Monday, September 14, 2015

What I'm reading

The Daily Astorian has a new feature, asking contributors to write about what they are reading. Here is my submission:

The Daily Astorian invites people to submit titles of books they are reading and share a few thoughts about the work. This week, Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis shares some of his favorite books. Marquis, the district attorney since 1994, is a voracious reader. His parents didn’t allow a TV in his home until he was 16, to make sure he read. He is a frequent author of op-ed pieces in newspapers including The Daily Astorian, The New York Times and USA Today, and co-authored a book on capital punishment in 2005. To submit, send to

Rereading a good book is like visiting an old friend after time and circumstance have separated you.
I recently reread with great pleasure one of my two favorite books, Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle.” (The other is Ursula Le Guin’s “Lathe of Heaven.”)

Dick, known as PKD, was a prodigious consumer of illicit drugs and an equally prolific author. He is best known to many for the movies that were made from his books and short stories — “Blade Runner” from “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”; “Total Recall” from “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,”; “Minority Report” and others.

Written in 1962, “The Man in the High Castle” (now an Amazon TV series to be aired later this fall) posits an alternate-history America in which the United States lost World War II. Nazis occupy the eastern U.S., Japanese occupy the western states, and a buffer neutral nation called the “Rocky Mountain States of America” lies in between.
I don’t think you need to be a fan of science fiction to appreciate the many-layered themes.
Like in PKD’s other novels, the characters face challenges to their basic assumptions about themselves, their world, and their relationship to it. Without revealing too much, as I hope others will enjoy what has brought me many good hours of reading, the book references a key character who is the author of a “book inside the book” — “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” — an alternate history of WWII in which the United States wins the war.

A few months ago, my wife Cindy and I visited one of her dearest friends, a senior Foreign Service officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. It was my second trip, the first was with my father in 1990, near the end but still very much the Soviet Union. Our host loaned me “The Forsaken,” a grim and virtually unknown history of the migration of thousands of idealistic, if very naive Americans to Stalin’s Russia in the early 1930s. Some were members of the American Communist Party, but most were younger men and their families, skilled workers unable to find jobs in Depression-era America.
The author, Tim Tzouliadis, a Greece-born English documentarian, vividly describes the despair and hopelessness many ordinary workers felt before Franklin Roosevelt was able to implement the New Deal and programs like the Works Progress Administration. Tzouliadis is unsparing in his revelations of the extreme brutality, in fact genocide, committed by Stalin against, among others, the Ukrainian people, or anyone the increasingly paranoid leader felt threatened by. The author notes with disgust how the wealthy American ambassador to Russia, Joseph Davies and his wife, watched silently as American citizens begged to return to the U.S., only to be dragged off by the NKVD, the secret police that preceded the KGB and, today, the FSB.

“The Forsaken” reminds us that what we think we know as “history” is often written by the victors or, in this case, those who survived.

Most recently I read an exposé by a long-retired investigative journalist, William Crawford, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 writing for the Chicago Tribune. Now he has written a shocking and revealing book about corruption in the Chicago justice system.

“Justice Perverted” is the story of how a well-known professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism helped ensure that Anthony Porter, almost certainly guilty of a vicious 1982 double homicide, was released from prison and pardoned by Illinois’ then-Gov. George Ryan (who ended up in federal prison for his own corruption).

This isn’t the usual story of bad cops framing an innocent man. “Justice Perverted” tells the well-documented story of how the lawyers, the judges, the prosecutors, the press, and academia — all the people who should have stopped it — conspired to uphold the modern “narrative” that innocent men are regularly convicted of crimes they did not commit. What’s worse, they were all willing to sacrifice Alstory Simon, a genuinely innocent man, to prison to make their narrative work.
Through the National District Attorneys Association I’ve become acquainted with the relatively new Cook County prosecutor, Anita Alvarez. To her great credit, she freed Simon from prison last fall, citing the massive injustice perpetrated to advance the careers of many, at the cost of a man’s freedom.

The books by PKD and Crawford, utterly unrelated other than by my reading habits, warn us that the conventional wisdom is not always what it seems.

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