Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Seventh Book Review Blog Carnival Is Up

Natasha at Maw Books Blog has worked from dawn till dark to produce today's Book Review Blog Carnival. No matter how hard I tried I lost count every time, but there are more than 80 posts in this issue. The range of subjects is, not surprisingly the biggest ever. There is something for every book lover on your Christmas list.

The eighth edition will be hosted by on January 4th. You may submit a book review post from your blog at Everybody is welcome to participate.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

David Wroblewski

This is another book that I learned about by listening to the Diane Rehm Show on the radio. The author was on for an interview and aroused my interest because Diane, David Wroblewski and I are all dog people. Wroblewski has written a novel set in an unusual dog breeding kennel which produces unusual dogs and the dogs are central to the story he tells. The founder of this kennel, the grandfather of it's central character, had the idea to breed dogs based on behavior instead of conformation. He took dogs of many, and sometimes no breed, that had performed unusual and sometimes heroic acts, dogs that got written about in the newspaper, and he created his own breed of dogs. He clearly researched both breeding methods and obedience and service dog training for the book, although the results achieved by this fictional kennel are probably not possible.

The book is written from many points of view, sometimes even that of one of the dogs, but never sinks to a level of cuteness or anthropomorphism while doing so.

The difference between us and our animal companions is one of degree and not of kind, Descartes notwithstanding.
The idea of creating these dogs that are intelligent and loyal but able to to make moral choices is a fascinating one. It gives the book a kind of Sci Fi speculative edge. What if you bred and trained dogs for intelligence and judgment? How far could you take them? What part of their behavior is learned and what effect does inheritance have? This question is played out in the dags and in the humans in this story.

This is a coming of age novel, as many first novels are. A young man, Edgar, grows up on this farm, where his parents are engaged in breeding and training these amazing dogs. Edgar is unable to speak, although he hears normally, and communicates with a half made up sign language, to everyone, including the dogs. Edgar is destined to take over the kennel and continue breeding and training these amazing dogs.

But this coming of age novel takes a wrong turn when Edgar's uncle Claude comes home after a long absence. In fact, not until Edgar's father suddenly dies and Claude starts paying unwanted attention to Edgar's mother, does the reader realize the Wroblewski is re-telling the story of Hamlet on a dog breeding farm.

Like the play, the novel ends tragically. I won't spoil it by telling you how. It is a satisfyingly thick book, a good long read, and I highly recommend it.

Note: revised 12/22/08

Making Lemonade

Kindelicious has given me the Lemonade Award for showing great attitude and gratitude. Now I'm supposed to pass this award on to at least ten other blogs who show similar attitude and gratitude.

On the other hand, I just kicked Entrecard off my blog. My attitude may be a bit sour just at this moment. I have met some outstanding bloggers through my association with Entrecard, but the burden or working their system has also interfered with my ability to effectively manage and post to my blogs.

When the world hands you lemons, make lemonade, the old saying goes.

I want to give this award to the best lemonade maker I know, JohnC of Life Onwards.

Shinade of The Painted Veil deserves this award. She has been a good friend and now she needs her friends' support to help her through a rough spot. She has good music on her blog, too.

Silvie Dixie of A Glimpse of La Rochelle has been a steadfast friend to a whole community of bloggers at FuelMyBlog.

Scott at My Thermos gets an award for occasionally making me stop and think.

Carol at Bass-ically Speaking gets the lemonade stand, too. Solidarity forever, sister.

A special mention to Turnip at Turnip of Power, a blog that gives real, good advice to aspiring bloggers, rather than warmed over gruel and hype.

Mudge at Left Handed Compliment seems to need a nudge. Bro, don't forget your blog!

Sugar Queen, we're praying for you, gal. Get well and post when you can.

That's eight, not "at least ten" blogs. I'm not good at following directions.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Book Review Blog Carnival #6 At Imaginary Lands

The sixth edition of my runaway creation, the Book Review Blog Carnival, has been posted at Imaginary Lands. There are 40 reviews in this edition. Don't miss it!

Monday, December 1, 2008

What You Should Know About Politics But Don't

A Nonpartisan Guide to the Issues
Jessamyn Conrad

Let me say first, that there was not a lot of new information in this book and I found the title only slightly less offensive than the "for dummies" series of books, which I refuse to consult on principle. I've read over a couple of them, meh. It went downhill from there.

The book starts off talking about elections and explains about voting districts and political parties and the electoral college. Then it gets into voter suppression and fraud, gerrymandering campaign finance and the trouble with electronic voting machines. The following chapters take on a long list of hot button issues: recession. stagflation, the mortgage crisis, isolationism, health care, homeland security, no child left behind, all the while maintaining a neutral non partisan tone, the News Hour with Jim Lerher, on Prozac. "Some believe that torture is inherently morally repugnant and is never justifiable. Others think there may be some very restricted circumstances in which torture is morally acceptable, while still others contend that those conditions are broader."

Some people bend over backwards to not have an opinion, too, and Jessamyn Conrad is one of them. Some people think torture is sometimes OK? Let's put it out there, Jessamyn. The Bush Administration denies that it ever tortured anyone and if it did, then they must have deserved it. And besides, if the President does it, it's legal.

I became weary of the neutrality. None of the burning issues of the day have any relevance weight, meaning or value in this book, just on the one hand and on the other.
The publisher got blurbs from Barack Obama and Bob Dole for the front cover. I guess John McCain was too busy to answer the email.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Book Review Blog Carnival Number Five

Welcome to the Book Review Blog Carnival. Every other Sunday the carnival appears, like Brigadoon, on some blog somewhere, with links to book reviews all around the world. If you write book reviews on your blog we would love to have you participate. Submissions can be made at Carnival Dot Com for the next carnival, which will be published on December 7th at Imaginary Lands.

We have a large group of book reviews for you today.

In Fiction:

Marina, of Momma Writes About Books reviews The Blessing Way the first in Tony Hillerman's Navajo Police mysteries.

Marina has also reviewed The Pearl Diver, by Jeff Talarigo. This is the story of a Japanese woman who is sent to a leper colony, where she loses her identity and becomes a caregiver for the other patients.

Coralie writes about Stephen King's The Stand in her blog Happily Oblivious. It's a post apocalyptic story in which the cause of the mass die-off of humanity is an accidental release of a biological warfare germ by the U.S. government. Oops!

Ruth Schaller at Books Books and more Books read The Family Bones by Kimberly Raiser. If you inherit a property in a small town with a name like Astral, just call a realtor. It will save you trouble.

Charli was unimpressed by Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. Find out why at

Alessandra, of Out of the Blue, has found the winner of the best title award with her review of The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things by Carolyn Mackler.

Serena Trowbridge reviews Susannah Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu on her blog, Culture and Anarchy. Culture I get, but anarchy?

Serena Trowbridge also read The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, which is a story of the Queen (yes, that one) discovering the wonders of literature at the bookmobike.

NathanKP of Inkweaver Review writes about Things Hoped For, by Andrew Clements., a science fantasy mystery novel.

NathanKP also reviewed Un Lun Dun by China Miéville. This book is a through the looking glass journey from London to it's opposite - Un Lun Dun. Get it?

Heather J. of Age 30+ ... A Lifetime of Books has a review of the classic Jules Verne novel The Mysterious Island! Verne, or the translator, or Heather seems to have used a lot of exclamation points!

