Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Deer Hunting With Jesus

Dispatches From America's Class War
Joe Bageant
ISBN: 978-0-307-33936-2

My guitar playing buddy, Johnson the man with two last names, lent me this book, for which I am highly indebted, I think, debt being one of the characteristics of the American "redneck" described by Joe Bageant. Bageant left his home, of Winchester Virginia 40 some years ago to join the navy, go to college and become a journalist. He returned lately and has written this book as a privileged outsider, observing the lives of his own friends and family.

In this book Bageant, let's call him Joe, explores hourly wage labor, or Americanserfdom, as he prefers to call it, predatory lending and life in a trailer park, the gun culture, Christian fundamentalism, and television as the arbiter of America's consciousness.

The chapters on fundamentalism are particularly chilling. Here's a few highlights quoted from a chapter entitled "The Covert Kingdom."

The United Nations is a tool of the Antichrist. America alone must spread the gospel around the world.

There is no need to worry about the environment because we are not going to need this earth much longer.

Israel is to be defended at all costs and even encouraged to expand because the Bible declares that Israel must rule all the land from the Nile to the Euphrates in order for the End Times prophecy to be fulfilled.

God will provide a Christian leader to shepherd the American flock as they become his chosen people to extend the gospel world wide and rid the earth of evil.

Recognize any of that rhetoric? The fundamentalists infiltrating America's government have become more sophisticated in their rhetoric since James Watt but they are still working toward the same goals. Well, we get another chance to throw them out next November. Let's take it this time. The problem is that somehow we have to get Joe sixpack to go along.

Keep current with Joe Bageant at

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Day of Reckoning

How Hubris, Ideology and Greed Are Tearing America Apart
Patrick J. Buchanan
ISBN-13: 978-0-12-37696-3
ISBN-10: 0-312-37696-0

When I saw this book by Pat Buchanan on the new book shelf at the library I knew I had something to really chew on. Here was my chance to give that paleocoservative cave man one right between the eyes. Who can forget how Buchanan single handedly torpedoed George H. W. Bush's second term candidacy at the 1992 Republican convention in Dallas? Who is not still angry about the things he said to Michael Kinsly week after week on Crossfire? Well, Pat Buchanan is pretty tame compared to the conservatives we have running the show today.

Buchanan calls the the Bush II administration a failure because of it's hubris and ideological policymaking. In a chapter he calls "The Gospel of George Bush," he lambastes the notion that America can or should "end tyranny in our world," or spread democracy to every nation. He calls the invasion of Iraq the greatest mistake in American history. I'm with you Pat. Oh, it's hard to write that. How can I be agreeing with this guy?

Domestically Buchanan sees America drifting toward a union with Canada and Mexico, where we will lose our national identity - or the division of America where we will lose the southwest to the Mexicans, he's not sure which. Now we're talking! That's the Pat Buchanan I remember! He hits all the high notes, except that he never mentions the Trilateral Commission. Usually the Trilateral Commission is behind all these world government plots.

Buchanan feels the we need to close our borders to immigrants from Latin America, who speak another language, don't look like us and refuse to assimilate. He says, "Yet were an American to propose an immigration policy to keep the United States predominantly Christian and European -the rational behind the immigration act of 1924 - he or she would be denounced as a racist, a xenophobe, and un-American." Well, yeah, Pat. That would cover the bill.

What he fails to remember is the history of immigration in this country. Millions of people came here from China, Italy, Eastern Europe, Germany, Scandinavia in successive waves. Each time there were Pat Buchanans there eager to nail the gate shut and each time, in about three generations, the immigrants assimilated, made our country culturally richer and joined the Buchanans of the world to decry the coming of the next wave. Of course the Scandinavians brought lutefisk, which nearly poisoned the entire upper midwest, or at least made it smell bad. I'm allowed to say that, just like Buchanan is allowed to sing "No Irish Need Apply." If he remembers the words.

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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Schulz and Peanuts

A Biography
David Michaelis
ISBN: 978-0-06-621393-4
ISBN-10: 0-06-62193-2

I have always identified with Charlie Brown. Somehow Charles Schulz had gotten into my head and put my life into his comic strip. Not surprisingly David Michaelis found this to be a common reaction to the Peanuts strip among many people that he talked with, in preparation for this book.

