Nancy Pelosi is not the problem

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is a lightning rod for antipathy to the Democratic Party. And she’s a great fundraising opportunity for Republicans, who are using her possible restoration as Speaker to rally the GOP to keep the House, just as they used Ted Kennedy as a fundraising bogeyman years ago.  But Republicans aren’t the only ones critical of Pelosi.

Many younger Democrats, chafing at the bit in pursuit of leadership opportunities, are waging war against the 78-year-old legislator from San Francisco. Ten Democrats are trying to increase the number of votes needed to elect a Speaker from a simple majority of the Democratic caucus to a majority of the whole House. This is a dangerous gambit. A bitter party battle over the Speakership, before the Democrats even regain control of the House, could diminish enthusiasm for tipping the House prior to the November election. And it’s so unnecessary.

What’s really needed is opening up House procedures, a return to regular order, the normal way of doing things.  And that’s where Worcester Congressman Jim McGovern and other good guys with seniority come in. “When the process stinks, so does the legislation,” he recently told the New England Council.  If the Democrats do retake the House, McGovern is in line to chair the House Committee on Rules.

Reflecting lessons learned from his mentor Joe Moakley, a masterful Rules Chairman, McGovern says all members need access to the process, whichever side of the aisle and wherever on the political spectrum.  That means holding actual hearings in committees with jurisdiction over proposed legislation, debating different sides of an issue and allowing amendments from the floor.  Giving everyone a say in the process is the way compromise used to be achieved and legislation would get passed on a bipartisan basis.

None of that happens today. Republican Speaker Paul Ryan has jettisoned these procedures so his members don’t have to be recorded on votes.  That’s how they’ve avoided accountability on matters like the tax cut, health care repeal and other important issues.  As McGovern aptly put it, if they don’t want to vote, maybe they should be doing something else with their lives.  “If you could sue politicians for malpractice, they’d be sued.”

Just for the record, McGovern thinks Pelosi has been “one of the greatest Speakers,” perhaps one of the best ever.  She certainly was the decisive voice in producing a more significant Affordable Care Act and may be the party’s most prolific fundraiser, helping Democrats to take back the House. Even if some Democratic backbenchers challenge Pelosi’s right to the gavel, her Congressional opponents don’t have a credible alternative.

Clearly, the public rightfully perceives Congress as dysfunctional. Restoring regular order and opening procedures could undercut that perception, give younger members an opportunity to make an impact and improve the quality of governance.

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Focus on tippable districts

On a recent sultry summer evening, well over 100 people crushed into a suburban Newton garden to hear Jared Golden, candidate for Congress.  Haven’t heard of him?  That may be because he is from Maine’s second Congressional district, currently represented in Washington by Republican Bruce Poliquin.  That night’s attendees  understand the need not to be distracted by Bob Woodward’s book Fear or the New York Times op ed piece by an anonymous senior official of the Trump administration, both talking about Trump’s dangerous shortcomings and the efforts of insiders to protect the Republic against him.  What matters now is flipping enough congressional districts from Republicans to Democrats to regain control of that branch of Congress. That will take dollars, shoe leather and grunt work.

Poliquin has lots of money and the name recognition that comes with four years of incumbency, but recent polls show the candidates neck-and-neck.  This district is tippable. Poliquin is tagged with a a reputation for ducking into men’s rooms to dodge questions about where he stands on the Affordable Care Act. While the bathroom story may be apocryphal, and while Poliquin makes a big deal of making his mobile number available, his constituents find him elusive. I thought he sounded reasonable if reserved at a New England Council meeting more than a year ago, but his actions belie that seeming thoughtfulness.

Golden, 35, is a Marine Corps veteran who enlisted after 9/11 and, after serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned to get a degree from Bates College.  Elected to the state legislature in 2014, now assistant majority leader, he led a push for health care for vets suffering from PTSD.  His main focus today is on access to health care for all.

