Book Review: Freedom is a Constant Struggleby Angela Davis


Author: Angela Davis
Title: Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement
Publication Info: Haymarket Books (2016)
Summary/Review:

This books collects several interviews with long-time activists Angela Davis as well as some articles and speeches.  The downside to this collection is that she touches on some of the same issues in each of the pieces (as you would expect of someone delivering speeches to new audiences) but the format of this collection doesn’t allow the reader to see Davis delve deep into any of the issues.

Davis reflects on the Civil Rights movement and feminist movies, her involvement in each, and their accomplishments.  She also compares it to the revival of activism in the Black Lives Matter movement that rose out of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri against the police killing of Michael Brown.  Davis urges the reader/listener to recognize the intersectionality of movements and that Americans need to broaden their scope to include global crises in their activism (with a particular emphasis on Palestine).

Davis always offers harsh truths but is never disparaging of efforts towards revolutionary change that are incomplete.  Instead she encourages the reader to keep trying and keep struggling.  I’m particular impressed by her reflections that Black Americans truly defined democracy since they are the ones who advocated for true freedom, which is more than civil rights.  I have had this book for some time and to my shame only got around to reading it now, but I’m glad I’ve read since it speaks to issues that are front and center in the current moment.

Favorite Passages:

Trying and trying again. Never stopping. That is a victory in itself. Everyone and everything tells you that “outside” you will not succeed, that it is too late, that we live in an epoch where a revolution cannot happen anymore. Radical changes are a thing of the past. You can be an outsider, but not outside the system, and you can have political beliefs, even radical ones, but they need to stay within the bounds of the permissible, inside that bubble that has been drawn for you by the elites.


It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.


It’s very interesting that during the commentary on Ferguson, someone pointed out that the purpose of the police is supposed to be to protect and serve. At least, that’s their slogan. Soldiers are trained to shoot to kill. We saw the way in which that manifested itself in Ferguson.


The civil rights movement was very successful in what it achieved: the legal eradication of racism and the dismantling of the apparatus of segregation. This happened and we should not underestimate its importance. The problem is that it is often assumed that the eradication of the legal apparatus is equivalent to the abolition of racism. But racism persists in a framework that is far more expansive, far vaster than the legal framework. Economic racism continues to exist. Racism can be discovered at every level in every major institution—including the military, the health care system, and the police. It’s not easy to eradicate racism that is so deeply entrenched in the structures of our society, and this is why it’s important to develop an analysis that goes beyond an understanding of individual acts of racism and this is why we need demands that go beyond the prosecution of the individual perpetrators.


I fear that if we don’t take seriously the ways in which racism is embedded in structures of institutions, if we assume that there must be an identifiable racist… The “bad apples” type of… …who is the perpetrator, then we won’t ever succeed in eradicating racism.


But if one looks at the history of struggles against racism in the US, no change has ever happened simply because the president chose to move in a more progressive direction. Every change that has happened has come as a result of mass movements—from the era of slavery, the Civil War, and the involvement of Black people in the Civil War, which really determined the outcome.


Many people are under the impression that it was Abraham Lincoln who played the major role, and he did as a matter of fact help to accelerate the move toward abolition, but it was the decision on the part of slaves to emancipate themselves and to join the Union Army—both women and men—that was primarily responsible for the victory over slavery. It was the slaves themselves and of course the abolitionist movement that led to the dismantling of slavery. When one looks at the civil rights era, it was those mass movements—anchored by women, incidentally—that pushed the government to bring about change. I don’t see why things would be any different today.


At this point, at this moment in the history of the US I don’t think that there can be policing without racism. I don’t think that the criminal justice system can operate without racism. Which is to say that if we want to imagine the possibility of a society without racism, it has to be a society without prisons. Without the kind of policing that we experience today. I think that different frameworks, perhaps restorative justice frameworks, need to be invoked in order to begin to imagine a society that is secure. I think that security is a main issue, but not the kind of security that is based on policing and incarceration. Perhaps transformative justice provides a framework for imagining a very different kind of security in the future.


