The Pagoda: a recommendation from a reader

Displaying White_4398-480x600px.jpgAndreani Rustandi is an intern at the NYC Independence Party and’ s headquarters in NYC. Originally from Indonesia, Andreani is studying economics and mathematics at NYU, where she is Junior.  In reading Revolutionary and several reviews of the book, Andreani was reminded of  The Pagoda that she read earlier this year.  I asked her to write us about the book—another historical novel I have added it to my list to read!  Thanks Andreani.


“The Pagoda by Patricia Powell (1998) tells a story of a Chinese woman, Lau A-Yin, who flees from China to Jamaica to escape poverty and arranged marriage. A-Yin disguises herself as a man and embarks on a ship, which transports Asian workers to the Caribbean. Nevertheless, Cecil, the captain of the ship, discovers A-Yin’s disguise, rapes and impregnates A-Yin. In order for A-Yin to take better care of his daughter, Cecil builds a store for A-Yin to tend to in Jamaica. The Pagoda tells the story of A-Yin’s life in Jamaica, but it also delineates Jamaica’s social condition in 1893. Jamaica under the British Empire abolished slavery in 1834; hence, Jamaica commenced to bring Asian workers, called indentures. A-Yin and the other characters illustrate how Asian indentures were often treated as a lower class than slaves, received low salaries, and faced racial discrimination from the white and black population in Jamaica. One example is when A-Yin’s store is burnt down unexpectedly, which A-Yin thinks is done because of spite. This incident shows the prominent hegemony of the white and black people towards the minority in Jamaica. The other Asian indentures also do not have the freedom to speak about their cultures and their backgrounds. Thus, The Pagoda is not merely a fiction novel, but it also portrays the historical racial tensions, social strata, and the struggle of Asian indentures in Jamaica.

Displaying the pagoda.jpg

Besides the delineation of historical phenomena, The Pagoda continuously deconstructs the common ideology of one’s sex, gender, and identity. While in Revolutionary Deborah ventures into the war as a man, A-Yin has to marry a woman and raise her daughter as a father. The Pagoda does not only critically analyze of what constitutes an individual’s identity through A-Yin character, but also through the ambiguous sexual orientation of A-Yin’s wife. It raises the question of the humans’ need to classify, label, and eventually establish the notion of what it means to be “normal”. The Pagoda speaks to the consistent issue in society, which is the limitation caused by the classification of races, genders, sexes, and the expected “normal” behaviors followed from one’s particular genders and sex. Even though society gives impressions of the complete freedom granted for each individual by emphasizing on freedom in some countries’ constitutions and establishing the notion of humans’ rights, the systems and ideologies in society, which ironically are humans’ constructions, restrict the amount of freedom an individual can have. These limitations in one’s freedom prevent an individual in exercising one’s own agency, defining one’s identity, and choosing one’s way to discover what it means to be a being, which are supposed to be humans’ personal right. Furthermore, A-Yin desire, which is to build a pagoda where Asian indentures can meet and share their experiences, illustrates that a person cannot escape his/her past. The Pagoda points out that instead of ideologies, an individual’s past plays a more significant role in shaping one’s being.

The Revolutionary also delineates the civil war historical phenomena and brings the issue of genders’ role. As such,  Revolutionary and The Pagoda both depict the historical phenomena, portrays the difficulties that A-Yin in The Pagoda and Deborah in Revolutionary face in living as a male, and explore the profound issues that people often struggle with, which are the question of freedom, choice, and identity.”


REMINDER:  Our conference call with Revolutionary’s author, Alex Myers is this Sunday at 7 pm EST.  The call in number for the conference call is 805 399-1200 and the access code is 767775#.   


Late Night Library Talks with Alex Myers

I came across this quirky and fun interview Late Night Library did with Alex Myers in January.  I think you will enjoy it–be sure to scroll down to the Q and A.  A week from today, on Sunday, April 13th at 7 pm EST, Politics for the People will be discussing Revolutionary with Alex.

The call in number for the conference call is 805 399-1200 and the access code is 767775#.   

Have a great week, hope you will be spending some of it in the pages of Revolutionary with Deborah/Robert in the final days of the Revolutionary war.  Please keep sending in your comments and thoughts as we start to think of questions to pursue with Alex.


