Book Reviews: Fall 2018

By: Anna Faktorovich, PhD


How the Weather Works, for Scientists and Other Folks

Gregory Hakim and Jerome Patoux. Weather: A Concise Introduction. 268pp, images. ISBN: 978-1-108404655. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.


I requested this book because I am writing a science fiction novel, and I needed to understand how weather works to project possible strange weathers on other worlds. This book did exactly what I expected from it; a very inspiring and teaching read. It is composed by a team from the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle, and their knowledge of the subject translates into their ability to explain it plainly and succinctly, so that both a novice and a researcher can find something new. It is likely best-suited for an introductory weather class at the undergraduate level, but it has enough information to inform a meteorologist or a news weather person about the field. In the process of talking about the weather, this textbook also touches on physics, dynamics, and chemistry. The back cover states that a good deal of the book returns to a single case of a mid-latitude cyclone, but they approach it in so many ways, I did not even notice this as I was closely reading it nearly cover-to-cover. I don’t know why I have not learned about many of the topics covered here in my science classes; everybody needs to have an understanding of how the interaction between matter, energy and motion change the strength, direction and other features of the weather. Especially in our present moment, with deadly hurricanes and forest fires, it might be a matter of survival to be able to look at a weather map and be able to gauge if one’s house is at risk of being hit by a tornado or another disaster. If I was assigned this book in college, I would have been very happy with the choice. While many of the concepts require several readings, the illustrations, examples, and pointed explanations make the subject approachable. It is broken down into chapters that cover topics independently (while also explaining how they linked); these chapters cover: temperature, pressure, wind, surface maps, radar, satellites, atmospheric composition, heat and energy transfer, water (humidity/ saturation), cloud formation, precipitation, wind, air masses and fronts, intense weather systems like cyclones and tornadoes, the science of weather forecasting, air pollution and climate change. The photographs of everything from disruptive weather to complex equipment are all very engaging. The unique drawings are colorful and break complex processes down to comprehensible elements. Key terms in bold with definitions guide students to central information. Great side-bar stories introduce dramatic scientific facts, such as the interplay between radiation and temperature. I made notes and underlined interesting ideas on nearly every page, which only happens in some of the best books I encounter, and each of these ideas bloomed into related notes for my novel. This is basically the reason I enjoy reviewing books from academic presses (and do my best to avoid requesting modern fiction): it’s a joy to learn new things in a way that welcomes readers.

On How Only Violence Can Bring Equality

Walter Scheidel. The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. $18.95. 504pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-691-18325-1. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.


This book does not provide the answer capitalists would want to hear: it concludes that equality has only been created across history through violence and catastrophes. It is easy to be complacent when one has enough money to live comfortably. Only people who are extremely desperate are willing to change things in ways that can lead them further down a glum path, or could fix the reasons for their discontent. This book approaches this question by looking at history from the Stone Age through the present. My PhD dissertation turned into a book, Rebellion as Genre, and in it I covered the rebellion genre in Britain, especially the Scottish Jacobite rebellion novels from Scott and Stevenson, and Dickens’ French revolution novel. Oppressed writers have relied on this genre and those related to it to express their discontent with the government in times of suppression. But, this study does not look at subversive fiction, but rather at how people overthrow governments or fight them in reality, where death is final. But, it does not solely focus on rebellions, revolutions and other outright revolts, but rather on the four sources that Walter Scheidel (who teaches at Stanford University) concludes are responsible for equalizing the playing field: “mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues”. The question of equality is particularly relevant in the present because the inequality gap across the world has been growing instead of shrinking as monopolization, small business deaths, corruption, and various other problems have been accelerated, instead of being repelled by modern ideologies. The book opens with a “brief history of inequality” in 100 pages or so. Then, parts are divided into subjects on war, revolution, collapse, plague, alternatives to violence, and the predicted future for inequality. The book is full of dozens of diagrams that illustrate the economic concepts covered, such as the level of inequality over time from several different perspectives that are “counterfactual” or are not represented in actual reality (400). One problem with this book is that the text is very tiny, so you have to hold it close to read it. Another problem is that the author tends to digress from the evidence presented in facts into very abstract theory that jumps around between different ideas, and is difficult to follow. For example, he introduces “the earliest quantifiable evidence indicative of growing wealth inequality” from Old and Neo-Babylonian eras, showing that daughters tended to see higher dowries or inheritances than sons, but then instead of explaining why this was the case, he begins talking about economic development in general, and then jumps to state formation in the next paragraph; it seems like he never returns to the gender difference before the section’s end (48-53). But this might be an isolated example, as most of the other chapters are divided into parts that cover specific subjects such as “premodern mass mobilization warfare”, a section that jumps between 600 and 330s BCE haphazardly, but does cover land, private production, wars and other topics in a logical and flowing manner (181-99). The book is highly researched, and presents relevant quotes and facts that help build the argument. While this is a wonderfully crafted research project, it would be difficult to read it to write one’s own research or to use ideas from it in a fiction project. And for a casual reader, this would be a difficult read, as it jumps around too much, and yet is full of intense bundles of information that overload the imagination. If I was assigned this book in an economics class, I would have a difficult time reading it cover-to-cover or understanding which parts are most essential, and might be covered on a test. Despite my reservations, it is a very good thing that this book was written as we definitely need to understand inequality and how to avoid it to make this world tolerable.

An Adventurous Dive Inside Advanced Rocket Science

Bradley W. Carroll and Dale A. Ostlie. An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics, Second Edition. 1278pp, appendixes, images. ISBN: 978-1-108-42216-1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.


I wish I had a few years to closely read this book, as I am sure I would invent some fantastic new rocket science if I made it through to the end. I was captured by this book in around Chapter 18 because I cover binary star systems in my novel, and I wanted to understand how the physics of these stars works to understand what it would be like to live under these. I don’t know exactly how Carroll and Ostlie did it, but they managed to explain it in a language that allowed me to learn while roaming in the possibilities with my imagination. I think that they did it in part by closing the opening introduction thus: “The spilling of gas from one star onto another can lead to some spectacular celestial fireworks…” (653). I have seen many images of gases spewing from stars, but the idea of gas spilling from one star to another is mesmerizing (I might have seen drawings of this happening with a black hole before, but the black hole is… black). They explain the possible interactions between differently sized stars, as if they are covering the dramas between two human rivals, while also explaining the physics, chemistry and other aspects of the resulting telemetry. I did have to skip some sections that veered from the basic explanations into hard formulas, as probably only somebody who is going to employ these in rocket science or to research star observations is likely to have the energy to digest and test these fully. I have read several other books that introduce recent discoveries in astronomy and space exploration, so I think I was able to penetrate into these subjects more easily than a casual reader without this background. I think I was able to understand the binaries chapter better because I took astronomy in college, and because of this recent lighter reading. The discussions of orbits, masses, cores, and other components of stellar life was already familiar. So, I would encourage readers to read an introductory astronomy book before starting this one, as you will hardly find any definitions of “core” or other basic concepts here. Definitions that are given are on “double-degenerate models” or “gravitational radiation” (688). I was also very interested in topics covered in the next chapter on the physics of solar systems, and the one after that on terrestrial planets (I got great ideas on what it would be like to travel across our solar system, to places that humans have not visited in spaceships before). It was also very imaginatively-engaging to read about what it’s like on gas and ice giants, or on minor bodies (like moons), or the way our galaxy works. I think the book lost be on around Chapter 25, when it started discussing why galaxies differ, and then their evolution, simply because my novel would take place only inside the Milky Way, so this information was practically irrelevant. Just doing this review, I am tempted to read more and understand those bits that I did not grasp on the first attempt. It is extremely difficult to explain the universe in a way that readers who aren’t scientists can understand, and Carroll and Ostlie have definitely achieved this goal here. It is inspiring to know that humanity has learned this much about how out little speck of dust does not go spinning away from the sun, or how our atoms come from star explosions. I think most curious readers will enjoy reading this book, but it is probably best left form serious researchers in this field and astronomy and physics (maybe graduate) students.

A Beautiful Collection of Sentimental Art

Rebecca Bedell. Moved to Tears: Rethinking the Art of the Sentimental in the United States. $45. 232pp, 8.5X9.5”, 69 color + 44 b/w illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-691153209. Princeton University Press, November 13, 2018.


Collectors have paid millions for the works of art in this book, so it is delightful to receive them all for free. The color printing is so well done in this project that if I cut these out, framed them and put them on my wall, viewers might ask if they are real from a distance. The cover reminds me of the scene I see out of my own window in the winter, dilapidated houses in the snow. Brush and knife stroke are visible in this large image. Nearly every page has a color illustration on it, with some black and white ones that explain the theory, science, and the like about these paintings. Overall, this is just a very pleasurable experience for anybody in a sentimental and artistic mood.

All this beauty aside, Rebecca Bedell (chair of the Art Department at Wellesley College) makes an argument throughout that “sentimental” is not a dirty word that has been used to stand for “trite and saccharine Victorian kitsch”, but rather a major movement in American art that has been perfected by some of the best-known artists, including John Trumbull and Asher Durand. The book begins in the eighteenth century and ends in the twentieth. Under this umbrella the emotions covered are reactions to “social affections, including sympathy, compassion, nostalgia, and patriotism.” These images are not simply of impoverished neighborhoods or sad people, but have been used in political propaganda, such as to spark the Revolutionary War, or to fight anti-Semitism. She also describes the profits to be made in sentimentality, thus touching on the very real commercial aspect artists have to negotiate with. The chapters are broken down by subject into those covering the Revolutionary War, social change (slavery, race), Andrew Jackson and the home, landscapes, philosophy, and the business of sentimental art. The “Introduction” opens with this quote: “Among the politer terms of abuse, there are few so effective as ‘sentimental’”, from I. A. Richards. This definitely hits the emotions, and sets a reader up to possibly slide into tears before the book ends. Then, Bedell jumps into a description of a painting from Thomas Hovenden, beautifully painting with words a farm house, a mother, and other details, so that it might be imagined without a picture for reference. The theory of sentimentality in art is mixed into admiring descriptions and an argument for what these works really represent. This is probably the best way to write an art book to engage many different disciplines and to keep readers entertained and learning throughout. This is a must-read for art historians, museum curators and those who are studying to enter these fields, as a buyer or a viewer might ask about it after this read (because the subject is particularly communicative). It is tempting to study each of these works closely, read each paragraph, and contemplate this wretched existence, but I’ll stop here.

An Illustrated Guide to the Strange Lives of Plants

Stephen Blackmore. How Plants Work: Form, Diversity, Survival. $35. 368pp, 400 color images. ISBN: 978-0-691-17749-6. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.


Ever since I dissected a little plant in grade school, I have been curious about how plants work, and this book cuts to the roots of this field. It does not simply catalog the different types of plants and offer brief introductions on each of them, but rather really dives into their biology and the evolutionary paths that developed their unique components. Since there are over 400,000 plant species on Earth, it only covers a sample of the representative or unusual varieties that assist with understanding plants in general. Every page includes a photo or a few images, all shot by brilliant photographers that capture engaging angles and are a delight to browse. Some of these are scanned electron microscopy images that look at aspects of plants’ lives invisible to the naked eye. The book explains that the “plant” category includes everything from algae that emerged 500 million years ago, to redwood trees, to mosses. It warns about poisons and plants that eat insects. Any writer who might touch on nature in fiction or non-fiction would benefit from this book, as it describes how plants are structured, how they function, and how they interplay with their environments. The latter is an important aspect of the book, as the author, Stephen Blackmore (Her Majesty’s Botanist in Scotland in 2010), has written widely about conservation and the environment, and set out on this project to prove just how precious the greenery of this Earth is. With news that coral reefs are dying and forests are burning up, this is an important moment to stop to contemplate the flowers and trees, and Blackmore’s knowledge of this field and appreciation for its beauty achieves this better than most other books on this subject. The book is broken down scientifically into sections on roots, stems, trunks, leaves, cones, flowers, seeds and fruits. Even the table of contents is full of giant photos that illustrate each of these chapters in an engaging way. Rather than preaching generally about conservation or preservation, the conclusion considers humans adaptation through selection and domestication of the plants people have chosen to take nourishment or enjoyment from.

I requested this particular book because of the space travel novel I am working on; I am trying to imagine what life on other planets might be like, and this book gave me many ideas on strange tricks plants employ that when taken to an extreme might be used by entirely divergent lifeforms from those inhabiting Earth. For example, in a discussion of the difference between a Coleochaete versus a plant life cycle, introduces the cyclic nature of life, and variations on what humans typically experience (25). It was also interesting to learn that plants can sometimes stand on top of their roots, or the different tools plants need to live inside of a pond as opposed to on the water’s surface or on land. The author does not seem to intend this to be used in a classroom, as it’s all a bit too beautiful and poetically explained, but I think it would make a great introductory plant biology textbook. It is primary intended as a coffee table book for casual readers, or for hiking enthusiasts who (instead of bird-watching) might want to study some plants on their path (maybe taking them apart or checking where their roots are hiding). Or it might inspire a scientist who is searching for a meat substitute to understand plants (in general) more intimately.

A Loss for the USSR Is a Win for the US

Michael Cotey Morgan. The Final Act: The Helsinki Accords and the Transformation of the Cold War. 396pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-691-17606-2. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.


The premise of this book makes me slightly uncomfortable. The press release concludes thus: “Instead of restoring the legitimacy of the Soviet bloc, Helsinki established principles that undermined it.” For somebody that views the Soviet Union as an evil empire just like WWII Germany, this phrasing makes sense, but as somebody who grew up in the Soviet Union shortly after this meeting, it is hard for me to see how the demise of the Soviet region is a positive. I am hardly a communist, but the communist ideals that the Soviet Union was built on were just as valid ad capitalism or the American interpretation of democracy (which includes only two parties and a voting system where the majority loses the vote). Obviously, Stalinism, the Cultural Revolution and other aspects of the Soviet Union were disruptive and harmful for those under its rule and around the world, but scholarly books should ideally be detached from strongly choosing a side in an ideological debate such as this one. And why would it benefit anybody if one of the sides in a meeting was undermined instead of being reaffirmed. It is highly hostile to go to a meeting with the intention of undermining the other side. If any side won this meeting, clearly it signaled the continuation rather than the end of the Cold War, and the current Russian election meddling debate suggests that this War never really ended, as resentments continue to be high. Earlier today I read about the Russian cosmonauts testing a hole in their spaceship to check if it resulted from space or earth-bound sabotage: isn’t it time to evolve above such nonsensical, harmful-to-all-sides tactics?

This book describes the events surrounding the Helsinki accords, three years of negotiations in Finland, that were signed by the parties in the summer of 1975, and on the surface it proposed cooperation and peace with territories under the Iron Curtain. The agreement expressed goals included its endorsement of “human rights as a core principle of international security, committed countries to greater transparency in economic and military affairs, and promoted the freer movement of people and information across borders.” Apparently to come to these, the Brezhnev Doctrine had to be rejected, as well as most of the proposals made by the Soviets. What could the Soviets have been proposing that was rejected: equal writes for the working class, freedom from the oppression of religion? It’s not like they were proposing Stalinist repression of intellectuals, so why did they end up signing this agreement at all, if it was so skewed towards western values. Then again, is transparency and human rights at all anti-communist in their ideology? But, it is unlikely that this book answers any of these questions, instead taking the stated perspective that a Soviet failure was the goal for the summit… Or that whatever it was the Soviets came to ask for, if they did not get any of it by the end, and the west received everything it asked for, this summit could have books written about it, glorifying its brilliance.

The “Introduction” begins like a fiction novel with the description of the arrival at a train station of the Soviet leader from Moscow. The next paragraph explains what a part of the book’s title means: the Helsinki Final Act is the name of the 22,000-word capstone agreement they finally ended up signing. The book relies heavily on historic quotes and summaries from primary documents that describe the various leaders and related actions. It explains the goals and motivations of the various actors, including NATO, the different countries involved (not just US and USSR), the regional wars and conflicts that were its background, and other impacting political details. Presidents who are setting out to negotiate for America’s interests in a similar conference would definitely benefit from reading this book. It is not a good fit for a class because it jumps around too much between very complex topics and theories. But those writing a thesis or a dissertation on a related topic should be able to use the index to find details that might verify their own historical arguments.

An Argument Against Reagan’s Stupidity

David T. Byrne. Ronald Reagan: An Intellectual Biography. 222pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-1-64012-003-7. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 2018.