Tanya, of Children's Books: What, When & How to Read Them predicts that Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson will win the National Book Award for young people's literature. That happened Wednesday, so now we know, but, really, she predicted it before.

Jason Isbell, writing in Tired Garden, reviews Shade by John Olson, which is not a gardening book.

switch2life thinks that The 3 Mistakes of My Life. is so similar to author Chetan Bhagat's other books that Bhagat must use some kind of software to grind out books like sausage, although sausage may not be the kind of image an Indian novelist would want to be associated with.

Jeanne, from Necromancy Never Pays read Cycler by Lauren McLaughlin', which is not about bicycle racing. It is the story of a girl, Jill who becomes a boy, inevitably Jack, for a few days each month. How inconvenient.

Alyce reviews My Lady of Cleves by Margaret Campbell Barnes on At Home With Books. It's the story of Henry VIIIths wife number four. Henry could learn a lot from Larry King.

Kindlelicious would like to recommend Chris Moriarty's Spin Control. That is if you have a Kindle to read it on.

Keira writes, in Love Romance Passion, about her favorite book, Sleepless at Midnight by Jacquie D’Alessandro. I lie awake at night sometimes, too, but nobody writes romance novels about me. (With good reason)

In Non- Fiction:

Marina, of Momma Writes About Books has a short review of The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron. I took the self-test on Elaine's website. Not surprisingly, I scored "insensitive boor."

Barry Wright III has submitted a review of an ebook, The Life Uncommon by Nacie Carson, on his blog 3style life. No word on what has happened to Barry Wrights I and II at this time.

Woman Tribune reviewed The Wilde Women by Paula Wall. Even during the depression, Wilde women don't get the blues.

Nigel Beale, of Nigel Beale Nota Bene Books has discovered The Idler's Glossary a book about creative idleness. It could be a manual for bloggers, at least according to my wife, who wishes I would get up and do something useful.

Christina M. Rau reviews Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno on her blog Livin' The Dream (One Loser At A Time) . Are the MSP (mainstream publishers) missing out on a good thing?

Mike Bergin has written a review of The LBJ: Avian Life, Literary Arts, which I thought at first must have something to do with President Johnson but, as it turns out, is a literary journal with a birding bent. LBJ = "Little Brown Job" which is an oblique refrence to what I have heard of as LGBs or "little gray birds," a term of art in the Audubon set. OK, so it's not really a book. You can find the review on Mike's blog 10,000 Birds.

Corey Finger, also writing at 10,000 Birds, has reviewed Birds: The Art of Ornithology by Jonathan Elphick, which contains 300 color illustrations from the Natural History Museum in London. They're pictures of birds, Hon.

Laurie Bartels reviews Neuroplasticity and the Brain That Changes Itself on SharpBrains: Your Window into the Brain Fitness Revolution by Norman Doidge. I need to get me some of that.

GrrlScientist of Living the Scientific Life has read Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood by Taras Grescoe. Oy, life wasn't complicated enough?

Dolfin from Lionden Landing submitted a review of Yoga Planet: 50 Fun Activities for a Greener World by Tara Guber and Leah Kalish,
Illustrated by Sophie Fatus, formerly known as My Daddy Is a Pretzel. I think I would have stuck with the first title.

Jim Murdoch reviews The Paris Review Interviews Vol. III , in which Martin Amis is quoted as saying All writers are Martians. Does that include bloggers?

Tim Gebhart, of A Progressive on the Prairie has a review of I Hate New Music by Dave Thompson. Thompson posits that rock music died in 1978 from an overdose of technology. I always thought it had something to do with a Chevy and a levy, oh well.

LAL wrote a review ofBook Review: Investing for Dummies for the blog LivingAlmostLarge. I wouldn't be caught dead reading a"For Dummies" book. I don't want to make to obvious.

Manoj reviews The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil on Unreal Blog. Could a computer like "Hal" be built some day, that possesses consciousness? Do we really have consciousness? Can I have a ham sandwich?

Callista has discovered a book about book bloggers, The Bookaholics' Guide to Book Blogs by Rebecca Gillieron & Catheryn Kilgarriff. She completes the circle by blogging about the book about bloggrs who blog about books at her blog SMS Book Reviews.

Liz Fetter reviews Art History For Your Children, a series of 48 titles, on many many different artists from every period in art history, on her blog Power In Art . There must be a mail in certificate for a PHD diploma in the back of the last volume.

Coralie writes in Happily Oblivious writes about Ten Men Dead by David Beresford, which deals with the 1981 hunger strike by IRA prisoners at Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland.

Douglas Karr of The Marketing Technology Blog writes about The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t" by Robert Sutton.

A last minute entry, Barry Wright III, of 3stylelife just finished reading The Sociology of Taste by Jukka Gronow. Is taste innate, he asks? Tell it to my plaid pants, I say. Still no word from Barry Wright I and II.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Curses, Memed Again!

Book Calendar has hit me with the dread Bookworm Awards meme. I have been asked to like him for it.

Here are the rules:

Open the book closest to you, not your favorite or most intellectual book, but the book closest to you at the moment, to page 56.Write out the fifth sentence, as well as two to five sentences following there.

I happen to have a copy of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire on the shelf behind me. It's the 1990 trade paperback edition, of the book, originally published in 1968. The fifth sentence is:

In addition to this sort of practical guide service the ranger will also be a bit of a naturalist, able to edify the party in his charge with the natural and human history of the area, in detail and in broad outline.

Abbey goes on to say:

Critics of my program will argue that it is too late for such a radical reformation of a people's approach to the out-of-doors, that the pattern is too deeply set, and that the majority of Americans would not be willing to emerge from the familiar luxury of their automobiles, even if briefly, to try the little-known and problematic advantages of the bicycle, the saddle horse, and the footpath. This might be so; but how can we be sure unless we dare the experiment? I, for one suspect that millions of our citizens, especially the young, are yearning for adventure, difficulty, challenge - they will respond with enthusiasm. What we must do, prodding the Park Service into the forefront of the demonstration, is provide these young people with the opportunity, the assistance, and the necessary encouragement.

Abbey is proposing, here, to close the national parks to vehicular traffic, in order to make room for the onslaught of tourists and to give those tourists a chance to get out and stub their toes on the natural world. Some parks, like Yosemite, have since closed some areas, except for the buses they run to keep people from having to walk. Later Abbey would propose other things, like blowing up the Glen Canyon dam. His novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, became a kind of manifesto for eco-terrorism, such as it is and inspired the formation of Earth First. It's a good thing he never met Barack Obama - at least as far as I know.

I'm supposed to pass on the meme infection to five other bloggers. I just happen to know several people who regularly read ACTUAL BOOKS and sometimes review them; contributors to the Book Review Blog Carnival. Here are my chosen victims:

A Progressive on the Prairie

Cromley's World

Linus's Blanket

Living the Scientific Life


I hope that each of them will accept this meme with good humor, or at least without threatening bodily harm.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Book Review Blog Carnival the Fourth Edition

This week's edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival has been published at The Symposium. There are 33 book reviews in this edition which range from children's books to books on Constitutional Law. Drop by and do a little light reading.

If you submitted a post to the carnival in the last month and did not receive an email from me this morning, please email me at cbjorke at gmail dot com, so I can get you and your blog on the contributor list.

