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Christmas 1955: Stuart Evers

“Some fantasies, if they are suitably meagre, have the possibility of coming to pass.”

Speaking for myself, the New Year is always a time for reflection: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, so that may explain why I related to Stuart Evers’ short story, Christmas 1955. The main character, June, has the long-held tradition of taking a long, luxurious bath on the evening of the 24th. As with most traditions, June’s leisurely bath is deeply rooted in the past. In this case, June, at age 16 when she was in service to “Madam” was tasked with preparing her employer’s bath, and the task was “as much of a gift as those glittering beneath the eight-foot fir in the dining room.” Madam would remain in the bath until dinner, attended by family and guests, was over.

At age 16, June was so impressed with Madam’s ceremonial relaxation, she “promised herself-in that way we carelessly promise ourselves the impossible-that all June’s future Christmas Eves would be taken just like that; alone, in a bathroom, up to her neck in salted water.”

As June takes her time in the bath, she has conversations with her former employer, “Madam,” who has, as it turns out been dead for some years. June is now married to Peter; we know many decades have passed as Peter is retired and June has a grandson. The time in the bath allows June to reflect on her past, and the many changes in her life; one of the changes was to move to a house with indoor plumbing.

In many ways, Christmas 1955 reminded me of A Christmas Carol, but it lacks the sentimentality and manufactured pathos. June reflects at moments in her life, remembering those she knew and lost, and the memories pass like a series of picture postcards with salient moments caught like fossils in amber.

It is a communion, this tradition, it is an armistice with the dead; but it is also a reckoning of sorts.

The short story is set in the world of Stuart Evers’ novel, The Blind Light, and for some reason, the novel’s release escaped my notice. Onto the list it goes

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Goodnight Beautiful: Aimee Molloy

In Aimee Molloy’s domestic thriller, Goodnight Beautiful, newlyweds Therapist Dr Sam Statler and his wife Annie Potter make the move from New York to Chestnut Hill. They buy a roomy home and Sam is trying to build up his practice. Sam’s good looks attract almost exclusively female patients, but then Sam, a notorious lothario in his younger days, always had a way with women.

While on the surface it would seem that Sam and Annie have a lot going for them, ugly secrets fester under the surface on this shiny, new marriage. Annie, an expert in sexual role-playing, keeps Sam on the boil with her constant, unpredictable games. But Sam is wrestling with massive debt which he expected to pay off when he received the 2 million promised to him by his mother who suffers from dementia. All he needs is for her to sign the paperwork and then he gets the big bucks. The 2 mill, his mother says, is a guilt gift from Sam’s estranged millionaire father who dumped Sam and his mother decades earlier. The pressure mounts for Sam and then … he disappears.

Why do men disappear without a trace. “There was a guy from Delaware who went out for doughnuts,” I tell the pigeon. “Found him two weeks later, trying to get a face tattoo in San Diego.”

It’s hard to review this book without giving away spoilers, so this will be a short piece. No one here is what they seem. I was a considerable way into the book when the plot spun on its axis and all my assumptions were uprooted.

I was mostly annoyed by the manipulations of Gone Girl–even though I’ll acknowledge that it was a page turner. This book is packed with twists and turns but the author doesn’t withhold information as much as build narrative constructs in which we make assumptions that later prove untrue. I was ok with this device since the main characters in this book are all operating on various levels of deceit.

For this reader, the book’s pace bogged down at one point, and while I have no problem with unlikable characters (and I disliked them all), they were also uninteresting. Consequently it was hard for me to care. The sections regarding Sam and his demented mother and self-focused father were very well drawn, as are the portraits of the book’s nutjobs. But the drop in momentum caused the plot to lag.

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Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: Winifred Watson

“In one short day, at the first wink of temptation, she had not just fallen, but positively tumbled from grace.”

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, written in 1938 by Winifred Watson, has the effervescent, glam feel of its times, but rather sadly, for our titular heroine, poor downtrodden governess, Guinevere Pettigrew, her miserable life is drab as she drifts from post to post, subject to the vagaries of various temperamental employers. She’s never allowed to forget that her job is to be submissive, keep her head down and to adapt to the various obnoxious personalities of her employers. After years of living like this (and as it turns out being kicked about by two parents) Miss Pettigrew, with her “timid, defeated expression,” is a wreck of a human being. Whatever Guinevere Pettigrew could have been has been submerged by what she has become.

