Matt Witt | Blog

World Wide Work -- Books, Films, Music You May Have Missed

June 22, 2018

Great Blue Heron in FlightGreat Blue Heron in FlightPoint Reyes National Seashore Here’s the latest on films, books, and music you may have missed.

Citizen Illegal by Jose Olivarez (Haymarket). Vibrant and powerful poems explore stories and contradictions from the author’s experience as a son of Mexican immigrants.
The Heritage by Howard Bryant (Beacon). A leading sports writer traces the history of how white America has treated African American athletes who spoke out against racism, including Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Colin Kaepernick, as well as those who did not, such as O.J. Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods. He also takes a close look at the politicization of professional sports by billionaire owners who have promoted uncritical loyalty to the military and police at a time when African Americans have been subject to discrimination and, in some cases, even death at the hands of those forces.
Pictures of a Gone City by Richard A. Walker (PM Press). While focused on the San Francisco Bay Area as a case study, this is one of the best books for understanding how corporate special interests, including the supposedly progressive tech sector, are systematically intensifying inequality of wealth and privilege, the housing affordability crisis, environmental damage, and corruption of the political process in America today.
Flying Jenny by Theasa Tuohy (Akashic). An entertaining novel focuses on two women in 1929 – one breaking into the male dominated world of journalism and another who is one of the first female airplane pilots.
The Girl Who Drew Butterflies by Joyce Sidman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). In the 1600s, a German girl named Maria Merian grew up to be one of the world’s leading students of insects. This fascinating blend of history, science, feminism, and art includes some of the outstanding illustrations she created.
The Russians Are Coming, Again by Jeremy Kuzmarov and John Marciano (Monthly Review Press). The Cold War against Russia was used to justify huge military spending, repression of political dissidents in the U.S., and a series of wars in poorer countries around the world. Now, a new campaign by political, corporate, and media elites to demonize Russia “is designed to deflect public attention from our domestic ills” and “mobilize public support for military budgets and intervention.”
Trouble in the Tribe by Dov Waxman (Princeton). An increasing number of Jews in the U.S. want justice for Palestinians and are willing to challenge policies of the U.S. and Israeli governments.
Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? by Robert Kuttner (W.W. Norton). An increase in the unregulated power of global corporations is the primary reason that living standards and basic security are declining for most people around the world. Political parties and grassroots movements must offer solutions to that root problem or else right-wing nationalist demagogues will continue to rise.
The Battle for Paradise by Naomi Klein (Haymarket). Mass destruction caused by hurricanes in Puerto Rico in 2017 created an opportunity for major economic and political changes to benefit the island’s population – or a chance for outside capitalists to snap up land, win new subsidies, undermine basic rights, and profit from new policies of austerity.
The Oyster War by Summer Brennan (Counterpoint Press). A well researched account describes a recent battle over whether oyster farming could continue to take place in a fragile estuary in a wilderness area on Point Reyes. On one side, National Park Service scientists and environmental groups. On the other, wealthy special interests and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now by Annelise Orleck (Beacon). An optimistic account describes new workers’ movements for justice developing in the U.S., Bangladesh, Cambodia, Mexico, the Philippines, and South Africa.
Grand Canyon for Sale by Stephen Nash (University of California). With a focus that goes beyond the Grand Canyon, this book provides useful facts and analysis on such issues as the impact on public lands of climate change, cattle grazing, and overflying tourism. It also shows that endangered species are often signals of fundamental threats to broad ecological systems.
My Open Heart edited by Tim Sheard (Hardball Press). Nursing home and homecare workers took a summer creative writing class sponsored by their union and wrote short pieces about moments of joy in their lives.