The premise of this book is to show Reagan’s intellectual side. I haven’t seen a book with a title exactly like this one when describing a president. If discussing a novelist, I have seen the term “literary biography”. It seems that this is an attempt to prove something that is under question. Was Reagan an intellectual? He spent most of his life as an actor or entertainer, only starting to play with something political in middle age, when he served as the President of the Screen Actors Guild between 1947-52 and 59-60. After a long break, he became the Governor of California (67-75), and then served two terms as the 40th President (81-89). He is hardly known for writing any books. He spent the bulk of this political life in campaigning for others and himself, acting presidential. Why approach this dramatic, performative political career as an intellectual one? The author of this study, David Byrne (California Baptist University adjunct professor), sets out to prove Reagan’s intellect by the strength of his political philosophy and polices. How much of a president’s policies are his own as opposed to those proposed by his advisers? Byrne attempts to prove a connection by describing Plato and Adam Smith’s influence on Reagan. It is a bit troubling if any president was only familiar with a couple of philosophers; regardless, how can it be proven how closely Reagan read these works? The press release goes on to explain that “three historical forces… shaped” this philosophy: “Christian values, particularly the concept of a universal kingdom of God; America’s firm belief in freedom as the greatest political value and its aversion to strong centralized governments; and the appeasement era of World War II, which stimulated Reagan’s aggressive and confrontational foreign policy.” This list is highly troubling from my perspective, so I don’t understand how Byrne sees this as a positive. The Church is supposed to be separate from the State in the US. If Reagan’s primary philosophy was the propagation of his own religion, this would a conflict with the right to independence or freedom of religion for others in the US. Obviously, if Reagan was an actor without much of an intellectual life, his goal would be doing as little as possible in office; arguing against a “centralized government” would help explain why he, at the head of this central government, was not doing much during his tenure in the office of the President. This decline in just what the government and its president are obligated to do has led us to Donald Trump and his complete flaunting of doing anything, but yell, threaten and otherwise start fights with people. And the third goal for Reagan was picking up the aggression and heating up the Cold War? What kind of a human goes into a political office with the goal of starting a war with a country that has been unwilling to escalate a conflict from a Cold War? How is such pro-violence a philosophy as opposed to… psychosis? Maybe we have all seen these terms too many times for this to register, but something about Byrne’s phrasing really hits these points. Reagan is reading or perhaps staring at (for the sake of the photo being taken) what looks like a five-page letter on the front cover… Is this an image of an intellectual president because he’s wearing glasses?

The chapters in this book are divided into subjects: religious roots, liberal to conservative, promoting freedom at home and abroad, and morality of the Cold War. The final chapters ask if Reagan’s ideas matter and what his intellectual legacy is. If they have to ask these questions, this suggests that the author might agree with my observations, but, no, Byrne is strongly pro-Reagan. He does acknowledge the rightful perception of Reagan as an actor from the opening paragraph: “Even conservatives… rarely value Reagan as an idea man.” Byrne fights against this tide: “I want to disprove the notion that Reagan was stupid and elevate him to the rank of an intelligent, thinking person.” That’s a pretty low bar for an intellectual… just proving he’s not stupid and capable of thought… He does not stop there, but seriously goes on for several pages debating the nature of stupidity: “Some skeptics may question Reagan’s intellect entirely” he writes, and then, later in the paragraph, refers to Gardner’s concept of “interpersonal intelligence”, one among “multiple intelligences”. The interpersonal or the social is not actually included in the straightforward definition of “intelligence” though, which has to do with the intellect, and not with talking, flirting, or hoodwinking money out of potential supporters (xix).

The thematic chapter titles mean that the book is out of chronologic order, and so anybody searching for a straight-forward biography of Reagan are likely to be frustrated if they try to locate specific relevant to their own research bits. Since arguing against stupidity throughout might have been repetitive, Byrne veers in the middle of the book into a discussion on the history of the world from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages to the Church’s significance across the other centuries… (122-3). This seems completely strange in a biography… Are there really so few primary documents that Reagan left behind that Byrne had enough space to digress into the history of the universe? Near the end, Byrne becomes upset, writing things like, “Well, I, for one, resent it when a representative of the people refers to you and me, the free men and women of this country, as ‘the masses.’ This is a term we haven’t applied to ourselves in America” (181). Eh? Yes, the “masses” is a term many Americans apply to themselves… He does not even mention Reagan in the surrounding pages. He has just veered into personal speculations about how insulting the existence or talk about the “masses” is… I have to stop this review here because all this is making me too upset, and my own language might get stronger than “stupid” if I continue this analysis.

It’s Hopeless: Let’s Surrender to the Digital Monopolies

Matthew Hindman. The Internet Trap: How the Digital Economy Builds Monopolies and Undermines Democracy. $29.95. 256pp, 6X9”, 7 b/w illustrations, 5 tables. ISBN: 978-0-691159263. Princeton: Princeton University Press, September 25, 2018.


Since I publish these reviews and other content on my publishing company’s website, this book speaks to my own concerns, as it does for anybody else involved in digital publishing (anything from a blog to a major website). It sets out to explain how the digital world has been monopolized by a few giant companies like Google and Facebook, in contrast to its original intentions. It is strange that these companies have dominated this field as there is little fiscal barrier to entry to publishing content online. Rather than being publishers, Google and Facebook are platforms that mitigate communications. Google would not post even my best review or news article in their news feed because to qualify for this, my website would have to have millions and not 288,000 views. The monopolies exclude competitors from being able to promote themselves on their platforms without paying them handsomely for access to users. Advertising has cost publishers handsomely before the digital age, but now spending this money on these few platforms only enlarges these giants, and relatively weakens smaller competitors making these investments. Meanwhile, are there really as many people on platforms like Facebook as it claims, or are most of the “users” trolls or fake accounts created to sell these to potential advertisers to give them the allusion of attracting customers, forcing them to spend more to obtain more access to pools that are mostly fake. One of the solutions Hindman proposes is net neutrality, as well as many other ideas for how small local news channels and small businesses can reach an audience despite the odds. The chapters are divided into subjects on the attention economy, monopolies, personalization, the geography of cyberspace, dynamics of web traffic, online local news, and how to make news stickier. This is an economics book, so terms like stickiness are explained as “firms’ ability to attract users, to get them to stay longer, and to make them return again and again” (2). A weak points of the book is that it digresses too far into the nature of attention and other theoretical matters, when it might have been much more practically useful if it focused on the exact lessons that might help small businesses win over the monopolies. The bigger problem is the overwhelming pessimism throughout that surrenders the field to these giants, and makes a fight seem impossible. For example, it explains Google’s “peering capabilities” or that enormous volume of traffic needs “physical fiber optic interconnection,” something prohibitive to small businesses (22). But, only a business that wants to be as big as Google would need that volume of fiber cables, while to grow to a reasonable size, a business can probably access data storage for near nothing. The author acknowledges the pessimism of the discussion: “the models thus far suggest grim conclusions for smaller digital publishers.” And then suggests this strange solution: “Varying the amount of time users have to surf the web is one change that might improve the fate of small publishers.” He elaborates that users with endless quantities of time might be presented with those little businesses in their searches, while those with limited time would only see the giants (77). But the browsers with unlimited time are already scrolling through the pages to find hidden businesses further down in the search results. In one of the chapters that promises to help businesses succeed, more pessimism appears: “The largest digital ad campaigns, on the very largest websites, can be far more efficient than the quaint geographic targeting that newspapers offer. There is nothing newspapers can do to change this…” (135). Nothing they can do? This book promises to tell them what they can do to change it. Perhaps viewers attention is currently focused on these monopolies, but a series of startups can come along offering search agents and other tools that do not charge for advertising, and suddenly this whole field would be upside down and the age of the digital monopolies would be over. Why isn’t Hindman making suggestions like this? Is somebody funding his research from these industries? It’s a troubling read. I would be less concerned if I didn’t need to understand this subject for my own business.

An Action-Packed Study of Illicit Trades

Louise I. Shelley. Dark Commerce: How a New Illicit Economy Is Threatening Our Future. $29.95. 358pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-691-17018-3. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.


This is a refreshingly straightforward economic study after the last few books I reviewed today that turned economics and politics into digressive philosophical meanderings that fail to arrive at an answer. Shelley sets out to describe and explain how the illicit digital economy works. As the cover advertises, people have been trading for millennia, but now crooks are doing it much more efficiently and profitably online. The areas she focuses on are “the markets for narcotic and child pornography online, the escalation of sex trafficking through web advertisements, and the sale of endangered species for which revenues total in the hundreds of millions of dollars.” Aside from the immoralities involved in these trades, Shelley argues that subsets of this economy such as arms and weapons sales spark conflicts and other problems plaguing the world. She also explores those who are hurt by scammers even if they are not going online to buy or sell illicit goods or services, writing that crooks steal billions via “stolen identities, bank accounts, access to computer data, and intellectual property.” Shelley promises to propose solutions for these problems. The book begins far in the past by explaining what illicit trade used to be composed of, then takes readers from 1800 through the end of the Cold War, and then in a chapter takes readers to the present. The following chapters look at sectors of this trade: rhino horns, business models, destruction of lives, and destruction of the planet. Subsections across these broad chapters help readers navigate this content. For example, one of these subsections is “The Rise of Nonstate Actors” and under it there are even smaller sections on “Transnational Criminals” and “Terrorists”, neatly breaking up the argument into digestible and searchable components. The content throughout is intensely interesting and reveals new ways of looking at these problems as well as hidden facts about them. For example, “these two terrorist groups fought in the morning and then declared afternoon cease-fires to extort money from the human smugglers and refugees departing from the war-torn territory” (77). I have never heard anything like this in a mainstream news report. It is a very different, unfiltered look at just who is responsible for these crimes, and how they go about them. Other facts are more familiar, like that criminals hide drugs in “oriental rugs” or millions of cigarettes in train cars loaded with timber (139), but seeing this information in rapid-fire succession in support of arguments that explain the larger subjects is very engaging. If I ever set out to write a fiction or a non-fiction about an illicit trade, I will definitely return to study this book more closely.

Foundations Are the Enemy of Democracy… or Maybe Not…

Rob Riech. Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better. 240pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-691-18349-7. Princeton: Princeton University Press, July 1, 2018.


Since I have been contemplating starting a non-profit for some time, this book sparked my interest. Can it be that philanthropy can “undermine democratic values and set back aspirations of justice”? There are many foundations with millions or nearly billions of dollars in their coffers, and yet they have not cured cancer, AIDS and other problems they set out to fix. I have stayed in some awful shelters in a year I spent homeless, and non-profits running these places were clearly not interested in the well being of those who stayed there. And I have also volunteered for many nonprofits across my life, and have found that at all levels, top-to-bottom they are actively interested in doing and spending as little as possible on the issue they are tasked to address, and maximizing the money left over for executive pay, parties or other luxuries of having generous donors. I imagine that if I had the money, I could run a non-profit more efficiently, but what are the hurdles I would face in this ambition? Rob Riech’s (codirector of the Stanford Center of Philanthropy and Civil Society) cover argues that philanthropy at its worst is a “conversion of private assets into public influence. And it is a form of power that is largely unaccountable, often perpetual, and lavishly tax-advantaged. The affluent—and their foundations—reap vast benefits even as they influence policy without accountability… Charity, it turns out, does surprisingly little to provide for those in need and sometimes worsens inequality.” He argues that the solution is in the “decentralization of power in the production of public goods, such as the arts, education, and science.” One such suspect charity example is when the wife of a celebrity is running a charity and the celebrity gives his own money to support this charity tax-free, then the wife takes a large salary out of this money and distributes much of the rest of the incoming funds to friends and family. Thus, the celebrity does not have to pay taxes on a share of the year’s profits because it was filtered through this charity, but the money basically ends up in the same bank account (it might be half lighter, but that half might have gone to friends instead of the IRS). Nonprofits that sell scientific innovations that business owners funding them benefit from is another potential problem. And why do the biggest foundations spend so much money on entertaining potential donors? Why aren’t donors more interested in donating to nonprofits that are conservative in such spending, and do not waste money on entertainment? A glitzy ball and a well-dressed director must sell the notion that a nonprofit has the power to make positive change better than an organization lacking such fineries because it’s pumping every dollar into improving its shelters. These problems are most visible during disaster relief efforts, when the Red Cross and other organizations are paid millions to help, but barely deploy people or resources to do so, keeping the money in New York or Los Angeles or in the executives’ salary accounts. While in my imagination, I wish this was a book that addresses these problems in practical ways, so that we can all move on to creating solutions that will create an equitable and warmhearted world, the reality of what can be achieved in any study is typically sobering. This is primarily a book of political philosophy, so it sets out to discuss government and business policies about giving from a macro perspective. It is broken down into chapters on the types of institutional philanthropy, impact on equality, its political theory, the anti-democratic nature of foundations, and speculations on what philanthropy will look like in the future. Each chapter ends with a “Conclusion” section. In many ways, this book does meet my expectations, for example it expresses concern that Americans are skipping paying taxes on the $390 billion they donate annually to eligible nonprofits (10). A good deal of space is given to how foundations first came about, the meaning of the related words, and why they have become socially acceptable. One major point returned to is the 18/19th century resistance to foundations. But, this is troubling, as their resistance was for reasons like fear of “foreign invasion” and loss of the rights of heirs, or reasons that really might hint at illogical excuses that hid real sentiments that were anti-union, anti-charity and pro rampant capitalism without a social safety net (46). While I’m troubled by the idea of creating anti-charity policies, it is always useful to read well thought-out theories that examine the nature of anything, especially something as impactful as foundations. He also presents plenty of evidence for how foundations’ money is mis-spent, showing how a foundation near Stanford, the Woodside School Foundation raised $7,065 per pupil, while a Los Angeles Unified district foundation gathered a million, but only had enough to spend $2 per pupil (98). He explains that suburban districts’ wealthier parents give more to support poor students in their districts. It is troubling that the conclusion to this chapter begins thus: “A blanket prohibition on private giving to public schools is not necessarily the most justifiable public policy…” (103) This hardly seems to be a productive statement. Prohibiting giving charity to needy schools? Why? Are parents succeeding in paying for their students to receive better grades or otherwise corrupting the system? If the problem is that they’re just giving disproportionally to wealthier districts… is this really a serious problem? Then, there are spots of light again, as in the final conclusion that describes Zuckerbergs’ new “private philanthropic foundation” that was set up as a “for-profit entity, a limited liability company”, thus avoiding “already modest regulatory requirements concerning annual reporting of grant making and prohibitions on political giving… LLCs can engage in charitable grant making, invest in start-up companies, and direct their funds toward political advocacy and electioneering” (199). In other words, this book is difficult to peg. One second, it’s against all foundations, then it’s rallying for them. It’s criticizing corruption, and then sees good in what some foundations are doing. Then again, since the author directs a philanthropy center, it would be strange if it was entirely anti-foundational. It is a digressive and difficult read, but it is focused on delivering mini-points throughout. It is well-written with plenty of supporting evidence, and interesting philosophical discussions. Thus, this book should not be assigned in undergraduate classes, but can best be utilized by policy-makers who want to find out about the different perspectives on this issue. Researchers into foundations will find a broad review of the history of this subject and ideas from its critics and supporters.

How to Make Robots Move Like Animals

David L. Hu. How to Walk on Water and Climb Up Walls: Animal Movement and the Robots of the Future. $24.95. 228pp, 6X9”, images. ISBN: 978-0-691-16986-6. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.