When the novel opens, Miss Pettigrew is desperate for work (again) and the employment agency sends her to a potential post with a certain Miss LaFosse. Miss LaFosse, Delysia, is a glamorous young nightclub singer whose life is a rotating door of men. There seems to be some initial misunderstanding when Miss LaFosse opens the door to Miss Pettigrew, and immediately there’s a crisis as Miss LaFosse, clad in a “silk, satin and lace negligee,” asks for Miss Pettigrew’s help in ejecting one man as another is expected imminently.

Miss Pettigrew finds herself dragged into the sort of life she’s only seen on the screen:

In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify harry her every waking hour.

Over the course of a day, Miss Pettigrew steps into an entirely new existence. As she helps Miss LaFosse juggle men (some not very suitable at all) she discovers hidden talents. Soon, she’s knocking back the booze, fabricating alibis, helping two young women with their complicated love lives, acting various roles and even enjoying a make-over. Of course, what Miss Pettigrew doesn’t grasp is that through her lowly, subsumed role as a governess, she’s been acting all of her life and just didn’t realize it.

The great fun here is Miss Pettigrew’s ability to stretch into her new role. She finds that while she sees some of Miss Lafosse’s suitors are bad news, she too, a woman who’s never been kissed, would easily succumb to their tinsel charms.

“Oh dear!!” she thought. “These men. They’re wicked, but it doesn’t matter. They simply leave the good men standing still. […] It’s no use, we women just can’t help ourselves. When it comes to love we’re born adventurers.”

This wonderfully light frothy tale, with its non stop humour, examines sisterhood and the unmined depths of a woman who thinks life has passed her by. I have a fondness for books that explore circumstances in which people discover just what they’re capable of (which explains why I like crime books). The scenes of Miss Pettigrew knocking back the booze are hilarious.

“Sure you won’t have a whiskey?” he offered solicitously. “There’s sure to be some in the cupboard.”

“No thank you,” said Miss Pettigrew blandly. “I prefer them light in the morning.”

Her voice hinted at dark hours of intemperance in the evening.

Oh dear!”” she thought wildly. “it can’t possibly be me speaking like that. What’s come to me? What’s happening to me?”

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The Good House: Ann Leary

“I get so paranoid when I drink; that’s what AA and rehab will do for you.”

The funny, tart voice of a stubborn, alcoholic woman (in denial) as she careens though her life makes The Good House the most entertaining, funny and surprising book I’ve read in a long time.

Divorced 60-year-old real estate agent Hildy Good is one of Wendover’s most successful businesswomen. Wendover, located on Boston’s North shore, is a strange blend of legacy residents (Hildy can trace her family back to the Salem witch trials) and new money incomers who are looking for a better quality life for their children. Hildy capitalizes on local news (and gossip) to land listings and sales. So what if she drinks too much. That’s her business isn’t it? And her life was going great, wasn’t it, until her two adult daughters arranged an intervention, and Hildy went off to rehab.

The Good House

When we meet Hildy, she’s out of rehab, back at work, but listings and sales are dropping. A former employee, “with all sorts of liposuctioning and flesh tucking,” is her biggest competitor and Hildy’s stint in rehab may have allowed the competitor an edge that Hildy is now desperately chasing. With a mortgage she can’t really afford, and still paying for therapy (and more) for her two daughters, Hildy is squeezed to the max.

Hildy, our unreliable narrator, is in control of what we see, but even so through the denial, the cracks show. At rehab, she didn’t think she belonged, but she completed the programme in order to get her daughters off her back and so that she could see her grandson.

How could anyone, besides my ridiculous, ungrateful spoiled daughters, imagine that I had a problem with alcohol?

She used to drink with a friend, but now that she is supposedly dry, she drinks alone on the sly. She has ‘rules’ about drinking, and she keeps a secret stash in the cellar where no one will find it. She likes herself more when she’s drunk, and thinks alcohol enables her success. Over the course of the novel, her relationship with alcohol becomes more and more problematic. Whether she’s driving drunk, experiencing blackouts, or sneaking vodka at family holidays, Hildy’s life is out-of-control.