Alex Myers Banner

When my copy of Revolutionary arrived, the first thing I thought was, man, this is a beautiful book. I ran my hand over the book jacket—covered in reds, whites, and blues—and felt the soft grooves in the paper. I’ve always been drawn to books with strong, female protagonists, and Deborah Samson, a woman who dresses up as a man and joins the war, is just that. Deborah’s life as a weaver is dreary. She has no master, but the men around her continually remind Deborah of her place. When she dons men’s clothing and becomes Robert Shurtliff, her world suddenly changes. It’s full of danger, thrill, adventure, and freedom. At each fork in the road, Deborah—as Robert—is finally able to choose her own path. As I read, I found myself questioning what it is that makes a man, a role that Deborah seems to embrace, and I find this fitting, because Alex Myers is a revolutionary himself, who makes all of us rethink our notions of gender identity.


In another half mile Deborah came upon a cart lodged in the muck. The carter berated his horse, but the beast couldn’t make the stuck wheel budge. Deborah pulled her hat low and made to sidle by.

But the farmer called out, “Hey, boy? Lend a hand?”

She could scarcely refuse a request for help. Tossing her bundle in the back of the cart, she and the farmer put their shoulders to the wheel. “One and two and heave . . .” the man said. With a mighty sucking sound, the cart lurched forward. Deborah fell to her knee, and the farmer grabbed her arm, pulling her up.

“There’s a lad,” he said. “Want to ride a piece?”

She nodded, numb and muddy, and stepped to the side of the cart. For a moment, she waited for the farmer to offer a hand at her waist and push her up.

But he just said, “Well, come on,” as he clambered in.

She grasped the cart, stepped onto the wheel, and swung herself aboard. It was hard to keep from grinning. The farmer’s simple assumption of her competence—lend a hand, get yourself up—buoyed her spirits tremendously.

-Excerpt from Revolutionary


JacketLate Night Library: Summarize your book in 10 words or fewer.

Alex Myers: Attempt 1 = a sentence: Thwarted and confined, Deborah becomes Robert, fights for country/self. (The / might be cheating.  Sorry.) Attempt 2 = ten words, hold the grammar: Woman disguised as man.  Revolutionary War. Love. Identity. Discovery. Self.

LNL: If this book were the lovechild of two others, who are its parents?

AM: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy and Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady. (I say this with the caveat that, had they been contemporaries, I doubt Cooper and Cather would have tolerated being in the same room as each other, let alone allow their prose to procreate.)

LNL: What ingredients go into the recipe of your writing style?

AM: Daily walks and daily writing…patience with revision…and lots of reading across a range of genres and time periods.

LNL: Name one book you wish you could read again for the first time.

AM: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

LNL: Answer a question you wish people would ask you about writing.

AM: The questions I wish people would ask about writing don’t have answers (at least that I can give). They have conversations. And to that end, the question I wish people asked (and then discussed with me): Is there a difference between writing and thinking? (Framed another way: What is the connection between writing and thinking?) I’d love to explore with that inquirer how it feels to move ideas into words—are concepts words in the brain? Do we understand our world through language? How accurately do the words we write on the page describe the feelings in our mind…and so on.

Get a copy of Revolutionary from Bookish

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHAlex Myers was born and raised in western Maine. Since high school, Alex has campaigned for transgender rights. As a female-to-male transgender person, Alex began his transition at Phillips Exeter Academy (returning his senior year as a man after attending for three years as a woman) and was the first transgender student in that academy’s history. Alex was also the first openly transgender student at Harvard, and worked to change the university’s nondiscrimination clause to include gender identity. After earning a master’s in religion from Brown University, Alex began a career as a high school English teacher. Along the way, he earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He currently lives in DC with his wife and two cats.

An Epistolary Review from Bonnie Jeanne

I enjoyed Revolutionary very much, partly because I am a New Englander and lived, ate and breathed the War of Independence growing up, partly because I have been writing to Alex’s wife, Ilona, since Jan 2009, when I sent her a Carmen Miranda paperdoll via a long dead site called postcardx, and partly because I also have a distant ancestor with a famous past (Ann Putnam, Salem in 17th century), but mostly because it is such an enjoyable, engaging read.

The letter box Deborah pulls out to write to her dear Jennie so captured my imagination. I actually wrote to Ilona and asked if she has such a letter box. She doesn’t, but if ever I find one, I will buy it because the idea of containing ones letter writing supplies in a box small enough to travel in 16th century wartime makes me all fuzzy and warm. My writing supplies fill a big backpack and weigh so much I can’t imagine anyone but the similarly mail enthused carry such a pack EVERY single day.