One in five constituents in Maine’s 2nd district, a rural, working class district,  is on Medicaid. Poliquin is running an ad supporting rural health care, but he voted for the bill to repeal Obamacare, cutting $800 billion in funding and eliminating coverage of tens of thousands of Maine residents.  As Congressman Joe Kennedy, who is campaigning for Golden,  observed, those numbers show the hypocrisy of the Poliquin ad.  The incumbent also supports higher premiums for pre-existing conditions, and he voted for the tax cut bill that added $1.5 trillion to our national debt.

Golden also talks about political reform, overturning Citizens United and being  accessible  to constituents for real,  unlike Poliquin.   He worries today about the future of democracy and is definitely of the new generation.   He has said he won’t vote for Nancy Pelosi.

No incumbent has been defeated in Maine’s second district for more than a century. But the Cook Political Report notes that Golden may be one of the Democrats’ top candidates nationwide and rates the race a toss-up.

Nationwide,  many of the most promising candidates are women, particularly women of color.  And several of those women are veterans, like Texas’ MJ Hegar, pilot of a rescue helicopter,  New Jersey’s Mikie Sherrill, a fighter pilot, and Kentucky’s Amy McGrath, a former Marine pilot.  Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton, also a veteran, is mentoring this next generation.

If the Democrats are to win back the House, it has to be done district by district, and that means county by county and street by street.  That will require turning off CNN and MSNBC, even occasionally NPR, and writing checks, signing postcards and otherwise rolling up our sleeves.  Consider the price of failure.

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“Maverick” McCain’s death leaves huge void

John McCain died on August 25th, the same day Ted Kennedy died nine years ago, from the same lethal disease. Two old warriors, who disagreed on much but fought for their principles in the national interest and became good friends in the process. But I wonder whether our celebration of him and his life would be less intense if there were someone less despicable in the White House, one whose unbridled disrespect for McCain’s service, befouling the Presidency and dishonorable evisceration of civic virtue and democratic governance, make us hunger to sanctify the Arizona Senator far more than he would have embraced.

McCain freely admitted he was a flawed tribune, and his record was complex. He was a true war hero. The story of how he dealt with his incarceration experience is the stuff of legend. On our January trip to Vietnam, we were struck by how much the Vietnamese people admired him.  It’s not the monument near the Truc Bach lake in Hanoi, where they  shot him out of the sky in 1967. Nor is it their airbrushing his experience at the Hoa Lo prison. Rather, the Vietnamese people’s reverence for McCain stems from his initiatives, with Senator John Kerry, to normalize relations with Vietnam, a turn of events that helped revive the Vietnamese economy, moving the two countries toward a collaborative future.

McCain’s eloquent defense of human rights and and embrace of liberty, to  fight against tyrannical regimes  threatening the values and safety of the Western alliance,  endeared him to many. Others found him too hawkish, especially in his embrace of the Iraq War. But his eloquent stand against torture and defense of safety for our troops are reasons why troops loved him and are usually the last to want  their country to rush into military conflict.

In his two runs for President, we got to see the different sides of  John McCain. In 2000, as a long shot candidate running against the GOP establishment, he charmed reporters on his bus, “the straight talk express.” When he ran out of policy discussions,  he talked about everything else, charming reporters with his frankness and raunchy humor. He positioned himself as a principled centrist, critical of Karl Rove tactics and the vicious rhetoric  of the religious right. After he was torched by Rove’s race-baiting attacks  in the South Carolina primary, McCain went back to the Senate where he opposed his party and George W. on drilling, bad judicial appointments and tax cuts.

His 2008 campaign was an ugly parody of 2000. He jettisoned his principles, even slow-walking back his opposition to torture, advocating more drilling and deeper plutocrat-biased  tax cuts he had earlier opposed.  Instead of making a real maverick choice of Joe Lieberman as his running mate, whom he preferred, he bowed to his advisors’ choice of a supremely  unqualified Sarah Palin, who could pander to an emerging alt-right  base.  (Could it be remorse that caused him not to invite those advisors or Palin to his funeral?) But the better side of McCain came through in his defense of Obama against a memorable racist attack and later his unifying concession speech.

He supported comprehensive immigration reform and moves away from fossil fuel dependence. After getting burned in the Keating Savings and Loan Scandal, he became a stalwart on campaign finance reform. Former Massachusetts Congressman, now UMass President Marty Meehan worked closely with McCain on campaign finance and recalls him as a “cut-against-the-grain kind of guy,” really tough, but able to work across the aisle. (The McCain-Feingold bill in the Senate was Shays-Meehan in the House.)