While the novel is ostensibly about Hildy’s alcoholism, other characters in Hildy’s life drag her into various problems. Rebecca, a beautiful, troubled, wealthy newcomer becomes friends with Hildy–drinking friends, and so we see how alcohol impairs Hildy’s judgement and how it impacts her emotional responses. Then there’s Hildy’s long-cold romance with Frank Getchell, a local bachelor with desirable legacy property, who makes a rather lucrative living collecting trash and doing various construction jobs. At yet another remove, we see how Hildy functions in a community where everyone knows everyone’s secrets, and the locals who used to own the big properties are now lucky if they can get a job working for the new owners.

Hildy is always an entertaining narrator whether she’s complaining about a fellow dinner guest using any excuse to talk about her “annoying writing,” or bitching about a rival grandmother:

Honestly, if she hadn’t had my grandchild in her arms, I would have clocked her on the head. Could she have been more obnoxious about Grady? I’ve never liked Nancy Watson. She’s a nitwit. When not watching Grady, she’s busy “scrapbooking,” which is her hobby, and Tess is always showing me the sickly-sweet scrapbooks featuring Grady that Nancy puts together, seemingly every week. I always smile as Tess flips the pages for me, and I say things like “Imagine having all that time to devote to something like this.”

The Good House is consistently funny from the first page until the end. Hildy always surprised me with just how far she was prepared to go. She’s dug down so deep in denial that there were numerous occasions when I was deceived, and either laughed out loud at the consequences or shock my head in concern. Unreliable narrator, psychiatry and real estate are all buttons for me.

I was sorry to finish this novel, and sorry to say goodbye to Hildy–a woman who’s extremely capable, someone who has an uncanny knack at ‘reading’ people but who is blind to herself. At one point she brags to local psychiatrist:

I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions.

According to Hildy:

I like a house that looks lived in. General wear and tear is a healthy sign; a house that’s too antiseptic speaks as much to me of domestic discord as a house in complete disarray. Alcoholics, hoarders, binge eaters, addicts, sexual deviants, philanderers, depressives–you name it, I can see it all in the worn edges of their nests. You catch the smoky reek of stale scotch and cigarettes despite the desperate abundance of vanilla-scented candles. The animal stench up between the floorboards, even though the cat lady and her minions were removed months before, the marital bedroom that’s become his, the cluttered guest room that’s more clearly hers--well you get the idea. 

Finally, beyond the entertainment factor there’s real quality here. Hildy’s youth is seen in shimmering, poignant flashbacks, and it’s really really well done.

TBR list

(There’s a film of this book in production. I would have preferred to have seen a miniseries–thinking Big Little Lies)

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Willful Disregard: Lena Andersson

“It’s all about manipulating the recipient into feeling what you want them to feel.”

In Swedish author Lena Andersson’s novel, Willful Disregard, thirty-one-year-old Ester Nilsson, freelance writer, a “poet and an essayist” is asked to give a paid lecture on artist, Hugo Rask, a man “rated highly for his moral fervor in a superficial age.” Through her research, she begins to feel a strong interest in Rask, “her sense of affinity with its subject grew,” and when she meets him that interest blossoms into a strong attraction. From the very beginning, Ester confuses Rask’s “frequently quoted assertions,” as an artist “obsessed with morality in his work,” and his apparent sensitivity with the flesh and blood man.

Ester, who has led a fairly quiet and sheltered life, is in a “quiet, harmonious relationship with a man who left her in peace while satisfying her physical and mental needs,” and unfortunately, she’s never met a man like Rask before. After the lecture, Rask approaches Ester, grabs her hands, kisses her cheeks and tells her:

No outsider has ever understood me so profoundly and precisely.

A more experienced woman would probably regard Rask’s comment with suspicion, but from that moment on, Ester is a goner…

Willful disregard

Unfortunately for Ester, she can’t stop thinking (or talking) about Rask.  She thinks she can “develop a friendship with Hugo, an elective affinity.” She tells a friend about Rask and says, “we’ve made contact at a deep level and we’re going to be friends.” Consequently, Ester’s friends and acquaintances realize she’s falling in love before she does:

Before you understand where the emotion is going to lead, you talk to anyone and everyone about the object of your love. All of a sudden, this stops. By then the ice is already thin and slippery. You realize that every word could expose your infatuation. Feigning indifference is as hard as acting normally, and fundamentally the same thing.

