Book Review: Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, Jessica Luther (2016)

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

A Fan’s Take on the Intersection of Rape Culture, Racism, and Capitalism in College Football

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for discussions of rape and violence against women, obviously.)

So I am not what you’d call a sports fan. Occasionally I enjoy playing baseball, basketball, or tennis for funsies or fitness, but that’s about the extent of it. I ran out of fucks to give as a spectator when my youngest brother aged out of Little League.

Jessica Luther, on the other hand, “was born with garnet and gold blood.” Her parents graduated from Florida State University; she spent her autumns rooting for the Seminoles religiously; and, when it came time to go off to college, she only applied to one school. Once at FSU, she had her ass planted firmly in the bleachers for every home game, rain or shine, humidity and frost be damned:

I learned early on how to be a fan. There are rules and rituals the fans of a sports team follow and do, a kind of collective performance before and during games that show the love for our school and team. The playbook for fans consists of memorizing chants, wearing the right colors, painting our faces, and always singing along whenever you hear the school’s fight song. The most important play, though, is the one where you give your team your love and devotion, and you trust in the players and coaches even when they play badly and even if you have to ignore what they do when they are off the field and out of uniform. This, the fan playbook prescribes, is what good fans do. I used to be a really good FSU fan.

That is, until the 2012 rape allegations against Jameis Winston forced her to confront some of the more problematic aspects of the sport she so loves.

Let me stop right here and say that it’s not that you have to be a fan of something in order to earn the right to critique its more problematic aspects; far from it. But the particularities of fan identity vis–à–vis sports – Luther cites studies which show that many fans’ self-esteem is linked to their team’s performance – certainly encourage suspicion and hostility towards outsiders, as do structural barriers against women in sports, not to mention larger cultural narratives surrounding rape and violence against women. To the football fans in the audience, Luther wants you to know that she’s one of you, and her interrogation of that which you hold most dear comes from a place of love: both for victims/survivors, and for the sport itself. The wake up call is coming from inside the house, okay.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler (2016)

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

A smart, funny look at the commodification of feminism.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Within a very short span of time, feminism has come to occupy perhaps its most complex role ever in American, if not global, culture. It’s a place where most of the problems that have necessitated feminist movements to begin with are still very much in place, but at the same time there’s a mainstream, celebrity, consumer embrace of feminism that positions it as a cool, fun, accessible identity that anyone can adopt. I’ve seen this called “pop feminism,” “feel-good feminism,” and “white feminism.” I call it marketplace feminism. It’s decontextualized. It’s depoliticized. And it’s probably feminism’s most popular iteration ever.

“The vote. The stay-at-home-dad. The push-up bra. The Lean Cuisine pizza.”

— 4.5 stars —

When We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement first crossed my radar, I was intrigued but also worried; the book’s description sounded like it could easily devolve into a chiding of Millennials by their older, second-wave sisters for not doing feminism right. (Think: Gloria Steinem’s recent statement that young women’s support of Bernie Sanders is merely a ploy to meet boys and get laid.) Then I saw that Andi Zeisler is the author, which mostly put my worries to bed: I’m a longtime subscriber of Bitch Magazine, which Zeisler co-founded, and it’s pretty trenchant, on-point, and welcoming of diverse voices. As is We Were Feminists Once which, as it turns out, is a smart and funny look at the the commodification of feminism, both in recent times and historically.

Bolstered by capitalism and neoliberalist policies, “marketplace feminism” is the repackaging of feminism as something that’s solely personal vs. political. This “feminism” is decontextualized and depoliticized, made soft and nonthreatening for mass consumption. It is a feminism “in service of capitalism.” With an emphasis on personal choice as opposed to equality and liberation for all, this feminism asserts that all choices are equally valid; a choice is feminist as long as a self-proclaimed feminist (or any woman) is the one making it, as though the choice to wax one’s body or take your husband’s surname or even to marry at all is made in a vacuum. (Enter one of my favorite references: Charlotte York’s desperate declaration, “I choose my choice!,” upon quitting her beloved gallery job after marriage.) Values and ideology become so much products to pick and choose from, as if they were different brands of conditioner. Worst still, feminism itself is presented as a product in need of branding.

(More below the fold…)

Mini-Review: Wolverton Station, Joe Hill (2014)

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

Cheeseburgers and Entitlement

five out of five stars

“I knew by the smell of you. You Americans have different accents – your southern accent, your California-surfer accent, your Noo Yawk accent.” Affecting an atrocious faux-Queens accent as he said it. “But you all smell the same.” […]

“What do we smell like?” Saunders asked.

“Like cheeseburgers,” said the wolf, and he barked with laughter. “And entitlement.”

When Saunders, aka “The Woodcutter” – a hatchet man for global coffee company Jimi Coffee – spots a wolf on the platform as his train pulls into Wolverton Station, he’s hardly surprised: his London trip has been plagued by protestors angered by the expansion of Jimi Coffee into British borders. Saunders’ M.O. is as ruthless as it is simple: find a quaint mom-n-pop store, set up shop nearby, and slowly but surely drive them out of business, even if it means running at a loss for months or even years. First Main Street, then the world. For this he earns a seven-figure salary, even as black and brown children labor in Jimi Coffee’s factories for mere pennies. The giant Uncle Sam effigy, complete with a larger-than-life, pink-as-a-baby’s-bottom penis? It comes with the ribbon cutting.