The part of the book I most want to talk to Alex about is the part I’m sure everyone wants to talk about …  the point where pronoun and name switch back and forth between she/he and Deborah/Robert. It is such a jarring, confusing point and until I was well past it, that part bothered me. I couldn’t figure out why the back and forth was so messy, until I did figure it out. At least, figured it out for me as the reader. It was messy for me because I have always thought in terms of he or she … well, not in all things, but probably always in my reading of fiction. Alex managed to, without coercion or force, get me to think not in gendered pronouns or names, but in terms of the person. I don’t know that I’ve put that eloquently, but it is something I would love to talk about so that I can be eloquent, and considerate, and honest.

I do lots of postcard exchanging and recently one of the people in a postcard group I belong to requested that the he/she pronoun not be used in reference to anything sent/received by that person and replaced with them/they. My first reaction was “How the hell am I supposed to remember that for this one person!?” And then I thought, “How many times have I adjusted my thoughts to use female or male pronouns (upon request) for those whose names are gender neutral?” It is so easy to just brush off simple requests because they seem too picky.

Thank you very much for selecting Revolutionary for the book discussion group. I am really looking forward to the telephone conference! I’ve not done anything like it before.

Postally Yours,
Bonnie Jeanne AKA PostMuse

P.S.  I wanted to send a photo of the postcard I used as a bookmark when reading Revolutionary. Notice the postage. That card arrived in Nov 2013 but I didn’t reply to it until I was reading the book in January. The postcard became a bookmark, as many postcards do, but I didn’t realize the significance of the Women in Military postage until later. But, is my noticing that a signal that I still can’t let go of gender identification? I don’t know and not sure it is even acceptable to bring it up.


Bonnie Jeanne's Postal Bookmark
Bonnie Jeanne’s Postal Bookmark

National Poetry Month

Today kick’s off National Poetry Month.

Dr. Jessie Fields and Harry Kresky will curate a selection of their favorite political poems for us starting on April 15th.  I hope that you will all join in and share your favorite political poems as well.

Independence Party activists at Harlem Week. Allen Cox (l), Howard Edelbaum, Dr. Jessie Fields and Tom Williams
Independence Party activists at Harlem Week.
Allen Cox (l), Howard Edelbaum, Dr. Jessie Fields and Tom Williams


To kick off the month, Jessie Fields,  a poet, physician and independent leader shares a poem that she revisited while reading Revolutionary.




Emily Dickinson    (1830 – 1886)

 I’m ceded — I’ve stopped being Their’s —

The name They dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church
Is finished using, now,
And They can put it with my Dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools,
I’ve finished threading — too —

Baptized, before, without the choice,
But this time, consciously, of Grace —
Unto supremest name —
Called to my Full — The Crescent dropped —
Existence’s whole Arc, filled up,
With one small Diadem.

My second Rank — too small the first —
Crowned — Crowing — on my Father’s breast —
A half unconscious Queen —
But this time — Adequate — Erect,
With Will to choose, or to reject,
And I choose, just a Crown —


Here is what Jessie has to say about this poem:

Soon after reading the novel Revolutionary, I came across this poem by Emily Dickinson and thought it relevant to the difficult choices available to women such as Deborah Samson.  Though Emily Dickinson lived a secluded life in her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, she was a poet of great power and she maintained an active, diverse and intimate correspondence with many friends and relatives.  She sometimes included poems in her letters and the first line of one of her poems reads, “This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me”.

As a student at Bryn Mawr College in 1975 I heard the poet Adrienne Rich (1929 -2012) give a lecture on Emily Dickinson. Included near the end of the lecture which I have lately re-read is the statement, “It is as though the poet’s existence can be put to some use beyond her own survival.” Emily Dickinson’s 1,775 poems were found in a locked trunk in her room shortly after her death. Speaking to her niece Martha in this room in which she wrote and read Dickinson said, “Matty: here’s freedom.”

Here is a short quote from a poem    “For Memory”, from the book A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far by Adrienne Rich

“Freedom. It isn’t once, to walk out under the Milky Way, feeling the rivers of light, the fields of dark—freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine remembering. Putting together, inch by inch the starry worlds. From all the lost collections.”

Questioning the line between history and historical fiction

Dr. Omar Ali
Dr. Omar Ali

Revolutionary by Alex Myers: A Non-Book Review

Omar H. Ali, Ph.D.