Optimism is an absolute necessity, even if it’s only optimism of the will, as Gramsci said, and pessimism of the intellect. What has kept me going has been the development of new modes of community. I don’t know whether I would have survived had not movements survived, had not communities of resistance, communities of struggle. So whatever I’m doing I always feel myself directly connected to those communities and I think that this is an era where we have to encourage that sense of community particularly at a time when neoliberalism attempts to force people to think of themselves only in individual terms and not in collective terms. It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.


Deep understandings of racist violence arm us against deceptive solutions. When we are told that we simply need better police and better prisons, we counter with what we really need. We need to reimagine security, which will involve the abolition of policing and imprisonment as we know them. We will say demilitarize the police, disarm the police, abolish the institution of the police as we know it, and abolish imprisonment as the dominant mode of punishment. But we will have only just begun to tell the truth about violence in America.


As many times as I’ve spoken during Black History Month, I never tire of urging people to remember that it wasn’t a single individual or two who created that movement, that, as a matter of fact, it was largely women within collective contexts, Black women, poor Black women who were maids, washerwomen, and cooks. These were the people who collectively refused to ride the bus.


But freedom is still more expansive than civil rights. And in the sixties there were some of us who insisted that it was not simply a question of acquiring the formal rights to fully participate in a society, but rather it was also about the forty acres and the mule that was dropped from the abolitionist agenda in the nineteenth century. It was about economic freedom. It was about substantive freedoms. It was about free education. It was about free health care. Affordable housing. These are issues that should have been on the abolitionist agenda in the nineteenth century, and here we are in the twenty-first century and we still can’t say that we have affordable housing and health care, and education has thoroughly become a commodity. It has been so thoroughly commoditized that many people don’t even know how to understand the very process of acquiring knowledge because it is subordinated to the future capacity to make money. So it was about free education and free health care and affordable housing. It was about ending the racist police occupation of Black communities. These were some of the demands raised by the Black Panther Party.


I tell you that in the United States we are at such a disadvantage because we do not know how to talk about the genocide inflicted on indigenous people. We do not know how to talk about slavery. Otherwise it would not have been assumed that simply because of the election of one Black man to the presidency we would leap forward into a postracial era.


For some time now I have been involved in efforts to abolish the death penalty and imprisonment as the main modes of punishment. I should say that it is not simply out of empathy with the victims of capital punishment and the victims of prison punishment, who are overwhelmingly people of color. It is because these modes of punishment don’t work. These forms of punishment do not work when you consider that the majority of people who are in prison are there because society has failed them, because they’ve had no access to education or jobs or housing or health care. But let me say that criminalization and imprisonment could not solve other problems.


We will have to do something quite extraordinary: We will have to go to great lengths. We cannot go on as usual. We cannot pivot the center. We cannot be moderate. We will have to be willing to stand up and say no with our combined spirits, our collective intellects, and our many bodies.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Monied Metropolis by Sven Beckert


Author: Sven Beckert
Title: The Monied Metropolis : New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896
Publication Info: Cambridge, UK ; New York, NY : Cambridge University Press, 2001
Summary/Review:

I read this book as a group project at my job since the people covered in this book are the types who are represented in many of our archive’s older manuscript collections.  The author uses the word “bourgeoisie” and is very repetitive in general.  I also think Beckert could’ve been better at showing rather than telling about the social changes in 19th century New York City.  Nevertheless, it does offer some interesting insight into “the story of the consolidation of a self-concision upper class in New York City in the second half of the nineteenth century.” (Beckert, 2).

The main theme of the book is the conflict between the established merchant class and the nouveau-riche industrialists.  The conflict also manifests itself in those who are sympathetic to slaveholders in the South because it provides them financial gain (generally the merchants) and those who are anti-slavery, mainly because it threatens to compete with their own sources of labor, but also for moral and religious reasons (typically the industrialists).  Even during the Civil War there were elites who favored ending the war swiftly and going easy on the slaveowners.