But McCain was definitely a conservative Republican, a worthy successor to Barry Goldwater. Even in Arizona he is remembered for having  supported saving Apache sacred lands but then having agreed to drilling for oil on them.

McCain delighted in his maverick reputation and will be forever linked to his decisive vote to save the remnants of the Affordable Care Act.  But if we look at the fine print and his eloquent  speech that followed, his principal objection was the Senate’s not handling this vote and other matters as part of the “regular  order” of deliberation and debate instead of using anti-democratic procedural trickery.

Today we remember him more for his calls for civility in the public forum and a return to bipartisanship in Congress.  McCain was a throwback to the more personal, collaborative model of previous generations. But substantively he was not in the old Ed Brooke, Jacob Javits, Clifford Case mold. Notwithstanding his maverick nickname, it’s sobering to remember that for much of his Senate career, he voted straight party line 87 percent of the time and with Donald Trump 83 percent of the time.  He supported the infamous Trump 2017 tax giveaway, which he earlier would have decried. He would likely have had no trouble voting  for Trump’s Heritage Foundation/Federalist Society-approved Supreme Court nominees.

Trump, of course, was contemptuous of McCain, viewing him as a loser “because he was captured.” Trump refused to recognize that the recent Defense Authorization Act was named for McCain, and needed to be pressured by veterans groups to fly the White House flag at half staff during this memorial week.

In his Senate floor tribute to his dear friend, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham praised his mentor for teaching him “the art of democracy, the role of compromise and the rule of law.”  It is, perhaps, McCain’s understanding of those values and his calling out of Donald Trump’s contempt for them that has so many grieving McCain’s passing. McCain has rightly been labeled sui generis, and Graham acknowledges he isn’t up to the job of replacing him. Surely, Graham can’t fill McCain’s shoes, (he seems already to be caving in his erstwhile defense of Jeff Sessions), but wouldn’t it be a fitting tribute if only he and some of his colleagues were to take some steps to serve some purpose greater than themselves?

McCain was the first to admit his flaws, and , unlike many if not most of his colleagues,  was willing to apologize and acknowledge when he was wrong. But it’s the President’s party now, and his fellow Republicans have largely drunk the Kool-aid.  No apologies; just fear of a base that is almost as zealous as it was in 2016. Sadly, even a no-brainer like changing the name of the Russell Senate Office Building to honor McCain has run into quick opposition from Trump loyalist Southern Republicans.

After the lying-in-state at the Capitol, Saturday’s memorial service and Sunday’s interment in Annapolis, John McCain will likely be more a fond memory to some than a call to action by many. By Labor Day, attention will shift to Arizona governor Doug Ducey’s choice for McCain’s replacement. Will he pick someone like Cindy McCain, committed to John McCain’s values?  Or will the choice be made to avoid angering Trump supporters who could jeopardize Ducey’s reelection in November?  I fear the answer.

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Seventh CD a battle between good and better

Whoever wins  the Massachusetts  7th Congressional district Democratic primary on  September 4th  will be uncontested in November and  serve in the next Congress. It will be a Democrat, but what kind and what difference will that make for us?

In the intergenerational struggle for control of the Democratic Party,  Ayanna Pressley, 44, hopes to unseat long-term incumbent Michael Capuano,66,  from the office he has held for two decades.  Although neither a millennial nor newcomer to political office, she is both black and female in the state’s only majority -minority district.   She and her supporters tout Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ defeat of 10-term rep Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th district as a model for if not  predictor of our 7th district outcome. But that’s a stretch.  Crowley’s eyes were on his potentially replacing Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. He didn’t engage back in the district, highhandedly even sending a staffer to debate his opponent . And he paid the price. Mike Capuano is no Joe Crowley.