Ester takes a casual invitation from Rask seriously and begins hanging around his studio which also serves as his home. Although the warning signs are flashing that she’s one of several women in Rask’s life, she thinks they have something ‘special.’  A few texts from Rask later, and she’s losing weight and ignoring her partner of 13 years.

As the plot spins out, there’s Ester, a woman who’s a stranger to casual sex, convinced that she has this special connection with Rask–after all Rask, himself, even said that. Rask, who maintains a coterie of worshippers, is a slippery character, and even though the story is told in the third person, with its necessarily limited point of view, it becomes screamingly obvious that Ester is the only one interested in a relationship.

This is the story of an obsessive relationship. Ester doesn’t even get the courtesy of a brush off–her life is full of unanswered texts and unreturned phone calls, but there’s some quirk to Ester’s personality that will not allow her to walk away with dignity. Most women would, I think, get the message. Instead Ester, infected with “the malarial love itch that is always latent once it has invaded the cells,” conjures up the notion that “there was something holding him back. Perhaps there were unknown obstacles.” She frequently consults “the girlfriend chorus,” an invisible collective group who urge Ester to move on, but she can’t and consequently she humiliates herself repeatedly.

If we wanted to be cruel, we would call Ester a stalker, or at least let’s say that’s what Rask would call her, but he is a game player and in one marvelous scene in the novel, we see how when Ester appears uninterested, his vanity demands that he reel her back in.

Willful Disregard is the sort of book which will spark various arguments and debates about relationships and for this reason it’s a perfect book for book groups. I always feel a bit divided about making a comment that a particular title would be a good choice for a book club as I tend to shy away from book club choices, but in this case, Willful Disregard is practically guaranteed to encourage opinions–I even argued against myself at a few points in this excellent, thought-provoking novel. I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for Ester at first, and I found her obsessive nature rather unsettling, but as the novel played out, it became easier to see how Rask brought out Ester’s vulnerabilities.

It’s possible to read this as a book about obsessive love, but on another level the novel has a definite philosophical tint to it, and asks questions such as: is there such a thing as responsibility in relationships? How much of an explanation is owed to a sex partner? In a perfect world, a couple would sit down and discuss just what sex means before it happens, and in this case, Ester, who looks as sex as a serious commitment, could have really used such an occasion. Think of a pre-nup, well this would be a pre-sex. I’m thinking of a neighbor who, after his wife dumped him, would bring home a string of young women for the night. In the morning, he’d lower the boom, and when the women, invariably asked when they’d see him again, he’d explain he didn’t want a relationship right now. My personal favourite was that he was ‘too fragile’ for a relationship. So I’d see these young women drive off Were they disappointed? Did they care? Would they wise up?

There are occasions when Rask and Ester debate about various philosophical subjects and it becomes quite obvious that they are talking about their own relationship. There are a couple of points when the novel pushes the philosophical too hard–for example, Ester writes an essay and the extensive details of this rejected essay bog down the reading. That very minor complaint aside, I really loved this novel and hope that more of the author’s work makes it to translation. I’ve seen Rasks in action, and author Lena Andersson nailed it.

The one who wants least has the most power.

Review copy

Translated by Sarah Death

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Louise Michel: Rebel Lives

“But above all, I was in love with the revolution.”

If ever a woman seized her century, it was “The Red Virgin”–Louise Michel. Born in 1830, the illegitimate daughter of a serving girl, Louise was brought up on the estate of her father’s family. Here she must have occupied a peculiar zone–firmly in the servant class and yet favoured but unacknowledged by her father’s family. Louise was educated as a teacher, and apart from her idiosyncratic teaching style, she led a normal life until she suddenly morphed into a revolutionary.

The meaty introduction by Nic Maclellan is an overview of Louise Michel’s life. As France plunged into turmoil and war, she began attending demonstrations against the Second Empire. Eventually she became a major force in the siege of the Paris Commune that existed from March until May 1871. Following the siege, she was arrested, tried and exiled to New Caledonia (islands just off the coast of eastern Australia). Even in exile, Louise made a name for herself while promoting the rights of the native population.