(More below the fold…)

Mini-Review: W.U.M.E.: A short story, Marc Poliquin (2014)

Friday, August 8th, 2014

Contains the Seeds of a Chilling Dystopian Novel

three out of five stars

Kate Murdoch is seven months pregnant – and under contract with her husband’s employer. In exchange for covering all the fees associated with Kate’s pregnancy and delivery, Kate granted SnazzyCorp the right to imprint her baby Ben starting in the third trimester.

Developed by Carson Hill, the Wired Uterine Manipulation and Encryption Procedure – W.U.M.E. for short – is a way for corporations to cultivate brand loyalty while people are still in the womb. Hill’s assistant, Virginia Williams, served as test subject #1; when her child was born, the newborn immediately refused her mother’s breast in favor of ChemLax baby formula. Years later, and the procedure has taken off; instead of competing for consumers, companies wage war over access to fetuses on the battlegrounds of their mothers’ bodies.

When Kate has a sudden change of heart and attempts to break the contract, SnazzyCorp kidnaps her from her bed in the dead of night in order to subject her and Ben to forced imprinting. Ostensibly saved in the nick of time by a mysterious rescuer known only as Nate, Kate soon finds herself in an even more horrifying situation: imprisoned as a Carrier in the Factory, a clandestine human trafficking facility run by SnazzyCorp competitor GloboDiTech Ltd.

“W.U.M.E.” is a chilling science fiction dystopia in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale. It contains the seeds of a potentially great novel; unfortunately, at just twenty-one pages, it’s a little short on character development and world building for my taste. I would love to see the ideas presented here fleshed out in greater detail.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Ultraviolet, Joseph Robert Lewis (2014)

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

A Superhero Straight out of the Occupy Movement

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaway program. Also, minor spoilers below.)

Sixteen-year-old Carmen Reyes Zhao should have been on top of the world. Not a year out of college and just two months after being canned from her lucrative engineering job at 3D printer megacorp Cygnus, Carmen invented something big. Like change-the-world big. Instead of stumbling all over themselves to rehire Carmen, her former bosses are chasing her down. Carmen not only unwittingly violated the Corporate Espionage Act by continuing her research after she was fired from Cygnus – but her invention is so revolutionary that it poses a serious threat to Cygnus’s monopoly on, well, everything.

In Ultraviolet, Lewis imagines a dystopia that’s so chilling precisely because it feels so real and believable – so terribly possible. The advent of 3D printers led to 30% unemployment in just a few years. Since most people can manufacture their own goods at the push of a printer button, the bulk of blue collar jobs are in garbage and recycling for the feedstock industries – dirty and dangerous work. High school ends early so that kids can go to work at fifteen. Only a “lucky” few teenagers attend college, and those who do don’t waste time on “frivolous” subjects like humanities and the social sciences. The turnaround time on an engineer? Six months.

Unsurprisingly, the American government has been bought and paid for by a handful of uber-rich corporations, which craft laws and shape morality to protect their own selfish interests (money, power, market shares). Businesses like Cygnus have a vested interest in keeping people poor, uneducated, and dependent on their products. When Carmen figures out how to turn light (a free resource, as opposed to Cygnus’s expensive feedstock) into physical objects, Cygnus claims ownership of her hologram projection suit so that it can bury the tech – and Carmen, in a federal prison. Luckily, she’s got an entire armory at her fingertips. Literally. (My favorite is the over-the-top sword and armor based on designs from a video game, Gyroware’s Demon Age 3. Lewis has an uncanny sense of pop culture trends, which makes Ultraviolet all the more fun.)

(More below the fold…)

five tributes

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

2012-02-01 - In Other Worlds Excerpt - 0001

A page from Margaret Atwood’s latest, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (2011).

excerpt from the short story “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet”

3. In the third age, money became a god. It was all-powerful, and out of control. It began to talk. It began to create on its own. It created feasts and famines, songs of joy, lamentations. It created greed and hunger, which were its two faces. Towers of glass rose at its name, were destroyed and rose again. It began to eat things. It ate whole forests, croplands, and the lives of children. It ate armies, ships, and cities. No one could stop it. To have it was a sign of grace.

Book Review: With Liberty and Justice for Some, Glenn Greenwald (2011)

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

A must read for anyone who professes to care about “democracy.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free advanced review copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

If you read just one book in 2012, let Glenn Greenwald’s With Liberty and Justice for Some be it. (But really, please read more than one book this year. Reading is the best!)

Greenwald – a political columnist for Salon who previously worked as an attorney specializing in constitutional and civil rights issues – shows how, over the past several decades, the legal system has been bent, twisted, abused, and exploited to serve the interests of the privileged few at the expense of the many. Beginning with the Watergate scandal, he traces the evolution (or devolution, as it were) of “elite immunity,” an increasingly accepted principle which holds that some people – and companies – are too large, too important, too powerful to be made to follow the same rules as the rest of us. While this exception initially only applied to those in the highest levels of government, it’s gradually expanded to encompass government officials at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as large corporations and their earthly representatives. Thus, the law – meant to be the great equalizer (of white, cissexual, Christian men … and, eventually all American citizens) – instead works to perpetuate inequities in all realms of life.