Sea Otter Heroes by Patricia Newman (Millbrook). A book suitable for junior high students follows a marine biologist studying how seagrass on the California coast has benefited from sea otters that control the population of crabs that eat sea hares that keep seagrass clean of algae.
History Teaches Us to Resist by Mary Frances Berry (
Beacon). Grassroots movements have been essential to pressure presidents of both major parties, from Franklin Roosevelt to Obama – sometimes winning concrete victories and sometimes planting seeds for future gains.
Misdemeanorland by Issa Kohler-Hausmann (Princeton). Even when conviction rates are low, arrests for misdemeanors often have long-term disproportionate impacts on people of color.
American Hate edited by Arjun Singh Sethi (
The New Press). More than a dozen people who have been victims of hate crimes and other discrimination since the political rise of Donald Trump speak in their own voices.
Murder on Shades Mountain by Melanie S. Morrison (Duke). In 1931, an African American man in Alabama named Willie Peterson was falsely accused of murder and then subjected to a “legal lynching” by the court system. Members of the black community risked their own safety in an unsuccessful fight for justice.
The Body Is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor (
Berrett-Koehler). Body shaming has deep roots in our culture, family practices, and public policies.
Winning Richmond by Gayle McLaughlin (
Hardball Press). A memoir by the former mayor of Richmond, CA, tells how residents built a grassroots movement that elected progressive people of color to the city council and raised the minimum wage, regulated rent increases, demanded better policing, and challenged the area’s largest polluter.

The Rider.
A powerful and visually stunning film that straddles the line between documentary and narrative feature tells the story of a young Sioux horse trainer on the Pine Ridge reservation who suffers a head injury that jeopardizes his livelihood and his identity. The key characters are played by the actual people, including the trainer, his father, and his younger sister, who has Asperger’s Syndrome.
Outside In. A 38-year-old man finds it difficult to readjust to his hometown after 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. What will now be his relationship to his high school English teacher, a woman who devoted many hours to his legal fight for release but who has a family of her own and is old enough to be his mother?
The Insult. Two men -- a
Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee – are each trying to maintain their dignity in the face of past trauma. When insults are hurled, events spin out of control.
The Fencer. At a time when Russia controlled Estonia, a top Estonian fencer and fugitive from Russian authorities gets a job as a schoolteacher. Gradually, he introduces his students – many of them orphans – to his sport, but that leads to a difficult choice he must make about his future.

The Prodigal Son by Ry Cooder (Fantasy Records). With his characteristic top-of-the-line artistry, Cooder presents an unusual “Christian album,” as many of the songs call out hypocrisy in many churches today, including “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right”, “Gentrification”, “Jesus and Woody”, and “You Must Unload.”
Live and Never Learn by I See Hawks in L.A. A talented band keeps it real, as always, with a variety of quirky personal stories mixed with their usual environmental themes.
Miner’s Eyes by Kelly & Woolley (Clink and Rattle). Two British songwriters sing nostalgically about their personal lives and about industrial and mining culture that has mostly disappeared.


World Wide Work -- Films, Books, and Music You May Have Missed

April 17, 2018

Figures in Oak CreekFigures in Oak CreekRed Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness, Arizona

Here’s the latest on films, books, and music you may have missed.

The Reluctant Radical. This thought-provoking documentary provides an intimate profile of Ken Ward, an organizer who joins with others in civil disobedience to draw attention to the urgency of action on climate change. He was part of a small group of activists who closed valves in multiple states to shut down tar sands oil pipelines, resulting in trials where they have mounted a defense based on the necessity of acting to prevent a greater harm.
First Reformed. A timely feature film explores how despair can set in when individuals face difficult times without support from a broader community. A pastor at a New England church who lost his son in Iraq is asked to counsel a young man distraught over the ability of powerful corporate interests to block climate action. Meanwhile, a parishioner reminiscent of the Koch brothers is the most important donor to the church.
Minding the Gap. A young man in a decaying town in the Midwest made this documentary about himself and his skateboard buddies who are all trying to transcend dysfunctional families and avoid repeating a cycle of domestic violence.
The Last Hot Lick. The former bass player for a band that was popular 50 years ago now leads a lonely life touring small-time bars in the Northwest with his guitar, until he meets a woman who is also wandering and becomes his singing partner. All is not what it seems, however, as this down-to-earth feature film unfolds.
Fort Maria. A Bulgarian immigrant to the American South has raised an adopted African American daughter as a single mom. The daughter, now grown, searches for her birth family roots, while the woman who raised her confronts a crisis of her own. This strikingly visual feature film was made without giving the four women who are the main characters an exact script to follow, resulting in an unusual level of authenticity.