Here is an unusual book that is at the edge of current research in two fields that really should be more closely linked. This is a look at the mechanics of animal locomotion and how this field is teaching engineers how to build better robots. The cover does a great job of introducing this link: “Insects walk on water, snakes slither, and fish swim… From basement labs at MIT to the rain forests of Panama, Hu” (physics professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology) “shows how animals have adapted and evolved to traverse their environments, taking advantage of physical laws with results that are startling and ingenious… Hu follows scientists as they investigate a multitude of animal movements, from the undulations of sandfish and the way that dogs shake off water in fractions of a second to the seemingly crash-resistant characteristics of insect flight. Not limiting his exploration to individual organisms, Hu describes the ways animals enact swarm intelligence, such as when army ants cooperate and link their bodies to create bridges that span ravines. He also looks at what scientists learn from nature’s unexpected feats—such as snakes that fly, mosquitoes that survive rain storms, and dead fish that swim upstream. As researchers better understand such issues as energy, flexibility, and water repellency in animal movement, they are applying this knowledge to the development of cutting-edge technology.” This is a really great, engaging and informative cover summary. I usually have to add something to the explanation, but it really did as good a job at explaining why this is an interesting book than anybody else could have. The chapters have slightly more mysterious titles like “Walking on Water” and “Flying Snake”, referring back to the creatures mentioned in a summary, but as chapter titles it’s unclear if one of these chapters looks at only land-based motion, while the other water-based. The “Conclusion” attempts to glimpse into the future of this field, an ambitious attempt given how far it has come in the last few years out of pretty much no activity a decade ago (not animal motion itself, as Hu points out, but mixing this field with the strides made in robotics (8). The “Introduction” begins by explaining how the author was inspired to go further in this field by running experiments on his wife’s toy poodle’s water-shake-off. There are great diagrams throughout that explain some of the physics motion concepts. The middle of the book includes several professional color images that look closely at the amazing properties of these creatures’ motion. One interesting black and white photo set is of a cockroach being squeezed b y a device to a quarter of its height, and a robot that mimics this property being squeezed to half of its size—both surviving and moving despite the pressure put on their backs. If this book had as many images and more textbook-like explanations (as the ones in this book review set on weather and astronomy), I probably would have read it cover-to-cover to find ideas on potential alien movements. The chapters do catch the readers’ interest with funny anecdotes and by beginning with basic physical concepts such as water tension (16) to explain these creatures’ motions. One of these interesting explanations is that a human-sized creature (which weights 10,000,000 times that of a water strider) “would require feet nearly 10 kilometers across to be supported by surface tension (17). Some of the anecdotes diverge too far from the science. I would have been able to dive further into this book if there were fewer anecdotes and more direct evidence and focused scientific explanations. For example, he discusses borrowing a high-speed camera to photograph water striders, instead of just explaining how these work and how the trick can be utilized in robots. Somebody who just wants to build a water-striding robot is likely to be pretty frustrated by these digressions (21). I’m really looking forward to the day I’m going to see a textbook on this subject, but this is clearly a significant step in this direction. With more research like this, we will shortly see even more amazing robots. I just recently saw a documentary about swarms of robots that can fly over a farm to do farm work, and there was a robot that flew just like a bird without being remotely controlled by a human. Hopefully, those interested in working in this field will bare through the digressions and will achieve some of the dreams imagined herein.

The War for Oil and the New Holocaust

John Maszka. Washington’s Dark Secret: The Real Truth About Terrorism and Islamic Extremism. $29.95. 296pp, 6X9”, glossary, index. ISBN: 978-1-64012-024-2. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, October 1, 2018.


The premise of this book is to say what most of the world’s public has probably been thinking since the War on Terror began, or that it is a “war for natural resources—and that terrorism has little to do with it. Once the military became mechanized, oil quickly became the most sought-after commodity on the planet, and the race for energy was eventually framed as a matter of national security.” John Maszka argues that the “oil conglomerates” are the real “threats to national security”. Demonizing “an entire religion” is a repercussion of this policy. My own research in Rebellion as Genre a few years ago also attempted to point out the misuse of the term terrorism in its current application, or as a weapon against one’s enemies rather than as a reference to a type of attacks intended to terrorize. Governments that accuse others of terrorism while legitimizing their own “acts of violence” as “retributive” are clearly breaking human rights agreements and their stated commitments to freedom. Maszka’s perspective is of particular interest because he teaches this subject at the Higher Colleges of Technology in Abu Dhabi, and has published widely his criticisms of the War on Terror, including Terrorism and the Bush Doctrine. Many of the books I have read on terrorism from American supporters of this pro-War on Terror doctrine are troubling in their references to spreading Christianity and other similarly questionable ideologies, so it is refreshing to hear from somebody with a fresh perspective that is more likely to bring about world peace. The preface acknowledges that this book contrasts with the bulk of other books in this field. It also explains that it focuses primarily on two “Islamic militant organizations—al-Qaeda and the Islamic State”. He explains that perception has a lot to do with who a country is willing to commit violence against, giving the example of Nazis being able to commit violence on Jews in the Holocaust because of this blindness. Thus, violence against Muslims by the West in the past two decade is shown as possibly a new Holocaust where the militaries are carrying out orders because Muslims have been demonized. Terrorism has historically been the work of a few extremists, or terms like “war” or “revolution” is employed to describe large groups of such fighters; so it is strange that the West has entered the War on Terror with entire Muslim-majority countries, killing so many civilians that it is not a stretch to call these Holocaust-like. The Islamic State targets Muslims as well, also showing dehumanized traits that are even harder to explain (x-xi). The preface also acknowledges that the author will be using “contractions and anecdotal digressions” as “intentional literary devices”, shooing the standard scholarly style (this is troubling for me personally, as I’m allergic to digressions, but at least he tells readers what to expect). As promised, Chapter One begins with a poet’s story about the Tree of Life, then discusses the Boston Marathon bombings from the perspective of the author as he worked in Kyrgyzstan, and goes off on other tangents before reaching this conclusion—the marathon’s bombers were not terrorists: “They had no political aspirations. They weren’t attempting to obtain concessions from the government or provoke a reaction. They simply believed that they were ‘wave sheaves’—first fruits of God—and that they would be instrumental in ushering in the apocalypse” (5). This conclusion explains the relationship between all of the digressions across this section, so these digressions were necessary to prove this point, and thus are suitable for a scholarly book. And this is exactly the type of logical reasoning that is missing in most of the oratory on terrorism. The entire book similarly uses specific acts of supposed terrorism to explain what really happened and working to understand th motivations of the actors. Since the author’s digressions into his own life are typically very relevant to the subject, they are definitely helpful: “I was stationed in Riyadh at an American military base that was attacked by an al-Qaeda suicide bomber” (135). It would actually be unethical if Maszka did not explain that he has been personally affected by al-Qaeda in this context; and since he has seen this War as a civilian living in the affected countries and as a member of the military that is attaching these “terrorists”, his opinions should be trustworthy for both sides. Given how emotional writing this book with detachment and carefully crafted research must have been for somebody who has been bombed, it is only fitting that the final chapter is called, “The Definition of Insanity.” And here is the final chapter: “A century after World War I, the great war for oil is still raging, with many of the same fronts as before and also a few new ones. Throughout it all—whether waged by realists, neoliberals, or neocons—war has been extremely good for business” (225). Very powerful words that are justly supported. I would strongly recommend that everybody in the West’s militaries who is responsible for making decisions in the War on Terror read this book before they make their next decision. Who are they shooting at? Why? Who is benefiting? Who is dying? Are they committing war crimes as serious as the Nazis? If there is any chance these allegations are true… what kind of a military leader can proceed without understanding the explanations that Maszka offers here? This would probably also work well in an advanced graduate class, despite its digressions, it will probably help students write better dissertations on related topics.

Bourbon Made America

Brian F. Haara. Bourbon Justice: How Whiskey Law Shaped America. $26.95. 192pp, 6X9”, 11 photographs, 13 illustrations, 1 table, 31 sidebars, index. ISBN: 978-1-64012-085-3. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, November 1, 2018.


Some recent studies have argued that consuming alcohol leads to diminished mental capacity, but here is a celebration of a liquor that has apparently been central to America’s development as a nation, bourbon. The cover explains: “Bourbon is responsible for the growth and maturation of many substantive areas of the law, such as trademark, breach of contract, fraud, governmental regulation and taxation, and consumer protection.” One of the authors, Brian Haara, is a lawyer and the other, Fred Minnick, is a U.S. Army journalist, both of whom have published on alcohol previously. The chapters are organized by law categories: trademarks and brand names, puffery, consumer protection, prohibition, fake distillers and secret sourcing, and labeling. This is a very logical and lawyer-minded organization; it would be difficult to find the right section if these chapters were not organized into these neat topics. There are some good archival images inside, but there are also strange “Tasting Notes” that describe different types of historic bourbon whiskeys. I guess this book is about bourbon, so it’s not surprising that it’s described in these, but it’s a jump from a legal discussion to descriptions that seem fitted for a high-society whiskey tasting. Since the book talks about branding and advertising, the images of advertisements and labels included make sense. The Foreword opens with a story of how Washington taxed distillers to pay for Revolutionary War debts, and this measure was so hated by them that they sparked the Whisky Rebellion that forced Washington to “federalize soldiers” (xi). This is an engaging way to explain how alcoholics and alcohol makers are a rowdy bunch that have sparked many events and movements in American history, and not only those they are best known for, like the Prohibition. Minnick argues that the bourbon makers brought about the Pure Food and Drug Act, rather than standing in its way (unlike most other food and drug industries over the centuries). Then, he explains that 60% of every bottle goes to taxes—that high, I doubt the majority of America’s 0-tax companies would be so generous. This is hardly a book that only focuses on the good bourbon has done, but rather just at instances when it has shifted American law and government (looking at the high rate of nepotism in the bourbon industry, for example). Bourbon enthusiasts will find some information about this beverage that they will enjoy as well, like legal definitions for “handmade” (something that doesn’t exist anymore, despite labeling that suggest it) or “craft” that typically stands for small producers instead of actually signifying craftiness (19-20). Most of the book looks at numerous cases and explains the parties and legal arguments involved. Haara concludes that unlike myths these documented case laws on this topic offer much more dramatic stories and clashes of conflicting ideologies (148). This is a great, brief resource for lawyers who are engaged in a major case that is related to alcohol in America. Because of the brevity and lightness and humor of the style, it might even be a fun book to read on a Saturday night, while lightly intoxicated. Researchers of American history (students and professors alike) should also find a useful resource in this study.

On the Barriers to Political Entry for Workers

Nicholas Carnes. The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office: And What We Can Do About It. $29.95. 344pp, 6X9”, 43 b/w illustrations, 15 tables. ISBN: 978-0-691182001. Princeton: Princeton University Press, September 11, 2018.


I hope to run for Mayor of Quanah this coming spring, so when I saw this book in the catalog, it was an easy choice to request. Without spending much more than the registration fee and the money to print some fliers, is it possible to win a political position in America today? This book sets out to explain why it might not be possible. Carnes also “debunks popular misconceptions (like the idea that workers are unelectable or unqualified to govern), identifies the factors that keep lower-class Americans off the ballot and out of political institutions, and evaluates a variety of reform proposals.” He demonstrates that “elections have a built-in ‘cash ceiling,’ a series of structural barriers that make it almost impossible for the working-class to run for public office.” Here I depart slightly from this argument that workers cannot handle the burden of running for office, or knocking on doors and talking with potential voters, in part because they are overwhelmed with their difficult jobs across the rest of the day. The proposed solution is training working-class people on how to run, but I think offering candidates free advertisement space, or free paper to print fliers on, or waving fees for them might be more practically helpful. What is there really that somebody needs to learn to go around a town and ask folks to vote for him or her, and explain why they’d do a better job than the opposition. The author, Nicholas Carnes, is a professor of public policy at Duke. The chapters are organized by the main questions the book sets out to answer: the problems with being governed by the privileged, what is wrong with why we think only the rich run, why don’t workers run, what’s stopping them, and what we can do about it. A look at a diagram of the percentage of people who have served in office explains the roots of the problem—52% of American US citizens are in the working class, 10% of city council members are in this class, only 3% of state legislators, and only 2% of Congress, and 0 governors, Supreme Court justices or US Presidents postwar (6). I would imagine that corruption has to do with these odds. Politicians have to pay to obtain these posts to the mob, local crooks, election fixers and the like. While crooks can’t gain much from a city council position, a state legislator is likely to vote on various issues that are of interest to parties that can sponsor the run. Another thought that comes to mind is if the working class are in this class in part because they opted out of higher education, and might generally be less ambitious. It would be stranger if 52% of American governors were working class, or plumbers and carpenters before winning office positions, as opposed to professors with PhDs or professionals in business or marketing fields. I would want to see a study on why more PhDs aren’t in these positions and why money trumps brains in these contests. Putting my own suspicions aside, this is a useful table to start with. Carnes must have pondered about these questions as well because he then discusses Alexander Hamilton’s view in Federalist #35 that workers should allow businessmen to take over government because they are more intellectual and better suited to make decisions on behalf of the workers (7). Then he explains the problem with letting the wealthy control America’s government, or that they have supported their own interests over those of the workers or the majority, for example, opposing the estate tax (9), or opposing regulation over dangerous foods. The latter is demonstrated in a graph where among State legislators, only 1% of workers support abolishing all federal welfare programs against 21% of business owners, while 81% of business owners are for reducing government regulation of the private sector against 27% of the workers (11). These trends have allowed many dangerous foods and products that are banned across the European Union on the shelves of American stores, so it would definitely be beneficial for most Americans to be represented by average people that are likely to be more concerned with being sold something poisonous as opposed to thinking how regulation might affect their own business or their investment portfolio. Each of the chapters ends with a helpful summary that should be of use to students in digesting the main points presented (if a professor might ask them for a summary on a test). Later in the book, he does propose setting up “Seed Money Programs and Political Scholarships” to help workers run, writing that this idea has not made much traction, but yes, this would definitely be helpful to pushing the odds in workers’ favor (201). I wish there were some ideas on how I can win an election for Mayor here, but no, I think I’m just going to have to knock on doors and do a lot of talking. And I don’t even know if I fall into this definition of the working class, so maybe I’m on the privilege end of the odds and just don’t realize it… My own “struggles” aside, this is a great book for political science students (graduate and undergraduate) who are just learning about the system, rather than attempting to engage with it. It should also be of interest to the politicians who have succeeded to consider how their votes are failing to represent the majority of the people.

It’s Obvious Republicans Rigged This One, Let’s Blame the Russians

Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Cyber-War: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President: What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know. $24.95. 314pp, 6X9”, images. ISBN: 978-0-19-091581-0. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


I began to suspect somebody was hacking the 2016 elections when I posted a comment in favor of a cartoon a female artist drew that depicted the Texas Senator nominee’s children as clowning monkeys after he ran an ad that used them to sell himself as a family man. In response to my simple support in favor of free speech and against using fakery in ads to put stress on something that really should be irrelevant in an election (family is great, but what does it have to do with if a senator has the type of morality that would be a win for the people of the state he or she would represent), I received a barrage of threatening, intimidating, and otherwise harassing messages from a group of people that all had a similar linguistic style, suggesting the same person was sending these messages from different Twitter account. This person was attempting to shift the blame on me, saying that not only was the cartoon touching something untouchable (children of a politician, which apparently should never be cause for a joke, while it was perfect alright to use them in an ad), but that this cartoon was apparently also racist. Cruz… I believe it was… Does he have any Hispanic heritage behind him? If so, hardly much of it, and since he is married to a very white Texan woman, their children a beautiful, blondish little girls… What does any of this have to do with race? This is just one example of how trolls shifted attention away from reality and into nonsensical debates. This person was actually describing herself as a pro-Cruz campaigner on her website, so she (the lead of the trolls) wasn’t even hiding this identification. She only stopped badgering me with insults against everything from my weight to my Russian background when I deliberately created a fake Twitter account (took a few moments) and posted a joke response in support of myself in response to one of her comments, clearly indicating that it was still me, even though I had called this account something-or-other-Cruz. I had mentioned that if they continued badgering me, I would write an essay about it for this PLJ journal, and in response she created a lengthy essay about this interaction we had and posted it on her own blog, twisting everything I was saying, lying and otherwise increasing the level of harassment. I think I abandoned this debate at that point, and did not make any other political postings across the 2016 election cycle, and then the Russian trolls and Russian hacking of the election story surfaced in the media, and has stuck through the present. This troll group I was chatting with did not have any difficulty speaking English. They were supporting a Republican senatorial candidate by squashing somebody who was criticizing him on Twitter, creating a lot of fake traffic to make it seem as if their opinions were valid, while I (or the female cartoonist that actually created the image) did not have anybody on my/ her side. Nothing really disappears from the internet, so these types of troll attacks are going to remain on these platforms’ historic record forever. But is there seriously significant evidence than any of them were the work of Russians and not American Republicans? Republicans won the election in part by paying off porn stars. Maybe Putin paid off a porn star at some point, but I doubt she was an American… Meanwhile, I’ve faced more than usual level of animosity towards my Russian background in the last couple of years, as some understand “Russian hackers” to mean all Russians, even those who are ideologically opposed to Russia, to hacking, to corruption and the rest of it. This book does not prove that Russians hacked the election, but it repeatedly equates the hacks and the trolls with this (likely imaginary enemy)—Russia—instead of putting the blame where it’s really due, on American Republicans.