In his discussion of elite immunity, Greenwald explores the idea through the use of two recent examples: the so-called “war on terror” (particularly the use of torture) and the financial crisis (including the fraudulent business practices that contributed to it). However, examples of elite immunity can be found far and wide: companies flout environmental regulations, face no criminal penalties for doing so – and, to add insult to injury, taxpayers foot the bill for cleanup. (That is, if the mess is even cleaned up.) Animal ag ignores the paltry animal welfare laws that exist, and are lauded for their “good” (read: profitable) business practices. (All while receiving handouts from the taxpayers in the form of subsidies and complimentary “pest” control programs, such as plans to wipe out wolves who dare dine on cows.) Police officers assault largely nonviolent Occupy protestors, in some cases forcibly holding their eyes open so that they can harm them with pepper spray, and no one but the occasional scapegoat is held accountable. (Of course, police brutality is nothing new; men and women of color, trans* people, sex workers, the homeless, those with mental and physical disabilities – all have been and continue to be targets of police abuse, with little hope of recourse from our legal system.)

Normally this is where I’d include a few excerpts or choice facts – but it’s difficult to quote any one passage, because it’s all compelling. (Insert the rage comic “I’ll highlight all the important parts.” / “IT’S ALL IMPORTANT.” here.) Really, if you’re even the least bit interested in politics, justice, or democracy, With Liberty and Justice for Some is a must read.

My only complaint is that, after working the reader into a frenzy of fury-slash-depression, Greenwald doesn’t so much as hint at a how we might go about fixing this mess. Granted, any solutions are likely to be complicated and multifacted and require more than a chapter (or even a book) to adequately explain, but just a taste of hope and optimism would be nice. Personally, I wish he’d touched upon electoral reform – particularly the public financing of elections – as a start, but I’m also curious as to what he’d suggest. Ah well, next book perhaps?

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Intersectionality ‘Round the Interwebs, No. 24: Three months o’ links!

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Considering I haven’t posted a link roundup in more than three months, this one actually isn’t all that long. What can I say; I’ve used what little free blogging time I’ve had to prepare for the upcoming Vegan MoFo madness. Speaking of which, brand spanking new graphics and an up-to-date press release are now available. Go grab some and spread the word! 400 participants and counting – let’s make it 500, kay? Come November 1st, you can follow the fun on Twitter (VeganMoFo, #veganmofo), the (new!) PPK forums, and Vegan MoFo Headquarters International. See y’all then.

Joel Burns tells gay teens “it gets better”;

Stephanie @ Animal Rights & AntiOppression: “You Coming Out or What?”; and

The Bullies Suck T-shirt

In the wake of a spate of suicides, committed by gay teenagers who were each the target of homophobic bullying, the LGBTQ community and its allies celebrated National Coming Out Day on October 11. Together, these events have focused attention on movements to prevent bullying – particularly those aimed at LGBTQ (or perceived LGBTQ) youths – including the It Gets Better Project and The Trevor Project. The former invites members and allies of the LGBTQ community to upload encouraging videos to its website, the message being that “it gets better”; the latter operates a hotline for LGBTQ youths and young adults in crisis, and also provides resources to parents and educators.

As part of this anti- anti-gay backlash, a number of celebrities and public figures have shared their own experiences publicly – including Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, whose heartbreaking speech went viral and was aired in full on various media outlets, including CNN (where I first saw it). I’ve embedded the video above; even though it’s rather long, clocking in at almost 13 minutes, I urge you to watch the whole thing. It will bring you to tears.

And, while you’re already a sobby, snotty mess, head on over to AR&AO, where Stephanie shares her own “coming out” story. These issues – homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and the like – are relevant to animal rights activism simply because so many activists belong to marginalized groups; nonhumans are not the only animals exploited and mistreated en masse, for no reason other than the simple fact of their birth. All oppression is bad oppression, and all forms of oppression harm individual activists, as well as social movements and the beings for whom we advocate. These are not “special interests,” to be addressed only after the “important” work is done; these are our interests, to be tackled in concert with other “isms.”

To this end, Ari Solomon of A Scent of Scandal, Josh Hooten of The Herbivore Clothing Company and Jennifer Martin of Ink Brigade created a line of t-shirts to show solidarity with the victims of anti-LGBTQ bullying. Called “Bullies Suck,” the tees are available for purchase through Herbivore (just $20, with kids’ sizes, to boot!); all proceeds will be donated to The Trevor Project.

(More below the fold…)

Intersectionality ‘Round the Interwebs, No. 15: BEEF!, Bitches & "Bruised Feelings"

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

BEEF! For Men With Taste

vegansaurus!: BEEF!: nicht für Frauen–unless your Mann gives it to you

In which “beef” has its own magazine (and it’s a gentleman’s magazine, natch!): BEEF! for Men with Taste. Luckily, vegansaurus is all over that shit.

Ida @ L.O.V.E.: Political Correctness, Political Expediency, and Veganism and

Royce @ Vegans of Color: notes on “Veganism Overly Defined”

Ida (taking a break from The Vegan Ideal to guest post at L.O.V.E.) and Royce respond to a guest post at Vegan Soapbox (Veganism Overly Defined) in which the author dismisses an intersectional approach to veganism and animal advocacy as “attach[ing] favorite causes” and “baggage” to “Veganism.” Likewise, vegans who object to human-based “isms” “get so involved in the bruised feelings of some humans that the plight of voiceless animals becomes a marginalized issue.” Emphasis on “bruised feelings.”