The book explores Michel’s life through excerpts from her memoir, letters to her lifelong friend, Victor Hugo, the play The Days of the Commune by Bertolt Brecht, and essays written by Karl Marx, Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, Howard Zinn and Friedrich Engels. (An excellent essay by Engels analyzing the two-party political system in America is included). Succint and informative at 155 pages, for those unable to tackle Louise Michel’s memoirs, this book is an alternative. Bear in mind, however, that the book is one in a series of ‘remarkable lives’ in the Rebel Lives series, and this series includes Einstein and Helen Keller. This explains why the book almost has the feel of a school primer at times.

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Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights by Bob Torres

The centrality of classifying animals as property should not be underestimated when it comes to considering the depths of animal exploitation woven into our society and economy. Having animals categorized as property gives us the ability to exploit them as a resource for even minor human wants.”

Anarchists disagree on a lot of issues but agree on others. Most would agree that hierarchy in this world–forced upon us at birth and ingrained through every aspect of culture is unacceptable. Most would agree society reinforces hierarchy through its many institutions, and that hand-in-hand with hierarchy comes unequal wealth and power distribution. And again, most anarchists would agree that capitalism has a huge role in oppressing and exploiting people; domination and hierarchy thrive in the fertile ground of an economic system that views people as units for production. But just how do animals fit into the capitalist equation? That’s a question asked by social anarchist Bob Torres in the book, Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights. Torres takes a fresh and fascinating look at the way we treat animals, and in presenting his argument that animals are just as much a part of the corporate machine as humans, he argues that with a “baseline” of veganism:

“As a needless and unnecessary form of hierarchy, anarchists should reject the consumption, enslavement, and subjugation of animals for human ends, and identify it as yet another oppressive aspect of the relations of capital and a needless form of domination.”

Now to some, that statement–as we absorb it–makes perfect sense. But other anarchists will reject this position. Is it extreme to see that animals are simply tools in the capitalist machine? If we embrace this position, then surely the next thing is to reject the consumption of animal products, just as we reject other forms of capitalism that insidiously and persistently attempt to weave into every aspect of our lives.

Torres, a philosophy professor at St. Lawrence University presents his antispeciesist argument to the reader, and after finishing the book, I have to say that Making A Killing is one of the best books I read in 2007. Torres has managed to clarify many of the problems I had with issues connected to the animal rights movement, commodification of animals, and the animal agriculture industry. Torres presents irrefutable arguments regarding the treatment of animals, and he does this by combining Marxist economic theory with anarchist beliefs.

Arguing that there are “similarities with how humans are exploited as labor power” and “how animals are exploited as commodities,” Torres walks the reader through his belief that agriculture animals are members of the working class, with animals “mere ends towards the production of greater capital.” Holding absolute power and dominion over animals, we treat them in a range of ways–at best they are seen as property, at worst they are enslaved in the violence of the capitalist money making machine. Forced to labor and produce, “animals are nothing more than living machines, transformed from beings who live for themselves into beings that live for capital.”

But beyond examining animal agriculture, Torres also explores the exploitation of animals in vivisection. Citing some of the ridiculous and redundant aspects of animal experimentation, he notes that with a death toll of a “conservative estimate of 20 million animals per year in the United States alone” vivisection “is big business.”

Another issue covered in the book is the bizarre contrast in the way we treat animals. Torres argues that some species are granted special status, companion animals, for example. While they would seem to be higher on the hierarchal chain of worth assigned to them by humans, Torres notes that they still “seem to occupy a sort of nether-world between animal and human,” and that they are still fundamentally (legally) viewed as property. There’s a current trend afoot to encourage the ‘gentrification’ of companion animals by draping dogs and cats in designer jewelry. The capitalist system has undoubtedly seen the benefits of feeding the idea of companion animals as fashion accessories–there is–after all BIG money to be made on these consumerist trends.

Torres also blasts the animal rights groups who seem to have been effectively co-opted by capitalism (this should come as no great surprise to anarchists). While he acknowledges, “critiquing PETA is seen as a special form of heresy,” he cites several examples to back up his criticism; PETA’s granting the ‘Visionary” award, for example, to Temple Grandin for redesigning slaughterhouses “to decrease the amount of suffering that animals experience in their final hours.” According to Torres, this “defies rational comprehension” and is “at the very least contradictory.” Torres argues this is just one example of the many “Faustian bargains” mainstream organizations make with the animal agriculture industry in order to maintain “bureaucratic concerns.” He notes that we opt out of our responsibility by imagining that animal welfare groups are there in place to oversee the job for us. If the animal welfare groups are out there improving animal slaughter in order to ensure that happy animals end up on our dinner tables, then we can eat meat with a clear conscience.

Torres really hits some chords when he points out that in many ways, animal activist groups simple end up helping corporations develop great new business strategies and yuppie market niches. Citing the blatant example of Whole Foods, Torres notes that “they’ve been able to convince people that are supposedly opposed to animal exploitation to sign on to a business and marketing model that relies on the exploitation of animals, albeit in kinder, gentler ways.” Whole Foods, and other similar corporations “get to appear as the ‘ethical’ choice for consumers who care, but who don’t care enough to give up foods that exploit.” We’ve all seen the ads–ranging from Amish chickens to my personal favorite–‘tasty veal without the cruelty.’

One of the things I particularly like about Torres’s book is that there is no aim to make us wallow in guilt. Guilt as an issue comes up only in connection with sneaky marketing ploys used by corporations designed to ensnare us into guilt avoidance. Torres makes his arguments with clear concise rationality, and he offers facts and figures without emotional hyperbole. The book ends on a surprisingly optimistic note with suggestions for readers. I’ve long been troubled by animal commodification and exploitation and Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights synthesized these issues for me by placing animals “within the larger dynamics of capitalist exploitation.” The book includes an index (always appreciated by this reader), and scrupulous notes for further reading. Excellent.

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Baader-Meinhof: Pictures on the Run 66-67

“We lived a sort of armed existentialism.”

Astrid Proll’s book Baader Meinhof: Pictures on the Run 67-77 is for those interested in the Red Army Faction. The RAF is an integral part of West Germany’s history, and as a revolutionary/terrorist group (pick the term you prefer), they were a thorn in the side of German politics for decades. Astrid Proll was an early member of the First Generation RAF. Proll’s “underground time with the RAF … lasted less than a year,” and she was arrested in 1971. When she was released from prison, she escaped to England, and that is probably the reason she remained alive. This book of photographs is a compilation of some significant moments in the history of the RAF.

The photos from the early days are giddy, and high-spirited, but then a photo of the dead Benno Ohnesorg–shot by police during a demonstration–marks the swift change in events. One photo shows the abandoned shoe of Rudi Dutschke after he was shot by a “right-wing assailant.” Later photos include ‘wanted posters’, and prison photos of Ulrike Meinhoff, Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader, and Jan-Carl Raspe.

The final photos are taken from the funerals of Ensslin, Baader, and Raspe after the state claimed they committed mass suicide in their prison cells.

The book includes an introduction by Proll, and these pages include both German and English text. Proll makes some interesting comments and admits that the RAF “overestimated themselves ridiculously … we were self-timers who acted cut off from reality in a void.” If you are interested in learning more about the RAF, I highly recommend the following: How It All Began: The Personal Account of a West German Terrorist by Bommi Baumann, Der Baader Meinhof Komplex by Stefan Aust, and the film, Germany in Autumn.

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The Urban Guerilla Concept

“Legality is about Power.”

Red Army Faction: The Urban Guerilla Concept is not an A-Z of the Red Army Faction, and the reader is best served approaching this pamphlet with some prior reading on the subject. Divided into three sections, the pamphlet contains: historical background, an introduction, and The Urban Guerilla Concept–the RAF’s first “ideological text” (apart from a short letter shortly after Andreas Baader was sprung from jail). Anthony Murphy writes both the historical background and the introduction. The document, The Urban Guerilla Concept–while ostensibly the collective product of the RAF was most likely written by former journalist Ulrike Meinhof. It’s the most famous document ever produced by the RAF, and so for anyone interested in the RAF–the “most influential and longest surviving” guerilla group that sprung from the German Student movement of the 1960s, then this pamphlet is invaluable. If however, you’re new to the Red Army Faction, then I recommend Stefan Aust’s book Das Baader-Meinhof Komplex (if you can find a copy in English), Televisionaries by Tom Vague (flawed, but still interesting.) or the marvelous memoir How It All Began: The Personal Account of a West German Terrorist by Bommi Baumann.