As Tip O’Neill , who used to represent this district, advised, “All politics is local.” National messages won’t work here- especially in an off-year election, where the  distinctive characteristics of the candidates  and their respective GOTV operations count more. Primaries are  usually  low turnout contests,  even more so this year, with a primary scheduled the day after Labor Day.  For Pressley to win and buck the traditional inertia toward keeping a good incumbent, she will need to bring out not only new voters but also  disproportionately animate  communities of color that tend not to vote in off-year elections. When they’ve voted,  they have justifiably supported her opponent.  It’s a tough but not impossible task.

Pressley embodies a new wave in what Democrats hope will be part of a nationwide blue wave. A victim of abuse, she has a compelling life story. She is bright, attractive, accomplished and reasonably articulate, the first woman of color to be elected to the Boston City Council, the city’s top vote-getter in three successive elections. Her motto, “change cannot wait,” speaks to the energy driving the Me Too movement, and, at a minimum, she’ll give usually unopposed Capuano a run for his money. But these are no ordinary times.

The seventh is the most diverse of the state’s congressional districts, comprising 70 percent of  Boston, parts of Somerville and Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Milton and Randolph.   The older white guy can’t change his age, sex or race to appeal to voters. If you’re a voter who puts  identity politics first, he’s not your guy. But Capuano has served the district well. Witness his 100 percent ratings from Planned Parenthood, the ACLU,  the NAACP, League of Conservation Voters and other organizations. He has been an energetic and effective advocate for progressive causes, and he has brought money home to the district, including the Green Line extension, the Fairmount Line, Ruggles Station, harbor dredging, housing projects and community health centers.  And this isn’t just a question of what he has already done, but what he will be positioned to do if the Democrats regain control off the House.

If that happens, Springfield Congressman Richie Neal will chair the powerful Ways and Means Committee, Worcester’s Jim McGovern will chair the critically important Rules Committee, and Michael Capuano will chair the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Capuano could also chair a financial services subcommittee dear to the Massachusetts economy. When you have one of the good guys, seniority matters.

Transportation is always at the top of the list of challenges facing our otherwise robust economy, along with the high cost of housing. Capuano can be depended upon to drive dollars to Massachusetts to address its woefully underfunded public transit and highway systems. This is directly relevant to urban and minority constituents desperately needing access to existing and future jobs, helping to attract companies seeking to relocate here. Massachusetts has not seen that kind of congressional power since the days of House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Joe Moakley and Ted Kennedy.

Capuano and Pressley differ little on the issues. It’s a question of emphasis. As she seeks to differentiate herself, she talks about the authenticity of her connections with the community, rife with systemic inequalities. She says that “those close to the pain should be close to the power.” But, unlike New York’s incumbent Crowley, Capuano has always been a presence in the district. He calls himself a “street fighter,” and he is. He’s scrappy, intelligent, experienced and strategic. In their debates, Pressley has her well polished thematic talking points, making for sound bites but weak on details, especially on foreign policy. Capuano can go big picture and get into the policy weeds. I’ve done both with him, and he’s the real deal. Not only a visible advocate for important legislation, he knows how to play the cloakroom amendments  game  and how to quietly work a budget appropriation to benefit his constituents.

Pressley has a bright future in politics, and I’m not saying to her “wait your turn.” We need more women and people of color in Congress. She has every right to run, and it’s probably a propitious time for her to do so. There is an anti-establishment mood among many Democrats, a desire to open opportunities for the next generation.  All that’s good, but it’s also important not to throw out the old baby with the bath water. If elected, she’d have a steep learning curve.

This isn’t a contest between good and evil. It’s between good and better.   In making a choice, MA 7th district voters would do well not to succumb to ageism but to see experience and clout in the context of these times, when Massachusetts has been marginalized and needs federal dollars more than ever. The ability to bring those home, combined with highly progressive values and track record, should be validated when primary voters go to the polls September 4th.  I like Mike.

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News media are not “enemies of the people”

I ask you: do I look like an enemy of the people?  Given my 30+ years in journalism (including Boston Phoenix, WGBH-TV, WCVB-TV) and nearly a decade more as a blogger, Donald Trump would probably say yes. Journalism is certainly in my DNA. Which is why I’m so proud of what my local newspaper is doing. The Boston Globe is urging a national response to the President’s war against the free press, calling for editorials Thursday from press outlets across the political spectrum to decry the attacks. Right or left, those editorial boards know the importance of press freedom to a flourishing democracy.