Carol J. Adams: Remembering Mary Daly and

jenna @ L.O.V.E.: Feminism and Animals: What You Won’t Find in the 101

Mary Daly, a self-proclaimed “radical lesbian feminist,” recently passed away at the age of 81. While much has been written of Daly’s radfem theology, I didn’t realize that she was also an animal rights advocate and vegetarian until I read a memorial written for Daly by Carol Adams. Herself a former student of Daly’s, Adams’s obit is rather charming and provides a glimpse of what it must have been like to be a young adult attending college in the ’70s.

Unfortunately, Daly was also something of a transphobe, perhaps most famously referring to trans people as “Frankensteinian.” On this point, jenna’s post at L.O.V.E is well worth a read; in it, she illustrates why, as advocates for justice, compassion and respect, it is ill-advised and hypocritical for vegans to leave any marginalized group, human or non, behind. (Also click through the many links jenna provides to The Vegan Ideal, where the intersection of ecofeminism and transphobia is discussed in much greater detail. That is, if you haven’t yet; I’ve included many of these posts in past link roundups.)

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Intersectionality ‘Round the Interwebs, No. 13: Boobs, bacon & bigotry.

Friday, December 18th, 2009

Burger King's Singing in the Shower 03

Mary Elizabeth Williams @ Salon: Will shower for sausages; She’ll “shake her bits” to whet your appetite

In which Burger King tries to one-up its previous misogynist campaigns (can I interest anyone in a blog job burger?) by covering a naked woman in the dismembered corpses and fried secretions of tortured and murdered animals and making her wiggle her (and the animals’) bits in service of the male gaze. Cue: “morning spank routine.” Barf, gargle, repeat.

Tracy Clark-Flory @ Salon: Berlusconi is a boob; The prime minister sells sex for political gain, but many Italians aren’t buying it

While dissecting Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi’s entrepreneurial endeavors – which largely involve selling women’s sexuality on his television stations – Clark-Flory mentions this gem of a tv stunt:

[T]he popular video “Il Corpo delle Donne,” which translates as “The Body of Women,” compiles some of the most shameless moments of T’n’A from Berlusconi’s stations and state television. The most egregious example: A woman is shown suspended from the ceiling in skimpy underwear next to a literal piece of meat clad in a matching pair of panties; it’s awfully reminiscent of that infamous meat-grinder Hustler cover.

After 20 minutes spent perusing boob/burger pimp BK’s website, I’m kind of glad I don’t have a video clip to illustrate this piece. Oy.

Stephanie @ Animal Rights: Breaking Unjust Laws: Clarence Darrow and Inherit the Wind and (especially) Breaking Unjust Laws: AETA, Fugitive Slave Acts, and Oppression Connections

Using the 1960 film Inherit the Wind as a jumping-off point, Stephanie briefly discusses a few similarities between the animal rights and U.S. anti-slavery movements. Or rather, similarities in how each movement was (is) countered by corporate powers, with no small amount of help from the government. (Hint: the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is to abolitionism as _____ is to the animal liberation movement?)

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Fuck you, Discover Card.

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

Every time I spot this commercial from Discover Card on the teevee, I throw up in my mouth a little.

“We are a nation of consumers. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

OK, Discover Card marketing peoples, I’ll bite. Yes, ’tis true, we are a nation of consumers. But this isn’t something we should boast about, so much as be ashamed of. Rather than brag about our astounding levels of consumption, we should be striving to reduce the amount we consume. The last thing we need is a bank encouraging us to buy more, more, more. (But encouraging us to save money by – gasp! – not spending money wouldn’t much help fatten Discover’s pocketbooks, would it?)

We’re a nation of consumers. And if we continue on our current path, we’ll consume the earth – as in, all of it – in less than 50 years:

Let’s put this in perspective. Earth has about 22 billion acres of ecologically productive land. This is comprised of about 3.3 billion acres of arable and crop land, 8.4 billion acres of pasture land, and 10.1 billion acres of forest land. Not all of the arable land is of high quality, and improving agricultural productivity by use of fertilizers and insecticides, or shifting to monocultural forestry, affects ecosystems in other, often deleterious, ways. Expansion of land use in any of those categories can only be done at the expense of one of the other categories, and development of the land for human structures of all kinds competes for this same area. Not only that, but we have to share this land with the other organisms on Earth who might not be able to tolerate our land use ‘improvement’ measures, or to survive as a group as environmental fragmentation becomes extensive.

If we maintain our current footprint and the human population of 2050 (estimated at 9 billion) reaches consumption levels similar to ours, which is a practical goal for the developing world, humanity would need 13.5 billion acres of land for food production and 14.4 billion acres for wood products on a steady-state basis to be sustainable, and we would have degraded about 3.6 billion acres for human structures. For humans alone, excluding the needs of other organisms, there is not that much land available simply by considering these three computable sorts of personal footprints!

Furthermore, the food footprint calculations cited above used U.S. yields, which are significantly higher than average global yields. If global yields were used in those calculations, our food footprints would be closer to 3 acres. Earth’s carrying capacity for a population with 3-acre food footprints might be no more than about 4 billion people (12 billion acres of arable, crop and pasture land ÷ 3). Each year more of our most productive farmland is buried under human structures, and both good and marginal farmland becomes unusable due to poor farming practices, so even the estimate of a sustainable carrying capacity of 4 billion people eating and living as we do may be high.

So yeah, there’s something seriously fucking wrong with that.