I will be hosting the next edition, here, on November 23rd. Please submit your book reviews at the usual location

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Invisible Constitution

Laurence H. Tribe

There is a great deal more in constitutional law than is contained in the spare, sparse language of the U.S. Constitution. Or at lease Laurence Tribe believes so. Mr. Tribe is a constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School. Other than the justices on the supreme court, there is really no better authority on what constitutional law contains. Yet there is disagreement about this. Justice Antonin Scalia is well known for his strict adherence to the written words of the Constitution.

Consider, however, the words of article IX of the Bill of Rights:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Professor Tribe argues that the words of this clause are a huge gap through which truckloads of rights, unknown to James Madison or John Marshall, can be driven. How, then can we decide what is a right retained by the people and what is a kooky, left wing idea, best left in the dust bin of history?

Tribe offers six methods that jurists have used to think about, and argue for, these invisible constitutional rights. First the geometric construction, connecting the dots between different articles of the constitution. This is how the much argued right to privacy has been derived. Nowhere does the constitution mention the word "privacy." It does say, though "No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law. " and "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." When you put them together you get a more general concept that the government should leave people alone, especially in their own homes, but also in their possessions and their bodies, in short - privacy.

Another method of constructing constitutional rights described by Tribe are the geodesic - building a dome, like Buckminster Fuller, again out of already existing rights, to protect the freedoms of the individual. The global is another, reinforcing ones argument by reference to laws and practices in other countries. Justice Scalia has been guilty of this practice himself, according to professor Tribe. The geological, unearthing evidence of the intent of the founding fathers in historical sources is the fourth method. The gravitational, where he makes an argument based on Einstein's relativity theory and argues that laws create distortions of the social space time continuum is another. (did I mention that some of this is kind of hard to follow?) And finally the gyroscopic, in which the force of previously made decisions in the court help to stabilize the interpretation of the constitution by weight of their precedent, even when they are wrong.

Professor Tribe is obviously a really smart person and he has had the help of some other really smart people over the years, including a young research assistant who has gone on to bigger things, a fellow named Barry Obama. I tended to go all glassy eyed reading some of Tribe's explanations. Me and Sarah Palin are probably not destined to sit on the Supreme Court, I would guess. He has almost made me a strict constructionist, but then he did convince me that strict constructionists are most strict when construction arguments against things that the personally don't care for and are a lot looser when they argue for something that suits them.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Studs Terkel 1912-2008

I didn't intend this to be the literary obituary blog, but another writer who had a big impact on me has left us. Studs Terkel died yesterday, Oct 31st. He was 96 years old.

Studs Terkel went to work as a radio voice actor, news reader and sportscaster during the great depression. He began his own daily interview show on Chicago's WFMT in 1952 and continued until 1997 to interview people for an hour show, five days a week.

Using his interviewing skills, hone by his radio experience Suds began to write books, starting with Giants of Jazz in 1956. Studs' books are "oral histories," stories told to him by people from all walks of life. The ones I recommend reading are:

Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970)

Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974).

The Good War (1984)

My American Century (1997)

Studs wrote 18 books in all. The latest, a memoir, P.S. Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening has just been published.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

So Long Tony Hillerman

Tony Hillerman, author of the Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee Navajo Tribal Police crime novels died today in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Hillerman was 83 years old. Hágoónee' Tony, my friend.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Book Review Blog Carnival #3

is up and running at Books, Books and More Books. My review of Michael Kinsley's "Please Don't Remain Calm is included in the carnival along with a boat load of other reviews from many other bloggers. Go take a look!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Please Don't Remain Calm

Provocations and Commentaries
Michael Kinsley

Back in the dark ages of the 1990s, Michael Kinsley was Pat Buchanan's punching bag on the CNN news-talk program Crossfire. The show was so archaic in it's format that the two adversaries would often be seen to smile at one another and shook hands publicly on many occasions.

Kinsley left Crossfire to become the editor of a newfangled magazine on your screen called Slate, something invented by Microsoft. He has since written for real newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and even Time magazine.

Please Don't Remain Calm is a collection of some of Kinsley's writings for all of these various publications dating from 1995 up until 2007. I would guess that another collection won't be appearing until some time in 2020. This will give you plenty of time to work your way through this one.

Many of the early pieces are quite clever and stand the test of time better than a stained blue dress. It is interesting to look back and remember how worked up we all were over issues that seem, frankly, to be trivial by today's standards. Midway through the book we are introduced to the misadventures of George W Bush. Things I would rather forget are on almost every page from that point on.

The book's title is derived from a piece written in 2006, reflecting on the actions of the passengers on United Flight 93 on September 11th 2001. Kinsley concludes that, unlike those passengers, he would have followed instructions and stayed in his seat. I'm not so sure. Those were a random group of ordinary people and hey acted as they did. Why not any other random group, even one including a journalist and bon vivant.

Generally I don't consider these collections of editorials as real books, and this is no exception. It was a bit like reading an out of date blog, except for the anachronistic use of paper as a medium of expression. And no YouTube videos.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Book Review Blog Carnival Second Edition

Novel Bloggers

The second edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival was posted this morning at Novel Bloggers. My review of Suze Rotelo's "A Freewheelin' Time" is part of the carnival, along with a plethora of other reviews. Go take a look. Your books to read list will grow.

The next edition will be on Books Books and More Books on October 26th. If you would like to participate, submit your book review at

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

An Award Winning Blog

Early this morning I was startled from a deep sleep by a phone call from Sweden . . .

Not really, but Ruthie, at Books Books and More Books,
aka Ruthie's Book Reviews, gave me this nice "I love your blog" award.

Now I'm supposed to pass the award on to some other blogs. I'm going to give it to all the blogs that have volunteered, to date, to host the Book Review Blog Carnival, which I started on a whim about a month ago, and which is taking off like a literary Sopwith Camel. The next edition, only the second to be published, will be featured on the homepage of

That famous, October 12th, edition will be hosted by Novel Blogers, an online book club, hosted by Military Wife. She posts her reviews a chapter at a time and readers discuss the books in the comments section, just like a non-virtual book club, except without the tea and cookies.

Ruthie, at Books Books and More Books is going to host the carnival on October 26th. How awkward of me to be passing the same award right back to her. Ruthie is hereby excused from passing it along, again, to another set of blogs.

Joana's The Symposium will be the host on November 9th. Joana is noted for her brutal honesty. I get enough of that at home, generally, but I enjoy reading her reviews.

Age 30+ A Lifetime of Books
is written by Heather J. She will host the carnival on November 23rd. Heather says that she started to blog in order to have a record of all the books she read during her 31st year on Earth. I sort of got started the same way back in the last millennium. Of course, I had to use a quill pen and parchment, not a nice Macintosh, to record my thoughts.

Imaginary Lands written by Liz, will host the Pearl Harbor edition of the carnival on Dec. 7th. Liz reviews books and movies for a national newspaper in Malaysia. Nice work if you can get it.

Maw Books will host the Dec. 21st, solstice edition carnival. Natasha looks terribly young in he photo, for someone who writes so well. will host on January 4th. Charli apparently likes romance and crime, especially if they are under the same covers, so to speak.

NathanKP at Inkweaver Review has offered to host but it looks to me as if I have neglected to answer him. Whereas I have neglected my duties, therefore by this post, I hereby offer Nathan the opportunity to host on January 18th.