Revolutionary by Alex Myers is a gem of a historical novel. It’s the story of a revolutionary woman, Deborah Sampson, an impoverished weaver who sought her independence by pretending to be a man in order to fight in the Revolutionary War (avoiding the plight of most young indentured female servants who after completing the duration of their ‘bond’ were promptly married). In essence, the book is a fictionalized account of the American historical figure, Sampson, who, in disguise and using the name ‘Robert Shurtliff,’ fought for a year and a half in the war. After being given an honorable discharge after she was discovered to be a woman, Sampson married, had children, and continued to live in poverty.

This latest and gripping account of her life is beautifully-written by Myers, a distant relative of Sampson, and who happens to have been the first openly-transgender student at Harvard University. Anyone who is interested in American History, with a particular interest in the Revolutionary era, ought to read this book for an intimate portrayal of the human struggles of the average soldier during the Revolution.

A number of stellar book reviews of Revolutionary have already appeared in print (including in The New York Times), so instead of re-hashing more of the details of the story here, I’d like to take a slightly different approach to doing this book review (a kind of non-book review). I’d like to—very briefly—consider the related questions of What is history? Who determines it? And … Who cares?!

Ok, so I’m a fan of historical novels (among my favorites is the classic Segu by Maryse Condée set on the West African side of the Atlantic in the generation following Sampson’s soldiering in America). Such novels help bring to life what is often undocumented but perhaps experienced and lived. But because such authors take creative license in telling their stories, they are not considered proper History by Historians—thus the term “historical novel.”

Allow me to elaborate. There is a sharp distinction made among most Historians (those who are officially trained as such) between ‘History’ and … everything else! For most Historians, what is considered ‘History’ is that which can be documented based on written records (archival records, such as letters, diaries, travel accounts, business records, legal testimony, and newspaper articles of the period at hand). But what if the written records hardly exist?

This is where historical novels are sooooooo helpful. Such novels fill in the gaps—the emotional-social gaps that are inextricably part of who we are as people, but fleeting when it comes to documentary evidence. As any Historian will say, documents are subject to interpretation. Yes, of course. Such interpretations are based on ‘a close reading’ of primary sources. But as a postmodern H/historian, I question the line between ‘History’ and ‘historical fiction.’

Did Sampson bear a finger injury from cutting wood (as Myers fictitiously writes)? Or did she actually get the injury from a weaving accident? Myers contends that he creates the fictional account of the finger injury by wood-cutting (see his Harvard Book Store talk) in order to paint a scene that speaks to the limitations that Sampson experienced as a woman—that when trying to cut wood, she injured her finger, and was then reprimanded for doing ‘men’s work.’

To be sure, Myers skillfully builds on the scholarship of the late Alfred Young, in his book Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson (published in 2004), which parses Sampson’s own brief account of her life (which apparently has many tall tales) with what ‘really’ happened. Myers also draws on a number of primary sources beyond Sampson’s own account, including letters and journals of soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War.

So, what is history? If we are to understand history as the seamless process of ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary) collective human activity in creating and re-creating culture and society, then there is much (a very big understatement) left out of textbooks, monographs, and academic journal articles of our libraries, bookstores, and available online. History (without the capital ‘H’) is indeed the stuff of ordinary people (you and me); it is also about the non-ordinary among us (the generals, kings, and presidents). But to be more precise, history—as in, discernible historical change (social and political revolutions)—is the interplay of the powerless and the powerful.

This is one way of thinking about history. There are other ways … indeed many other ways, if we are to follow postmodernism and its commitment to multiple (indeed limitless) perspectives and ways of seeing and being.

Until the last several decades, much of what has been regarded as History in the United States in our K-12 public education system, at universities, in the media, and society at large has been based on the perspectives of those in power. Since the 1960s, however, with the transformative power of the Civil Rights movement and other related social and political movements, there has been a shift towards what is called ‘social history’—the history of those ‘below’: ordinary people, poor and working-class people, women, and people of color. Such approaches to historical writing, which more fully embrace oral histories and the use of material culture, for instance, in writing histories, has given us a wealth of insight into the past. Ultimately, however, such histories are written by people who are living in a particular moment in history, and view ‘the past’ through those lenses. Black History, Women’s History, Labor History, and all other kinds of sub-genres of history, complicate the traditional white, male, heteronormative (a fancy word for ‘straight’), and middle to upper-class perspective of our nation’s history. But they remain human accounts, subject to interpretation … subject to history.