By the by, is “saving by spending” the private sector’s version of “sacrificing by consuming”?

A Modest Porpoisal

Sunday, July 29th, 2007

“Stephen suggests that by eating endangered animals we can prevent their extinction.”

Amazingly, antis use this same argument to defend their meals of BBQ and fried chicken. Because, like, if no one cared enough to eat cows and chicks, they’d go extinct. So it’s really a philanthropic vs. a convenience thing. Seriously. You cannot make this shit up.

Videos in this post

The Colbert Report, Tuesday, July 24, 2007
The Word – Modest Porpoisal
Stephen suggests that by eating endangered animals we can prevent their extinction. (4:09)

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Book Review: The American Way of Death Revisited, Jessica Mitford (1998)

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

Surely the dead must be rolling in their proverbial graves!

five out of five stars

In “The American Way of Death Revisited,” journalist and muckracker Jessica Mitford presents a searing exposé of the “death-care” industries, particularly funeral homes/directors and cemeteries. She potently argues that many death-care workers, rather than looking out for their customers’ best interests, are more concerned about their bottom lines; that the FTC has failed to curb manipulative and downright illegal sales techniques engaged in by these businesses; that many of our assumptions about funerary practices are wrong; and that consumers should actively take part in honoring their dearly departed, rather than turning the task (and thousands of dollars) over to McMortuaries.

With the help of undercover investigations, disgruntled death-care workers, and grieving families who fell prey to unscrupulous death-care workers, Ms. Mitford details the manipulative, deceitful, and sometimes illegal tactics that death-care workers use to trump their competitors in an increasingly oversaturated market. We’re even treated to shocking statements right from the horses’ mouths: the authors offers a multitude of quotes pulled straight from the trade journals, such as “The Director,” “Mortuary Management,” “Casket & Sunnyside,” and (my personal favorite) “American Professional Embalmer.”

In “The American Way of Death Revisited,” we learn the following:

* Although funeral directors would like you to believe otherwise, embalming is neither required by state law nor essential to public health.

* Again contrary to the fibs of the “funeral men” (as Ms. Mitford ominously refers to them), citizens are free to scatter “cremains” wherever they so choose (the state of California is the lone exception) – it is not necessary to bury them, store them in a pricey urn, or pay someone to scatter them. Nor is it required that your loved one be cremated in a casket – a cardboard or pine box or shroud does just as well.

* The purchase of “pre-need” plans usually serve as in invitation for the old “bait-and-switch” trick; by the time you pass away, the casket you initially paid for is no longer available. Thus, your grieving relatives are forced to choose between a free yet inferior substitute – or an “upgrade” for a fee.

* Open casket funerals are a rather new invention, and are unique to the United States. Although funeral directors assert that a public viewing (of an embalmed corpse, of course) is necessary for healing in the survivors, they cannot produce one documented, scientific study to support this claim. Nor are they licensed psychologists; strangely, this does not prevent them from charging customers for “grief counseling.”

* As in many other industries, the ownership of funeral homes and cemeteries is becoming concentrated in the hands of a few massive McMonopolies. In some areas of the country, as many as 70% of the funeral homes may be owned by one company (talk about price fixing!). Even more infuriating are the companies’ attempts to conceal ownership from consumers; they would much rather have you believe that you’re purchasing a plan from kindly old “Uncle” Jack, who handled your grandmother’s funeral arrangements so many years ago.

Of course, these are but a few of the insidious practices engaged in by the “funeral men.” The author manages to fill a full 274 pages with the others.

Ms. Mitford also explains where the Federal Trade Commission was (and has been) while millions of Americans were (are) being ripped off during their time of utmost vulnerability. The answer certainly won’t give you much faith in the current state of our government (unless you share Mark Twain’s sentiments: “I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world.”).

“The American Way of Death Revisited” is actually a revised and updated version of 1963’s “The American Way of Death.” While Ms. Mitford does offer some new information and insight, including more on the FTC and the development of McMortuaries, much of the information is dated. For example, many of the price quotes are still in 1960s currency. For this reason alone, I’d give the book 4.5 stars rather than 5.

Nonetheless, “The American Way of Death Revisited” is an impressive and shocking piece of work. It’s interesting to note how the “American Way of Death” is a relative recent phenomenon, and not a longstanding tradition, as those in the industry would have you believe. England is proud to boast that they’re 50 years behind us in their funerary practices; let’s hope that, through collective action, we can regress even further back than 50 years, to the days of simple pine coffins and home viewings.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love, Lisa Carlson (1997)

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

Care for the Dead…and Their Hard-Earned Savings!

five out of five stars

In “Caring for the Dead,” Lisa Carlson provides both an informative guide to DIY funerals and cremations, as well as a searing exposé of the funeral and cemetery industries.

Carlson divides her book into three sections: “Personal Stories” is a 40-page introduction to the text in which different individuals (including Carlson) discuss their experiences with death and the subsequent disposal of the dead; “General Information” consists of 14 chapters and explains both “traditional” and non-traditional funerals, as well as cremation and body and organ donation; finally, “Caring for the Dead” details the relevant laws and regulations of all 50 US states.

It was the “General Information” section that I found most captivating. I’ve never had to arrange a funeral (and hopefully I won’t need to for some time yet!), so I was woefully unaware of what actually takes place during the course of planning and implementing one. Carlson demonstrates how greed and callousness have pervaded the funeral and burial industries, causing prices to skyrocket while sales tactics plummet to new levels of depravity.

