Category Archives: Books & Book Reviews

Frederick Douglass, on Lincoln as a White Man’s President & the Memory of Emancipation

February is not only Black History Month, it’s also Lincoln’s month: birthday (the 12th); holiday (the 15th, tho he currently shares it with some old  & about-to-be-canceled slaveholder named Washington).

Lincoln is an endlessly fascinating and enigmatic character. (And speaking of canceling, he just got tossed as namesake of  San Francisco high school by a “progressive” school board.) And I’ve been learning some more about him recently from historian David Blight.

Lincoln is a major figure in the middle section of Blight’s Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography last year, and deserved it.

The book is deeply researched, consistently insightful, splendidly written, and blessed with an endlessly quotable  subject.  Nevertheless, I haven’t been able to finish it.

Not yet, that is.

Author David Blight, and his Frederick Douglass biography

Continue reading Frederick Douglass, on Lincoln as a White Man’s President & the Memory of Emancipation

Jessamyn West, Her Friendly Un-Persuasion, Christmas & Thanks

Author and novelist Jessamyn West (1902-1984), best remembered for her classic The Friendly Persuasion (book and movie) was raised and shaped by a long line of Quakers. Rooted in Indiana, they wound up evangelical and Holiness-centered, as well as cousins to Richard Nixon, in southern California.

Jessamyn West, circa 1946

Her family left their southern Indiana Quaker homeland when Jessamyn was six. West left its Quakerism as a young woman; as her church moved in ever-more conservative directions, she wound up, not an activist, more a loyal ACLU liberal. But her Quakerism never really left her.

In West’s 1966 semi-autobiographical novel, A Matter of Time, this Holiness Quakerism is called the Pilgrim Church, and she is renamed Tasmania Murphy. Tasmania/Jessamyn describes how she resisted her growing heretical thoughts, and departure, by trying to get saved. Continue reading Jessamyn West, Her Friendly Un-Persuasion, Christmas & Thanks

Solving the Mystery of “Murder at Quaker Lake”

In mid-2014, a blast of church schism fever blew into the three-century old North Carolina Quaker community like a line of summer tornadoes.

At its annual conference, a purge was suddenly demanded to “purify” their ranks of meetings deemed theologically “liberal” or friendly to LGBTQ persons. The same wave had already shattered Quaker groups in Indiana, and would soon roll west into Oregon and Washington state.

But the targeted groups in Carolina stood up eloquently in their own defense. They issued cogent rebuttals to the doctrinal charges, and stood firmly for the integrity of recognized Quaker decision making. The purge attempts repeatedly stalled.

Yet they continued. For two years the question was, how far would the crusaders go? Were they, like U.S. troops in Vietnam, ready to destroy their Quaker “village” in order to “save” it?

”A house divided against itself cannot stand!” was the insurgents’ refrain, citing the gospels and Abraham Lincoln. Something would have to give.

And ultimately, it did.

Murder at Quaker Lake unpacks this dead-serious true story.  It is now available, in paperback & e-book form.  Since the turn of the 21st century, five U. S. Quaker Yearly Meetings have become battlefields, truly making the opening decades of the 21st Century as The Separation Generation.

Continue reading Solving the Mystery of “Murder at Quaker Lake”

John Calvi: Boon Companion for Spiritual Travel

English-speaking Quakers today are in dire need of some new “spiritual” books, and I have a top candidate to recommend here. It is John Calvi’s How far Have You Traveled?

Amid all the wonderful stuff that’s in it, some of what makes Calvi’s book so excellent is what’s not in it.

For example — and this fact alone made me an instant fan — in its 200 or so pages, the word “transformation” occurs only once.

Further, the bogus cliche “spice” shows up only thrice – and each time, thank goodness, it’s part of “hospice,” programs that bring comfort and peace to the often painful work of dying; in his career John has very often been a two-legged hospice. “Spiritual journey” likewise is limited to  three appearances.

John Calvi

For that matter, “theology” is mentioned only ten times, and then mostly not from John’s pen, but in quotes by one of his elders/mentors, the late Elizabeth Watson.

But be not deceived; How Far Have You Traveled? is indeed a Quaker theological work, a  substantial and serious (while often hilarious) one. For one thing, while Calvi is pretty loose on doctrine, Jesus pops up about twenty times. The book is not academic. John is an avid learner, but school academics have not been his forte.

Instead, he introduces us to what I would call “un-systematic theology,” and without argument he shows compellingly why it is so much needed. Instead of riffing on the trendy banalities of much “devotional” writing, or wandering into the  mazes of academic abstractions, John’s theology grows out of reflections on decades of hands-on work as a massage therapist. Continue reading John Calvi: Boon Companion for Spiritual Travel

Michael Cohen: A Reckoning, Perhaps a Renewal, and After

Near the climax of his book Disloyal, Michael Cohen writes:

In the summer before the [2016] election, I told a reporter for Vanity Fair, Emily Jane Fox, that I’d take a bullet for Trump, and I meant it.

But not if Donald Trump pulled the trigger. . . .

Which of course, Trump did, in 2018. In May 2019, the betrayal landed Cohen in the federal prison at Otisville, New York..

Cohen, like most cons, thought his prison sentence was grossly unfair. He only pled guilty to tax evasion, he says, to prevent his wife from being indicted as well.

The real Stormy Daniels mugs with a fake Trump (Alec Baldwin) on Saturday Night Live.