If you write book reviews on your blog, you can join the carnival at If you would like to host the carnival some time in 2009, shoot me an email at the address in the sidebar. I'll try not to lose it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Freewheelin' Time

A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties
Suze Rotolo

The photo on the cover of this book is instantly recognizable, to persons of a certain age, as the cover photo on the 1963 Colombia Records album "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan." The author is in fact the young girl shown clinging to the arm of the soon to be famous singer-songwriter. Susan "Suze" Rotolo was a seventeen year old emancipated minor, house sitting a friend's apartment in New York's Greenwich Village when, in 1961, Robert Zimmerman arrived from Minnesota and began to invent the mythical character we know as Bob Dylan.

Rotolo's memoir gives an interesting insight into the process and into the mind of the developing artist that became Bob Dylan. Memory being a tricky thing, however, she begins the book with a disclaimer:

Secrets remain. Their traces go deep, and with all due respect I keep them with my own. The only claim I make for writing a memoir of that time is that it may not be factual, but it is true.

Keeps them with her own what? Dylan like she doesn't say. Like a poet, like Dylan himself, Rotolo's language sometime eludes understanding. This book was definitely not ghost written. I bears the marks of a non-professional, veering from one subject to another unexpectedly, leaving the reader wondering what just happened. Fragmented sentences and abandoned thoughts pepper the narrative. In a perverse way, this is perfect for a memoir about a time spent with this master of evasion and misdirection.

Rotolo was a red diaper baby. The passages that deal with her own family, her involvement with radical politics in the 1960s and her visit to Cuba, as a test of the travel ban imposed on American citizens, could have been expanded into a book themselves, if she had never met Bob Dylan. Another book certainly could be written about the folksingers, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, Mary Travers, Ian & Sylvia, who wander in and out of her Dylan centered story. The story of her work in the avant-guarde off off Broadway theater could make a third. Perhaps a career as a memoirist is being born here.

What this memoir is, though, is an impression, looking back 40 years in memory, of a time when a young man and a young woman were embroiled in a moment of extreme pressure and confusion and the way that they tried, with difficulty to deal with it. Some things are glossed over and some things are left unsaid.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The First Book Review Blog Carnival

Welcome to the first in what I hope will be a long lasting series of Book Review Blog Carnivals. These carnivals will appear periodically, hosted by different bloggers around the web. If you write book reviews on your blog you are invited to submit a review for the next carnival, which will appear on Novel Bloggers on October 12th. All submissions are handled through Just click on the link and follow the easy to read directions.

If you would like to host a carnival, email me at the address in the sidebar.

Without further ado, here are the reviews. I have divided them into Fiction and Non Fiction sections. After that you're on your own.

Fiction: writes about On The Edge by Pamela Britton. This is apparently a romance novel, part of a series, with a NASCAR theme. You live and learn.

Naomi writes in Diary From England that a book of short stories, published to raise funds for charity and containing a Harry Potter prequil, written by J.K. Rowling, has broken the record for fastest sellout of a first printing.

Military Wife has submitted a post in Novel Bloggers The Internet Book Club, about The Notebook chapter of "Swans and Storms." I don't see the author's name listed in the post.

Bette Fetter reviews two books by Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, on he blog Power In Art The Seuss books are titled "The Shape o f Me And Other Stuff" and "My Many Colored Days."

Lizi Fetter writes, in Power In Art about the book Degas and the Little Dancer by Laurence Anholt, a fictional account of the creation of Degas' little dancer sculpture.

Writing on, Patricia Rockwell of Communication Exchange reviews Protect and Defend by Vince Flynn, a spy thriller set in Iraq. Hmmm, I knew a guy named Vince Flynn in high school, I wonder . . . . nah!

Alessandra writes in Coraline a spooky juvenile novel by Neil Gaiman. Not that the novel is juvenile, mind you, but it's intended audience is that betwixt and between age group.

Christina, of Livin' The Dream read a hollywood insider story, Whacked by Jules Asner. My first impression is that she hated, hated, hated it.

Ruth Schaller writes in Books Books and more Books! about Accidentally Dead by Dakota Cassidy.

Alyce reviews The Violets of Usambara by Mary Soderstrom on her blog At Home With Books. It is a Non Governmental Organization thriller, which must be quite nearly unique.

Joana at The Symposium has written a review of Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyers. It's the fourth installment in Meyers' Twilight Saga and you finally fget to find out how the vampires and the werewolves learn to live together - or something.

Tiffany Aller writes on Read and Release about Odd Thomas By Dean Koontz . A fry cook who talks to the dead, sure, OK, I'm cool with that.

Cromley has read The Big Overeasy a tongue in cheek crime novel about the murder of one Humpty Dumpty, featuring detective Jack Spratt and his sidekick Mary Mary. Read the facts at Cromely's World.

Michele Jacobsen, writing in A Reader's Respite reviews The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows, a novel about a WWII era book club on the isle of Guernsey.

Flash Gordon, that's right THE Flash Gordon, writing in Great New Books that Are a Must Read reviews The Confederate War Bonnet by Jack Shakely, a historical novel about Native Americans during the civil war.

Carrie White reviews Not Dreamt of in Your Philosophy, a short story collection by Lynn Veach Sadler in her blog 4 Star Rating.

Sarah Small, writing in SmallWorld Reads, has discovered A Death in the Family by James Agee. I was an English major, too and haven't read it yet. That's what's wrong with our educational system!

Bombastia has reviewed the entire, four book The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer at one go. Apparently Bombastia read the entire four book series at one go, too.

Pamela Rappaport , of Pamela-te-da, really didn't care for Carved in Bone by Jefferson Bass. Find out why.

On Children's Books: What, When & How to Read Them, TZT writes about The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, 262pp RL 5.

Jim Murdoch, on his blog The Truth About Lies, which one might incorrectly think is a blog about politics, actually admits that he is attempting to promote Major Benjy by Guy Fraser-Sampson.

Ms. Smarty Pants Know It All compares Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird to books by Ayn Rand. That's a new way to look at it.

Drama Queen reviews Final Sacrifice by Patricia Bray on her blog Imaginary Lands. It's sort of a new twis on "The PRince and The Pauper, the third book of a fantasy series, Chronicles of Josan. I think it's one of those where you should read the books in order, in order to know what's going on.

Non Fiction:

Penelope Anne from The Library at the End of the Universe reviews Under A Flaming Sky by Daniel James Brown., the story of a catastrophic fire that destroyed a Wisconsin town, with great loss of life, on the same day as the famous Chicago fire.

Book Calndar has submitted a review of Green Investing A Guide To Making Money Through Environment-Friendly Stocks by Jack Uldrich. Good luck with that. Any investing beyond putting some more bucks in my Roth IRA is over my head.

Book has a review of The Freedom Writers Diary by The Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell. The reviewer is highly, did I say highly, exited about this story of educational success in an inner city school.

Douglas Karr of The Marketing Technology Blog doesn't care much for Content Rich Writing our Way To Wealth On The Web by Jon Wuebben.

Heather J writes in The Pages In Between: A Holocaust Legacy of Two Families, One Home by Erin Einhorn which is the story of the author's mother, who escaped from eastern Europe during the holocaust at the age of three, and of the families that took her in, and the conflict which resulted years later.