Through manipulative techniques and downright lies, funeral directors convince John Q. Public that embalming is both required by law and essential for public safety (in reality, it is neither, and the chemicals used are actually toxic to the environment), while cemeteries strong-arm consumers into paying maximum price for a minimum amount of real estate, all the while demanding that any upgrades be purchased, installed, and maintained solely by them (for a hefty fee, of course!). Even cremations don’t come cheap, as crematories guilt-trip survivors into buying expensive caskets (which will simply be destroyed within days) and cemeteries deceive them into buying niches in which to “bury” the cremains.

While this is all quite appalling, it hardly comes as a surprise; after all, it’s just another example of capitalism at its worst. Harder to comprehend is how funeral homes and cemeteries are allowed to get away with this sort of crap! Well, again, I guess I shouldn’t be shocked – we are talking about the FTC here. Like many savvy businesses, funeral homes and cemeteries simply band together in the form of associations, which then employ lobbyists, apply a modicum of political pressure, and top it all off with campaign contributions, and – presto! – the FTC at your command!

End of political rant, back to the book review!

In essence, the “General Information” section serves as an excellent consumer guide, informing you of your rights, detailing the immoral and sometimes illegal sales tactics you’re likely to encounter, and teaching you how to come out victorious over those who wish to separate you from YOUR money and rob you of the valuable opportunity to care for YOUR dead, YOUR way. The final chapters on state-by-state laws offer an excellent supplement to the general information.

I highly recommend “Caring for the Dead” to EVERYONE, whether you anticipate planning a funeral in the near future or not. Many Americans are duped into buying funeral and burial services that they neither need nor want. Chances are that, sooner or later, we’ll all be responsible for “caring for the dead,” or will know someone who is. As consumers (it sounds rather crass, but `tis true!), we must arm ourselves with information so that we aren’t caught off-guard when a death does occur. After all, we shouldn’t expect those involved in the funeral business to look after our bests interests; the bottom line is that they’re businesspeople who are concerned about their bottom lines! Educate yourself, and share your knowledge with your friends, your family, and anyone you know who’s in the unfortunate position of having to arrange a funeral or cremation.

Another excellent book that deals with this subject is “The American Way of Death Revisited,” by Jessica Mitford (to which Lisa Carlson contributed). Ms. Mitford deals with the subject in more of a muck-raking journalistic manner (as opposed to a consumer guide, as is “Caring for the Dead”), but it’s a highly informative analysis of the “American death” nonetheless. After developing a sense of the funeral industry’s antics in “Caring for the Dead,” you’ll appreciate Mitford’s dry wit and humor in “The American Way of Death Revisited.”

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Movie Review: History’s Mysteries: Contaminated: The Karen Silkwood Story (2000)

Saturday, January 17th, 2004

A Decent Overview of the Silkwood Saga

four out of five stars

I became interested in the Karen Silkwood story after watching the 1983 movie “Silkwood”, starring Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher. Subsequently, I read the only two books available on the subject – Richard Rashke’s “The Killing of Karen Silkwood” and Howard Kohn’s “Who Killed Karen Silkwood?”, both written in the early ’80s. From these books, I learned that…

Karen Silkwood worked in Kerr-McGee’s plutonium factory in Crescent, Oklahoma, in the early 1970s. As the plant was poorly managed and safety violations were rampant, Silkwood became involved with her local union in hopes of improving the situation. She was quickly recruited as a spy for the 5-283, attempting to gather evidence that her superiors at K-M were knowingly selling defective fuel rods. During this time she was contaminated with plutonium on a number of occasions, under suspicious circumstances. The night she was to hand over her documents to a reporter from the New York Times, she died in a car crash. Though the case was handed over to the FBI, it never received an adequate investigation. Only when Silkwood’s estate sued civilly was a thorough inquest conducted.

After pouring through thousands of pages of court documents, depositions, sworn statements, internal memos, and federal records, both Rashke and Kohn make a compelling case for the following:

Silkwood was deliberately contaminated with plutonium by someone at Kerr-McGee, perhaps on several occasions. Had she lived, Silkwood had a good likelihood of developing cancer because of the significant exposure she experienced.

Silkwood was most likely carrying important documents the night she was murdered; among other things, she had proof that 42.5 pounds of plutonium was missing from K-M’s Cimarron plant, which is enough to make three or four nuclear bombs.

Security at the Cimarron plant was dangerously lax, as were safety measures. Workers received little education in regards to nuclear energy or the safety risks that accompany it, and consequently employees did not take the threat of contamination seriously.

Union members’ (and particularly Karen Silkwood’s) rights were repeatedly violated by K-M officials, who continually interfered in union activities and even began to spy on Silkwood.

Additionally, a number of private and government agencies seem to have been involved both with these crimes and their cover-up, including FBI, the CIA, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), the National Security Agency (NSA), the Justice Department, and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), along with a shadowy network of Iranians, Russians, and Israelis.

Since “Contaminted” is a rather short documentary (it runs about 45 minutes), it only touches upon some of these points. I found it to be a rather brief and superficial overview of the case – understandable since it’s only an hour-long TV show.