More than a few of Thursday’s editorials will probably mention Thomas Jefferson, famous for saying, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”   Yes, even though I cringe when the press is sloppy and sharply criticize when it is occasionally malign. Without the free flow of information and a vigorous marketplace of ideas, we cannot have an informed electorate and a sustainable democracy.

Sadly, our Bully-In-Chief keeps dismissing the media as “fake, fake disgusting news,” referring, of course, to anything that challenges his alternate reality or the 4,229 lies that Trump has told from the beginning of his administration to August 1, as documented by the Washington Post.  What’s even more disturbing than the name calling is how the President is increasingly inciting his rally audiences to violence against the press.

Thankfully, we haven’t yet reached the point where journalists are being imprisoned or sentenced to death as they are in Iran, Mexico, Russia and Turkey (the leading jailer of journalists).  But, as with most Trump obsessions, with this increase of attacks on the news media, can the slippery slope be far off?

The journalists I know are hard-working and mission-driven. They certainly aren’t in it for the money or, for that matter, job security. They’re willing to do the tedious work of chasing down facts, scouring documents, making uncomfortable phone calls and sometimes coming up empty-handed, double and triple checking, all to get the story the public has a right to know.  Whether it’s a community paper identifying political payoffs to local officials awarding street paving contracts or a national outlet exposing wrong-doing at the highest levels of government, it is the print and electronic media who are our representatives holding powerful institutions and individuals accountable.

Do they make mistakes? Too often.  Do they overreach? Sometimes. Do they occasionally mix news and opinion?  The firewall isn’t as clear as it used to be or should be. But, as an editorial in The Guardian pointed out after the killing of five journalists in the Annapolis, MD Capital Gazette, the “real enmity lies not between the press and the people, but the free press (and people) and the powerful.”

Our job, as consumers of news, has become more complicated at a time when social media (sadly, the main source of news for most people) have been expropriated by non-journalists who traffic in made-up stories and falsehoods. Think Pizzagate, the made-up story of Hillary Clinton running a pedophile ring in the basement of a pizza parlor.  Probably started by a Russian disinformation operative, advanced by self-serving far-right conspiracy promoters like Breitbart and Alex Jones, retweeted by gullible Hillary haters and eventually picked up by mainstream media, this totally fake story shows how important it is that we all work to sort the wheat from the chaff. But we can’t do it without the serious work of the mainstream news media.

We need to read multiple sources, and we need to be vigilant. And, whether you support or despise the President, please know that on this issue he is dead wrong. The media are not the enemy. They are one of our best friends and must continue to be free to do their job so we can have the information to do ours.

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Summer reading part two: non-fiction

The following are suggestions from when I wasn’t fleeing the daily news into real fiction, as noted in my previous blog.

I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey behind the Lines of Jihad,  a memoir by Washington Post national security reporter Souad Mekhennet, takes us into dangerous territory to places she was uniquely qualified to explore.  The daughter of Muslim immigrants in Germany, Mekhennet was the first to identify the masked ISIS fighter in beheading videos known as Jihadi John, and the book reveals the extreme jeopardy into which she placed herself to get the story. Fluent in English, French, German and Arabic, the daughter of a Sunni father and Shiite mother, Mekhennet works to blend in in Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa in her effort to understand the background and motivation of those who do evil things in the name of her religion.

The Sacred Willow by Mai Elliott is a memoir about four generations of a Vietnamese family, including its early status at the mandarin level of society, through decades of wars with the French, the Viet Minh, the Viet Cong and the Americans and on to the diaspora, family loyalties being the continuous thread.  Though I reveled in the book on our return from Vietnam, it is not necessary to have traveled there to enjoy this journey of one extended family through a nation’s tumultuous history.