Charles Schulz was given the nickname Sparky, in infancy, after the racehorse character in the Barney Google comic strip. The comics page in the newspapers of the early 20th century served some of the same purposes as television does today, adventure series ran in installments, comedy was served up daily. The comics were discussed around the office water cooler like he latest Seinfeld episode, or whatever it is people talk about now.

Amazingly, Sparky Schulz determined that he would be a cartoonist at the age of 6. He was a shy withdrawn child, preferring to draw pictures rather than participate in the rogh and tmble play of the neighborhood children. Then again he formed and managed his own sandlot baseball team. Just like Charlie Brown.

There has been some negative reaction from the Schulz family to the conclusions that Michaelis has drawn. Family members object to his assertion that Schulz suffered from depression, feelings of inadequacy, agoraphobia. Yet Michaelis uses the Peanuts strips to illustrate his points. Certainly Charlie Brown believes that no one likes him, despite his good nature, intelligence and willingness to pitch in and help the other characters.

According to Michaelis, Schulz peopled his strip with representation of those in his daily life. Lucy as his first wife, Joyce Halverson; the little red haired girl as Donna Johnson, the woman who rejected his proposal; Snoopy, Schulz's fantasy life. He carefully inserts strips from Schulz's 50 years of work to illustrate each point. Schroeder, the unrecognized genius, another aspect of Schulz, yet he was always surprised when people complimented his work.

I found the small type, and particularly the speech balloons of the greatly reduced comic strips, shrunk to fit the page of a standard hardcover book, to be difficult to read. I will be wandering over to the large print section sooner than I thought. I persevered, however and, using a magnifying glass to read the strips, I was able to watch, as Schulz aged, a tremor appear and grow in his drawing hand. And I was able to watch as Schulz learned to master, and use that tremor to enhance, rather than detract from, the quality of the drawing.

In the end Schulz, as he was dying of colon cancer, was saddened that Charlie Brown never got to kick the football. I was more than ever convinced that Sparky Schulz had been reading my mind and putting my thoughts into Charlie Brown's speech balloons.

Comic strip image from
"Linus and Lucy" by Vince Guaraldi from

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Dead Guy Interviews

Conversations With 45 Of The Most Accomplished, Notorious, And Deceased Personalities In History

Michael A. Stusser
Penguin Books
ISBN 978-0-14-311227-3

Michael Stusser regularly interviews dead people and publishes the interviews in Mental Floss Magazine . He has other personality quirks, too, I'm sure. This is his first collection of dead people interviews in book form.

The material is written tongue in cheek, which makes it very hard to type. The writing style reminds me of Monty Python. The deceased interviewees always have something surprising to say. Genghis Kahn: "Helmet is key. Tell kids, when you ride - must wear helmet." Sigmund Freud: "Man says to his friend, 'I've been making a lot of Freudian slips lately.' 'Like vat?' asks his friend. 'Vell, last week I asked the train conductor for two pickets to Tittsburgh.'"

Some of the interviews chosen for the book are with people that might not make your, or my , A-list, particularly the women. Mae West, Frieda Kahlo, Coco Channel, Oscar Wilde . . . Oh I was talking about the women, never mind. Of course, you have your Napoleon Bonaparte, your Caligula and your Albert Einstein too.

I'm looking forward to volume two, as long as Stusser doesn't want to interview me for it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Blog of the Day, Whoo Hoo!

I just learned that I'll Never Forget The Day I Read A Book! has been named Blog of the Day by That may not seem like such a big deal to you but, let me tell you, I never got an award before like this one. In fact I don't remember ever getting an award. A nice lady said "thank you" to me in the supermarket the other day when I handed her a plastic bag for her potatoes , but that's about it.

But then my mother always did say that I was the best one.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Six Frigates

The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy
Ian W. Toll
W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN-13: 978-0-393-05847-5
ISBN-10: 0-393-05847-6

The US Ambassador to the Central Africa Republic excitedly posted on the Fender Discussion Page, , about this book, which had been given to him by a retired Royal Navy officer. Thanks, DiploStrat, for turning me on to this one.