However, the documentary wis fascinating nonetheless. It features interviews with a number of those involved in the case, including Drew Stephens; Silkwood’s ex-husband, Bill Meadows, and their three children; Silkwood’s parents and sisters; union officials Steve Wodka and Anthony Mazzocchi; investigator Bill Taylor; and friends of Silkwood’s, including Jean Jung and James Noel. Notably absent are Sherri Ellis and Kerr-McGee representatives. Footage of the accident scene and the crushed car help illustrate how the accident occurred.

I’d recommend “Contaminated” to those who would like a short synopsis of the case. It’s also great for those who have read Rashke and/or Kohn’s book(s), as viewing the footage adds another dimension that you simply can’t get from print.

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Who Killed Karen Silkwood?, Howard Kohn (1981)

Saturday, November 8th, 2003

Not Bad, But Try Rashke’s Version First

four out of five stars

After watching the 1983 movie “Silkwood” (starring Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher), I became interested in the true events on which the movie is based. I was only able to find two books on the subject – Richard Rashke’s “The Killing of Karen Silkwood” and Howard Kohn’s “Who Killed Karen Silkwood?“. As I read Rashke’s account first, it became the benchmark by which I judged Kohn’s book. “The Killing of Karen Silkwood” was a more exciting and well-written version of the Silkwood story; while “Who Killed Karen Silkwood?” did offer some additional curious details, I’d recommend that those interested in the story read Rashke’s book first.

Karen Silkwood worked in Kerr-McGee’s plutonium factory in Crescent, Oklahoma, in the early 1970s. As the plant was poorly managed and safety violations were rampant, Silkwood became involved with her local union in hopes of improving the situation. She was quickly recruited as a spy for the 5-283, attempting to gather evidence that her superiors at K-M were knowingly selling defective fuel rods. During this time she was contaminated with plutonium on a number of occasions, under suspicious circumstances. The night she was to hand over her documents to a reporter from the New York Times, she died in a car crash. Though the case was handed over to the FBI, it never received an adequate investigation. Only when Silkwood’s estate sued civilly was a thorough inquest conducted.

Using many of the same sources as Rashke, Kohn makes a compelling case for the following (though a slightly less compelling case, mind you):

Silkwood was deliberately contaminated with plutonium by someone at Kerr-McGee, perhaps on several occasions. Had she lived, Silkwood had a good likelihood of developing cancer because of the significant exposure she experienced.

Silkwood was most likely carrying important documents the night she was murdered; among other things, she had proof that 42.5 pounds of plutonium was missing from K-M’s Cimarron plant, which is enough to make three or four nuclear bombs.

Security at the Cimarron plant was dangerously lax, as were safety measures. Workers received little education in regards to nuclear energy or the safety risks that accompany it, and consequently employees did not take the threat of contamination seriously.

Union members’ (and particularly Karen Silkwood’s) rights were repeatedly violated by K-M officials, who continually interfered in union activities and even began to spy on Silkwood.

Additionally, a number of private and government agencies seem to have been involved both with these crimes and their cover-up, including FBI, the CIA, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), the National Security Agency (NSA), the Justice Department, and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), along with a shadowy network of Iranians, Russians, and Israelis.

Even though these claims may seem unbelievable, the story’s based on thousands of pages of court documents, including depositions, sworn statements, internal memos, and federal records. However, Kohn’s reference section is sorely lacking; he briefly outlines his sources at the beginning of the book but never specifies which sections are based on which materials. In contrast, Rashke provides a summary for each chapter, detailing from where the information was gathered; this makes for a much more trustworthy account. Since most of Kohn’s facts were identical to Rashke’s, I took them at face value, as I believed the bulk of Rashke’s statements and inferences.

Clearly, the Silkwood story is as mysterious and exhilarating as any fictional spy novel. Yet, for some reason Kohn feels the need to resort to flowery, melodramatic language in his storytelling – a completely unnecessary strategy that only takes away from the story.

For instance, consider the following passage:

“She had on a touch of perfume; Danny was aware of it as an unusual supplement. He kissed her, a real kiss. For the next several hours they lay in bed, loving, whispering about themselves…” (p.339).

Sounds like something out of a Danielle Steele novel, right?!

The above excerpt also illustrates another serious flaw with “Who Killed Karen Silkwood?”. There are so many players in the Silkwood story that, at times, it’s hard to keep tabs on everyone. Rashke focuses on the lawyers for the Silkwood family and the investigators that they hired; in contrast, Kohn fixates on the Silkwood lawyers and the NOW members who initiated the lawsuit and did most of the fundraising. Its seems somewhat commonsensical that the detectives’ experiences would prove most interesting, so Kohn’s decision to concentrate on the those most peripherally involved with the case is puzzling – and it makes for a less captivating story.

On the positive side, Kohn offers more background information on Karen Silkwood than does Rashke. I found it helpful to learn more about Silkwood’s early life so that I could better place her experiences at K-M in context. Though the information is generally disjointed and doesn’t come together to form an integrated whole, it’s interesting nonetheless. Kohn also provides biographical information on the other participants in the case, but again, it’s generally anecdotal and incidental to the story.

I’d advise those interested in Karen Silkwood to read Rashke’s “The Killing of Karen Silkwood” first, as it’s definitely the superior version. For those who are still craving more information, Kohn’s “Who Killed Karen Silkwood?” is a decent supplement; although much of the information and conclusions are the same, it also offers some intriguing tidbits that were either overlooked or omitted by Rashke.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: The Killing of Karen Silkwood, 2nd ed., Richard Rashke (2000)

Friday, October 17th, 2003

One Conspiracy Theory That Just Might Be True

five out of five stars

I became interested in Karen Silkwood after watching the 1983 movie “Silkwood”. The film seemed to suggest that Silkwood was murdered, but a number of reviews I subsequently read dismissed “Silkwood” as an irresponsible docudrama that was based on sensationalism rather than fact.