Citizens of London by Lynne Olson has been on my list for a few years, and I finally got to read it in conjunction with a class at Brandeis.  It is a spell-binding account of three Americans living in London prior to the United States entering World War II: CBS luminary Edward R. Murrow, whose broadcasts during the blitz help sway American opinion on the need to defend our British allies. John Gill Winant, American Ambassador to the Court of Saint James. Averill Harriman sent to oversee the Lend Lease program. All three were close to Winston Churchill, politically advancing the cause of war against Hitler, and all three were intimates of Churchill’s daughters and daughter-in-law. It’s a story about politics and passion, international intrigue and amazing courage. It’s living, breathing history at its finest.

Dark Money by Jane Mayer Should be must reading for students of history and anyone else who cares about the political influence of the rich and powerful. The focus is largely Charles and David Koch, super wealthy oilmen who decided systematically to support anti-government libertarians at every level of government.  They’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars for candidates and lobbyists but also very quietly invest millions of dollars in college programs to promote a conservative agenda.  You can see their success reflected in the Trump administration’s rollback of regulations on energy and the environment, leaving a nearly unfettered fossil fuel industry. Mayer also delves into the background of billionaire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ family (fortune from Amway) spending on conservative causes and makes passing reference to the way George Soros uses his fortune to benefit liberal causes. Mayer spent five years writing the book, which, at a minimum, reinforces the need to reverse the impact of the Citizens United decision.

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder will someday make a great edge-of-your-seat movie. As Browder explains in this memoir, his grandfather was head of the Communist Party in the United States and ran for President on that ticket. Bill Browder went in the opposite direction, got his degree at Stanford and, after the demise of the Soviet Union, built the biggest hedge fund in Russia. You can’t function at that level of finance and power without coming up against Vladimir Putin. When Browder wouldn’t play ball with Putin and his cronies, they trumped up tax evasion charges against him amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.  Browder, then living in London, hired attorney Sergei Magnitsky to represent him. Putin had Magnitsky imprisoned and tortured, leading to his death in prison. Browder lobbied Congress tirelessly to pass sanctions against Russia, the resulting legislation called the Magnitskty Act. Sound familiar? Putin is still bristling under the sanctions imposed, a subject apparently discussed frequently with the Trumps. Browder’s book offers an inside look at the brutal ways of Vladimir Putin and his cronies.

Family of Secrets by Russ Baker is easily dismissed as yet another imagining by a conspiracy theorist. It sees major events of the 20th and early 21st century as driven by dark forces, especially the nexus among financiers, oilmen, and spies. Everything from the Kennedy assassination to Watergate and beyond is presented as the result off a plot to pursue the goals of these three interest groups. The book is very well researched, and, if you succeed in plowing through it, there are fascinating connections among key players in multiple generations of the Bush family cutting across the banking, oil and spook worlds. The Bush family’s old school ties at Andover, Harvard and Yale are also analyzed, including how Yale’s Skull and Bones Society was a hot recruitment space for the CIA. The book has been called reckless and paranoid, but it does leave the reader with unanswered questions about historic events and a general sense of unease about who is pulling the levers of power.

Let me know what you’d recommend. I welcome your comments in the section below. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ in the lower right portion of your screen.

 

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Summer reading part one: escape into fiction

Every year at this time I share books that that may interest my readers.  What I have discovered in year two of the Trump administration is how I often have I sought escape into fiction, though it is fiction with a political edge.

Waking Lions by Israeli writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is a thriller about a neuro-surgeon who, having done a double shift at his hospital, lets off steam by driving his SUV at high speeds on a dessert road very late at night. He hits a man and, having ascertained that death is inevitable (his brain is split like a cantelope), gets back in his car and takes off.  The wife of the victim, an Eritrean illegal, finds the doctor’s wallet, goes to his home and extorts him.  She demands that he provide medical care in an abandoned garage to other illegals, Which he does night after night.  Tension mounts because the doctor’s wife, a police investigator, is in charge of the case. This a compelling narrative and psychological exploration, replete with ambiguities. A really good read.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie is broadly modeled after Sophocles’ Antigone, in its battle of a sister against the government to bring home Her brother.  Isma, a hijab-clad Muslim, is a Londoner of Pakistani origin whose father was a jihadist.  The book opens with her being interrogated en route from the U.K. to Amherst College, where she’ll be studying. Her brother Parvaiz, whom Isma has helped raise, is lured by ISIS cause, changes his mind and is trapped in Raqqa. Parvaiz’ twin sister Aneeka falls in love with the son of the British home secretary, also a Pakistani, whose help she will need in getting Parvaiz back to London.  It’s all about loyalty, love, grief and radicalism.  The narrative is hard to put down, and the writing is riveting.