There are lessons that we should learn from this narrative, as there are in every era of history. For one thing, Britain was a superpower – Britania Rules the waves and all that – and was quite arrogant in regard to it’s treatment of the ships and sailors of other nations, particularly the United States, “pressing” sailors into the Royal Navy, i.e. kidnapping them, whenever it suited. What’s the use of being a superpower if you can’t throw your weight around, right? Well It turns out that a smallish country at the edge of the known universe can become a royal PIA to a superpower without having to come anywhere near matching that superpower’s military might. The US managed to annoy Britain to exhaustion, for a second time, in the war of 1812.

Then there is the opposition of the Republicans (Democrats) in the US to wasting money on such a superfluous thing as a navy. American commercial shipping was growing by leaps and bounds and had no protection against pirates, privateers or arrogant naval officers. Congress finally agreed to build six frigates in 1794 after the Tripoli reneged on the protection agreement that the US had bought from them, pillaged an American ship and held it’s crew for ransom. Colonel Khaddaffi’s predecessor in Tripoli didn’t get his comeuppance until 1805, though, what with cost overruns, schedule delays, change orders, budget cuts and a small undeclared war with France.

Considerable attention is given, in the book, to the Presidential election of 1800, which made Harry and Louise and even the Willie Horton ads look pretty tame. It was the first time we actually had to chose between candidates in 1800 and there were no rules yet. It showed.

“Six Frigates” ranges over a lot of topics, Nelson’s victories at the Nile and Trafalger, Napoleon Bonepart and his wars in Europe, the Louisiana Purchase, Theodore Roosevelt’s study habits, (Teddy wrote a book on the war of 1812, standing up, while attending law school) and Winston Churchill, who said “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” It is well written, as readable as a novel and (don’t tell) educational. It isn’t just ships and cannons and whatnot, although buckles are swashed aplenty.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Conscience of a Liberal

Paul Krugman
W. W. Norton & Co. Ltd.
ISBN: 13-978-0-393-06069-0

Deriving it's title from the 1960 classic ghostwritten for Barry Goldwater, this book blasts what Krugman calls "movement conservatism" for being anti democratic, elitist, self serving, untenable, false, misleading and packed with lies. He goes on for several chapters in this vein before he gets down to his own proposal for a liberal, a progressive, agenda which is centered around universal, single payer, health care.

Krugman gives some simple, easily verified, easily understood numbers which show, in his opinion, that a single payer system would provide better health care to more people for less money than the nightmare system of health care by accountants that we have today. Simple put, he proposes to extend Medicare to everyone. Of course the insurance industry and the pharmas will fight tooth and nail to prevent this happening and doctors are always complaining about the level of payment from Medicare. I always feel sorry for my doctor whenever I see him pull out of the driveway of his McMansion in his Mercedes. I know he really wants a Bentley and who can blame him.

I never did figure out why Krugman's conscience is bothering him, though.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Phony Marine

Jim Lehrer
Random House
ISBN-10: 1-4000-6486-4
ISBN-13: 978-1-4000-6486-1

The premise of this 18th book by the host of PBS' "News Hour" is that a fifty year old men's clothing salesman buys a Vietnam era Marine's Silver Star medal on eBay and is transformed, by wearing the accompanying lapel pin, into a heroic figure. Haunted by the knowledge that the respect he is given by those who recognize the pin is undeserved, he attempts to become the Marine that he is assumed to be. The Phony Marine studies the Marine Corps, learns to swear, diets, exercises and shaves his head in order to play the part.

Accident, or deus ex Microsoft, places him in a couple of confrontations where he has to act the hero, he is made much of in the local, Washington DC news and is awarded another medal by the city of Washington. He tries to get himself transferred to

another store in Dallas, so that he can escape his past associations and his ex-wife, the better to be the new him, but is met there by a store employee who is a real Marine and decorated hero. Eventually the salesman confesses his masquerade to the people that he has fooled and throws the medal and it's ribbons and pin into the Potomac, but is accepted as a hero anyway, by some of them, because of his heroic actions at the beginning of this paragraph.