So Much Yellow. An 11-minute short feature set in the early 1960s shows a young couple taking the wrenching step of institutionalizing their four-year-old son, who has Down syndrome. The story is told from the point of view of his eight-year-old sister.
Nana. At a time when polling shows that two-thirds of American millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is, this documentary tells the story of one woman who was taken as a child to that German concentration camp where more than a million Jews and others were killed. By luck, she survived, and as an adult she led tours there so new generations would learn how genocide can happen.

Underfire. A young man in the U.S. infantry in World War II carried a small camera with him and took 8,000 photographs of battle scenes, fields of dead bodies, soldiers during down time, German prisoners of war, and much more. In this powerful documentary, he revisits many of the same sites and talks in poignant terms about his feelings then and now.
Frantz. In the aftermath of World War I, a young German woman and her in-laws mourn the death of her fiancé at the hands of French soldiers. A young Frenchman appears at his grave site, also in mourning. From there, relationships develop in unexpected ways, and more is revealed about why he has come.


World and Town by Gish Jen (A.A. Knopf). In this richly layered novel, a Chinese-American woman, her Cambodian immigrant neighbors, and her white former lover all are trying to find their way in a small town where the struggles of family farms, the growth of fundamentalist Christian churches, and other changes pose new challenges.
Brass by Xhenet Aliu (
Random House). An unusual first novel by the Connecticut-born daughter of Lithuanian and Albanian parents tells the story of one such immigrant and that woman’s daughter as they try to come to terms with their past.
This Is an Uprising by Mark Engler and Paul Engler (
Nation Books). Does social change come in small incremental bites won by large organizations, or as a result of mass mobilizations that create a crisis for those in power? Or through a combination of these two? Is it possible to reform the capitalist system, or better to create pockets of alternative culture? These are some of the age-old questions explored in this highly useful book with examples from recent history, helping today’s activists clarify their own strategic thinking.
Edith’s War by Peter A. Witt (
Texas A&M). Edith Witt was a lifelong social activist and writer who was involved in labor organizing and a sit-in for racial justice in the 1930s, served overseas in the Red Cross during World War II, stood up to McCarthyism in the 1950s, joined the civil rights march to Selma in 1965, helped build community organizations pushing for affordable housing, and led a fight to preserve marshlands north of San Francisco. Her nephew skillfully presents her previously unpublished historical accounts, letters, and other papers that described her experiences in her own words.
Unseen by Darcy Eveleigh, Dana Canedy, Damien Cave, and Rachel L. Swarns (
Black Dog and Leventhal). Four journalists who have worked for the New York Times selected photographs of African Americans that were taken for that newspaper but never published. Each photo is accompanied by illuminating text that explains the story behind it, often with comments about why the picture wasn’t used and what readers might have learned if it had been.
The New Prophets of Capital by Nicole Aschoff (
Verso). A journalist takes a close look at Sheryl Sandberg, Bill Gates, Whole Foods’ John Mackey, and Oprah, concluding that they are just the new faces advancing the legitimacy of class privilege and power, consumer culture, and capitalism itself.
In a Day’s Work by Bernice Yeung (
The New Press). At a time when sexual violence against women in Hollywood and the national media has received a lot of publicity, a journalist takes an in-depth look at harassment and assault against low-wage farm workers, domestic workers, janitors in office buildings, and others who can least afford to lose their jobs. She shows how laws and enforcement need to be strengthened, and details efforts by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other organizations to empower women to win justice on the job.
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez (
Random House). A realistic novel for teenagers focuses on the dreams, roots, and growing pains of a female Mexican-American high school student.
Down Girl by Kate Manne (
Oxford University). Misogyny is defined as the practice of silencing or punishing women who challenge male domination, according to this book by a philosophy professor.
Dying to Work by Jonathan D. Karmel (
ILR). Forty-five years after passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), 4,836 U.S. workers were killed in a single year, roughly 2,000 more than were killed on 9/11. About 50,000 more die each year from job-related illnesses, and another 3.8 million workplace injuries and illnesses are reported. The great majority of this carnage could be prevented if proven protections came before corporate profits. This book provides facts, solutions, and human stories from more than a dozen types of work, from grocery clerk and hotel housekeeper to logger and manufacturing worker.
Health Care Under the Knife edited by Howard Waitzkin (
Monthly Review Press). A team of experts on health care policy and practice produced a comprehensive analysis of why Obamacare will not solve fundamental problems in the U.S. system, how the financialization of health care has intensified, why big foundations like Gates are part of the problem and not the solution, and what can be done.
Moment of Truth edited by Jamie Stern-Weiner (
OR Books). A range of voices from Palestine and Israel debate major questions about the possibilities for peace and justice.
Inside Iran by Medea Benjamin (
OR Books). A basic primer provides an introduction to Iranian history, culture, and current politics, as well as the record of counterproductive U.S. intervention and confrontation under presidents of both major parties.
Class War, USA by Brandon Weber (
Haymarket). Twenty-five readable, illustrated stories describe some of the best known movements in U.S. history in which working people confronted corporate and political power, from strikes by women workers in the 1800s to the UPS strike of 1997 and the Fight for $15 today.
Stand Up! by Gordon Whitman (
Berrett-Koehler). In recent years, more and more people want to do something about the state of the world beyond signing online petitions and sharing rants on social media. A community organizer discusses steps for getting involved to help build a more powerful movement.
Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper (
St. Martin’s). In a book with a well-chosen title, a black feminist speaks on relationships with white women, the need for collective solutions to collective problems, the intersection of race and class, and more.
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates (
One World). The African American author of Between the World and Me provides a frank examination of why America made so little progress despite having its first black president.