Breenie Books has reviewed Withc School, First Degree by Donald Lewis-Highcorrell, which is not a Harry Potter wannabe novel. It is, in fact a textbook teaching Correllian tradition Wicca.

FIRE Finance has written a review of Do You Want To Become A Millionaire Quietly? . I'd rather be a noisy one, I think.

Shamelle, of Enhance Life reviews Who’s Pulling Your Strings? (How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation ...) by Dr. Harriet Braiker. If only I had known . . .

Cinderberry, writing in Stationery Fetish, has learned all about making paper airplanes from “The Klutz Book of Paper Airplanes” by Doug Stillinger. There are many airplane designs and some fancy paper in the book. Something new to fill time at the office?

Diana has read Laurie Notaro’s Idiot Girls Action-Adventure Club:True Tales from a Magnificent and Clumsy Life and written about it in Reading is Sexy!. That's why I became an English major, actually. The sight of those horn rimmed glasses and a "Complete Works of William Shakespeare" just drove girls wild.

Charles Euchner has discovered a fascinating book, The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life by Philip Zambardo and John Boyd. He writes about it in START SIMPLE, which it isn't.

Toni , of Wifely Steps, reviews Love the One You're With by Emily Giffen. Do you have a "one who got away" in your life? Well, here's some sage advice - don't tell the one you caught.

Callista liked The Reading Solution by Paul Kropp because, like her, it is from Canada. You can read about it in her blog SMS Book Reviews.

Fiona Veitch Smith presents Shakespeare: the World as a Stageby Bill Bryson in her blog, The Crafty Writer.

Rodney Smith, of Hippo Web Solutions, looks at Problogger - Secrets for Blogging your way to a Six-figure Income by Darren and Chris Garrett. Rodney was surprised and impressed that it was not a e-book. Paper, who woulda thunk it?

Ted, not the famous gathering of smart people, but just Ted, of CampusGrotto College Advice, reviews Ditch the Flip Flops and Ace your first Interview. Flip flops are a non starter apparantly. No wonder I didn't get that Wall Street job.

Stephen writes about How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy! by Paul Chek on his blog Balanced Existence.

Malia Russell, writing on Homemaking 911, has reviewed Baby’s First Foods; A Mother’s Guide to Whole Grains and Family Nourishment by Theresa Powers.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Book Review Carnival Update

The book reviews are rolling in for the first Book Review Blog Carnival, coming up on Sept. 28th on this blog. Volunteers have come forward to host a couple of future carnivals and we're covered through October.

I have launched a new site at where announcements about upcoming carnivals, exhortations to submit you posts, a blogroll of contributing blogs and other related information will be found.

It's not to late to submit a book review. If you review books on your blog, visit and submit a post for the carnival.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Book Review Carnival

I have decided to start a blog carnival for book reviewers. If you write reviews of books, of any genre, please go to Book Review Carnival and submit a post. The first carnival will be hosted here at I'll Never Forget The Day I Read A Book! two weeks from today, on September 28th, 2008. You may sign up to host the carnival, which will appear every two weeks on someone's blog, somewhere.

I know there are lots of good reviewers out there. Jump in and make this carnival a success. It will help to draw readers in to all our blogs.

Man In The Dark

Paul Auster
Henry Holt and Company
ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-8839-7
ISBN-10: 0-8050-8839-3

I detect a pattern in Paul Auster's novels, and that's bad, and after reading only two of his books! There is an older man who is writing something, but what he is writing of of no particular significance, even to himself. The women in his life are going through tough times, as is he. People have died, left them, cheated. The old guy most likely cheated on his either dead of ex wife or else he behaved like a schmuck in some other way. There is some kind of fantasy thread that runs through the old guy's head, or more than one, but they don't go anywhere. Everyone decides to just keep soldiering on because it isn't unbearable. Then the book ends.

I had heard an interview on the radio with Auster about this, his newest book, which is what got me interested in reading him. In the interview Diane Rhem made much of the alternate universe in which there was a civil war in the U.S. which started after, and because of, the way that George W. became President in 2000. That alternate universe is a story the the old guy in Man In The Dark is telling himself, it's not the thing that he's writing. About halfway through the book Auster gets tired of it and has the old guy kill off the character in his little story, who had crossed (back) between universes with orders to kill the old guy. Then the little story of the little civil war is just dropped.

Alternate history is a respectable sub genre of science fiction. Auster did not do justice to that sub genre. In fact it was a waste of time reading it. Repetitive, self referential writing about a fictional author who writes about himself is what turned John Barth from a brilliant novelist into a crashing bore. Auster is well on his way to joining Barth in that category.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Brooklyn Follies

Paul Auster
Henry Holt & Company
ISBN-13: 978*0-8656-7714-8
ISBN-10: 0-8050-7714-6

Paul Auster is an author that I have just discovered, despite the fourteen novels that he has already published. I have a couple of his others on hold at the library, so you'r likely to hear more about him here. Actually I my go on an Auster binge as I have with other writers and make you thoroughly sick of hearing about him.

The Brooklyn Follies takes place in the months leading up to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and ends on the morning of 9/11 just before those events take place. There are a number of threads to the story, mostly having to do with the family o the narrator, Nathan Glass. Some of those threads are never tied up in the end, much to my, and Anton Checkov's dissatisfaction. What about the Hotel Existence? Why'd he even bring it up? The found the perfect place to open this magical realist hotel, and then dropped the idea without another thought. The religious zealot husband of Nathan's niece, when she leaves him, quietly files for divorce. Zip, gone. What good is he to the story? The forgery scam involving a supposed manuscript of The Scarlet Letter causes Nathan's friend, the rare book and manuscript dealer and ex convict, to die of a hear attack. Good, Nathan's nephew will inherit the bookstore, which should be worth enough money to enable him to buy the hotel which he is no longer interested in, even though he married the daughter of it's owner.

Not that I'm complaining. Auster writes marvelous prose and his characters are wonderfully sympathetic. All the twists and turns of plot are just thought experiments which Auster tires of after a while and goes off on another tangent, just as interesting. And perhaps that's the point of the book. Nathan busys himself writing what he calls "The Book Of Human Folly" which remains an unfinished manuscript throughout the novel. Projects and ideas fail or are dropped or succeed or not. People drift in and out, just as in real life, and, even though Nathan may or may not know what happened to them, he doesn't tell us.

What about 9/11 you ask? Nathan, fresh out of the emergency room, after suffering from an inflamed esophagus he thought was a massive heart attack, is planning to open a business selling "biography insurance" to people who would otherwise have no way of being remembered beyond their children or perhaps grandchildren. He is admiring the beautiful morning and mentions, as the omniscient narrator, that this is the morning of and just an hour or so before Brooklyn was rained down upon by the ashes of thousands of incinerated innocents. Then the book ends, boom.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Bin Ladens

An Arabian Family In The American Century
Steve Coll
The Penguin Press
ISBN: 978-1*59420-164-6

After the September 11 attacks of 2001 there were rumors circulating about members of the Bin Laden clan whisked out of the country by the CIA and of secret connections between the Bin Ladens and the Bush clan. Conspiracy theorists have spun elaborate tales based on these stories. So who are these Bin Ladens and were they really here and why? Steve Coll reveals the true story of the Bin Laden family as much as it can be known.

