Friday, August 16, 2013

Summer reading roundup

The most recent three...

Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives.
He was on Terry Gross today. The book is good, and the author's efforts to get out the truth about FBI repression of dissent at Berkeley through years of FOI Act requests was heroic. It suffers a bit from the author's desire to put a narrative spin on the history, and excessive length. We get some fairly canned pop psychology regarding the book's dramatis personae: heroes Mario Savio and Clark Kerr, villains J. Edgar and Ronald Reagan. Of course one is hoping for a smoking gun that condemns Reagan's legacy. Instead, there are some sordid FBI favors, atrocious but politically expedient lies about the nature of the campus protest movements, and a lot of criminal behavior by local law enforcement. Clearly J. Edgar and Ronnie saw eye to eye, and were happy to help each other out when it was mutually beneficial, but Rosenfeld can't really prove that Reagan's rise to power owed very much to the feds. The revelation that Black Panther Richard Aoki was an FBI informant is a shocker, but its importance for understanding Panther history remains vague. Did he act as an agent provocateur, and if so is it possible that through his activities the FBI successfully steered the Panthers toward a more radical, violent, and therefore marginalized politics? 
I was intrigued by some of the book's fifth business, particularly FBI agent Don Jones. This guy was always around, spying on the subversives, issuing reports. But he called it as he saw it, and the way he saw it didn't always accord with what Hoover or Reagan wanted to hear. "Almost all of the faculty members at UCB have expressed opposition to student agitational activities which result in violence, damage or terror, while expressing sympathy with constructive change in the usual process, social and political reform and orderly descent [sic]," he wrote in an extensive report about the 1969 Third World Liberation Front protests (p. 446). In other words, Berkeley was a hotbed of... liberalism!

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin.
Just your usual story within a story within a story within a story novel. All the stories are great, and the writing rarely lets you down. It's my first Margaret Atwood novel, I'm somewhat embarrassed to say. It won't be my last. This got me thinking... how many Canadian novelists have I read? I consulted Wikipedia's list. Not many, it turns out, and Saul Bellow hardly counts... but the average quality is high, regardless.
Margaret Atwood
Saul Bellow
Robertson Davies
Barbara Gowdy

Carl Hiaasen, Bad Monkey.
Funny in parts, mostly a little flat and disappointing. It was so damn predictable that the bad monkey would save the day by chomping on a bad-guy's dick. Hey, it had to be said.

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