Women of the World. A not-to-be-missed live album by a group of four female singers who hail from India, Italy, Japan, and Haiti/the U.S., backed by a skilled percussionist from Canada. The group has a full range of styles and songs from around the world, from energetic and playful to spiritual with gorgeous harmonies.
Les Blues Du Richmond by Duck Baker (
Tompkins Square). A virtuoso fingerstyle guitarist plays in a variety of styles, including folk, jazz, ragtime, Irish, and blues.
Southbound by
Bob Rea. 13 original songs in Nashville style range from serious – about the war in Vietnam or what to do when “the law got a license to kill” – to wry humor, like “Screw Cincinnati” about a woman’s old boyfriend who “keeps making her dance around the barroom too slow, while he whispers romance and steps on her toes.”

World Wide Work -- New Books, Films, Music

January 10, 2018

Green Springs Mountain FogGreen Springs Mountain FogCascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Oregon

Here’s the latest on films, books, and music you may have missed.

When They Call You a Terrorist
by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele (
St. Martin’s). One of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter tells the powerful story of her upbringing in a poor neighborhood, where her family faced police brutality and denial of basic human services, and her development as a movement organizer. The account skillfully weaves together personal experiences with broader analysis and statistics.
Braving It by James Campbell (
Crown). In this nonfiction book that reads like a good novel, a middle-aged writer from Wisconsin provides an intimate account of several challenging trips he took with his 15-year-old daughter to remote Alaskan wilderness areas. The story is as much about their relationship and their respective stages of life as it is about the wild beauty they are experiencing.
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich (
Random House). A violent and seemingly inexplicable tragedy is the starting point for this intense novel, leaving each character to pick up the pieces in their own way.
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson (
Dial Press). Written in an unusual conversational style that feels like someone is sitting in your kitchen telling you an engrossing story, this dramatic novel set in an isolated community in northern Ontario explores family relationships from childhood tragedy to surprising revelations in the adult years.
Kids These Days by Malcolm Harris (
Little, Brown). Readers of any generation will benefit from this thorough and well-researched analysis of the ways that millenials have inherited a world in which schools, jobs, and public policies leave them worse off than their predecessors.
On New Terrain by Kim Moody (
Haymarket). Changes in the economy create new challenges and opportunities for worker organizing. Provocative sections look at whether the Democratic Party can be the vehicle for progressive change and whether it was white workers who elected Trump.
What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte (
Belt Publishing). Since the 2016 elections, national media have rediscovered the existence of Appalachia as “Trump Country,” while a Wall Street right-winger named J.D. Vance has made the talk show rounds promoting his book, Hillbilly Elegy, that portrays Appalachians as violent addicts with dysfunctional families. A historian born and educated in the region challenges the stereotypes and recalls a legacy of grassroots organizing against exploitation by coal companies and other outside corporate interests.
Ramp Hollow by Steven Stoll (
Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A more intellectual look at Appalachian history starts with the arrival of agrarian whites and shows how their largely self-sufficient way of life was destroyed by timber and coal companies.
No is Not Enough by Naomi Klein (
Haymarket). Looking back at how Democrats failed to make major changes when they could have during the Great Recession, Klein argues that change comes from big vision and inspiring goals, not tiny increments, and from an intersectional movement, not a collection of separate causes.
Truevine by Beth Macy (