New York City grows massively in population during this time as well as in wealth.  And the new bourgeoisie find ways to consolidate that wealth into a handful of families that intermarry akin to medieval aristocrats.  The elite unite to quash labor movements and increasingly use their strength to squash political organizing of the poor out of fear that the working class will be radicalized.  The elite even take on the roles of government, such as building castle-like armories and training as National Guard units to prevent proletarian uprising.

It’s hard not to read this book and not come away with the impression that the 19th-century New York City elite were pretty awful people.  Even in a charitable act such the Christmas Feeding at Madison Square Garden, the rich would gather in the stands to watch as lines of poor people processed through to receive gifts of food, adding an extra layer of humiliation to their plight.  In addition to acting against labor, the NYC elite also consolidated around antisemitism, anti-Black prejudice, and anti-immigrant sentiment.  By the end of the century they were using terms such as “businessman,” “capitalist,” and “taxpayer.” Their legacy has many echoes in the present day.

Favorite Passages:

“Mystifying the laws of the market into laws of nature allowed upper class New Yorkers to account for their own exalted position.” – 281

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: All the Bad Apples by Moïra Fowley-Doyle


Author: Moïra Fowley-Doyle
Title: All the Bad Apples
Narrator: Marisa Calin and Elizabeth Sastre
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2019
Summary/Review:

A Dublin teenager, Deena, on the precipice of her 17th birthday accidentally outself herself to her much older sister Rachel and her conservative father. Her other, wilder sister Mandy (Rachel’s twin) goes missing, and when her car is found by some cliffs on the other side of Ireland, she is presumed dead by everyone but Deena.

Instead, Deena goes on a road trip with her best friend, a mixed-race bisexual boy named Finn, and meets a previously unknown niece and an attractive young woman along the way.  They pick up clues in the form of letters from Mandy about the troubled history of women in Deena’s family going back centuries which includes forced pregnancy, rape, ostracization, accusations of witchcraft, abortion, and imprisonment in the notorious Magdelen laundries. The whole time they are pursued by three banshees adding an element of magical realism.

This movie ties together a story of contemporary sexism, homophobia, and discrimination in Ireland with folklore and history.  But does it with very little subtlety.  My mind wandered a lot during this book but let’s chalk that up to reader error. I’m sure this is a perfectly good book for young adults who want stories of adventure and family history with positive female and LGBT characters.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches by


Author: Tyler Kepner
Title: K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches
Publication Info: New York : Doubleday, [2019]
Summary/Review:

Tyler Kepner explores ten different pitches in baseball, describing how they’re thrown, how they move, and the history of how they originated and developed.  The ten pitches include standard pitches like the fastball, curveball, and slider.

But Kepner also explores pitches that only an elite cadre of pitchers can master (the knuckleball) and a pitch that only one pitcher can really handle (Mariano Rivera and the cutter).  He also explores pitches that had peaks of popularity in the past but are all but absent in the present-day game (the screwball and the splitter).  Kepner even devotes a chapter to spitballs, scuffballs, and other modifications to the ball that affect pitches and the gamesmenship of pitchers known to use them.

The book is written in an oral history style, relying on Kepner’s interviews with current and retired pitchers and coaches as well as quotes from earlier works that covered now deceased pitchers.  The book is a creative way to look at the history of baseball from the perspective of one of its most important facets.

Favorite Passages:

Every pitch is a decision. That is the beauty and the burden of the pitcher. Think there’s downtime in baseball? Tell it to the man on the mound, all alone on that dirt bull’s-eye. The catcher thinks along with him, back behind the plate, but the pitcher rules the game. Nothing happens until he answers these questions: Which pitch should I throw, where should I throw it, and why? It is an awesome responsibility.