Osama is one of 54 sons and daughters of Mohamed Bin Laden, a building contractor from Yemen who built a business empire by serving the needs and the whims of the Al Saud dynasty for whom Saudi Arabia is named. Under his leadership and that of his oldest sons, Salem and Bakr the Bin Laden companies have grown into an international multi-million dollar operation, building highways, renovating the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the major mosques in Mecca and Medina, creating the Saudi telephone system and investing in satellite communications, fitting out luxury private aircraft in Texas and buying commercial real estate and condominium developments in Florida.

Returning from Afghanistan in the early 1990s, Osama Bin Laden became disenchanted with the society he found in his native Saudi Arabia. He soon broke with the Al Saud and king Fahd and exiled himself to Yemen and then Sudan. His family formally removed him from the Bin Laden business at this time. Theoretically he has been cut off from the Bin Laden family fortune since this time, before the embassy bombings, before the USS Cole and certainly before 911. By breaking with the Al Saud Osama broke with the golden goose from which the Bin Laden family fortune was laid.

There is some question whether Osama has received funds from any family members however. Al-Qaeda has relied on donations from within the Arab world for it's operating funds and Bin Laden has been a major factor in getting those donations.

Those mysterious Bin Ladens who were spirited out of the country? A half brother living in Beverly Hills, another attending Harvard Business School, many nephews and a few nieces attending various colleges throughout the country. They were taken to Paris on a flight chartered by the family, with the cooperation of, and after being questioned by the FBI. No connection to Al-Qaeda was found for any of them.

The Bin Laden business empire continues to prosper, building airports, palaces condominiums and resorts in the middle east. Osama continues to live in exile, somewhere in the Afghanistan/Pakistan borderlands.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments

George Johnson
ISBN: 978-1-4000-4101-5

Johnson is a science writer for the New York Times and has written this book as a top ten list of science experiments. I guess that makes him the Letterman of science. Johnson's list is not the ten greatest discoveries of science but rather a list of experiments done by individuals that he finds to be important, elegant and accessible. They are experiments conducted by individuals and were done on a very human scale, often on a table top.

Do you remember hearing about Galileo dropping things from the leaning tower of Pisa? Johnson believes that never happened. He gives a detailed account of the experiment that Galileo did, rolling balls of different materials down an inclined track, timing their descent by singing. This allowed Galileo to show that heavier objects do not fall faster than light ones and to figure out the math for the acceleration of falling bodies. Newton would develop his laws of motion based on Galileo's work.

He talks about Isaac Newton but not about gravity. Newton did a series of experiments using prisms which revealed that light is made up of waves and showed that color is derived from white light.

There are several experiments in electromagnetism, Michael Faraday, James Joule, A.A. Michelson, Robert Millikan. Millikaa's experiments with oil droplets, magnetic fields and radium, in which he discovered the electron, are the most complex in the book. Johnson tried to duplicate them and was not successful, blaming himself for being unable to control the apparatus properly.

I don't know whether the experiments Johnson chose were the most beautiful or not. He left the impression that he wasn't so confident in his choices either.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Founding Faith

Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America
Steven Waldman
Random House
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6437-3

Was the United States founded as a Christian Nation or did the founders intend to erect a strict barrier between church and state? Steven Waldman explores this question by examining the lives, work and writings of five of the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Not surprisingly, Waldman discovers that the founding fathers disagreed with each other on the subject.

The chapters on Madison are the most enlightening. Madison was deeply involved in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, was the author of much of the Federalist Papers and, again was one of the authors of the bill of rights, including the first amendment and it's prohibition of the establishment of religion by Congress. His own view was that state support of religion weakened the church. Making the church lazy and dependent and making the people contemptuous of it. Madison felt that separating church and state made both stronger.

Madison built an alliance between enlightenment intellectuals and evangelical Christians to gain votes to ratify the Constitution in Virginia. He promised those evangelicals a bill of rights which wold guarantee them freedom to worship as they pleased, in order to get their votes. It's almost as if James Dobson and Diane Rhem were to join in common cause to guarantee their Constitutional rights.

Evangelicals, at that time were worried that state support would go the the Episcopal Church and/or the Congregational Church, the two dominant denominations at the time. Such support did exist in most of the colonies and many of the new states. In Virginia, until the passage of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, the Church of England was supported by taxes, and until 1833 the Congregational Church was state supported in Massachusetts. It was not until the passage of the 14th amendment in 1868 that the provisions of the Bill of Rights applied to the states and not just the national government, thus making state support unconstitutional.

All of the founders studied in Waldman's book used conventional, nondenominational Christian language in letters and, four of them, officially as President of the United States. All of them had evolving sets of religious beliefs, none of which were particularly conventional. Jefferson and Adams became more and more Unitarian in their outlook. In fact the Congregational Church which Adams belonged to all his life, became officially Unitarian during his lifetime. Washington was a conventional Episcopalian in outward appearance but didn't attend very often. He believed that religion was needed in order to promote god behavior in the citizenry and appeared to be more concerned with outward appearance than inward salvation. Franklin postulated a supreme creator who delegated each solar system to an attentive subordinate gods. Franklin would fit right in in California. Madison mostly kept quiet about his personal faith but was comfortable with Baptists, Unitarians and Jews as well as the Episcopalians and Congregationalists who dominated the scene at the time. He wanted them all to be independent and self supporting. He even got along with the Catholics, who were almost universally hated in eighteenth century America.

The term "Wall of separation between church and state" was coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to a Baptist coalition in Connecticut, who wanted Jefferson's help in ending the state funding of Congregationalism there. The letter was meant to reassure them of Jefferson's support for their cause. How deliciously ironic that the descendants of those Baptists now deny the existence of such a wall.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

HaltinG StatE

Charles Stross
Ace Books
ISBN: 978-0-441-01498-9

The latest in my light summer reading series is a cyberpunk novel. You will note the cool, trendy, inappropriate capitalization in the title. It has a blurb from William Gibson on the cover. William Gibson is the Pete Seeger of cyberpunk. All the cyberpunks go to him for his blessing, just like the folkies get their records blessed by Pete.

Halting State is a near-future novel. One in which, not surprisingly, the internet has penetrated every facet of people's lives. It starts with a virtual reality bank robbery committed by a bunch of orcs and a dragon. The poor non-gaming cop, in Edinburgh, Scotland of all places, who takes the call, is nonplussed, even though she wears he interfacing glasses and operates in "cop space" all the time. Everyone wears these glasses that give them access to GPS, their address book, email, virual reality games, etc. through their web 3.whatever mobile phones. Cops have their own channel which gives personal information, including rap sheets, of everyone everywhere.

There is a bit of fantasy roll playing, some techophiliac nerdlings, a bit of international intrigue, some cyber crime, quite a lot of action and violence, a touch of love, a bit of implied sex, tastefully handled in a 1940 Hollywood sort of way, something for everyone. I particularly liked the way people were slightly disoriented when the net went down and they didn't have their GPS stream telling them were they were. Just think 20 years ago people could find the bus stop on their own.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Another Thing To Fall

Laura Lippman
ISBN: 978-0-06-112887-5

Laura Lippman lives in, and writes about, Baltimore, Maryland, just across the Bay from me. I don't often get over there but there is a kind of appeal to reading a novel with a setting that is sort of familiar. Another Thing To Fall is the latest in her Tess Monaghan series of crime novels. Tess Monaghan may be the only fictional female private detective who rows a racing shell as a hobby. She is also a fictional graduate of Washington College, which is within walking distance from my house.