Lehrer, by the way was an infantry officer in the Marines in the 1950s. I guess he can get away with making this Jiminy Cricket, you are what you think you are, transformation in his character, where I wouldn't have dared. My nose would have grown far too long.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Driving Mr. Albert

A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brain
Michael Paterniti
The Dial Press
ISBN: 0-385-3300-5

If there is a greater waste of time than taking Einstein's brain, in two Tupperware containers, on a cross country road trip, it could only be removing that brain during an autopsy in order to discover the source of Einstein's genius. Thomas Harvey, defrocked pathologist, did both of these things. He dedicated his life to them, in fact. Paterniti became his enabler, by going to interview Harvey and offering to drive the 85 year old retiree from his home in Princeton New Jersey to San Jose California in order to show the brain to Einstein's granddaughter, who really didn't want to see it.

It did provide Paterniti with a hook that he could hang a book proposal on, get him published and keep him from a lifetime of housepainting. It is a very readable book, a memoir of an uncomfortable cross country trip with an elderly stranger and has some funny incidents in which Paterniti confesses to strangers that they are transporting Einstein's brain in the trunk of their car. Harvey did fly back to New Jersey, presumable with the brain in his carry-on luggage, so there never was a need to actually drive the whole way, except to write a book about it.

Harvey's lifetime of research, with the help of various scientists with whom he has shared parts of the brain, is inconclusive. Einstein may have had more glial cells than average. The part of the brain associated with math, I didn't know there was such an organ, may have been somewhat larger that usual. Not much for 50 years of study. There is speculation in the book about cloning the brain. After half a century in formaldehyde there's no chance of that. That fact is kind of glossed over for the science fiction effect.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

J. K. Rowling
Arteur A. Levine Books
ISBN-13: 978-0-545-01022-4
ISBN-10: 0-545-01022-5

Yes I read it. Yes I read them all, just like millions of other muggles, wishing that we had received letters from Professor Dumbledore accepting our non existent applications to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry so that we could escape our mundane lives and go practice magic for a living.

Thank God it's finally over! Oh by the way, if you haven't read this one yet - the good guys win. I know that's a load off your mind. I won't spoil the read for you by telling you what all the horcruxes are or what actually happened to Dumbledore or which side Snape is really on or whether Harry lives. Well, I will say that the ending smacks a bit of the Return of the Jedi and the Ewoks celebration with the jolly ghosts of Obi Wan and Vader. No help for that I'm afraid. Lots of people do get killed off, though. The book has a body count reminiscent of a Shakespeare tragedy.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Tin Roof Blowdown

James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster
ISBN13: 978-1-4165-4848-5
ISBN10: 1-4165-4848-3

The violence, invasion, violation, rage and official indifference that make up the life of Burke's character Dave Robicheaux will pick the scabs off old wounds on a reader who has experienced a crime for himself. This latest novel is set in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Katrina. "Wise guys", "street pukes," a drug addicted dying priest and a psychopathic killer float in open boats through the streets of New Orleans looking for safety, salvation and blood diamonds. It will give you bad dreams.

The good news is that Dave's daughter, Alafair, has begun her first novel. It amazes me that Burke has allowed details of his own life and family to leak into the noxious, poisoned atmosphere of his Dave Robicheaux stories.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Center Cannot Hold

My Journey Through Madness
Elyn Saks
New York
ISBN: 978-1-4013-0138-5

This is a personal memoir of schizophrenia and outstanding achievement taking place simultaneously. Elyn Saks earned a masters degree at Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship, graduated from Yale Law School, became a law professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law and became a psychotherapist all while being treated for Schizophrenia, with several interruptions for hospitalizations because of severe psychotic episodes. Oh, and she has written several books. On the side she is a cancer survivor. And you thought you had it rough. She is also a founding member of the Click and Clack school of first name spelling. Now go do something with you worthless, miserable life and stop your whining.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Edly's Music Theory for Practical People

Ed Roseman illustrated by Peter Reynolds
Music EdVentures
ISBN-13: 978-0-9661616-0-2
ISBN-10: 0-9661616-0-2

The world is full of people who have learned to play music by ear, or to read tabulature for guitar or other stringed instruments but not musical notation. Ed Roseman has taken on the daunting task of teaching these folks music theory, all the while gently chiding them to learn to read music. It is an interesting effort, filled with exercises created on a computer spreadsheet, probable Appleworks by the look of it, that use the letter names of notes, CDEFGABC, instead of the little marks on five lines and four spaces of a musical staff, to teach the concepts of harmony, the circle of fifths(and fourths) scales, modes arpeggios and all that other good musical stuff that every musician should know.