I wish this book did manage to prove that Russians were responsible for all of this American elections fraud. But even the author doubts this conclusion. Problematically, the “Prologue” begins with quotes from media coverage of this debate, stuff comedians, Trump, Putin and other players have said, denying Russia’s involvement in mostly a joking manner. Since I have been inundated by hearing these quotes in the news, seeing them repeated in a scholarly book in these pages of long quotes without explanations is distracting and angering. What can denials prove? The opposite? The “Introduction” summarizes that specifically “Russian hackers, trolls, and bots designed to roil social discontent…” used “bitcoin to buy space and set up virtual private networks on American servers. Distribute hacked content stolen from the accounts of her staff and associates through an intermediary, WikiLeaks. Use identity theft, stolen Social Security numbers, and appropriated IDs to circumvent Facebook and PayPal’s demand for actual names, birth dates, and addresses… Diffuse and amplify your attack” (is this a typo, perhaps a Russian wrote this?) “and advocacy through posts on Facebook, tweets and retweets on twitter, videos on YouTube… Add to the mix a video game called Hilltendo… Employ ‘online agitators’ and bots to upvote posts from imposter website… Drive content to trend…” (1-2). Americans are better known for their video game design than Russians… It would really be a lot cheaper to higher English-speaking American or even Indian hackers to do all of these things versus Russians with limited English abilities. Later on, she uses data on the black vote staying home and failing to vote in support of her argument (113). All this voter suppression research would be highly helpful to understanding election corruption if it all together stopped discussing Russians, and focused on the party that benefited from all this activity, Republicans, who collected hundreds of millions in election donations and moved this money into this effort. It’s possible the Republicans hired a few Russian hackers… but just to get sanctions lifted, Russians really would not have gathered the needed millions for this effort that benefited a foreign party. I’m not going to be able to stop myself from requesting another book if it also hits on this topic, but I really should just realize that it’s impossible for Americans to discuss American corruption without also pointing a finger at foreigners who do far worse.

The French Revolution Was Not Fought for Big Government

Helena Rosenblatt. The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century. $35. 360pp, 5.5X8.5”. ISBN: 978-1-49620508-7. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, October 2, 2018.


In the world of Trump, it is now hazier than ever what the difference between a conservative and a liberal is. Do conservatives support paying porn stars for sex or to keep them quiet? There are many conservative aspects about my life: I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, and I hope others won’t do these things either. In past decades, it might have made sense for me to register as a Republican. But, aside from all the corruption and crookery, are Republicans now more liberal than the Democrats? Given these questions, this book is particularly relevant as it attempts to explain the concept of liberalism from its roots in the ancient world through the present. I did not realize this, but apparently the author has to begin by debunking Anglo-Americans misconception that the “liberal” concept belongs to them alone, and is “centered on individual rights.” I have read a lot of ancient and later political writings on this subject, so this does not surprise me. But if any Americans reading this are shocked, Helena Rosenblatt “shows that it was the French Revolution that gave birth to liberalism and Germans who transformed it.” One of the things that did surprise me is that when liberalism took hold in the US in the mid-twentieth century, it was “moralist”, as proponents: “believed in the power of religion to reform society, emphasized the sanctity of the family, and never spoke of rights without speaking of duties”, and only the Cold War redefined this term as focused on “individual freedoms.” Yes, Americans have reversed the original meanings of this term, and this is why I have been failing to understand my own position. The French Revolution’s liberal ideals meant the overthrow of the monarchy, so these revolutionaries definitely wanted less government, whereas Americans have interpreted liberalism as a pro-big government movement. I recently published a book on a related subject, Radical Agrarian Economics, where I summarized the history of liberalism or radicalism. And, as I started to suspect, she looks at some of the same theories and movements that I covered, Hobbes, John Locke, laissez-faire/ Adam Smith. Only the last chapter turns to the American Creed. The middle-ground is explained as socialism. The communist and socialist turn from the late nineteenth century through the Russian revolution infected the Americans perception of liberalism as state-run systems or welfare states, hence the notion that big government is liberal. This is a very well thought-through political history that uncovers many of the sub-movements and changes in this concept that I did not consider in my lighter study. Connections between religion and politics, and movements across the planet are explained as contributing to this word that has gained so many intense revolving meanings. All liberals and anti-liberals across the world should read this book. It should also be helpful supplementary reading in college politics classes.

Spiritual, Poetic… But Not in a Good Way… Geological Interpretation of Time

Marcia Bjornerud. Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World. $24.95. 216pp, 5.5X8.5”, 15 b/w illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-691-181202. Princeton: Princeton University Press, September 11, 2018.


This is not the book I expected to find. It shows how “geologists have charted the planet’s temporal rhythms” to explain “a new way of thinking about our place in time.” Since the press release describes this book as poetic, I am now concerned that I shouldn’t have requested this one. It does not bode well when a scientific study is described as poetic, in my experience; this usually tends to become a digression into flighty speculations about the Universe, the spiritual, or even the magical, all things that are distressing when science is concerned… The cover description adds more concrete explanation. For example: “The passage of nine days, which is how long a drop of water typically stays in Earth’s atmosphere, is something we can easily grasp. But spans of hundreds of years—the time a molecule of carbon dioxide resides in the atmosphere—approach the limits of our comprehension.” Why would hundreds of years be beyond human comprehension; if this was the case, humans would not understand a standard history book… As I suspected then it dives into the spiritual: “Our everyday lives are shaped by processes that vastly predate us, and our habits will in turn have consequences that will outlast us by generations.” The book promises to reveal “how knowing the rhythms of Earth’s deep past and conceiving of time as a geologist does can give us the perspective we need for a more sustainable future.” I am fully in support of sustainability, and I want to understand geological time, but why has poetic spirituality come between these things? I think this argument would have been much stronger without this interloper. As might be expected, the chapters are spiritual, with references to Wiccan-like concepts of Earth and Air (two of the four main Wiccan elements). Chapter 6 talks about the utopian as it relates to the scientific… Why is all this veering into science fiction from spirituality in the end? The “Prologue” opens with this quote from Haldor Laxness: “Time is the one thing we can all agree to call supernatural.” No, we can’t agree that time is supernatural—it is the definition of what is natural, as it is at the center of space-time dimensions… If we cannot trust the clock is “natural”… we might all be losing grasp of reality. Some of the book dives into hard science, like the discussion of zircon, a mineral that can withstand abrasion and corrosion (59). Then there are ink drawings depicting beautiful interpretations of volcanic activity (70). And then there are jumps to the author’s college days and experience of speculating about the Alvarez meteorite impact hypothesis (119). All this is distressing me, as it almost reads anti-scientific in times, like an anti-revolutionary would deliberately describe revolutionaries in a way that makes them sound crazy. Geologists have real ways of saving this planet from the ills humanity has brought to it, I don’t think these realities should be cloud with these dreamy speculations.

Brilliant Personal Account from the Ambassador-in-Charge of the Bombings

Prudence Bushnell. Terrorism, Betrayal & Resilience: My Story of the 1998 U.S. Embassy Bombings. $29.95. 288pp, 6X9”, 29 photographs, index. ISBN: 978-1-64012-101-0. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, December 1, 2018.


This is one of those great cover descriptions that really grabs attention, so here it is: “On August 7, 1998, three years before President George W. Bush declared the War on Terror, the radical Islamist group al-Qaeda bombed the American embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, where Prudence Bushnell was serving as U.S. ambassador.” This book “is her account of what happened, how it happened, and its impact twenty years later. When the bombs went off in Kenya and neighboring Tanzania that day, Congress was in recess and the White House, along with the entire country, was focused on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Congress held no hearings about the bombings, the national security community held no after-action reviews, and the mandatory Accountability Review Board focused on narrow security issues. Then on September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. homeland and the East Africa bombings became little more than an historical footnote.” This narrative is the author’s “quest to understand how these bombings could have happened given the scrutiny bin Laden and his cell in Nairobi had been getting since 1996 from special groups in the National Security Council, the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA.” She interprets the 1998 failure as one of false “assumptions about terrorism and the Muslim world.” Despite these problems, she argues that diplomacy is the way to create a better world. Prudence Bushnell has also held leadership positions in the U.S. Department of State and worked as a dean of foreign policy in a university, before retiring. The press release concludes by stating that the author is available for interviews, unusual given most politicians who shun such requests. The book is logically organized. Part 1 describes the bombing, the response to it, its impact, and its consequences. Part 2 asks why it happened, looking at the proxy war, the plots and the execution that might have prompted the terrorists. Part 3 asks “So What?” or considers the outcomes of the bombing. 29 images accompany the book, all of them in the center, including dramatic images of a collapsed giant building with a crowd all around the ruins, fleeing citizens around armed guards, as well as images from the author’s youth (which looks like a very positive time), followed by Albright’s visit to the bombing site, and other images from the years around the bombing. It is surprising how frank Bushnell is throughout. She is critical of the NSA’s failure to release their “taps of bin Laden’s phone with the I-49 squad,” and their refusal to “share with the CIA” (157). Because Bushnell is describing her own experiences, they are all as precise as if she had kept a close diary of the unraveling events, and is now sharing a heavily edited and cleaned up version of it. For example, she describes a tour of the Statue of Liberty, the cold boat ride, and a view of the Twin Towers in 1998 while discussing al-Qaeda’s victims on the opposite page (102-3). She also describes where she was when the bombing happened and she uses her close knowledge of the investigation that followed to describe how it was perpetrated: “A truck with two men had driven into the rear parking lot and tried to get into our underground parking garage… One of the perpetrators had thrown a grenade, and some gunshots were fired, giving the guard time to run… Seconds later, the truck had exploded.” In the following paragraph a reference is made to a specific body being found, with the name redacted (13). Bushnell is shown crying at a memorial on the cover in a prize-winning photo, but these intense descriptions do a much better job explaining how she must have felt during these events than any image. Overall, this is a great book on a very difficult subject because it is truthful, informative and delivers politics, philosophy and policy ideas in a way that does not digress from the realities of this focal incident. This is a better read than a biography of a life, or a history of an event from somebody who is basing the story on archival records. Who better than the person in charge of an embassy can describe the impact of this embassy being bombed? Absolutely brilliant concept and it has been executed in a way that does the event justice.

Engaging Nature Photography of Darwin’s Islands

Walter Perez and Michael Weisberg. Galapagos: Life in Motion. $35. 208pp, 12X9”, images. ISBN: 978-0-691174136. Princeton: Princeton University Press, August 22, 2018.


One of the advantages of photography over video in nature-capturing is that a photographer can choose one shot that captures the most dramatic, loving, enamoring, surprising or otherwise captivating moment out of a roll of film (or digital images). A documentary about the Galapagos would show these animals’ lives rolling by rapidly, with a narrator discussing what the actions depicted are demonstrating. In contrast, these still-lives are relating just as intense of a story in a moment. For example, on page 31, the caption reads: “brown pelican and Galapagos shark hunting the same school of fish, North Seymour Island.” The first thing you notice is the pelican sitting on what initially looks like a blue background of the ocean under its feet. If you look for a moment longer, you notice an outline of a fish right under the pelican and then the outline of a giant shark taking up most of what seemed like just negative blue space. A bit of radiant light penetrating down to the shark from the surface might have just seemed like the gleam of a wave earlier. The image is so large, crisp and color-dense that with the page under my arm now, I almost feel as if I could ruffle the pelican’s feathers. The book is full of these types of stories that reveal themselves the longer you stare at any one image. This type of intense photography allows viewers’ imagination fill in the narration, rather than dictating exactly what the intended meaning is. Those who have a low attention span can quickly look at the images, picking up some inspiration, learning a bit about how animals on these islands fight and love, and then put this coffee table book back on the table and step in to see a doctor for an appointment. On the other hand, those who want to be lost in a foreign, idyllic world, or those who want to be educated about bigger problems than their own, can look closer and read the brief enlightening notes accompanying the images. The image that struck me more than the others is from page 48, and it shows the impact of the low algae production season between 2015-6, during El Nino on a Fernandina Island’s marine iguana, which is lying on a dry, black rock, its emaciated skin nearly the same color, but hanging loosely over its visible bones, holding its fingers intertwined as it lies there against the rock, as if barely able to lift its head from starvation. I have not seen a similar photo of a starving animal in a photo book or a film (not that I can recall, at least this one really penetrates the memory, whereas maybe other images did not hit me as much). This image is smaller in the lower half of the page, whereas the top shows perhaps the same iguana now fully recovered in muscle-mass six months later, as it’s holding a mouthful of green algae. There is a great combination here of moving and still images, and those that depict a close-up on a single species, and those that show how different species interact (some being eaten by others, while some coexisting joyfully side-by-side). I have been veganish for a couple of years now, but looking at dozens of images of sea lions and herons eating fish, crabs and other seafood is really making me hungry for some fresh out-of-the-sea delicacies like this. The last part of this book shows tourists taking pictures and otherwise interacting with the wildlife, including a shot of a sea lion stealing (temporarily) a tourist’s phone, or the photographer’s hand getting inside of a shot with a beautiful yellow-black fish and just being left there instead of being cut out. There are similar jokes and tragedies throughout this collection. Reading and looking through this book is like taking a vacation on the Galapagos without going through the chore of actually flying there. These images were captured by Walter Perez, a photographer and naturalist who has made this place his permanent home. The brisk and pointed descriptions are by Michael Weisberg (though perhaps they collaborated on both the photography and the writing), documentary filmmaker (this explains why the images chosen are so filmographic) and science educator. Every office with a waiting room should have this book on its coffee table, and any living room where guests might have a few moments before or during a party to browse the décor.

Letters from the Great Empress

Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin-Detlev, Translators. Catherine the Great: Selected Letters. $16.95. 434pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-873646-2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


It is any writer’s fantasy to have a collection of the letters of a monarch on his or her bookshelf, so I am delighted that Oxford sent this book for my review. I already utilized it for research towards a totalitarian-led species in my space novel. It helped me to view the world from the perspective of none-other than Catherine the Great, a monarch that is particularly significant for me due to my Russian background, as she was glorified in the USSR. This advertised persona is familiar enough, but the details of what life was like for her is foggy for all but scholars who are writing on this subject. The genre of celebrity biography is popular today, so I would imagine there should be a lot more people interested in the mega-celebrities of the past like Catherine, but somehow historical figures are called boring or irrelevant, while pop-celebrities of the present moment are supposed to have something significant to say. What does a movie star of the present know: fashion (hardly, it’s not like they make it), gossip about those they’ve dated (Catherine interacted with Voltaire and Potemkin, and with the latter as lover as well)? She had several affairs that are widely known, with a Polish count, with Grigory Orlov (military leader and likely father of her son), and this before she overthrew her husband in a coup d’etat to gain the throne. These historic maneuvers cannot and should not be repeated today because these dramas are the remnants of a foreign age. The further back I go in my researcher, the more relevant the lessons become from historical figures. Why did Catherine send fruit together with a new plan for a treaty? The rest of this letter and those that surround it explain the mystery. There are brilliant philosophical revelations on every page, like this one that is particularly relevant to the anti-Russia sentiments expressed by Americans today; it comes from a letter to Johann Georg Zimmermann on January 26, 1791: “we were said to be without money, without troops, and without resources. Newspapermen were paid, then as today, to spout senseless projects that Russia is presumed to have and that, they say, would overturn all governments by intrigues, by money, or by force, Here they contradict themselves, for someone who has neither the money nor force can neither give nor use them. Intrigues are the means of the weak, calumny that of the evil, and neither the one nor the other befits a great empire. Both are contrary to the candor, probity, and elevation of soul that one likes to see in those who are in a position to direct human destinies” (305-6). The groundwork that Catherine put in place at the end of this century helped Russia to develop into an Empire that could foster the arts, and produced writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Without earlier modernization, military victories and other strides she achieved, Russia might be another developing country today. This book is also an example of the types of letters people used to write that moved countries, and not the little notes with emojis most of us send today via text or email. This is an example of the deteriorating and necessary art of letter-writing. Any corporation-owner or manager can learn about leadership, grace, politeness, and inspiring people from Catherine, a source that is much more trustworthy than a modern guru that promises to teach folks about “influencing” people. Catherine certainly influenced a lot of people, even if some of her actions might not be as saintly as she suggests in the quote above. The front and back matter and the introductions to the chronologically organized sections that offer “domestic, personal, and foreign policy context” for the letters help readers who are not familiar with Catherine’s biography or the history of this period catch up and understand the intricacies of the discussions. Anybody who is inspired by the thought processes of those who moved world history, would benefit from reading this collection, in full or by bits.