Little, Brown). A white writer researched the history of two albino African American brothers who were put on display for much of their lives as freaks in circus acts. Her book ranges wide, from the story of one brave family to the history of racism in a southern community to the exploitation that was typical of circuses that were a prime form of entertainment in America before movies, television, and the Internet.
Plundertown USA by Al Sandine (Hancock House). A native of the small town of Coos Bay on the Oregon coast recounts how for more than 150 years decisions about how local resources will be used have been made by timber companies and other wealthy interests in distant cities with no stake in the area’s long-term quality of life or economic or social viability. While focused on one community, this history provides valuable perspective on the ways extractive industries operating in rural areas have benefited from public subsidies without having to act in the public interest.
Animal Wise by Virginia Morell (Crown). Fascinating research on the minds and social lives of ants, fish, birds, rats, elephants, dolphins, apes, dogs, and wolves serves as a reminder of how much humans have in common with the rest of the animal world.
Robots by John Jordan (
MIT). A small-format book provides a basic introduction to robots and robotics, with examples such as driverless cars and the impact of robots on jobs. It also identifies economic and social issues that arise as robots are more widely used.

This Netflix original by director Dee Rees is easily the best feature film of 2017, with a compelling story, insightfully drawn characters, and outstanding acting. It focuses on two families – one black, one white – in rural Mississippi around the time of World War II, and in the process it poignantly brings in themes related to race, gender, class, and war.

Keep Talking. Against the odds, women in an Alaskan native community organize to save their language and culture, and in the process to help their young people find strength and hope. This touching documentary shows how their efforts are making a difference in individual people’s lives.
In the Land of Pomegranates. Young Palestinians and Israelis are invited to a retreat in Germany, where they hold blunt conversations about the past and the future. This thought-provoking documentary also is interspersed with stories and interviews that show the human cost of perpetual war. The film could provide a starting point for discussion about ending and repairing the damage done to other groups in other contexts, including African Americans, immigrants, or indigenous peoples, although its length – more than two hours – may often limit that kind of use.
Daughters of Destiny. A four-part series filmed over a seven-year period follows five girls of varying ages who are given the opportunity to attend an alternative school for poor children in India. The school was founded by an Indian-American who made a lot of money during the dot-com boom and believed that a good education could transform families’ lives.
Food for Change. An 82-minute film promotes food co-op stores as an alternative to control of the food industry by Walmart and other giant chains. The co-ops that are featured began as idealistic, mostly white hippie projects and now are multi-million-dollar businesses. The film does not deal with issues such as whether the co-op movement is serving neighborhoods of color or low-income communities, the history of corporate-style tactics by some of the stores to keep workers from organizing in order to negotiate over working conditions, or whether some of the processed food marketed as “health food” is actually any more healthy than what is sold in big chain stores.
The Deep. A documentary-style feature film tells the incredible true story of an Icelandic fisherman who was plunged into the North Atlantic when his fishing boat capsized, three miles from shore.


Awakening Beyond. Tina Turner is one of six women from the U.S., Israel, Syria, Nepal, Switzerland, and India who sing soothing, prayerful music backed by the Philharmonia Orchestra that incorporates traditional instruments from their respective regions.

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