That showed personal love and nobility; but Cohen had also lied to his wife about the money he took from their joint account to pay off pornstar Stormy Daniels for Trump; and it was his wife’s name on the account that made her vulnerable to indictment once the feds traced the money.

Besides, Cohen had also spent ten years aiding and abetting Trump in frauds and crimes too numerous to mention. Ten times his three year sentence would have been amply justified by the record he himself discloses. Continue reading Michael Cohen: A Reckoning, Perhaps a Renewal, and After

Michael Cohen: From the White House to the Sewage Plant

I’ve finished Michael Cohen’s book, Disloyal, but I’m not through with it.

In part that’s because the book itself isn’t finished.

Not that Cohen has shortchanged readers. He simply ran out of time to get the book out in the market before the coming election, and I don’t fault him for that. Nor has he, as far as I can see, skimped on damning details, especially about himself and the unbelievable journey to the dark side he was on for so long.

No, Cohen’s book isn’t finished because the story it tells is not finished. It charts his rise, and the wild, destructive, ego-tripping ride with Trump into the White House, and his sudden fall, when the feds collared him and Trump coldly dumped him.

After the fall came a dramatic personal turn. But we don’t yet know where that turn will lead Cohen. Perhaps he doesn’t know yet either.

In any event, the fall happened abruptly: on April 9, 2018, Cohen  woke up in his luxurious Manhattan digs, had coffee and oatmeal, and saw his son off to school.

Then there was a knock at the door. Peeping into the hallway, he saw a crowd of men in suits, some holding up badges, and heard a line From so many mob movies:

“FBI, Mr. Cohen. Please open the door.” Continue reading Michael Cohen: From the White House to the Sewage Plant

Michael Cohen & Trump: Something a Bit Lighter

Michael Cohen accompanied Trump on a number of trips to Las Vegas.  A snippet from one such journey, from Disloyal:

Checking into the Vegas Trump Tower, I was summoned up to his suite to discuss the day’s events. Trump was in his underwear, white Hanes briefs, and a white short-sleeve undershirt, watching cable news on television. He barely seemed to register that it was unusual for a grown man to be in a state of undress in front of an employee, but there it was.

On this occasion, Trump was fresh from the shower and he hadn’t done his hair yet, as it was still air-drying. When his hair wasn’t done, his strands of dyed-golden hair reached below his shoulders along the right side of his head and on his back, like a balding Allman Brother or strung out old ’60s hippie.

I called his plane Hair Force One, for good reason. Trump doesn’t have a simple combover.

Continue reading Michael Cohen & Trump: Something a Bit Lighter

Trump Meets Jesus, and other Chumps

Michael Cohen describes the kickoff of the mutually self-serving “courtship” Between Trump & prominent evangelicals, who became a central pillar of Trump’s political base. From Disloyal, with rough language:

“So how did the amoral Trump come to be beloved by evangelical voters, a question that remains one of the abiding mysteries to this day?

Begin with the premise that Donald Trump hadn’t darkened the door of a church or chapel since the age of seven, as he would openly admit in his past incarnation. Places of religious worship held absolutely no interest to him, and he possessed precisely zero personal piety in his life—but he knew the power of religion, and that was a language he could speak.

An abiding evangelical fantasy, to others a continuing mystery . . .

Continue reading Trump Meets Jesus, and other Chumps

Michael Cohen, Trump & the Right Price for Selling Your Soul

Almost by accident, in 1997 I became a crime reporter, specializing in church-related financial frauds.  My first major investigative report, called “Fleecing the Faithful,” is still online.

Michael Cohen’s book “Disloyal” brings back those years.

The crime schemes I covered were obscure, and often complicated to explain. Although they ruined many lives, they did so quietly. Cases typically lacked physical violence, dead bodies or sex. Hence few except the biggest ever got much media attention.

Yet religious based frauds were (& are) plentiful & destructive. And they didn’t have to directly involve “church” to be religious, at least for me. That’s because these crimes, like others, involve one of the central religious issues, namely the reality of evil. In fact, these cases’ lack of lurid melodrama made it easier for me to focus, at least In reflecting on them, on the underlying question:

Continue reading Michael Cohen, Trump & the Right Price for Selling Your Soul

Michael Cohen Thursday: Beginning Portrait of the Greatest Con Artist

Note: I have not read Woodward’s book. This post refers to it based on news reports, including excerpts of the taped interviews that Woodward conducted for it.

One of Cohen’s observations in his book Disloyal about Trump & his early political maneuvers was corroborated by today’s reports of Trump’s taped conversations with Bob Woodward:

Cohen: In those early manifestations of Trump’s aspirations, he revealed an uncanny knack for channeling the fears and resentments of the age . . . .

Just one example was Trump’s call in 1989 for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, a group of black kids convicted of the rape of a white female jogger in Manhattan’s famous park.

The fact that the kids were exonerated years later, when it was proven beyond doubt that they were not guilty, didn’t prompt Trump to back down or admit a mistake; he’d understood instinctively that the racial anxiety and resentments then gripping New York City would provide a potent symbol that he hoped to ride to power.

That was always Trump’s way, learned at the feet of Roy Cohn, his first attack-dog attorney: Never apologize, and never admit to error or weakness. Never. Ever. Not even in the time of Coronavirus, as the world would discover.

Continue reading Michael Cohen Thursday: Beginning Portrait of the Greatest Con Artist