Zola’s Anti-Dramatic Canonical Novel

Emile Zola. Andrew Rothwell, translator. The Bright Side of Life: Oxford World Classic. $13.95. 314pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-875361-2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


I browsed this novel for inspiration to improve my own writing. I have tried to read one of Zola’s novels a few times before, and always without success. Though I might have read bits of Zola here-and-there (I think he was assigned in a realism/ naturalism class I took in my MA program; I read his fellow naturalist Guy de Maupassant’s work much more closely and with more enjoyment versus his speculations on alcoholism and depression). I anticipated that the style would be realistic or perhaps anti-formulaic, but it really breaks beyond even these expected parameters. Here is the plot summary from the cover: “Orphaned with a substantial inheritance at the age of ten, Pauline Quenu is taken from Paris to live with her relatives, Monsieur and Madame Chanteau and their son Lazare, in the village of Bonneville on the wild Normandy coast. Her presence enlivens the household and Pauline is the only one who can ease Chanteau’s gout-ridden agony. Her love of life contrasts with the insularity and pessimism that infects the family, especially Lazare, for whom she develops a devoted passion. Gradually Madame Chanteau starts to take advantage of Pauline’s generous nature, and jealousy and resentment threaten to blight all their lives. The arrival of a pretty family friend, Louise, brings tensions to a head.” To give away the plot, the story ends with the death of a servant… I had to go back to understand who died because I anticipated that in a tragedy like this typically the main lively little girl that comes to cheer everybody up would be the one to die, but Zola subverts this typical tragic structure and has somebody outside this main plotline summer without really making a fuss out of her internal discontent (unlike the little Chanteau that lets everybody know he’s displeased and miserable. Zola is known for depicting intense emotions, and this ironic take on The Bright Side of Life really hits at the reader’s emotional strings. As usual Oxford World’s Classics provides plenty of front and back matter to explain the intricacies of the content, as most details would be lost without this guidance. The “Introduction” explains that Zola had a mental breakdown in the middle of writing this novel and had to return to it after writing a couple of less personal or autobiographical novels in the same series. The editor includes this telling note Zola wrote to describe the strange style in this novel: “‘descriptions reduced to a minimum. The style direct, correct, forceful, without romantic flourishes. The kind of classical language I dream of writing. In a word, honest in everything, nothing dressed up’” (viii-ix). I typically prefer detailed descriptions that make the world depicted seem extremely real, but I think that Zola has focused on making the emotions realistic here, an attempt that is more challenging when done well. Here is an example: “Lazare, whose tight stomach could only take a few mouthfuls of bread, rushed back upstairs to his own room, giving his father an excuse about some urgent work. When he reached the first floor, he went into his mother’s room, where he forced himself to sit for five minutes before kissing her goodnight. In any case, she had completely forgotten about him, never expressing the least interest in what he might be up to during the day. When he bent over her, she offered him her cheek and seemed to consider his hasty goodnight normal, becoming hourly more self-absorbed, with the instinctive egotism that heralded her end…” (159). Readers who are in a melancholy state of mind and looking for sympathy from a writer who shares this mood should enjoy slowly reading through these psychological machinations. Those who are fragile probably should not attempt this novel, as they might go the way of the author from thinking about these heavy matters. Literary scholars of Zola should particularly enjoy this neatly arranged version from Oxford (as they probably do the rest of these Classics series). Whenever I have to closely read a classic, I always try to find a Penguin or an Oxford Classics version because they tend to do the heavy lifting of gathering the introductory matter that I need to begin to understand one of these extremely complex fictions. This might also be of interest to modern fiction writers, as it introduces a unique way of making ordinary life emotionally dramatic.

Archeological Anecdotes and Lessons

Eric H. Cline. Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archeology. $18.95. 454pp. ISBN: 978-0-691-18323-7. Princeton: Princeton University Press, October 23, 2018.


Browsing through this book gave me a lot of ideas about strange building design and how something from the past can be as alien as a structure from another planet. The blurb on the front cover is really true here: “Intensely readable” (Wall Street Journal). When a business publication is enthralled by a read, the writer, Eric H. Cline (professor at George Washington University) clearly has done something extraordinary. This book has just come out in paperback, or I would not have scored a review copy. Ever since taking a Greek and Roman history and archeology class back in college, I have been fascinated with this field that has uncovered and explained ancient monuments, making them part of humanity’s story. What are the pyramids without a historical explanation as to how they were built, who built them, why the pharaohs were buried in them, and what little treasures were hidden inside that might have long been stolen by unscrupulous thieves? Eric Cline describes these stories frequently from his own experiences, or makes other diggers’ challenges as personal as if they were his own. Cline has spent 30 seasons in excavations, so he can be trusted as an authority on how this field progressed from “an amateur pursuit to the cutting-edge science it is today”. Some of the places and civilizations visited include Pompeii, Petra, Troy, Terracotta Warriors, Mycenae, Megiddo, and Masada. When I was younger I dreamed about going to some of these places, but now I really enjoy reading a book like this one about them far more than the idea of hiking through jungles or deserts to reach the places themselves. Information about who were the Hittites, Minoans, Incas, Aztec or Moche is far more energizing and stimulating when it is compressed in a book than anything that a guide might share on a hot or cold day in the field. Only going on an archeological dig myself might be more interesting than a read like this one. And this is not only a collection of fun stories about archeological adventures, but also addresses the questions actual archeologists would need to learn from an expert like: “How do you know where to dig? How are excavations actually done? How do you know how old something is? Who gets to keep what is found?” The 50 included line illustrations help readers to stay alert and engaged as the information becomes more complex and multi-leveled. This is a great title for big and small libraries, to allow readers to access this curious book locally.

The Secret Strategies That All Investors Already Know

Yefei Lu. Inside the Investments of Warren Buffet: Twenty Cases. 294pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-231-16463-4. New York: Columbia University Press: Columbia Business School Publishing, 2018.


Since I just opened my first high-yield savings account, I was inspired to learn a bit about how perhaps the world’s most successful investor has used his money. This book focuses on 20 case studies from Buffett’s long-term investment portfolio. “Starting with Buffett’s interest in the Sanborn Map Company in 1958, Yefei Lu tracks his major investments in companies like See’s Candies, the Washington Post, GEICO, Coca-Cola, US Air, Wells Fargo, and IBM. Accessing partnership letters, company documents, annual reports, third-party references, and other original sources,” this book “pinpoints what is unique about Buffett’s timing, instinct, use of outside knowledge, and postinvestment actions.” As I consider this summary, it seems a bit strange. Timing and instinct sound like insider trading tips, as do outside knowledge. What kind of knowledge can be so useful from this outside… Is he asking economics professors for help? And postinvestment actions sound even more suspicious… I mean, does he help the company along through the media or more practical moves to make sure it succeeds and recuperates his investment? Obviously, given the cheerful outline of the book, I don’t anticipate that Lu is going to accuse Buffett of anything sinister here, but it feels as if he is subconsciously brining these possibilities to the forefront of a reader’s imagination. Investment in companies is basically a giant gamble, and anybody who consistently wins should be suspected of rigging the game… as chance alone would not produce victory, and even the smartest investors lose pretty frequently. Yefei Lu is a portfolio manager at Shareholder Value Management AG in Germany, so he is familiar with investment from inside of this risky world. This study is broken down chronologically into parts that deal with different decades, 1957-68, 68-90, and 90-2014. The final part summarizes the lessons financial students should have learned from the individual case studies. The “Introduction” explains that Buffett’s success has meant that small investors frequently mimic his strategies. I have read about this before. Obviously, having others mimic your moves in this business is extremely helpful as this means you can buy at a low and just because others mimic you, your stock will go up and make you a profit, and then you can be first to exit at the very peak, and others will follow you out (the company might tank, but your portfolio benefits). Lu explains that he chose the 20 cases because they had the “largest material impact on his trajectory” (xi). The opening of Part I is curious as it reminds readers that Buffet studied at the Columbia Business School just prior to founding his own firm, Buffett Partnership Limited (this book was published by this school, so they might have had access to Buffett’s archives and other related materials more so than an unconnected university press would have). The book is full of diagrams, data, photographs, advertisements, and various other images that help to illustrate Buffett’s investment strategy. Lu explains that in the early years, Buffett was particularly interested in purchasing companies at a discount price or at one of their low points. To explain how one can tell a company has reached a low point and other strategies being employed, Lu goes through the histories of each of the companies being studied, describing how they were founded, and what was going on with their finances leading up to Buffett’s investment decision, as well as what happened after the purchase. He ends the chapter by explaining how the first company studied, Sanborn Map Company (and Buffett’s controlling investment in it), impacted what has become the grand industries of data visualization, 3-D mapping, aerial photography and other world-changing fields (16). With 20 companies to study, the discussions remain vibrant and present useful information throughout without digressions or irrelevant information. This is clearly a book created for MBA programs, to allow students (especially in investment classes) to study case law in a comprehensive, digested way, without having to gather this information themselves from dispersed archival sources. It would be interesting to take a class based on this book, or a similar book tailored for a law program. So, I recommend it for graduate and undergraduate classes, and for anybody who is about to make their first major investment. I hope to return to this study if I ever take on this challenge.

Confessions from Monopolists

Kate Welling and Mario Gabelli. Merger Masters: Tales of Arbitrage. $29.95. 390pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-231-19042-8. New York: Columbia University Press: Columbia Business School Publishing, 2018.


I am conflicted about this topic before jumping into it, but there is no doubt that the topic is of interest to most people, regardless of their country or class status. At least, it should be of interest as monopolization and mergers impact all of us. The same fast food restaurants and the same car brands and media follow us around even as we travel across the world. A century ago, America waged a war on monopolies and the gilded millionaires who ran them, but today they are glorified as superhuman beings that have formed these Empires. I personally don’t think there is anything good about a monopoly for anybody other than its owner. If there are five media companies that produce nearly all of the world’s media, viewers are (usually unknowingly) deprived of variety of perspectives. It is easier to bribe leaders into anti-consumerist choices if one company holds billions. On the other hand, as a business owner, the writers I publish with Anaphora would probably all be against these notions and would want me to be more aggressive in my business policies. Each of them would see more sales of their books if I knew what grows a company, and what gives a company a significant share of a market. And even for those who are opposed to this whole system and are sure they would prefer if businesses stayed small and local, reading a book like this helps to understand what the “enemy” has been up to; perhaps this knowledge can help to conquer this problem.

This book considers what might be a moment in a company’s history, but a moment that determines its trajectory. Perhaps it was about to go bankrupt, and suddenly via a merger, it might be back on top and flourishing for decades to come. Or a merger can spell the end of thousands of careers, if a company is consumed and fully digested, without much of it surviving the process. The merger orchestrators themselves, Michael Price, John Paulson and Paul Singer, speak about this process herein. While these interviews are promising, they also make me concerned that this proximity with these “masters” has biased this study. It is also concerning that the cover describes it as representative of the “human side of risk arbitrage, exploring how top practitioners deal with the behavioral aspects of generating consistent profits…” The human side… behavioral aspects? This seems to suggest that this book will include tales of misery from the sad lives of some of the wealthiest and most ruthlessly aggressive humans on the planet. And on the “other side” of this debate, the author has included interviews with wealthy CEOs, Bill Stiritz, Peter McCausland, and Paul Montrone. They are apparently complaining that the mergers they underwent were not as profitable for their wallets as they hoped because Wall Street is too “short-term” focused. The authors of this study are Kate Welling (publisher of an independent financial journal, Welling on Wall St., who previously served as the managing editor of Barron’s) and Mario Gabelli (chairman of GAMCO Investors). The clearly biased perspective in this book is explained by them both being insiders, but then again, if they were outsiders none of these rich business people would consent to interview with them. There are many strange things about this book, like Appendix Two, which includes fifty pages of summary statements of where a company was before a merger and the resulting profit. I guess it’s important to have these numbers, but there are so many and the numbers included are not really as telling as an investor would need them to be to really understand the impact the merger had. Appendix One is more interesting, as it summarizes the main risks of a merger, and explains what a buyer has to consider before making a decision. This should be helpful for somebody who is practically contemplating this decision. The inside of the book is a bit more readable. For example, the chapter on Janie Zimmerman begins with a quote on her unique take on investment, and then describes the path she took to start her own investment firm in 2000. Rather than looking at her work taking over a single major company, the sections explain the progression she took to gain power in the market. There are only a few reflections from her, and mostly the focus is on the money and her complex financial decisions and lessons learned from them. Anybody who is considering becoming an investor, and particularly one focused on arbitrage (or buying and selling assets) should definitely read this book closely before taking their first business class. And anybody who is active in this field can surely learn a great deal by studying the successes and mistakes of these “masters.” And those who want to understand how what might seem generally evil or inhumane is actually a series of very human decisions by money-driven self-interested individuals, will also find plenty of meat for dissection herein.

What’s Wrong with the Ambition of Marrying Up?

Emile Zola; Paul Gibbard, translator. The Dream: Oxford World’s Classics. $12.95. 202pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-874598-3. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


The parallels between this novel from Zola and the Bright Side are obvious from comparing their summaries: “On Christmas Day, in the flurry of a snowstorm, the Huberts discover a ragged 9-year-old girl sheltering under the neighbouring cathedral porch. Childless and humble, the couple take in and raise Angelique as their own. The girl is intensely passionate, and given to rage and disobedience as well as love and religious fervor. Inspired by The Golden Legend, Angelique creates a dream world all of her own, peopled with spirits. As part of her dream vision she becomes convinced she will marry a rich and handsome young prince. Her wish seems set to come true when she falls in love with a lord’s son…” Both this and the other novel are about a girl entering a new household and causing disruptions and improvements in it. Both deal on the emotional impact of bringing a new person into a family. There are also many differences that change the narrative and emotional journey. Because the Huberts are childless, they are more attentive to the new member of the family, rather than growing detached like the mother in the other family. The plot where the orphan is dreaming of marrying a rich prince is reminiscent of Don Quixote, or generally romantic ideals of long ago, ideals that are criticized, ridiculed and shown to be faulty in realist and naturalist fictions (including this one). The cover explains that this project is actually written in a genre other than Zola’s usual naturalism, as it veers into mysticism or fairy tale like escapism. The central themes are architecture, embroidery and the lives of the saints. The included biography of Zola’s life explains that he tried teaching before sliding into “dire poverty” in Paris, and then “joined the newly founded publishing firm of Hachette” (this company has merged repeatedly and is now one of the giant publishing businesses that have withstood the centuries), staying with it for a couple of decades before breaking out to attempt to make a life for himself by his pen, a venture that it took him a decade to finally make a profit in (1877 with L’Assommoir, the seventh work in his major series that looked at alcoholism). As a “Chronology” explains, his life’s end was more dramatic than its start as he was found guilty of libeling the Minister of War in England, but left the country for France during the appeal process instead of showing up to court; then four years later he died mysteriously of fumes inhalation in a bedroom fire, “the chimney having been capped either by accident or anti-Dreyfusard design”—Zola wrote in defense of Dreyfus. The mystical style of this particular novel is in part revealed in passages like this one: “The proud and simple way she flung open her window announced that she had the spirit of a queen, even though she was just a little embroideress” (69). This is not an easy book to read, probably more difficult than others because it attempts to make the workings of this little embroideress into grand occasions, looking at each little step and decision as if they have the power to impact countries. So, this book is really only for Zola scholars, or those with the patience to listen to the digressions and speculations of a very grumpy Parisian in emotional crisis.

Classical Art of Animal Anatomy

David Bainbridge. Stripped Bare: The Art of Animal Anatomy. $29.95. 256pp, images. ISBN: 978-0-691-18142-4. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.


I placed an image of a dissected, classically drawn female figure on the cover of my forthcoming mystery novel, Fatal Design, so when I saw an entire book of images of dissected animals, I had to request it for review. While plenty of bad anatomical sketches have been created over the centuries, only the best of this field is included in this collection. At its best, our own human nature and the nature of life on our planet is revealed through art that depicts the inner workings of these once living creatures. Rather than looking at a single species, like humans, this is a comparative approach that attempts to explain larger philosophical (rather than biological) issues that are demonstrated through these images. The artists covered include Leonardo, Albrecht Durer, Jean Heroard, Comte de Buffon, Charles Darwin, and Ernst Haeckel. The art is accompanied by revealing explanations by David Bainbridge, a veterinary anatomist at the University of Cambridge. The book is mostly chronologically organized, starting in the time before the printing press (da Vinci), then looking at cutting, cataloguing and pictorial menageries between the 16th and 19th centuries, and then turning to the age after Darwin publicized his evolutionary theories, and finally turning to more modern, post-1900 animal anatomy art (including computer-based-designs). Brainbridge explains why he set out to create a collection of beautiful art rather than creating a book that looks at the realities of the currently applied discipline of animal dissection in the “Introduction”: “In producing the works in this book, craftsmen extracted a clean, simple truth from dirty, complex objects. Dissection is rarely a neat procedure, and many of the subjects depicted must have been messy and malodorous at the time. Yet here they are, abstracted objects of clarity and beauty, cleansed of their mundane filth and presented in woodblock print, pen and ink, lithograph, oi, or luminous spray paint” (6). Yes, art can glorify and perfect anything, including the most grotesque of deaths, and it can also educate and inspire viewers unlike a photograph or a moving image. No photoshop correction can recreate an image that only focuses on the important meanings as a painter with complete control over every piece of the composition. My favorite from this collection is a series of three-color drawings depicting a comparative study from an embryo to a newborn of a fish, salamander, tortoise, chick, hog, calf, rabbit and man. All of them start out as a nearly identical embryo, with a tail, giant eyes, and little bumps in the middle, which later transform into hands, feet, wings, fins, and various other body parts in these very different animals. The fix looks pretty similar to the original embryo, but the human does not even have a tail left by the time it is ready to be born. This summary composition shows how much we really have in common with other species. If we ever meet an actual alien from a different planet, they are not going to be recognizable as an animal and it won’t be an animal at all, and it won’t have much to do with our trees either. We are a percentage or so away from monkeys, and not too far genetically from fish. This is a great way to explain why humans should not eat other animals: there’s not much of a difference between cannibalism and eating chicken from this perspective (202-3). This book should be practically useful for artists, who need to understand the anatomy of animals to draw them with more accuracy. It is also likely to help veterinarians who are starting out and want to find inspiring and artistic images of the creatures they are going to be dedicating their lives to.