I’ve found that most people in baseball tend to be…pretty nice. And of all the subsets of folks in the game, knuckleball pitchers might be the nicest. They are also part of the smallest group, which helps explain it. Almost all knuckleballers were rejected by the game before they could last very long. They earned their living by grabbing the wing of a butterfly and then, somehow, steering it close enough to the strike zone, again and again, to baffle the best hitters in the world.


In the 1930s, the prime of the great Giant lefty Carl Hubbell, “screwball” came to describe a specific genre of Hollywood comedies: battle of the sexes, often with a woman’s madcap antics upending a stuffy man’s world. In his book about Depression-era films, Andrew Bergman wrote that “screwball comedy,” like Hubbell’s famous pitch, was “unconventional, went in different directions and behaved in unexpected ways.”


“Have I ever told you about my agreement with the ball?” Quisenberry asked Angell, who said no. “Well, our deal is that I’m not going to throw you very hard as long as you promise to move around when you get near the plate, because I want you back. So if you do your part, we’ll get to play some more.”


After two chaotic decades or so, the spitball was banned for 1920, the same year the country went dry under Prohibition. The rule simply turned the mound into a speakeasy, with many pitchers going undercover to get the same slippery edge as their predecessors.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Hunger by Alma Katsu


Author: Alma Katsu
Title: The Hunger
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

This historical novel retells the journey of the Reed-Donner Party in 1846, but adds a supernatural element.  So in addition to a series of mishaps and a poor decision to use a dangerous cutoff in attempt to shorten their journey, the party of pioneers also have to deal with supernatural elements.  I found the characterization of the people in the novel was well-done, and the author created a good illustration of how the people in this moving community interacted.  But the horror of the real Reed-Donner party with people dying of disease and starvation, with others resorting to cannibalism to survive is horrible enough. The story is not improved by the supernatural horror.

Recommended books:

Rating: **

Book Review: Bonk by Mary Roach


Author: Mary Roach
Title: Bonk : the curious coupling of science and sex
Publication Info: New York : W.W. Norton, c2008.
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Mary Roach, the popular science writer who has the sense of humor of a 12-year-old, investigates medical research of human sexual intercourse.  There are some guffaws, and Roach even volunteers for some experiments with her husband, but this book is surprisingly a straight-forward account of historical research and current studies of sex. Roach draws on the writings of famous sex experts such as Alfred Kinsey and Masters & Johnson, and interviewing and observing today’s researchers. Along the way she details with sex machines and penis cameras, erectile dysfunction treatments, artificial insemination, and the mysteries of the female orgasm.  It’s an interesting account but it doesn’t feel like vital read.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Song of Solomon
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2009 [Originally published in 1977]
Other Books Read by Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Song of Solomon is a novel I read a couple of times in college and is my favorite of Toni Morrison’s many masterpieces.  I feel unqualified to write about it, since Morrison’s used of words, world building, characterization, and storytelling are so terrific they are to describe.

The novel tells the life story of Macon Dead III, known by the nickname “Milkman,” and his journey of self-discovery.  Milkman comes from a prosperous African American family in an unnamed Michigan city.  His father, Macon, owns lots of real estate, and his mother, Ruth, is the daughter of the city’s only African American doctor.

Milkman’s aunt Pilate lives on the other side of the tracks and is a bootlegger and something of a mysterious figure who was born without a navel. Despite Macon’s alienation from his sister, Milkman begins visiting Pilate and establishing more of a link with his family past.  He also begins a long-term sexual relationship with his cousin Hagar.  Milkman is also contrasted with his older, more world friend Guitar who is part of a secret organization of men who kill white people in retaliation for racial murders of blacks.

Milkman begins a southward journey, opposite of the Great Migration occurring at the same time the novel is set, ostensibly to follow the trail of some gold his father and Pilate once found. In reality, Milkman is finding connections to his past and his people. First, he visits the real town of Danville, Pennsylvania where his grandfather was murdered by white people and his father and Pilate had to flee for his safety. Then he continues to the fictional town of Shalimar, where Milkman pieces together his family history to enslaved Africans and Native Americans.