This is where the why we should care about history comes in. We make it. So as you read this, and as we discuss the book, let’s think about how we’re making history together. We’ll let the historians and historical-fiction writers of the future play with our words and come up with their own stories.


Omar H. Ali is an independent political movement-builder and historian. He received his Ph.D. in History from Columbia University and is an Associate Professor at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he received the 2014 Teaching Excellence Award for his unconventional approach to teaching history—which involves much philosophizing and plenty of play!

Alex Myers on Revolutionary

Here is a short video of Alex Myers talking about Revolutionary.   I think you will really enjoy hearing Alex speak about his journey to create a fictionalized look at the life of Deborah Samson.

Give it a look.

Alex Myers on Revolutionary


Our conversation with Alex is Sunday, April 13th at 7 pm.  Shoot me a note about your thoughts as you are reading the book.

A Look at Book Clubs Across America

I got a call this morning from John Opdycke, a Politics for the People book club member asking me if I had read James Atlas’ op-ed on Book Clubs in the New York Times Sunday Review.  I eagerly opened up my Kindle to Really? You’re Not in a Book Club?, which I have included below for your reading pleasure.

Atlas estimates as many as five million Americans are members of a book club.  Two points he make stand out for me—-

“Reading is a solitary act, an experience of interiority. To read a book is to burst the confines of one’s consciousness and enter another world. What happens when you read a book in the company of others? You enter its world together but see it in your own way; and it’s through sharing those differences of perception that the book group acquires its emotional power.

He goes on to say toward the end of the piece that “In the end, book groups are about community. ”

I agree! For me, here at Politics for the People, our book club is definitely about creating and nurturing a community of independents.  We’ve been able to tackle some “tough reads” in the political realm together that would be very difficult to digest/read on our own. Our discussions and posts create new insights and give meaning to our selections for me.

Thrilled to be among the legions of book clubs in all our diversity!

A reminder about our current selection—Revolutionary by Alex Myers.  Our book club call with Alex will be on Sunday, April 13th at 7 pm.  Let me know your thoughts as you are reading….


Really? You’re Not in a Book Club?


MARCH 22, 2014

A book club meets in Fall River, Wis., at the home of Sara Uttech.CreditDarren Hauck for The New York Times
 “WHAT’S your book group reading?” I say to a friend encountered on the street. Not: “Are you in a book group?” I have no idea whether Clara is in a book group. We’ve never talked about it. All the same, I just know. Why? Because it’s a safe assumption to make these days.

By some estimates, five million Americans gather every few weeks in someone’s living room or in a bar or bookstore or local library to discuss the finer points of “Middlemarch” or “The Brothers Karamazov.” (A perfect number is hard to pin down because some people belong to two or three clubs, and of course, there’s no central registry of members.) Among them is Clara, whose book group even has a name: the Oracles. They’re reading “The Flamethrowers,” by Rachel Kushner.

I used to think that the popularity of this institution was a quirk of life in New York, like restaurants where you can get a reservation only by calling a month in advance or parties where every single person you meet is smarter than you are. But the book-club boom is nationwide. Should you live in the Miami area, you can hang with “Book Babes”; in San Francisco, drop in at “The Mind-Benders Book Club.”

And it’s not just a big-city thing: In the event that you find yourself in Waco, Tex., check out “A Good Book and a Glass of Wine,” which has 21 members (women only) and is always looking for new ones. All you have to do is go online.

You can find book clubs that appeal to gender- and sexual-preference constituencies (“The Queer Lady and Lesbian Book Club”); African-Americans (“Sassy Sistahs Book Club”); the young (“The Stamford 20s/30s Book Club”) and the old (every town seems to have a senior citizens club); proponents of porn (“The Smutty Book Club”); and fans of a single author (“The Roberto Bolaño Book Club”). All that’s missing, as far as I can tell, are book clubs officially organized by class: There seem to be no 1 percenter book clubs.

Since we live in a world where you don’t have to actually “be” anywhere, it’s not surprising that virtual clubs have lately appeared on the Internet. ZolaBooks bills itself as a “social eBook retailer” that connects readers; Goodreads gives members the opportunity to read a book together, install books they’ve read on their “shelves” or find “friends” with whom to share discoveries. (I just joined and have “no friends,” according to the site.)

Or you can navigate to lists like — useful this winter — “Best Books to Read When the Snow Is Falling.” These sites aren’t just for oddball bibliophiles: Goodreads claims to have 25 million members and was sold to Amazon last year for a number rumored at $150 million or above.

Some book groups merge the virtual and the “offline community,” as Nora Grenfell, the social marketing manager at the digital media news site Mashable, calls its estimated 34 million monthly unique visitors. The site’s Mashable book club started out as an informal, internal group that met at its offices in the Flatiron district, but after members began to write about it online, followers asked if they could participate. Thus was born MashableReads, a monthly gathering for a small number of invited members joined by a guest writer. So far writers like Ishmael Beah, Malcolm Gladwell and Chang-rae Lee have appeared. Mashable followers can participate in the discussion on Twitter.

But the most prevalent way of conducting a book club is still in someone’s living room. The basic ritual is the same all over: A small group gets together every few weeks to discuss a pre-assigned title; to eat, whether that means noshing on cheese and crackers accompanied by a glass of wine or a four-course dinner; and to gossip in a dedicated way. It may be social, but it’s also serious; members devote long hours over many weeks to getting to the last page. For most of them, it’s all about the book.

Reading is a solitary act, an experience of interiority. To read a book is to burst the confines of one’s consciousness and enter another world. What happens when you read a book in the company of others? You enter its world together but see it in your own way; and it’s through sharing those differences of perception that the book group acquires its emotional power.

“There’s a way of interacting through books that you don’t get through any ordinary transaction in life,” suggests Robin Marantz Henig, a journalist who is in three book groups: a women’s group, a couples’ group and a coed and intergenerational group with her daughter, an editor at The New York Times. “It’s like sitting around gossiping about people, only you’re gossiping about characters in fiction, which is more meaningful.”

In book clubs, things can get intense. “We had the most incredible discussion of art, and beauty, and loving something bigger than ourselves,” says Tracy Trivas, whose Los Angeles group often finds itself grappling with “giant issues about the inner life.” When they read aloud a passage from Colum McCann’s novel “Transatlantic” — the scene where Lily, an Irish immigrant, reflects on a painting she’s received from her husband — “half the women had tears in their eyes.”

Ms. Trivas represents a new phenomenon: the professional book group facilitator. A writer with a master’s degree in English literature from Middlebury, she presides over three adult groups, for which she charges up to $300 per session. She also runs a group for children, who nestle under a tree with their parents and read books like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

“They felt empowered sharing their opinion of the book,” she told me. “I asked them who they would rather have a play date with: Veruca Salt or Augustus Gloop. And if they could make up a different ending.”

We’re also beginning to see authors themselves taking on the role of facilitator. Established writers like Alexandra Styron command $400 to show up and talk about their own books — and that’s after the commission given to Book the Writer, an agency founded recently by the novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz. Authorial proximity has its drawbacks. “No one tells the truth when the author is present,” says a book grouper who has witnessed this phenomenon. “No one is going to insult the author when he’s two feet away from them.”

But there are good things about these home visits, too: They’re a new source of income for writers, and they offer insights into the book that come straight from the source. Book groups are like friendships: Some coalesce and die out in a few years, others last a lifetime. Susan Shapiro, an artist whose group has just celebrated its 40th anniversary, recalls that it started with “young moms in the park who wanted to have more to talk about than kids in the sandbox.”

Members have come and gone — “no one has died” — but the format remains the same: “We take turns leading the discussion, and two members have to read a book before it can be adopted. Some do scholarly research, others are more informal. We have an easy flow of ideas.”

I heard about a group that had been around even longer. Founded in 1971 by a group of Ivy League graduates, it has been meeting once a month ever since. The passage of 43 years has had inevitable consequences. On the positive side, members of the group can claim to have read all the books and not be exaggerating; on the negative, encroaching senility; a death or two; an acrimonious divorce that had the couple fighting over who would get to stay in the group. One experiment that failed was calling in “professional help,” a group leader to set the course. “That didn’t work out at all,” said one male member. “The men didn’t like being told what to think.”

The reading experience — let’s admit it — is less pure in the mature atmosphere of Book Club World than it was in the intellectually heady days of college. Diversions from the matter at hand are inevitable. When you have 10 lively people in a room and a good meal on the table, it’s sometimes hard to remember why you’re there. “It’s all about the dinner,” says the novelist Sally Koslow, a member of a Manhattan group.

My own group is highly disciplined, and we talk about the work under discussion with admirable fervor, but we do like to eat. Our meetings remind me of a restaurant I pass on the Connecticut Turnpike that has a sign out front saying FOOD and BOOKS. The gossip-prone among us are kept in line by the presence of our kindly but firm moderator, Ilja Wachs, a professor of comparative literature at Sarah Lawrence whose enthusiasm for the classics is infectious. By the end of one meeting, I had gone from resisting “The Mill on the Floss,” which I associated with seventh grade, to admiring it as a grim study in thwarted passion. (Maybe if I hadn’t skimmed the last chapter on my iPhone while riding the crosstown bus to the meeting I would have figured this out for myself.)

Surely I’m not alone in my dereliction. I was chastened by a stern directive I came across from the head of “The Sweetness: Astoria Book Club”: “Please make sure to read the book! Even if you hate it and have to choke it down, we’d love to hear about why you hated it.”

This is a perfectly reasonable request, but not always easy to fulfill. One thing that’s rarely talked about is how time-consuming book groups are. (One group I heard about, discouraged by the time commitment of big novels, has taken to reading poetry.) Mine has a penchant for plump Victorian novels like “Nicholas Nickleby” that were serialized. Everyone in 19th-century London read these novels. “Great Expectations” was their “House of Cards.”

It’s harder now, given the pace of modern life, but we hunger for it more. In the end, book groups are about community. The success of the One City, One Book initiatives in Chicago, Seattle and smaller towns across the country, where everyone is encouraged to read the same book, reflects the longing to share. So does Oprah; her book club binds together a nation disparate in its customs, classes, religions and ethnicities by putting it in front of the TV and telling it what to read.

We  spend our days at airports or commuting to work; our children come and go; our friends climb up and down the social ladder; we change jobs and move house. No one knows their neighbor.

But a lot of us are reading “The Goldfinch.”

James Atlas is a contributing opinion writer and author of “Bellow: A Biography.”

New Book Club Selection – Revolutionary by Alex Myers

I’m delighted to announce the next P4P Book Club selection is Revolutionary by Alex Myers.  We will be reading the book throughout the next several weeks, culminating with a book club call with the author on Sunday, April 13th at 7 pm EST.

This book is the first time Politics for the People will be reading an historical novel and I think you are going to really enjoy this gem.


Here is a description of the book from Alex Myers’ website:

“In 1782, during the final clashes of the Revolutionary War, one of our young nation’s most valiant and beloved soldiers was, secretly, a woman.

When Deborah Samson disguised herself as a man and joined the Continental Army, she wasn’t just fighting for America’s independence—she was fighting for her own.

Revolutionary, Alex Myers’s richly imagined and meticulously researched debut novel, brings the true story of Deborah’s struggle against a rigid colonial society back to life—and with it the courage, hope, fear, and heartbreak that shaped her journey through a country’s violent birth.

After years as an indentured servant in a sleepy Massachusetts town, chafing under the oppressive norms of colonial America, Deborah can’t contain her discontent any longer. When a sudden crisis forces her hand, she decides to finally make her escape. Embracing the peril and promise of the unknown, she cuts her hair, binds her chest, and, stealing clothes from a neighbor, rechristens herself Robert Shurtliff. It’s a desperate, dangerous, and complicated deception, and becomes only more so when, as Robert, she enlists in the Continental Army.

What follows is an inspiring, one-of-a-kind journey through an America torn apart by war: brutal winters and lethal battlefields, the trauma of combat and the cruelty of betrayal, the joy of true love and the tragedy of heartbreak. In his brilliant Revolutionary, Myers, who himself is a descendant of the historical Deborah, takes full advantage of this real-life heroine’s unique voice to celebrate the struggles for freedom, large and small, like never before.”

You can purchase a copy of Revolutionary on Amazon (used start at $9.55) or you local bookstore.

We will be discussing our selection in a Politics for the People conference call on Sunday, April 13, 2014.  Happy reading and stay tuned for upcoming posts about the book and its author, or better yet, send me your thoughts and questions.

Indispensable Enemies Call this evening at 7 pm EST

Reminder–our book club discussion of Indispensable Enemies: The Politics of Misrule in America is tonight at 7 pm EST.

The call in number for the conference call is 805 399-1200 and the access code is 767775#. 

Hope you will join in the conversation, bring your thoughts and questions.  If you have not had the opportunity to read the book, take a look at some of our posts and please do call in.

Karp’s take on the restoration of self government

Anthony Del Signore

Anthony Del Signore has just started an internship with the NYC Independence Party and  Anthony is a political science student at PACE University. He has been reading Indispensable Enemies and wrote a post looking at the last chapter of the book.

Chapter 14 – The Restoration of Self-Government

“Augmenting the Foundations of Liberty”

“Throughout the majority of Walter Karp’s book Indispensable Enemies, the means, structures, and powers of the two major political parties take center-stage in a scathing repudiation of the status quo. Chapter 14, “The Restoration of Self-Government,” on the other hand, takes a much different tone. This tone is hopeful that party collusion, municipal annexation, and ever-powerful party stalwarts can be revolutionarily usurped through an augmentation of liberty and self-governance.  But these ideas are not novel or never heard of before. Karp takes his blueprint from our Founding Fathers, who wrote extensively on the merits of localized self-governance.

To structure his chapter, Karp relies on Thomas Jefferson’s two “fundamental means” to restore self-governance. First, local self-government must be extended to every member of the Republic. Second, “republican education” (or in this sense, a sort of civic engagement experience in which each individual can think for him or herself how to secure freedom). Working in conjunction, they would stem the tide of rapid municipal annexation and bring autonomy not only to the political life of the present, but the political life of the future.

The question Karp strives to answer first and foremost, is, are local assemblies the strength of a free nation? He states:

“… [A] mass of citizens with no direct share in power, no local assemblies, no local political arenas, is easy for political usurpers to control” (pg. 304).

This statement actually has two meanings. The phrase “political usurper” can mean the dominant party bosses of either the Democrat or Republican parties. Or it can mean a “restoration of what has been deliberately destroyed” by a thoughtful and engaged local citizenry (pg. 304).

In 2014, we see both meanings in action. In ever increasing numbers, America is becoming centralized and urbanized politically. More than 50% of Americans live in cities. Now, towns are merging with others to ensure financial survival because of a shift from the industrial economy to the emerging “silicon valley” economy. This is securing party control in state elections as the electorate turns into an “urban mass” disinterested in politics. On the other hand, we are beginning to see pockets of independent, localized movements, able to come together because of the internet. The rise of the Tea Party movement, Occupy Wall Street, and many localized chapters that I am sure many of you are familiar with are only known because of the internet.

Karp goes on to describe invisible “lines” that are drawn seemingly arbitrarily to separate townships from cities and stifle political action at the individual level. To combat this, every citizen should belong to a community which has relevant political power. This community should have localized authority which can speak on behalf of its citizens. Karp carefully states that this does not mean towns cannot merge for financial reasons. However, they should not merge for political ones. I have always been a proponent of the local community boards in New York City having actual power to influence change. A localized approach would give them that power. But, for people to become civically engaged, according to Karp, they have to be taught how to do so. This is where republican education comes into play.

Republican education, at its core, is a study of political history and a dismantling of the education bureaucracy. According to Karp, this is a revolutionary change in teaching from his time or even today. For example, he equates contemporary history lessons to the obliteration of political history. In essence, Karp argues the political “oligarchs” are fastening a message which keeps students disinterested in individual thinking and ensures division so that the parties can further ensure security once these students mature. How this can be changed is through localized control of education. One can only assume that Karp would not be thrilled with such measures as New York State Regents exams and Common Core which standardize requirements for proficiency in a number of subjects for wide swaths of students. However, in conjunction with newly established ward governments, Karp believes the educational pursuits of trade would give way to a more enriching educational experience.

While this may be true, the reality of 2014 is that education is still merely a “vocational training camp.” With higher education being the business that it is, this trend does not seem to be dissipating. Parents and students alike are staring at tuition bills calculating how much they need to make in salary once they or their children graduate to merely get by. Fields once thought to be bastions of security, such as law, are becoming perilous career choices. With localized education, perhaps some of these problems may be solved. However, in an ever-expanding globalized economy, is this solution even viable? Perhaps a more enriching experience can be gained on the internet where thinkers of all stripes can lay their own foundations at very inexpensive rates. Perhaps this is the future of republican education. This blog is a testament to that.

More than ever Karp’s vision in “The Restoration of Self-Government” is gaining traction. The idea that closed primaries are a detriment to our democracy and that funds should not be allocated to those closed primaries is something many people are beginning to understand and agree with. We are at the precipice of political reform. While all of his visions may not come to fruition, a step in the right direction is something he would be proud of.”

I am looking forward to our conversation on Sunday at 7 pm EST.  The call in number for the conference call is 805 399-1200 and the access code is 767775#.