I Bet You Can’t Solve These Convoluted Physics Problems

Paul J. Nahin. How to Fall Slower than Gravity: And Other Everyday (and Not So Everyday) Uses of Mathematics and Physical Reasoning. $27.95. 280pp, 6X9”, diagrams. ISBN: 978-0-691-17691-8. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.


When I requested this book, I hoped that it would have easy to grasp explanations that would help with my science fiction project, but it turned out that it’s very math-heavy and is too complex to briskly gather ideas from it. My faulty expectations were in part due to the cover, which advertised that “Paul Nahin is a master at explaining odd phenomena through straightforward mathematics.” It goes on to argue that only “advanced high school math and physics” are necessary to understand these explanations. I’m sure it would be possible for me to understand these explanations if I dedicated to the task, but without sufficient pictures and other welcoming parts that gently take me by the hand and guide me inside, it’s too intimidating to attempt it. Another complication is that the author deliberately separated the problems from the solutions, splitting them into the first and the second halves of the book. If the goal was to explain these ideas plainly, this surely is not the best approach; one reason for this split is to increase suspense for readers, but, it’s not a novel—the next chapter jumps to another idea, so most readers would surely turn to the second half to find out the solution rather than reading about the next problem in the next chapter. Supposedly the split is to allow readers time to solve these problems themselves. Eh? Why would placing them separately in the book help this? And how realistic is it that a high school student would take on this challenge without losing faith in his or her abilities in the subject; and if they can be solved by a student, they are surely too simple to be discussed at these great lengths. The first problem proposed before the first chapter begins is about creating a wire that can hold 90,000 lbs per square inch with other complications; it is explained as a difficult problem back when it was first proposed in 1876, and it is hardly easier now. It would have been more engaging for readers to propose a simpler to solve problem at the start, so that readers can build some confidence to attempt tougher problems later on (the notes and explanations on this page are also convoluted, all suggesting that it’s unsolvable or too difficult for the reader’s abilities). The book sets out to explain 26 problems from the perspective of a mathematical physicist. These include the catapult conundrum, the physics of the NASTYGLASS, dodging trucks, and why raindrops fall slower than the rate of gravity. Even the Preface includes complex math problems rather than simply introducing the subject lightly like most prefaces. The problems are explained very briefly, as if they are questions on a test, with a few amusing anecdotes to help digest them—like a reference to putting “fresh cow dung and/or the dead bodies of animals and soldiers” into a catapult. These details are irrelevant to the problem itself, which is to figure out the maximum height of the wall, the distance to the catapult and the like (3). More time is dedicated to the explanations, which jump into the math. Little is explained to prep those who have been out of math classes for a while for the equations presented. Some of the best astronomy and science books I’m reviewing in this set manage to summarize these basics in little sentences that catch up even somebody like me to be able to understand the discussion before it takes a turn into more complex matters, which somehow seem much easier with these basics covered. I think Nahin should try teaching this book in a class and taking feedback from his students in how difficult it is for them to comprehend these problems, and then doing a heavy rewrite to create an edition of this project that is more digestible. As it stands, this book is not approachable for any group (scientific or the general public), and I cannot recommend it for education or for fun. Though, I’m sure physicists and mathematicians might find enough amusement and unique research in these pages to read it without recoiling.

A Brilliant Collection of the World’s Best Art from a Solitary Genius

Barthelemy Jobert. Delacroix: New and Expanded Edition. Printed in Italy. 342pp, 249 color and 47 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-691-18236-0. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.


Receiving a free art book full of Eugene Delacroix’ (1798-1863) paintings is probably the fulfillment of a fantasy I have had since I was sixteen or so and doing little sketches, going to museums, and taking my first art classes. The book smells amazing. It was printed in Italy, and it smells like it was just seeped in ink days before it was shipped. The pages are as thick and the images are as clear as some of the best art books I have ever seen. The paintings glitter from reflecting light. The resolution is infinitely better than viewing one of these on Wikipedia or another online source. Unlike an art collection I might have gleamed while on a stop at a library, I am going to be able to refer back to this book for inspiration for years to come. The descriptions of Delacroix’ life and the meaning, intentions and political, religious and other contexts around these images are outstanding and answer the exact questions I find myself asking as I browse through these. I am also discovering, as I look closer at this book that Delacroix was closely tied to some of my favorite French authors, Alexander Dumas and George Sand. And he drew not only my favorite paintings of George Sand and her little garden, but also some of the best-known revolutionary art, most notably, Liberty Leading the People, the image that has been used in rebellious posters over the following centuries. The author, Barthelemy Jobert, uses a quote from Dumas to explain what this work meant in its own time: “‘That Liberty is not at all the classic Liberty; it is a young woman of the people, one of those who fight not to be tutoyee, outraged, violated by the great lords’” (130-1). I am tempted to break with tradition and give this book 6 stars, but that would hardly be fair, as I can’t really judge books as superior only when they meet my own youthful dreams and fantasies about joining this group of artists and writers. Jobert explains that the Liberty painting took five months, and the details and perspective tricks in it certainly could not have been achieved in any less of a span. In addition to the great canonical works of art, there are also curious sketches, including raw sheets he painted briskly during a trip across Morocco (146-7). The sketches build in detail, and then Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1834) is presented (152-3). I thought I had just seen a documentary that observed that this painting was done in Europe and failed to match the realities of life in Algiers, but maybe that was about a different painter because the sketches clearly document the authenticity in the research. As if reading my mind again on this account, Jobert explains: “Delacroix was able, once he had returned to France, to paint Muslim women in their most intimate interior, a place normally forbidden to Europeans. But if the finished canvas derives from the sketches done on site, it does not scrupulously transcribe what the painter saw in Algiers… In addition to the studies done on the trip, there was another series of preparatory studies, done in the studio in Paris, using a European model, and the clothing and documents brought back from Africa, by means of which the process of transformation was achieved, ending in the final subtle equilibrium.” Jobert goes on to explain exactly which aspects are European and which true to Africa (150). Perhaps the documentary I watched borrowed from this research, or this question is currently at the forefront of artistic research, or the topic of race is currently a hot button. Either way, the explanation is as detailed as any art historian might wish it to be. Delacroix’ style is at the edge between the classical images of the old masters and the wave of impressionism on the horizon. He paints saints, Jesus and dramatic classical events with rapture in the fine details, but then blurs and gives emotion the reins as he paints skies, crowds, or motion. I don’t think I’ve seen any art reach this level of perfection since this period. Why? Maybe patrons were willing to pay for five months of work back then for a single painting, or artists were willing to invest this much time without a patron inline willing to buy it. Today it’s so easy to take a photo or to manipulate images digitally, that it’s unthinkable to spend so much time making a scene appear real while also being idealized and fantasized, like his Saint Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women (240). One of these women seems to be taking an arrow out of the saint’s shoulder. His body is extremely realistic or almost photographic, while the women are a bit off in their perspective and seem unreal with the exception of the hands that this one woman is using to take the arrow out, which are drawn with the same precision as his body. No cartoon or multi-level digital painting I have seen has reached this level of dramatic intensity.

The Pristine View of Planetary Discoveries from a NASA Executive

Alan Boss. Universal Life: An Inside Look Behind the Race to Discover Life Beyond Earth. $24.95. 232pp, 6X9”. Oxford: Oxford University Press, January 2019.


I came to this book after reading a few other books on exoplanets, so its contents were slightly less surprising, and not as engaging as they might have seemed if it was the first book I read on the subject. It does offer a lot more details on this narrow subject than the other books, so perhaps I would have understood it all better if I read it ahead of them. It is broken down neatly into sections on the relevant subjects, but the section headings a bit more dramatic rather than descriptive of what exactly is involved, for example: “Tau Ceti or Bust” and “Just Don’t Look Down”. If they were more specific, it would be easier for me to find the exact sections that I needed to research for my space novel. As it stands, readers have to begin reading each section to learn what to expect, and since many of the sections are a single paragraph long, they might as well just sit down and read this whole small book cover-to-cover. The back cover explains what this book is all about: “After decades of painstaking planning, NASA’s first dedicated exoplanet detection mission, the Kepler space telescope, was launched in 2009 from Cape Canaveral. Kepler began a years-long mission of looking for Earth-like planets amongst the millions of stars in the northern constellations of Lyra and Cygnus…” The cover doesn’t fully arrive at the point, but basically this book describes how Kepler was sent out into space, how it collected data on Earth-like planets and then describes the types of planets it found. The author, Alan Boss, is the Chair of NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program Analysis Group, who was on the Kepler Mission science team. This means that this book is less controversial and more factual than the other astronaut-authored books I’ve read recently. The astronauts discuss wild parties, womanizing, drinking, and some of the corruption that goes on around NASA or these missions. This story is a bit more whitewashed, and this is another reason I did not really get into it; the author’s position with NASA is probably one of the reasons Alan does not make light of these controversial subjects. Kepler has demonstrated that nearly every star in the sky has planets around it, and has brought thousands of curious planets into astronomy; before planets outside the solar system were purely the stuff of science fiction. It also steps beyond Kepler (which has just ended its career) and into methods for learning more about these planets and for finding life outside our solar system.

The Stoic Solution to Life’s Problems

Epictetus; A. A. Long, translator. How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life: Epictetus: Encheiridion and Selections from Discourses. $16.95. 174pp. ISBN: 978-0-691-17771-7. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.


Recently folks have started asking me to comment on happiness and other problems common to the human condition. I don’t know why anybody would want to ask anybody else alive today for such advice when there are so many respected books from the past that answer these questions better than today’s philosophers. I read Plato and Machiavelli back in high school, with a gap between them. I remember mentions of stoicism across my education, so I think Epictetus has come up, even if indirectly. I think his stoicism philosophy is more relevant today than the other two philosophers that stick at the forefront of my mind as they focused on war and political conquest, and we would all be in a better world if we put war aside and instead were a bit more stoic in our characters. Ids have taken over as people run around high and drunk, debauching for the sake of entertainment, and then complaining they lack joy and need to be medicated. Anybody who is experiencing “depression” really should read this book and contemplate Epictetus’ biography. He was born as a slave and spent his life, once he was freed, lecturing about not wanting more than what you can have for the sake of being free even when one’s body is enslaved. Some of his lessons might be shocking to modern readers, but good philosophy should surprise, or it is not teaching something new. For example, in How to Be Free, he advises that describing something you love frees you from feeling “troubled” if this person dies (9). And if suggests going into a potentially volatile situation with the thought that you want to be “in harmony with nature”, so that when people in a bathhouse “splash you or jostle you or talk rudely or steal your things”, you don’t react with anger towards them because you return in your mind to the idea that harmony or peace with your surroundings is more important to you than making rebuttals to this type of harassment (11). This particular comment strikes me because every time I try to go swimming in a public or private pool, I get harassed in just these ways, and I always choose to avoid interacting unless my towel has been stolen or the like and I have to call the police. It’s delightful to find a philosopher facing these same problems and teaching the importance of measured and calm replies, something we can all benefit from. There are also plenty of lessons here that I can benefit from adopting: “In company don’t go on at length about your own deeds or adventures. It may be pleasant for you to recount them, but others are less eager to hear about what has happened to you. And don’t try to be funny; it’s behavior that easily lapses into vulgarity, and it is also liable to make your neighbors think less well of you” (67-9). I always do tend to talk a lot about myself in company, but usually because folks ask me about myself when I’m stoic and don’t say much without such questions. And as a bit of a hopeful-comedian, I do tend to make jokes, but I can see how they can become a bit dark and perhaps vulgar without me intending this. At the same time, among many inspiring lessons, there are also many outmoded ones. For example, in Discourses, Epictetus dictates that “we should proceed to education not in order to change the conditions (for this is not granted to us nor would it be better) but in order that, with things about us as they are and as their nature is, we may keep our minds in harmony with what happens” (105). Obviously, coming from a slave who is still restrained in his circumstances, he would have been going against the rules of his day if he expressed an ambition to become a great philosopher or a politician, and saying that he is happy with his lot was a safer road to take. This satisfaction with what one has and not struggling for things one might not achieve is indeed likely to make those who fail to achieve them miserable, but I don’t think it’s healthy to advise people to stop trying to achieve such things. Though this might help some people, and that’s why it’s good philosophy: those who come to these pages in need of lessons will find just the lesson they need if they read enough of these widely applicable ideas. This might also be a good book for somebody who is learning Greek, as the Greek and English versions are on opposite pages, and the language is simple enough to follow it without advanced knowledge. The Introduction offers plenty of background information, as does the Glossary with its definitions of key terms Epictetus employs that have changed their meaning since his time (55-135 AD). And a handy Index can be used by somebody who specifically wants advice on “obedience” or “regret.” This is a tiny book with bits of helpful information that is intended for the general public, like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Anybody who is about to go into a party or pool with people that are likely to try our patience can benefit from reading a couple of paragraphs from this book to reaffirm one’s determination to remain stoic in this disheveled wilderness.

A Dog-Lover’s Dream Guide

Jose R. Castello; Claudio Sillero-Zubiri, foreword. Canids of the World: Wolves, Wild Dogs, Foxes, Jackals, Coyotes, and Their Relatives: Princeton Field Guides. $29.95. 332pp, 6X9”, color images. ISBN: 978-0-691-17685-7. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.


In my writing, I frequently need visual dictionaries to learn the names for the things that I am looking at or imagining. Describing parts of a musical instrument or parts of a car would be challenging without looking them up online, and not only their definitions, but also where they are in relation to the other parts. Thus, guides like this one go far beyond anything a single diagram can illustrate. If I ever have to describe any canid in any setting, I will be able to use this reference book. It achieves everything that anybody from a casual dog-lover, to a fiction writing, to a serious researcher of canids can hope for in an illustrated introductory guide. Since canids include wolves, wild dogs, foxes, jackals and coyotes, they are some of the most mythically utilized creatures on the planet. From werewolves in modern films, to foxes in Russian fairytales, or coyotes in Native American mythology, these creatures have touched human imaginations. This interest is in part due to humans’ domestication of dogs, a species that are canids, but are only lightly touched on in this study that focuses on wild canids. The back cover summarizes what’s covered in these pages: “covers every species of the world’s canids, from the Gray Wolf of North America to the dholes of Asia, from African jackals to the South American Bush Dog. It features more than 150 superb color plates depicting every kind of canid, and detailed facing-page species accounts that describe key identification features, morphology, distribution, subspeciation, habitat, and conservation status in the wild. The book also includes distribution maps and tips on where to observe each species.” The author, Jose R. Castello, is a medical doctor, naturalist, and wildlife photographer, and he describes these animals with medical exactness. This medical background shows up in the “Introduction”, where he shows comparative sizes of this group, names all of the bones shared by them (with huge diagrams), offers a detailed evolutionary tree, describes behavioral similarities, shows migratory patterns, and offers a comparative image of domestic dogs. The book is broken down into parts on South American canids, wolf-like canids, red fox-like canids, and gray fox-like canids. In the back there is even a comparative image of the skulls of many of these canids, showing their similarities and differences. Each of the species is shown as youths and adults, and is explained in terms of reproduction, behavior, distribution, habitat and other aspects in a way that would make it extremely easy to utilize this information in a writer’s fiction or non-fiction. This is the best encyclopedia any reader or writer can hope for. I look forward to returning to it over the coming years. Unlike Wikipedia or other sources where errors tend to creep in or information can be lacking, this guide meets everything that is expected of it.

Tales from Canonical Victorians

Michael Newton. Victorian Fairy Tales. $24.95. 496pp, 6X9”, 24 black and white illustrations, cloth. ISBN: 978-0-198825791. Oxford: Oxford University Press, December 1, 2018.