The ending of this book is both tragic and triumphant.  I was surprised that there were scenes in this book that stuck in my memory perfectly over 25 years.  Although there was also a lot of the book I’d forgotten. The novel remains one of my all time favorite books.

Favorite Passages:

“I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would of loved ‘em all. If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more.”

Rating: *****

Book Reviews: Damaged Goods by Russell T. Davies


Author: Russell T. Davies
Title: Damaged Goods
Publication Info: Virgin Book, October 1996
Summary/Review:

Many of the Doctor Who novels published in the 1990s were written by authors who either wrote for the original tv series or would go on to write for the revived series.  This novel is significant in that it’s author Russell T. Davies would go on to be the showrunner who brought Doctor Who back to our tv screens in 2005.  In common with the later tv series, this story is set on a council estate with a family named Tyler.

Much like in Andrew Carmel’s Warlock, a narcotic drug turns out to be an alien force.  In this case, cocaine contains an ancient Gallifreyan weapon called the N-form.  The weapon draws power from a pair of twins separated at birth who are connected by a vampiric waveform.  The whole plot is rather complicated, but it’s setting in the depression and poverty of Thatcher’s Britain is a well-formed world for the Doctor, Chris, and Roz to unlock a mystery and a human tragedy.

Rating: ***1/2

Other Doctor Who Virgin New Adventures:

Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker


Author: Karen Thompson Walker
Title: The Age of Miracles
Narrator: Emily Janice Card
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2012)
Summary/Review:

This novel offers a speculative account of the crisis that occurs when the rotation of the Earth slows, lengthening the periods of daylight and nighttime.  This incident is referred to by the characters in the book as The Slowing, and it has the effect of causing birds to die off, an increase of solar radiation, a complete inability to grow traditional crops, and even causing some people to contract an illness.

While the premise is fantastical, the way the fictional American society responds to the crisis is realistic.  The US government determines that the country will continue to follow the 24-hour clock regardless of what time the sun is shining or not.  Some people rebel against this, insisting on living on “real time,” even going so far as forming their own separatist communities.

The narrator/protagonist of the novel is a junior high school girl from suburban San Diego named Julia.  From her perspective we see the dissolution of the social order among her family, friends, and school.  Any attempts to deal with the normal struggles of adolescence are overshadowed by the crisis that prevents any sense of predictability in the world. Julia narrates from an uncertain future while the narrative focuses on the first few months of the slowing as Julia faces changing friendships and an emerging relationship with a long-time crush.

This novel is dark and emotional and all too real to be reading at this time.

Recommended books:

  • The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

Rating: ***

Book Review: All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai


Author: Elan Mastai
Title: All Our Wrong Todays
Narrator: Elan Mastai
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

All Our Wrong Todays takes the idea of the dystopian alternate universe and it turns it on its head.  In this novel, OUR universe is the dystopia where the narrator/protagonist Tom Barren ends up after a time travel experiment goes wrong.  In his world, the invention of a machine that provides unlimited clean energy in 1965 has lead to five decades of remarkable technological advancement, peace, and prosperity.

The great twist in this book is that Barren (known as John Barren in our world) is actually much better off in our timeline.  A loser in his world, he’s a successful architect in ours. His father is an aloof genius in his world, but a loving dad in ours.  His mother is dead in his timeline but alive in ours. He even has a younger sister who he’s very close to in our timeline.

Tom is faced with the struggle of knowing that he is responsible for changing history to our timeline with pollution, inequality, and war, and inadvertently making billions of lives nonexistent, but also wanting to cling what he’s gained in our world, especially the love of a woman named Penny.  Be warned that Tom is kind of a terrible person, and an unsympathetic character, but stick with it as his self-awareness is a strength.

This is an enjoyable and creative novel, and honestly I couldn’t stop listening to it once I started the audiobook.

Favorite Passages:

“The problem with knowing people too well is that their words stop meaning anything and their silences start meaning everything.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ****