story. A young dropout hits the road and heads west. It is 1973 and the poor sap has missed the 1960’s. Punk rock is three years away, but like so many before him, he follows the westward dream, starting out with nothing but the prerequisite army-green duffle, cheap guitar and bottle of wine. The sound of the time was Exile on Main Street and The Harder They Come soundtrack album, but this book sounds more like Peter’s beloved Elmore James track, “Sunnyland Moan”. As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport is the first part of an in-progress memoir to-be. Yet, it works like it is as slice-of -life music on the page.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The best of the year list is a noble tradition that I can never pass up. At this point there are dozens of 2006 books I should read, but have not yet had time for. As always I will be trying to catch up with 2006 for years to come. Fortunately, I never will catch up with 2006 or any other year for that matter. Nevertheless, ‘tis the season for the lists, so here are my favorite books of the year, so far… Those who have looked at this blog already should not be surprised by my number one choice.

1. Outlaws of America: Dan Berger (AK Press)
2. Waiting ‘Til The Midnight Hour: Peniel E. Joseph (Henry Holt)
3. The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights – Black Power Era: Peniel E. Joseph, ed. (Routledge)
4. The God Delusion: Richard Dawkins (Houghton)
5. Last of the Red Hot Poppas: Jason Berry (Chin Music)
6. Empire Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism: Greg Grandin (Metropolitan)
7. The Heebie – Jeebies At CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk: Steven Lee Beeber (Chicago Review Press)
8. Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad; Kael Alford; Thorne Anderson; Rita Leistner (Chelsea Green)
9. An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin: Rohan Kriwaczek (Overlook)
10. Sing A Battle Song: Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiques of the Weather Underground: Bernardine Dohrn; Bill Ayers; Jeff Jones, ed. (7 Stories)