Another Thing To Fall
is not so much a whodunnit as a "What the heck are they doing?" story. There are several people who commit crimes ranging from vandalism to faking a kidnapping to, of course, murder. They all revolve around the filming of a silly sounding TV seriec called Mann of Steel. It's fairly clear, even before the crime is committed, who the perp is going to be, but hard to figure out why. The motives ov the various characters are revealed in the end and the book moves forward on a series of revelations about each of them.

Lippman uses the filming of a television show as the setting for her story. Baltimore has become known as the setting of gritty cop shows with The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Steets having long runs on the air. There is a new medical docudrama coming out called Hopkins, too. Baltimore really is a film industry town.

In the fictional show, Mann of Steel, the male lead is transported to the early 19th century by receiving a head injury and somehow is able to bring the female lead back to the 21st century with him. One of the themes of the novel is the difference between homage to earlier writing and theft of intellectual property, yet Lippman does not acknowledge the previous, and best known, example of time travel by head injury in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court. This may be an oversight, or a very subtle irony, I'm not sure which.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


An Irene Kelly Novel
Jan Burke
Simon & Schuster
ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-7385-5
ISBN-10: 0-432-7385-0

Well, the new Laura Lippman was out at the local library so I put a reserve on it and I took a chance on this one, which I found while poking through the James Lee and Alafair Burke titles. Kidnapped is a pretty decent crime thriller except for the absolutely absurd premise, which makes it difficult to suspend disbelief. I suppose I shouldn't tell, in case someone wants to read the book after seeing this post. I'll just say that the motivation for the criminal conspiracy uncovered by the intrepid Irene Kelly is a bit far fetched.

Irene Kelly is the protagonist of a series of books written by Jan Burke. A newspaper reporter married to a police officer, she gets herself into a lot of trouble investigating crimes that she is not supposed to be writing about. This book also features forensic lab work and search and rescue dogs and a dog trainer hat I believe is a regular part of Burke's books. The forensics and SAR material seem to be well researched. Burke is involved in forensic science as a member of the California Forensic Science Institute.

I did get caught up in the hunt for the missing persons and the excitement of capturing the trained to kill with bare hands and crack shot ultra smart super villain, which Irene Kelly subdues with a non stick pan and a bottle of bleach. Oops, I just said too much.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Real Change

From the world that fails to the world that works.
Newt Gingrich
Regnery Publsihing
ISBN: 978-1-59698-053-2

Here's how the Newt starts his new book:

The media tell us America is a nation divided between conservative red states and liberal blue states. They tell us that red and blue are qqually divided - which is why elections are so close, why Congress seems gridlocked, and why nothing ever seems to get done in Washington.

But this is simply not true. The reality is the American people are united on almost every important issue facing our country. The real division is between red-white -and-blue America (about 85 percent of the country) and a fringe on the left (about 15 percent of the country).

Translation: I know that your, dear reader are a true patriotic American, not like those elitist lefties on your TV, telling you what to think. You are going to agree with me because I'm a true patriotic American, too. You and I know what's really going on, they can't fool us. Can I interest you in used car?

The Newt goes on to explain how a new less partisan politics is needed and how only the Republican party can bring this about because Republicans stand for truth, justice and the American way, unlike those evil Democrats, plotting their tax and spend takeover of the world by trial lawyers from Holywood. Real Change means more of the same in prettier packaging brought to you by the party of Exxon and Peabody Coal.

Real Change is a piece of excrement written by one of the architects of the current partisan, all or nothing, party loyalty before national interest, politics. Don't bother to read it. If you're a dittohead you can get the same stuff more entertainingly from that big mouth on your AM radio. If you're not it will be bad for your blood pressure. Newt is one of those politicians who is so crooked he has to screw his socks on in the morning.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Homo Politicus

The Strange and Scary Tribes That Run Our Government
Dana Milbank

The premise of this tome is that Dana Milbank, Washington Post columnist, is an anthropologist studying the primitive tries found along the banks of the Potomac and writing them up for publication, possibly achieving tenure in the process. It only works up to a point. After the fifth or sixth chapter the joke is pretty stale.

Politicians, lobbyists, journalists, staffers and various hangers on in Washington D.C. have their quirks and peccadilloes and Milbank is here to tell us all about them. Since it is on the eleven o'clock news every stinking night right after he drive by shootings, the carjackings and the baby alligators in the toilet, we are all pretty familiar already. If I hear one more blue dress joke I am going to scream.

The glossary of Potomac speak is useful and interesting, though. Here are a few examples:

You're doing a heck of a job.
You will be fired in ten days.

I don't pay attention to the polls.
My approval rating is 32 percent.

Frankly . . .
The following statement is false.

Since it's the quadrennial silly season I thought a bit of political reading might be in order. This is plenty, though. I'm going to return Newt's bogus diatribe and check out a nice Laura Lippman novel or something to cleanse my palate.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Man Who Loved China

The fantastic story of the eccentric scientist who unlocked the mysteries of the middle kingdom.
Simon Winchester
Harper Collins
ISBN 978-0-06-088459-8

Chances are that you have heard that the Chinese invented gunpowder, printing and spaghetti. The reason we know these things, along with a myriad of other facts about the contributions of China to science, technology and philosophy is that a British biochemist, a fellow of Caius College at Cambridge, went to China in 1943 on a diplomatic mission: to aid the various colleges and universities in China which had been displaced by the Japanese occupation of much of coastal eastern China.

Joseph Needham collected thousands of books, manuscripts letters, paintings and other artifacts related to the history of Chinese technological development over the course of centuries. He spent four years in China, traveling, visiting and interviewing Chinese scholars, ordering books and materials to be flown "over the hump" (over the Himalayas in U.S. Military aircraft) to aid their research, trying to learn what contributions China had made to civilization and asking what has become known as "Needham's question": why did it stop?

With China now on the verge of becoming the world's new economic engine it might seem silly to think that China's contributions to civilization had ever stopped, but at the time Needham visited China the general (western) understanding was that China had stagnated since about the fifteenth century. This may be entire illusory, an artifact of western hubris or it may be a temporary lull in the relentless ant hill march of Chinese progress.

Needham spent the rest of his life writing his magnum opus, the multi-volume "Science and Civilisation in China" in which he details all of the thousands of technological, scientific and philosophical firsts for which China is due credit.

But Needham was far from being just a grind. He dabbled in Bolshevism, nudism, polyamory and liberal Christianity. He was a fonding director of UNESCO. He became entangled in a genine communist plot: perpetrated by communist China during the Korean war, to falsy accuse the United States of sing biological warfare. He learned to read and to speak Manderin from his mistress, Lu Gwei-djen, who lived just a couple of doors up the street from Needham and his wife for decades, traveled to China to join Needham there during his mission and worked with Needham on his huge book project. Needham's wife, Dorothy did also. The two women got along together famously.

I think there's another book in that.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History
George Crile
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 0-87113-854-9

Halfway through reading Charlie Wilson's War I went out and rented the movie. I had the picture of Tom Hanks on a white horse firmly entrenched in y mind the rest of the way through. It was an interesting exercise to see how much of a Cliff's Notes version of the story the movie really is. Charlie Wilson's War, the book, is a much more complete story than the film, and much more exiting.

