Two Books of Criticism, Conspiracy, and Pop and Political Culture

Journalist Sarah Kendzior has always had an unfortunately prescient ability of reading the writing on the wall when it comes to the direction that political winds are blowing in America. Currently based in St. Louis, her 2018 book The View From Flyover Country brilliantly captured a part of America that the media often overlooks, and did so to its detriment leading up to the 2016 election. In those essays, Kendzior eloquently explained

In her latest, They Knew: How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Complacent, she further explores how America isn’t so starkly divided into red and blue, it’s “purple like a bruise,” but through the lens of the American affinity for conspiracy theories and conspiracy culture and some of the surprising reasons for who and what can be at blame here.

She takes to task the people, including many on the left (Bob Woodward was one example cited) who withhold important or incriminating information in order to profit when they release bombshell, tell-all books. In Woodward’s case, this was about the revelation that Trump well understood the seriousness of the coronavirus far earlier than he’d publicly let on.

She’s an outstanding writer (if occasionally lines can feel a little overwritten, it’s at the price of others being grab-the-highlighter stunning), super-smart and prescient and I love getting her thoughts on these topics, but this felt like it lacked something to make it cohesive. There’s not a lot of exploration around the actual culture itself that makes America such a breeding ground for conspiracy theories or beliefs in conspiracies (Kendzior provides a helpful explanation of how these are distinguished from each other that I hadn’t considered before). And she is clearly exhausted: tired of telling people things that they don’t believe and not taking any joy in later saying I told you so. That weariness is palpable,

What I most appreciated here was how this made me evaluate Democrats’ behavior. In the current political climate I tend to automatically jump to their defense regardless, but she very eloquently and crucially makes arguments about how they’ve enabled the culture of conspiracy as well. It forced me to think more critically, which is always worthwhile. Kendzior attacks the personality cult around anyone (Dr. Fauci is a disturbing example), showing that it’s dangerous even if it’s someone whose ideas or work you support. This goes both ways, and she’s right.

And I love books like this in general, that provide a finger-on-the-pulse of what’s going on politically and culturally and present recent events and incidents with well-written, thoughtfully analyzed commentary. Truly one of my favorite kind of books. I read this right after Off With Her Head and they had a lot of overlap in the type of political figures (female politicians always at the center of ire and conspiracy, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and newsworthy moments they covered; I’ve even gotten mixed up on which book contained what. But I think they made a useful read-together. Flatiron Books. Used or new

Another unexpectedly great read-along, and one that feels lighter despite its subject matter, is Elissa Bassist’s Hysterical. This memoir begins, ostensibly, being about Bassist’s mysterious illness, and I will read absolutely any book about these I can find. But it quickly veers into a pop cultural/political exploration of the patriarchy and how that affects women’s lives seen through the lens of Bassist’s.

I’m not sure this knew what it wanted to be and so it tried to do a bit much at once, but honestly, when there’s so much good stuff woven into it as a whole, I can’t really be mad about that. I did get the impression going in that it was going to focus more on her illness, but it veers into a much wider-lens look at many of the shitty ways a patriarchal culture has affected Bassist’s, and by extension, every woman’s, lives.

Bassist, an editor for The Rumpus, manages to keep this black-humored, which tempers the horror of some of her experiences (part of the medical mystery aspect is that an ex-boyfriend tore her cervix, which she wrote about in a workshop in her creative writing MFA program, to much mansplaining and criticism that her experience was wrong) and the infuriating points she emphasizes in our culture. She does this by tracing back over past relationships, jobs, and incidents like the aforementioned workshop and showing how men have tried to silence, stifle, criticize, name-call – you know the drill – in order to negate, minimize, or deny her voice.

Bassist loops in the Me Too movement, even with her own Bill Murray story to illustrate points. There’s really a lot going on here. I found this hard to put down — it’s lively, entertaining, and angry – always a good mix for not only holding attention but making highly effective points.

I felt her on so much of this, and I think a lot of it will resonate universally with other women. There’s just no way it can’t, when so much of it is the trauma of just being female in the current online, hyperconnected world. I didn’t always agree with every point she made, and certain of-the-moment examples illustrating them gave me pause (just not on board with Meghan Markle, sorry).

When I did bristle a bit at her behavior, I had to ask myself why, and it was pretty much because I’ve allowed certain patriarchal ideas to become ingrained and automatic. It doesn’t mean she’s flawless, but she shows that men are allowed to make all the mistakes they need to or express themselves however the hell they want and women are never afforded the same grace. This definitely forced me to think and reconsider some ideas, and sometimes I was uncomfortable because I recognized myself and my own experience where I didn’t want to.

I wished there was more of the medical mystery story, but what’s there was a great addition to this little subgenre. Any caveats aside, I can’t recommend this one enough. It’s a hurricane of thoughts, ideas, and experience, but one that’s exhilarating to be caught up in.

Hachette Books. Used or new

Both published September 13, 2022. I received advance copies from their respective publishers for unbiased review.


9 thoughts on “Two Books of Criticism, Conspiracy, and Pop and Political Culture

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  1. These book are the kind I love to read and thank you for alerting me. I especially like your review of They Knew and am grateful my library has it and immediately put it on hold.

    I will confess I read The Laptop From Hell and was totally appalled. It was such a travesty that this information was kept from the American public.

    I do sincerely believe, we are being manipulated daily through the press, social media, the pharmacology industry, and others into constantly conforming to their standards, which always seems to be revolving around money, power, and lies.

    Once again many thanks for you excellent reviews any books that should be read by all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad I could put these two on your radar! I really enjoyed both of them and I got so much from them too. Very thoughtful and illuminating, especially for our current political and cultural climates.

      I haven’t read the laptop from hell but I read a lot of the Post’s coverage while it was happening. It disturbs me how much is manipulated and withheld on both sides in order to influence elections and personally profit. Like I wrote in the review I tend to always defend the democrats and the left but she really showed how their behavior has been egregious and designed for their own profits as well. Ugh it’s all a mess!! I completely agree with you that we are so manipulated by social media and industry interests like pharma as well. It’s incredibly frustrating and I’m not sure what solution there is beyond trying to educate as much as possible.

      Hope you like these two – they are both really so worthwhile!


    1. Oh thank you so much, Liz! I always feel there’s such a personal connection to how we experience any reading material so I try to explain where I’m coming from. I always get that from your writing too!


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