After reading Richard Rashke’s “The Killing of Karen Silkwood“, I’d have to say that the film didn’t take its allegations far enough. Based on thousands of pages of court documents, including depositions, sworn statements, internal memos, and federal records, Rashke makes a convincing case for the following:

Silkwood was deliberately contaminated with plutonium by someone at Kerr-McGee, perhaps on several occasions. Had she lived, Silkwood had a good likelihood of developing cancer because of the significant exposure she experienced.

Silkwood was most likely carrying important documents the night she was murdered; among other things, she had proof that 42.5 pounds of plutonium was missing from K-M’s Cimarron plant, which is enough to make three or four nuclear bombs.

Security at the Cimarron plant was dangerously lax, as were safety measures. Workers received little education in regards to nuclear energy or the safety risks that accompany it, and consequently contamination was not taken seriously by employees.

Union members’ (and particularly Karen Silkwood’s) rights were repeatedly violated by K-M officials, who continually interfered in union activities and even began to spy on Silkwood.

However, the conspiracy surrounding Silkwood’s death became even more heinous and inconceivable as Silkwood’s side investigated in preparation for trial. Though the truth will probably never be known, Rashke lays out a compelling – though sketchy – account, involving the FBI, the CIA, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), the National Security Agency (NSA), the Justice Department, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and a shadowy network of Iranians, Russians, and Israelis. Rashke hints at an international plutonium smuggling ring, and supplies evidence that the FBI was responsible for illegally and covertly spying on a number of organizations as late as the mid-1970s, including various labor unions and their members – and Silkwood was one of their targets.

Rashke’s story might sound unbelievable, but most of it is based on public court documents. His interviews with the assorted players in the case may be less trustworthy; yet, many statements are corroborated by court papers. Also lending credence to the Silkwood camp’s version of the story is the fact that several significant witnesses died, disappeared, or were threatened during the investigation and ensuing court case. Additionally, the Silkwood lawyers and investigator received death threats and were followed and even assaulted – one must wonder why, if the Silkwood case was wholly without merit. Especially appalling is the federal government’s role in the affair, and their failure to cooperate with the civil case.

“Who Killed Karen Silkwood” reads like a novel – it’s a compelling book that’s hard to put down. Indeed, I expect that I won’t soon be able to forget about Silkwood’s story and its larger implications. I’m far from what you’d call a conspiracy nut (though I love the X-Files, I identify with Scully as opposed to Mulder!) – yet, the evidence in this case is as convincing as it is frightening. The final two pages will simply blow you away.

My only gripe – Rashke’s update to the 2nd edition of the book (released to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Silkwood’s death) was sorely lacking. He made no mention of what’s become of those involved in the case; of any information, either directly or indirectly related to the case, that’s been discovered since the end of the investigation; or of the movie, which was a critical and box-office success. Rashke coins the newest section “The Legacy”, but he doesn’t discuss Silkwood’s legacy even briefly. The new chapters focus on the court battles since May 1979 and K-M’s troubles with and termination of their nuclear program, but speak little of Silkwood.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Movie Review: Silkwood (1983)

Sunday, October 12th, 2003

Scary Movie – But It Gets Worse…

five out of five stars

Based on the true story of Karen Silkwood, a worker at Kerr-McGee’s Cimarron nuclear plant who was contaminated with plutonium on several occasions and later died under suspicious circumstances, “Silkwood” was panned by some critics who questioned its accuracy. The film clearly implies that Silkwood was murdered because she was about to expose safety violations at her plant; en route to her late-night meeting with a New York Times reporter, she was run off of the road.

While the movie does deviate from the facts in some instances, it is largely faithful to the important details of the Silkwood case. Richard Rashke’s “Who Killed Karen Silkwood” (1981, 2000) – written after Silkwood’s parents pursued (and won) a civil case against K-M and based on court documents – presents ample evidence that Silkwood was indeed deliberately contaminated with plutonium and was murdered just days later. In fact, the film doesn’t even address the most serious accusations – that Silkwood was part of a larger conspiracy that involved a number of state and federal agencies, that she was spied on by both K-M and the FBI, and that she may have stumbled across an international plutonium smuggling ring.

As a documentary, “Silkwood” does an acceptable job of outlining Silkwood’s murder and the events leading up to it. Some of the dramatizations are disappointing but understandable. The lesbian storyline involving Silkwood’s roommate Dolly (played by a refreshingly unglamorous Cher) struck me as silly and extraneous, particularly since, in real life, Silkwood’s roommate was merely an acquaintance (not a good friend), and Silkwood was the one suspected of being a lesbian.

Nonetheless, as a drama, “Silkwood” certainly deserved its five Academy Award nominations. The actors all give convincing performances, especially Meryl Streep as Silkwood and Kurt Russell as Silkwood’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, Drew Stephens. The movie is a chilling piece of work that will haunt you long after it’s over. Especially creepy are the decontamination scenes. Yet, for those who decide to delve deeper into the Silkwood saga, the story only gets scarier…

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)