A great anthology is infinitely helpful to researchers and creative writers alike. On the surface, it can be used just as a set of fairy tales to entertain the kids, who might read these particular tales with more pleasure than the silly derivative pop fairy tales coming out of Disney and other major publishers, who tend to borrow ideas from these sources and twisting them into filtered and recolored versions that lack the intense moral lessons of the originals. A good fairy tale should be tragic and should illicit some tears, or at least some long hard thoughts about going into a forest on your own. It should not be horrifying, as being petrified by the world is hardly going to be beneficial for a growing person. It should frighten but only to the extent of guiding the youth away from dangers and towards proper decisions. Authors in the Victorian era instinctively or dogmatically followed these principles, and they have created the formulas and genres of these stories that have yet to be bested. The authors that caught my attention and made this book a necessity for my library are W. M. Thackeray, Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling, about which I’ve previously written on (I even remember writing specifically about Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant”). The collection is enhanced by the inclusion of historical and biographical notes. These types of notes are the reason I prefer collections above finding these stories individually online or in books without such annotations, as finding their equivalents on my own tends to take enormous effort, work that is best left to the editor. To enhance the pleasure of the reader, the editors have also inserted classical Victorian art into these pages from Richard Doyle, Arthur Hughes and Walter Crane. Every parent with a child under fourteen should expose the kid to this collection instead of buying what currently passes as young adult fiction, as these works are denser, more challenging, and more rewarding for young imaginations.

Kids who need a bit of inspiration to read the longer tales should enjoy the two short pieces in the unusual “Prologue”, which typically is a note from the author that doesn’t fit into the “Introduction”, but here is just these two very short stories. The first is from the Grimm brothers, “Rumpel-Stilts-kin”; it captured my own attention because this character is currently starring in a television series that brings him and other characters out of fairy tales and into contemporary settings (a pretty silly concept, but one that’s necessitated by budgets that would burst if they attempted to stay in Victorian times across a series). The lessons in this dense little tale are striking, as a miller is taught to be less boastful as he promises that his daughter can spin gold, and this nearly leads to her losing her own life or her child’s (3-5). Other very familiar tales include Robert Southey’s “The Story of the Three Bears”, which I think is much better told succinctly rather than with pictures that make it cartoonish. Each of these stories has a unique style that enriches the reader’s world. For example, Kipling’s is very poetic and musical, and he uses strong accents to make the characters come alive. Overall, this is a collection that delivers exactly what it promises to: a world of fairy tales at their best.

Alexander Owned His Thrones to Religion

  1. S. Naiden. Soldier, Priest, and God: A Life of Alexander the Great. $27.95. 424pp, 6X9”, 30 images. ISBN: 978-0-190875343. Oxford: Oxford University Press, December, 2018.


I missed some important points in the summary of this book when I requested it. I really shouldn’t have asked for it because it attempts something that I’m pretty allergic to, or interpreting significant events and world leaders through their religions. I had anticipated (wrongly) that this would be a regular biography of Alexander the Great, and this would have been very interesting and useful for my research. Here is the summary: “Whatever we may think of Alexander—whether Great or only lucky, a civilizer or a sociopath—most people do no regard him as a religious leader. And yet religion permeated all aspects of his career. When he used religion astutely, he and his army prospered. In Egypt, he performed the ceremonies needed to be pharaoh, and thus became a god as well as a priest. Babylon surrendered to him partly because he agreed to become a sacred king. When Alexander disregarded religion, he and his army suffered. In Iran, for instance, where he refused to be crowned and even destroyed a shrine, resistance against him mounted. In India, he killed Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus by the hundreds of thousands until his officers, men he regarded as religious companions, rebelled against him and forced him to abandon his campaign of conquest. Although he never fully recovered from this last disappointment, he continued to perform his priestly duties in the rest of his empire. As far as we know, the last time he rose from his bed was to perform a sacrifice.” One positive about all this is the comparative nature of the discussion, which considers all religions equally rather than preaching about the spread of any one religion by Alexander. The author, F. S. Naiden is a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, deep in the Bible Belt, so this comparative analysis is to be admired. “A Glossary of Gods and Lesser Beings” summarizes just how many different religious deities is discussed in this book. Despite my reservations, the “Introduction” sells the idea by showing how dramatic this mythicization was. Naiden describes how when Alexander succeeded his father at twenty in 336 BC, he was only a king of the Macedonians, a minor “rural Balkan people”, but within a decade he had overthrown the Persian Empire, making his people believe that his real father was Zeus (1). Religion has been the opiate of the people; it continues to be a leading cause of warfare internationally. Given these attributes, it is important even for staunch atheists to understand how leaders like Alexander have used religion to convince and manipulate Empires of people. On the other hand, the premise of the book is that Alexander failed when he did not adopt the religions of the Buddhists and other people he was conquering later in this quest. But, if he had adopted all of these different ideas, this would have been incredibly hypocritical and illogical. Jumping between saying you are an incarnation of Zeus and then of the Buddha would require being an incredible liar or incredibly delusional. Mostly this book describes the various attributes of the religions Alexander took on or encounters on his conquests. For scholars of comparative religion, this should be of great interest, but I find it difficult to stay interested in something like the “five names” that were “bestowed on” him as on every pharaoh (95). It would be more enjoyable to read about these religious practices separately from the biography, as they interrupt Alexander’s story and are highly digressive. Then again, it is amazing how the author found so much evidence as to exactly what rituals and religious events took place on these world tours. This book is written or a narrow group: mythologists who can study comparative religion with detachment, and who are also interested in the history of military leaders.

The “Legal” Election Riggings by Big Business

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez. State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Business, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American State—and the Nation. $29.95. 256pp, 6X9”, 38 images. ISBN: 978-0-190870799. Oxford: Oxford University Press, February 2019.


American politics have dipped from having a few kinks to being a deeply flawed field that has created enormous problems for its working people, whose interests are not represented. People are hoodwinked into voting for politicians that are in the pockets of Big Business, or perhaps outright election fraud is bypassing Americans and their interests. Discussions about election fraud are criticized as only encouraging more Americans to stay home rather than vote. This book does not look at illegal manipulations of elections, but rather at the legal (and therefore easily researched via public records requests) manipulations that the interested parties have perpetrated to shift public policy. The wave of Democratic wins in this past November 2018 election undid did avalanche somewhat, but the Senate, the Supreme Court, governorships, and the White House are still controlled by this branch of domineering Republicans. In this climate, any book that studies what is really going on is beneficial for common good. Here’s the summary from the cover: “After the GOP wave, a broad swathe of states began considering and enacting a near-identical set of conservative priorities—often even using the exact same text. Where did this flood of new legislation come from?” Alexander Hertel-Fernandez (professor of public affairs at Columbia University) argues that this legislations’ source is “a trio of powerful interest groups: the Koch Brothers—run Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the State Policy Network (SPN).” Across all this, “conservative activists, wealthy donors, and big businesses constructed a right-wing ‘troika’ of overlapping and influential lobbying groups.” The book is neatly organized for political researchers. Individual chapters address how ALEC was founded, how ALEC creates policy handouts that are plagiarized by the legislators that are paid-for by ALEC, how ALEC convinces State lawmakers and big businesses to obey. Then, the second Part of the book considers the impact these forced policies have had on America in the different states, and why left-wing efforts to stop this harmful movement have failed. The “Preface” does a great job explaining this problem with an example. It introduces Gene Whisnaut, a central Oregon retiree, who after serving in the Air Force ran for office in Oregon’s lower chamber, and has been serving in it since 2003. Gene confesses that he has benefited from ALEC because in exchange for a $50 annual fee, he receives access to “nearly 1,000 prewritten bills on a variety for social, economic, and political issues”, so that he (and his small staff, which includes his wife) does not have to research each possible bill, an endeavor that would be more time-consuming than his annual $23,500 salary would suggest he is responsible for attempting (ix-x). This is greatly disturbing, but I have also observed this to be the case, so it is very true probably for all those who borrow ready-made bills and the like from these types of mills that fail to represent the public’s interests, but are rather paid-for by big businesses who can afford researching bills that benefit them. Buying laws has been a problem since the first congresses convened centuries earlier, but now it has been compacted into a repetitive system with players that charge fees rather than even attempting to remain secretive in their intentions or machinations. In this climate, books like this one is essential for those who believe in fair governance to have evidence to explain their complaints against the errors in the current system. This book is strongly recommended for anybody involved in politics, and anybody who is a student or a researcher of the political system (American or elsewhere).

Sex and War Jokes about Vikings

Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough. Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas. $39.95. 318pp, 6X9”, images. ISBN: 978-0-19-870124-8. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


It is not likely that I could summarize a history book like this one better than the cover, so here it is: “In the dying days of the eighth century, the Vikings erupted onto the international stage with brutal raids and slaughter. The Medieval Norse may be best remembered as mon murderers and village pillagers, but this is far from the whole story. Throughout the Middle Ages, Norse longships transported these northern voyagers far and wide, where they not only raided but also traded, explored and settled new lands, encountered unfamiliar races, and embarked on pilgrimages and crusades. The Norse travelled to all corners of the medieval world and beyond; north to the wastelands of Arctic Scandinavia, south to the politically turbulent heartlands of medieval Christendom, west across the wild seas to Greenland and the fringes of the North American continent, and east down the Russian waterways, trading silver, skins, and slaves.” Unlike a straight history, this book relies on the Norse own mythologized stories, which are by the author’s confession “quasi-historical”. While I typically prefer to read history that has been proven as factual, I am always entertained and interested in researching archival “manuscripts” and sculptures, and to learn from these the personal details that facts about an economy or the like would miss. Evidence considered includes: “archaeological finds, runestones, medieval world maps, encyclopedic manuscripts, and texts from as far away as Byzantium and Baghdad.” The author, Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough teaches history at Durham University. Her cover biography ends thus: “Her proudest moment came when travelling across Arctic Norway, where she was knighted with a walrus penis bone in Hammerfest and became a member of the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society.” It is cryptic what the penis has to do with knighthood or with the royals or with bears or with polar ice… but I wanted to share this with my readers as-is. I think this reflects the playful style of the book. Its 6X9” size suggests that it will be a plain monograph, but it is actually full of smooth color images like a larger textbook for an introductory undergraduate class with a focus on the Norse. The fonts of the sections are also playful as are the photographs from the travels Barraclough underwent as part of her research for this book. All of these components invite casual reading and readers who are just looking for a light or entertaining read rather than searching for heavy research. Another helpful part is a page on Nordic pronunciations, particularly needed for an English reader, who might otherwise miss linguistic distinctions. To set up expectations for the book, it opens with a joke from The Times (2014), which refers to British MPs as “Famously uncivilized, destructive and rapacious, an almost insatiable appetite for rough sex and heavy drinking”, in a wording that makes it seem as if all this is referring to a longboat full of Vikings passing by before revealing the real culprits. Since this book attempts to dispel erroneous notions about Vikings, this explains how they can be misunderstood, or our modern problems can be shifted onto them as they are used as symbols of barbarity. The book is heavy on long quotes from original texts: this should be helpful to researchers in this field who might not be able to easily access some of these rare original sources. The chapters are divided geographically into the north, west, east and south; this is a bit confusing since its not immediately clear what part of the world these are referring to. Is America the west, or is it in the north? Section titles are hardly more explanatory, one is named “Slaughter-wolves”. A picture opposite to it says “Twatt”, with the explanation in the figure title that this is referring to the name of a town in Orkney. Sex and other crude jokes populate most pages, as these are apparently subjects that the Norse were fond of writing about. If you enjoy a good sex joke and a good tale about Norse invasions, you are going to love this book (and you are going to forget that it’s supposed to be a history).

A Biography of Pennsylvania’s Founder

Andrew R. Murphy. William Penn: A Life. $34.95. 480pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-190234249. Oxford: Oxford University Press, November, 2018.


The name “Penn” stands out in my mind because Edgar Allan Poe intended to name the journal that he never managed to start, The Penn. It also makes me think about Franklyn’s successful newspapers in New England, and what liberties became available in early America that prompted the revolutionary ideas that eventually inspired the colonists to separate from Great Britain. Thus, any biography of the man after whom the state of Pennsylvania was named, William Penn, is something I would like to read. The cover explains his significance: “On March 4, 1681, King Charles II granted William Penn a charter for a new American colony. Pennsylvania was to be, in its founder’s words, a bold ‘Holy Experiment’ in religious freedom and toleration, a haven for those fleeing persecution in an increasingly intolerant England and across Europe. An activist, political theorist, and the proprietor of his own colony, Penn would become a household name in the New World, despite spending just four years on American soil.” Thus, the ideals that America was built on would not have solidified if Penn did not become a Quaker in his twenties, which pushed him to become one of the Dissenters and thus a close ally of King James II. Then, despite owning Pennsylvania, he ended up being jailed on suspicion of treason and served time in debtor’s prison. This is apparently the first biography of Penn in forty years, and “the first to make full use of Penn’s private papers.” Every time I attempt archival research, I am surprised with how most of the materials in archives has never been published before, but the notion that one of America’s key founders has a significant volume of private papers that have not been used in any earlier biography is particularly shocking. The author, Andrew R. Murphy is a professor of political science at Rutgers University. The biography is chronologically organized with titles that summarize the main themes in his life: celebrity, Popish plots, America, seclusion, public life, pirates, William Jr. and “prison”. The book includes several useful images of the relevant architecture, paintings of central personalities and those that glorify Penn’s role in America, and maps of Penn’s territories. The information is heavily cited, as is typical of all Oxford biographies I have previously read: this verifies the trustworthiness of the narrative. How Penn ended up in debtor’s prison despite owning an enormous colony is a mystery that is immediately addressed in the “Prologue”. Murphy explains: “Despite recruiting hundreds of investors in the enterprise and undertaking an impressive sales campaign over the ensuing decades, he never realized the financial promise that American colonization dangled before his eyes… Twenty years after his first voyage to America, Penn found himself deeper in debt than ever, this time to Bridget Ford, the widow of his longtime associate (and fellow Quaker) Philip Ford.” They had worked together over the decades, but Penn had not been paying attention to the contracts they were signing so that eventually the Fords had invested more than what the colony was worth and demanded repayment or to become the rightful owners of the colony, or for Penn to turn it over to them. When he refused to surrender it, he was taken to court and since he could not repay these debts, was sent to debtor’s prison (3-4). This only starts to explain what sort of mismanagement led to this sad conclusion. These answers should be of interest to any current business person, as many of the problems with indebtedness, ownership, sharing responsibilities in running a company or a state, and the other matters touched on are as relevant to the challenges we are facing today as they were hundreds of years earlier. If I ever write about this early part of America’s history, I will definitely return for a closer look. This is a highly informative, well thought out and heavily researched biography that also closely explains the economics, politics and religion of this period.

Inside the Private World of a Literary Giant

Ernest Hemingway; Sandra Spanier and Miriam B. Mandel, editors. Letters of Ernest Hemingway, 1929-1931, Volume 4. 726pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-521-89736-5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.