He has the same exercises in music notation in each section for those who took piano lessons in elementary school or played the clarinet in junior high band, like me, can follow along that way.

Even with the Dr. Seuss like illustrations by Peter Reynolds this is a good solid grounding in music theory. All you guitar wankers out there might consider giving this book a try.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Practicing: A Musician's Return To Music

Glen Kurtz
Alfred A. Knoph
ISBN: 978-0-307-26615-6

"When you play an instrument, and playing comes easily, playing is enough. But slowly, as you play more, what you hear outpaces your ability. This music beyond you, as you are, leads you on, and you ache to lay hold of it. You sit down, you look at your hands, you hold the instrument. You listen to the musicians you admire, who have this same equipment, hands and instruments. Then you look at your own hands again, and it doesn't seem possible. How do they do it? What you want to play shimmers ungraspable in the air, or in the hands of others. I think this is when your story as a musician begins. Playing, you begin to practice. And practice makes "perfect." Now you'll never play the way you wish you could. Now one lifetime is not enough. You'll never be finished practicing."

That says it all right there, that does.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Michael Chabon
Harper Collins

Michael Chabon comes up with these quirky interesting premises for his novels. Comic book authors, for example. I thought that I would really enjoy "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," but when I tried to read it the book never got started. Maybe I should try again.

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is an alternate history novel in the Philip K. Dick, "The Man In The High Castle" tradition. In this novel, European Jews have been resettled in Sitka Alaska during and after World War Two. There apparently was an actual proposal to do this at the time, which was never acted upon. The district of Sitka, given to the Jews for a period of sixty years, is about to revert to the ownership of the state of Alaska when the novel begins. Oddly, no one seems to have given any thought as to where all these people are going to go, but they can't stay in the US without green cards, which are not forthcoming.

The central character is a police detective in Sitka, trying to solve the execution style murder of a junkie in the residential hotel that the detective lives in. The book is a crime novel on one level, a science fiction novel on another and a book about millennialism, Jewish folklore, American immigration policy, evangelical politics and Tlingit Indian culture.

I am not going to give away any spoilers. There is a lot going on in the book. It's really about us, here in the current version of the 21st century.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Dead Connection

Alafair Burke
Henry Holt and Company , New York 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-78-7785-8
ISBN-10: 0-8050-7785-5

Readers of crime novels will be familiar with James Lee Burke's character Dave Robicheaux and Dave's daughter Alafair. Well, it turns out, in a self referential fiction-turned-reality twist that makes John Barth look cheap, Burke's own daughter, Alafair, judging by her picture, is the model of the fictional character in much more than name. Get one of her books and take a look.

Dead Connection is the fourth novel by this former deputy district attorney turned criminal law professor. This one involves online dating services, hackers and Russian organized crime in New York. It's a page turner to be sure. I won't let out any spoilers except to say that the main character makes a call to someone in New Iberia Parish, Louisiana. That ought to get you Dave Robicheaux fans interested.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Supreme's Greatest Hits

The 34 Supreme Court Cases That Most Directly Affect Your Life
Michael G. Trachtman Sterling Publishing Co. Inc. New York 2006
ISBN-13: 978-1-4027-4107-4 ISBN-10: 1-4027-4107-3

Editors note: for Diana Ross etal please click here.

Well, not really. It's hard to see how the Dred Scott decision directly affects my life, but I get the point. This book illustrates how the Supreme Court works, it's foibles as well as it's triumphs.
Some of the cases, such as Bush v. Gore are illustrations of how the prejudices of individual Supreme Court justices can affect the course of history in unexpected ways.

How can an eighteenth century document, the United States Constitution, be used to regulate twenty first century social issues? What about internet commerce? When does human life begin or end in an era of ever expanding medical technology? Many fascinating questions are asked and not answered. Stay tuned to the Supreme Court of the future as these issues are addressed.