The pamphlet’s historical background is extremely valuable in its explanation of how the West German government perceived the Red Army Faction (the RAF never referred to themselves as the Baader-Meinhof Gang). The West German government had shown a tendency to “resort to authoritarian methods to solve political problems, particularly political dissent from the Left.” Identified as the “biggest threat to democracy” the members of the Red Army faction were classified as “enemies of the state.” Under West Germany’s Basic Law, they effectively “lost their rights”, and the “protection of the state” became an overpowering priority. This explains why the West German government responded so quickly to the RAF with such extreme, overwhelming violence (the police were issued with machine guns and grenades in June 1970).

The document The Urban Guerilla Concept basically lays out the RAF’s ideological argument for the armed struggle against the state. The document rife with Marxist-Leninist-Maoist rhetoric references the Springer press, the Vietnam War and the destruction of the Black Panthers. Now, years after the official demise of the RAF in 1998, this document shows the RAF’s determination and oddly enough there’s a thread of naivete that runs throughout the text that predicts its inevitable destruction. Yet, at the same time, some of the document is strangely prophetic–more than 3 decades later:
“No publications escape the control of vested financial interest-through advertising;…and through the concentration of media ownership. In the public domain a powerful elite has the dominant role….The media’s message in a nutshell is…Sell….News and information become commodities for consumption.”

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I Cried. You didn’t Listen: A Survivor’s Expose of the California Youth Authority by Dwight Edgar Abbott

“That day, at that hour, I became the predator rather than the prey.”

I Cried, You Didn’t Listen: A Survivor’s Expose of the California Youth Authority by Dwight E. Abbott is a harrowing, haunting read. In the 1950s, following a car accident that placed his parents in hospital for months, 9-year-old Abbott was sent to Los Angeles Juvenile Hall. Within minutes of arriving, he was hit in the face by another boy, and that evening observed rapes occurring in the showers. On the third day, a counselor sexually assaulted Abbott. When Abbott defended himself from another assault, he ended up in solitary confinement for 90 days, and here he remained until his father arrived to take him home. Abbott acknowledges that he was no longer the same child, and that it took just “four months for the county to construct” a “walking time bomb.”

When he returned home, Abbott was withdrawn and traumatized. His grades dropped, and he reacted with explosive violence to threatening situations. At age 12, Abbott was back in Juvenile Hall again, and then sexually assaulted by a manipulative counselor. From here he was moved to the ironically named Optimist Home for Boys and endured further molestations and beatings. When he was released to his parents, Abbott was even less able to integrate back into family life, and he was on the slippery slope to becoming a lifetime criminal.

The memoir charts Abbot’s gut-wrenching experiences, and each step of the way, the institutions he’s locked up in are tougher, and more brutal, and Abbott’s fight for survival becomes more violent. At 13, he’s locked up in the state mental hospital at Camarillo, stuffed in a strait jacket and given shock treatments. From here it’s onto the California Youth Authority (CYA), and their various facilities–Whittier, Pasa Robles, Ione, and the Deuels prison in Tracy. Abbott details the tiered system within each of these prisons, just how important it was to be seen as tough, and that “showing emotions was a sign of weakness.” To be viewed as a “sissy” or a “punk” translates to being brutally raped by everyone above you on this violent food chain. This memoir makes “it clear that within youth prisons there is no social order other than that based on violence.”

Abbott’s survival within the system caused him to “develop a set of social reflexes and assumptions” that made “him totally incapable of negotiating life outside of institutionalization.” According to conservative statistics, 75% of those released from CYA are locked back up within three years. Clearly rehabilitation just isn’t taking place within the CYA, but just what transformations do take place is the subject of this deeply disturbing book. According to Abbott, “there is nothing left of the softness of morality or conscience, only strength and will.” I Cried, You Didn’t Listen: A Survivor’s Expose of the California Youth Authority was recently republished by AK Press. This new edition includes an excellent, informative preface by Books Not Bars.

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