Behold the Dreamers, a first novel by Imbolo Mbue, shows with nuance and occasional humor how we are all migrants, travelling from one place to another.  The protagonist, Jende, came from the Cameroons to America and, to help his family, learns how to work and “make it” in America, if necessary gaming the system to get ahead.  His boss, Clark,  came from nowhere in America (his forebears were immigrants) to  be a powerful CEO in New York’s financial world.  He has his own problems, and the weaving of the tales of their families is a compelling narrative.

In Exit West, author Mohsin Hamid deals with some of the same migrant/refugee issues but in a war-torn setting.  Critically acclaimed as on of the best books of 2017, Exit West doesn’t quite succeed for me, possibly because Hamid seems to reach in a kind of magical realism.  As refugees (and lovers) Saeed and Nadia flee from one country to another, trying to make a life for themselves, moving from what could be Syria to Greece, somehow showing up in London and then, surprisingly in California. The take-away is a sense of the unease that comes from displacement, but the book’s fabulous turn was perplexing.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is set in 1977 in small-town Ohio, where the teenage daughter of a biracial couple (Chinese, Caucasian) goes missing and turns up dead.  It’s a who-dunnit with exploration of race, family and class tensions and deconstruction of the relationship between the family and the town.  Another really good read.

If you like family sagas, I’d recommend Pachinko by Min Jun Lee, covering four generations of a Korean family, starting in Japanese-occupied Korea and then in Japan itself. The book takes its name from the gambling establishments where Koreans could earn a good living  though excluded by discrimination from more mainstream occupations.  Against the backdrop of sweeping historic changes, class and ethnic tensions, Pachinko’s success rests with the family narrative, and it’s a darn good yarn.

If you haven’t yet read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, it’s a charming story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov,  a Russian aristocrat living at the grand Hotel Metropol in 1922 when he was arrested for writing a poem and sentenced to house arrest.  He ends up going from being a much respected guest to being a waiter, his living quarters shifted from a fine suite to a small garret.  All of this he accepts with grace and refinement. The world passes through the Metropol, and Rostov creates his own world of culture, proper etiquette, as he networks with colorful figures who cross his path.  The book starts slowly but ends up having a great deal to say about human dignity and survival.

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud is a tale of girlhood friendship, told by teenaged Julia and set against the backdrop of an abandoned mental hospital, where she and friend
Cassie would hang out.  It is a well written and compelling narrative with themes of dysfunctional families, attempted suicide and plenty of peer pressure. Not a Nobel Prize winner but a good summer read.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is also engrossing , the story of the medical experiments carried out on women prisoners at the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Poland.  Two of the characters were real: Nazi surgeon And war criminal  Herta Oberheuser, who carried out the experiments to further her career, and Caroline Ferriday, a New York socialite who did non-profit work for French orphans until, after the war, she learned of the Polish experiments and turned her attention to helping the Ravensbruck victims, bringing many to the United States for physical and mental rehabilitation.  Other principal characters in Lilac Girls are fictional, composites based on the victims of this notorious and brutal scheme.  The characters are unevenly developed, but that doesn’t stop Lilac Girls from being enjoyable.

Last but not least, this summer I reread The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, told in his voice as a child.  The book imagines that, instead of FDR’s winning a third term in 1940, airline hero and Nazi apologist Charles Lindbergh wins the Republican nomination for President on an “America First” platform and is elected in November.  A tsunami of nativism sweeps the country and, with it, an increase in anti-Semitism. Some Jews successfully assimilate and are coopted by the right-wing government.  Others, derided as “ghetto Jews,” are relocated to the heartland of the country to be “Americanized.“  There’s just enough mixture of fact and fiction to make the reader break out in a cold sweat in today’s political context.

Let me know what you’d recommend. I welcome your comments in the section below. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ in the lower right portion of your screen.

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