Charlie Wilson's War has a cast of characters, real world people, who are like some demented screenwriter's idea for a film version of the A-Team. First is Wilson himself, a hard drinking playboy, who always has a beauty queen on his arm while jet setting around the world at the taxpayers' expense, who represents a straight laced, bible belt district in Congress and who gets the money to run the operation by wheeling and dealing on the hill; Gust Avrakotos, a rogue CIA case officer, working undercover inside his own agency, undermining the stated Afghanistan policy by overstepping his authority at every opportunity; technical wonder- boy Mike Vickers, Green Beret, weapons expert, he is a lowly GS 11 who isn't supposed to even know what's going on and he's the commanding general at CIA headquarters, calling all the shots; Muohammed Zia ul-Haq, dictator of Pakistan, he has a secret program to develop an atomic bomb , meanwhile he is doing everything in his power to help the CIA defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Despite the movie tie-in, this is not a work of fiction. This is the story of a real CIA operation, which became the largest in history, thanks to the efforts of a congressman from east Texas who made it his business to find a way to shoot down the Soviet Union's Hind helicopters. Charlie Wilson, on a trip to Pakistan, was shown the devastation caused by these flying tanks, which were invulnerable every weapons that the Afghan Mujahideen had.

The CIA was providing the Afghans with World War I era Enfield rifles and some light machine guns to fight the Soviet Army with. The had a $5 million a year budget at the time. Their goal was to annoy and bleed the Russians and keep them on edge, as part of the longstanding policy of containment. Wilson thought that, with a way to shoot down those helicopters, the Afghans were capable of driving the Soviet Army out of Afghanistan altogether. He wanted to abandon containment and attempt to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. He was only a congressman. He succeeded.

By the time the Soviets left Afghanistan the CIA operation there was spending over a billion dollars a year, half of it provided by Saudi Arabia. Kalashnikov rifles, Stinger missiles, mortars, Swiss Oerlikon anti aircraft guns, and millions of rounds of ammunition were streaming in through Pakistan.

Those Afghan "freedom fighters" who defeated the Soviet army with the help of Charlie Wilson and the CIA, helping to precipitate the fall of the Soviet Union, are the same Afghans who now are fighting again in Afghanistan, some with us and some with the Taliban. The Arab volunteers who went to Afghanistan to join in the jihad against the Soviets are the core of Alkaida. The challenges we face today are a direct result of our success in facing down the last perceived existential threat to or way of life. The biggest shortcoming of the movie is that it mentioned none of this. Instead there was a scene where Wilson fails to get a pittance appropriated to build schools in Afghanistan. In fact there was a multi million dollar AID effort that went on for three years after the defeat of the Soviets, which was finally cut off because the Mujahideen were robbing the aid convoys.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The World Without Us

Alan Weisman
St, Martin's Press
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-34729-1
ISBN-10: 0-312-34729-4

What would happen on the Earth if, one day, all the people suddenly disappeared? Alan Weisman suggests some kind of Universalist rapture or mass exodus with the help of space aliens as a vehicle for our departure so that he can continue with his thought experiment. How would nature deal with everything left behind by 21st century humanity?

Weisman looks at several places in the world,remaining vestiges of the of the pre-human world and case studies for his thought experiment. Bialowieza Puszcza is a vestigal old growth forest on the border between Poland and Belarus. It is not untouched by man, of course, but has been preserved since the middle ages as a royal hunting preserve and as a national park. The wisent, the European bison, is still in residence there along with deer, wild boars an other European large mammals. No aurochs, sadly. Weisman suggetsts that a forest like Bialowieza Puszcza could once again cover most of Europe.

The subways, tunnels and buried streams on Manhattan would suddenly fill with water. New York pumps thousands of gallons of water every day out of it's underworld. When the pumps stop all would go underwater. This water would rust out the steel structure holding New York up, cause the streets to become canals, the buried streams to re-emerge and the tall buildings to fall. Central Park would become the source of seed to reestablish a forest on the island, wildlife would cross the bridges, soon to collapse from rust and lack of maintenance, and repopulate the island. Rats and cockroaches would die off without the support of their human hosts to feed them and heat their homes. - That's a good thing, Martha.

Houston would become a huge oil and chemical spill which would pollute the ship canal and cause problems for life far out into the Gulf of Mexico. Over time, Weisman hopes, nature would heal the mess, as it is doing for Prince William Sound. It could take centuries.

Nuclear power plants need us to keep them from melting down. Nature would move right in to te contaminated areas, however, as it has done at Chyrnobl An article that he wrote about the aftermath of Chernobyl is, in fact, the inspiration for this book. Grasses, trees, animals and human squatters have occupied the contaminated zone around the ruined nuclear plant, and will pay the inevitable penalty in increased cancers and birth defects.

The worlds oceans would recover, over time, coral reefs would come back and, interestingly, Weisman predicts that the oceans would soon be filled with huge sharks and other large predators. Some studies have suggested that, in a healthy, balanced ocean, much of the biomass is stored in large carnivores, and not is the smaller herbivores and plants as on land. This is because to the rapid rate of reproduction of small fish and of plankton, corals and other marine life, which is quickly eaten. The large carnivores live longer and store that energy, to be recycled years later, when they die of natural causes.

There is no big message in The World Without Us, no doomsday prophecy. Weisman simply wanted to think about the effect humanity has had on the world and his method for doing so was to imagine our sudden withdrawal. He does suggest that the Earth might miss us if we went away. Humanity is a part of nature, too.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


A man's affair with a boat
Joe Richards
Susan Richards, Pub.

Years ago, my friend Johnson, the man with two last names, lent me an old yellowed hardback book called "Princess, New York." He told me that I had to read it and that it was a great story of an artist, who had bought a 60 year old Friendship sloop at the tail end of the great depression and sailed away in it, looking for an island. Johnson is a lover of old crankity wooden boats. He has one of his own that is just turning 44 this year, which keeps him gainfully employed in order to pay the repair bills.

Eventually Johnson got the idea to find the boat "Princess" and have it restored and put in a museum somewhere. He made a lot of telephone calls and even traveled to Florida, the last known location of the boat, to no avail. He did meet Joe Richards' daughter Susan, though, and his obsessive behavior regarding "Princess" gave her the idea that a new edition of the book was in order.

Johnson was right about one thing. "Princess" is one heck of a good read. Joe Richards was an artist, living in New York who discovered, on Long Island, the ruins of an old sloop, built in the 1870s in Friendship Maine. He bought the thing and then found himself learning the craft of wooden boat repair. Eventually Richards set off down the inter-coastal waterway, headed for Florida and an as yet to be discovered island, where he would live happily ever after- or something.

The book is a well written memoir of an impractical quest for an undefined goal, interrupted by the Second World War. There are many asides, stories of adventures in the merchant marine during the war, as Richards tell the tale of his journey down the inter-coastal to Florida.

In book II, when Richards has acquired a wife and two children, he decides to escape New York for Key Biscayne, bringing his family and sailboat along with him. In this book the mysterious island, or at least an island, is finally discovered.

There are several small color prints of Joe Richards' paintings in the book as well. The book cover illustration above is a fair example. Take a peek at the website for more examples.