The letters of any great thinker always reveal their essence while being informative, entertaining, engaging, and historically significant. Among American writers, Ernest Hemingway stands out as denser in his linguistics and philosophy, so I had to request this collection of letters when I saw it on the list. The period this particular Volume 4 covers is at the very cusp of his early success: “spanning April 1929 through 1931,” this collection “begins as the writer makes final revisions to the novel that will catapult him to international fame. A Farewell to Arms, published in September 1929, was an immediate critical and commercial success. Breaking new artistic ground in 1930, Hemingway embarks upon his first and greatest nonfiction work, the monumental treatise on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon. With a growing understanding of the literary marketplace, Hemingway increasingly corresponds with publishers, translators, collectors, admirers, autograph seekers, theater agents, movie moguls, and his first bibliographer. The letters record developments in Hemingway’s personal life, including the birth of his third son and his increasing passion for deep sea fishing and big game hunting. They trace growing strains in his friendship with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the development of his relationships with editor Maxwell Perkins and such writers as Archibald MacLeish and John Dos Passos. The volume ends as Hemingway’s family takes up residence in their new home in Key West. During this period of political and economic upheaval in Europe and America, Hemingway remains hard at work despite suffering injuries to his writing arm that require a long and painful rehabilitation. Throughout, he writes (and when unable to write, dictates) an avalanche of letters that record in witty, humorous, colorful, and sometimes eloquent prose the eventful life and achievements of an enormous personality.” A note on the back-cover stresses that this full collection of Hemingway’s letters is a first, never-before-attempted effort, and just the thickness of this volume says as much. Just transcribing them must have been monumental, but they are also accompanied by extremely detailed annotations from the editors, Sandra Spanier (professor at Pennsylvania State University and General Editor of this series) and Miriam B. Mandel (lecturer at Tel Aviv University). The collection is illustrated with relevant images of scribbles from the letters, ships, enclosed photographs, and some high-resolution scans in the center of advertisements of his novels, photos of him with his family and a color drawing of Ernest by Waldo Peirce. Each letter begins with a title of to whom it was addressed and the date of mailing, and ends with several detailed notes on who the persons discussed are, the related history, and other bits that otherwise would escape readers. A very helpful Chronology details what Hemingway was doing across the years that are touched by this set of letters. The Introduction points to some of this collection’s more dramatic debates, such as the censorship battles that went into the Farewell’s publication, as Hemingway attempted unsuccessfully to oppose the deletion of “dirty language” from his novel, but managed to keep a love affair between an unmarried couple (lviii). It also explains how Hemingway strived to make a living from articles and other minor and major projects once his novel succeeded and he had some fame (lix). As with any collection of letters that attempts to include nearly every letter a writer has ever authored, it has a lot of random flighty information of little interest, such as: “Ends of books are always bad if the book is any good so I take it as a compliment if you didn’t like the way it ended…” (184). A lot of it is about hunting, the best bullets and guns to use and the like. Then, there are curious reflections like this: “That was a hell of a blow to me because I’d always thought of the Nobel prize as something that you got when your beard was long and white and you needed to put your grandchildren through Devil’s Island. But now I know that there’s nothing that you get except maybe they operate on you for gallstomes, and that the only difference between the Nobel Prize and all the other prizes, is that it’s just more money” (405). To summarize, it’s a trip into Hemingway’s mind, it’s not a pretty place, there is plenty of strong language and sarcasm in there, and he might have cared about money and hunting more than about sticking to a non-stop writing schedule, but it’s the real truth about what was going on in there, all of it, rather than only the bits a biographer might choose to publicize. If you are brave enough to sort through this rubble, this is a book that you will enjoy. Researchers of Hemingway will be sifting through this treasure-trove of evidence for centuries to come.

An Illustrated Commentary on a Japanese Classic

Melissa McCormick. The Tale of Genji. $45. 288pp, 7X10”, 224 color illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-691172682. Princeton: Princeton University Press, November 13, 2018.


The relative thinness of this book made me question its nature since previous versions I have seen of this tale were a lot thicker. Reading through the description more closely explained the discrepancy, this project only includes summaries, brief excerpts and explanations of what the tale is about rather than reproducing it in its entirety. The Tale of Genji was written by a Japanese noblewoman, Murasaki Shikibu. It combines prose and poetry, and “is widely considered” as “the world’s first novel”, the term novel here refers to this very combination of genres, prose and poetry, as prior works separated these two disciplines, and most earlier prose did not have some of the characteristics that we now recognize in the formula of a novel (a hodgepodge of all sorts of bits that come together to tell a single personal story). This volume is illustrated with paintings and calligraphy from the Genji Album (created by a famous court painter in 1510 in Kyoto) from the Harvard Art Museum’s collection, “the oldest dated set of Genji illustrations known to exist.” The author, Melissa McCormick is a professor of Japanese Art and Culture at Harvard. This is the first time all of these 108 paintings have been reproduced together. Given how long ago they were painted, and their beauty (surely, they would have made for a great pop children’s book) it is strange that nobody has attempted this collection before. These paintings were donated to a temple in 1516 and were not seen again before Harvard acquired it in 1957. The paintings are a bit postmodern in style, as they have some broken lines and strange perspectives. Some of the more standard Japanese art I have seen have much crisper lines and focus only on the main figures, but these images reproduce little flowers in gardens and display wrinkles in some of the characters’ faces. Some of this makes me question if there’s a chance this collection is a set of forgeries. It’s very strange that nobody has made note of it across so many centuries before it surfaced, and that nobody published these until now, and the style kind of reflects mid-twentieth century American art… But, I’m sure they’ve run the tests on these pages to date them properly. The book is elegantly designed, printed and put together. A cloth bookmark with gilded edges to remember a page one is on is particularly elegant; I miss these types of little bookmarks; I think this is the first I’ve seen in a book I’m reviewing in the last 100 books or more. The versions of the poems from the novel in English, transcribed in English in Japanese sounds, and then in the original Japanese (positioned in vertical stacks as in the original) are all very thoughtfully done. The commentary and summaries from the novel should help those who are taking a course on this novel to digest what it is about, and the relevant background. For example, near the end there is a description of a procession where Niou ignores the sisters, “even though they have been told to prepare for the prince’s visit”; this humiliates them. “Oigimi had already been doubtful of Niou’s intentions, but this indignity shames her to the core. She wants nothing more than to disappear, a goal she finally accomplishes by the end of the chapter when she loses all will to live and simply stops eating…” (211). If you want to find out what happens next, I guess you will have to read the novel or pick up a copy of this book. This book will benefit any library’s collection, as lacking these works of art or the first of all novels is a serious deficiency.

A Multi-Science Explanation of Humanity

William B. Irvine. You: A Natural History. $27.95. 232pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-19-08699-9. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


This is an attempt to explain the science of what humans are in a single book. From the evolutionary perspective, this book explains our placement on the tree as Homo sapiens. “According to microbiologists, you are a collection of cells… A geneticist… will think of you primarily as a gene-replication machine… A physicist…: you can best be understood as a collection of atoms… Some have been around since the Big Bang, and others are the result of nuclear fusion that took place within a star. Not only that, but most of your atoms belonged to other living things before joining you.” Everything from tiny battles between microbes to climate change in African savannas is explained as relevant to the creation of every single human being. The author who put all this together is William B. Irvine, a professor of philosophy at Wright State University. The book is broken into four parts on human’s evolutionary tree, cells, atoms, and the larger cosmic or universal scale of where we come from. I requested this book because I am researching evolution and divergences between species to understand what alien species on other planets might be like. But this isn’t really what I expected. It isn’t a science book that explains each of these subjects in textbook-details, but rather it is a philosophical reflection on the nature of these things to explain how all people are related to each other and pretty much to all of the other stars in the universe. Looking at all things (living or not) from the perspective of interconnection is intended to illicit sympathy for the world and curiosity in places outside our solar system. If we can see the family relations to all humans on this planet, perhaps there would be fewer wars between us. While this is a grand goal, and there are many curios revelations throughout about the amino acids and other bits life on earth shares and the like, there are too many digressions and repetitions. For example: “You can move? It is because your motor-protein molecules can move. You can see?…” (69) Why this repetition of the questions and then brief explanation of its relation to proteins? There are several questions that “you might wonder” about on nearly every page (93). While occasional questions should be helpful, the indicate a lack of flow or a lack of clear organization and movement in the related arguments. A textbook would be too busy relating a new block of relevant information to stop and ask what the reader might be wondering about. Then, there are references to “cosmic dust bunnies”… that become clumps, before becoming planetesimals… (147). Since I’m working on creating a space novel, and I plan on discussing similarly how planets form, I can’t find fault with a description like this one, but the term “bunnies” doesn’t really belong in this scientific summary, and long-winded digressions about the universe like this are really better suited for fiction. Then again, maybe philosophy isn’t science or political science, and it is some times necessary for a philosopher to digress about random interconnections to arrive at philosophical truths. Either way, it’s all rapidly going somewhere, even if the direction is winding and confusing. If you enjoy convoluted philosophy that is going to surprise you, this book is for you.

Required Philosophical Reading

Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Victor Gourevitch, editor/ translator. Rousseau: The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, Second Edition: Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. 348pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-1-316-60544-8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.


There is nothing more enjoyable than reading Rousseau’s philosophy because it compresses solutions to the world’s problems into a few pages in a way that remains relevant across the centuries. This is an anthology of his later works, including Political Economy, The Social Contract, Considerations on the Government of Poland, and The Right of War, and some of his more interesting letters. I read The Social Contract back in high school philosophy class, and it had a lasting impact on my personal philosophy and perception of world events. Its power was appreciated in a different light when it was released, as it “was condemned on publication by both the civil and the ecclesiastical authorities in France as well as in Geneva, and warrants for its author’s arrest were issued. Rousseau was forced to flee.” I doubt I read the first of these Cambridge editions back in 1998, but I think I would have understood the text better if I did read this version with its detailed introduction and notes; as it stood, I had to figure out its context and meanings on my own in the barely annotated version I encountered. I remember slowly reading this work and trying to comprehend to what real or imaginary social contract it was referring to. The idea that humans sign this contract as they enter society, agreeing to behave according to its rules is different from the idea that laws and courts sway behavior. The subtitle is “Principles of Political Right”, and this notion was very radical for the period; monarchs and not people had political rights in Rousseau’s day. I was fascinated with the idea of the “general will” that Rousseau argues is “always upright and always tends to the public utility.” Individual people can fail to see what is “good”, but not all people in common. He explains that through the “vote” people will always choose what is “good”, but not if political “factions, partial associations” and other dividing entities fracture this ability to choose and manipulate it towards the will of the few. In other words, this is an argument against America’s current problems with the vote being decided by the Electoral College or between two flawed parties, instead of leaving the choice of leaders and laws entirely up to the “adequately informed people” and their deliberation (61-2). In his own day, the vote, in general, was highly controversial, as were most of the other revolutionary concepts he works through. Another touchy subject Rousseau hits on is slavery, arguing: “the right to slavery is null, not only because it is illegitimate, but because it is absurd and meaningless. The words slavery and right are contradictory; they are mutually exclusive” (50). Not only this work on the social contract, but all of the texts included in this collection hold brilliant revelations, for example, in one of the letters in the last section, to Usteri on July 18, 1763, Rousseau hits on a point I raised at the start of this review: “political and civil Societies… are purely human establishments… nothing but men’s vices make these establishments necessary, and nothing but human passions preserve them. Take away all vices… they will no longer need magistrates or laws” (271). Laws and courts are only necessary because individual people make bad decisions that obey their vice-laden instincts. I don’t know if Rousseau would have found a publisher even today willing to be subjected to the media’s censorship of these ideas; given our current vice-rich climate, most of this book can be applied to the present without loss of meaning from lack of content. I hope it will be taught in many more high school classes and not just in AP or philosophy electives. Maybe we would all be moving towards the educated good decisions if we considered what is absurd and illogical in our political actions.

Political Philosophy for Intellectuals

Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Victor Gourevitch, editor/ translator. Rousseau: The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, Second Edition: Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. 456pp, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-1-316-60544-7. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.


This collection includes Rousseau’s early writings, which are a bit less solidified and less radical than his later ideas, but similarly include plenty of valuable nuggets of wisdom. This set includes Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality Among Men, and Rousseau’s detailed replies to the criticisms he received on these works. Other texts supplied are the Essay on the Origin of Language, the Letter to Voltaire on Providence, the Discourse on Heroic Virtue, and Idea of the Method in the Composition of a Book. “The American and the French Revolutions were profoundly affected by his thought, as were Romanticism and Idealism. Both of these collections were edited by Victor Gourevitch, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Wesleyan University. I stopped to read the Composition of a Book essay in its entirety, since it’s particularly relevant to this attempt to write a set of reviews. While I wish every word Rousseau ever wrote was relevant to exact problems I might be trying to solve, this would necessitate a personal philosopher who I might hire to answer my queries; since Rousseau’s been dead for a few centuries, he cannot be expected to have looked so far into the future to understand my challenges. Many people give up on reading philosophy because a light reading of even the best treatise can fail to penetrate its deeper lessons. Reading philosophy is a time-consuming effort for anybody who wants to harvest its fruits, as frequently we have to put in work and write our own little internal or external commentary, interpreting the ideas before us and applying them to our own situations. The essay on book composition mostly does not address the space novel or the non-fiction computational linguistics essay that I am currently working on. Rousseau does not really name the type of book he is referring to, but the notes he does make about genre suggest that he is talking about writing political philosophy similar to his own treatises. It starts out with a basic principle, or that a book’s organization has to be set up to be “best suited to convince and to please” (311). Then, he argues that a writer must have “perfect knowledge of one’s materials” to write a good book. Then the argument becomes a bit convoluted, as a few general laws of proper composition are considered. For me it emerges again into clarity with this summary: “The books of philosophers are full of Laws and maxims about… two general methods. One, which they call synthesis or method of composition, by which one proceeds from the simple to the composite and which is used to teach others what one oneself knows; the other, which they call Analysis or method of resolution, and which one uses to learn what one does not know…” (312). This is a simple summary, but it suggests many ideas on how one might convince readers by introducing research one has gathered as opposed to explaining entirely new research or inventing a new world and analyzing it through logic (rather than citations of other sources). The final idea in this essay is to end works right after the climax, without a drawn-out conclusion, thus allowing “the reader” to draw their own “conclusion” (316). I’m not sure if other critics suggested leaving a story just post-climax before Rousseau, but since he’s not known for his rhetorical theories, it is a sign of a powerful writer that he has included so much good advice in this short essay. It is more fruitful to come to Rousseau’s philosophy with a pre-existing question, and searching for the right essay to address this narrow question. But a casual reader who opens one of these collections on a random page should be inspired by the power of Rousseau’s intellect and would gain some new knowledge of the nature of world (in any paragraph one stumbles upon).

Horror for the Intelligentsia

Darryl Jones, editor. Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson: Oxford World’s Classics. $12.95. 510pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-968544-8. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


Modern horror movies are nauseating because they attempt to frighten by repeating the same formulas: a knife in a shower scene, footsteps in a seemingly empty parking garage, or a girl running through a lightly wooded forest. The audience knows what is going to come next: each of the supporting actors and actresses will be killed until the heroine or hero remains, who is going to turn around and kill the killer. A fan of this genre is not likely to actually feel any horror as they would be desensitized to this pattern after the first few films. The pumping music and the excitement of extreme violence or sex might keep the heart pumping, but an audience of fans might be smiling or grinning more than they would be frowning with fright. The genre of horror has been disintegrating into these repetitions since its peak shortly after its founding in the nineteenth century. Unlike these silly modern attempts, Poe’s horror stories not only manage to actually horrify readers with their shocking endings and engaging descriptions, but they also have the mastery for readers to find new brilliant bits of classical literature with every return. Poe can teach writers about suspense, emotional manipulation, misleading clues, and unique setting descriptions. Whenever I’m stuck in my writing, I open a book of Poe’s short horror stories and read a bit, and suddenly I find a new way to tell my own story. It’s easy for a writer to slip into describing only what a scene looks like, or what the characters did, but horror writers like Poe are entirely focused on making readers feel the intended emotions as they read a description. Poe’s psychological first-person monologues really put readers into the minds of psychopaths in ways that no POV in a movie could muster. The same traits I admire in Poe are shared by the other horror writers in this collection. They include: “ghost stories, the supernatural and psychological horror, medical and scientific horror, colonial horror, and tales of the uncanny and precognition.” The editor, Darryl Jones (professor at Trinity College Dublin), has included an introduction and notes that explain how these stories stand out from average horror, and how they also represent the formula for the horror genre that has been copied in a diluted form through the present day. Many of these are classics (and are hardly even called horrors among literary critics), including Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall Paper”. Most have titles that are recognizable as horrors because they have been recreated in popular films including: “The Sandman” (E. T. A. Hoffmann), “The Body-Snatcher” (Robert Louis Stevenson), “The Mark of the Beast” (Rudyard Kipling), and “Chickamauga” (Ambrose Bierce). Other works are of interest because of the standing of their authors: Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Honore de Balzac. As the editor warns, most great writers from the nineteenth century attempted dabbling in the horror genre. But then again, when this genre is expanded to included everything from medical to psychological horror, it might really engulf the tragic half of world’s literature (as opposed to the comedic half that shares happy endings). Tragedy is perhaps what’s missing from the pop film versions of horror, as stories end happily with the hero’s triumph over the murderer, instead of allowing an audience to feel true horror and sadness of a miserable end for all. It’s hardly all positive, as a good deal of these stories rely on earlier gothic horror tricks like these from Stevenson: “they were rewarded by a dull rattle of the coffin lid. At the same moment Macfarlane, having hurt his hand upon a stone, flung it carelessly above his head…. The night fell upon them; sounds alternately dull and ringing announced the bounding of the lantern down the bank… naught was to be heard except the rain, now marching to the wind, now steadily falling over miles of open country” (205). Playing with sound, silence, light, graveyards and the like is all pretty anti-literary, but the rhythm of this description, and the layers of meaning given to the events aside from these tricks distinguish these stories above regular horrors that stop at saying there was a creepy noise or a frightful shadow. Poe stands out from even these great works, as evident from the opening paragraph of his “Berenice—A Tale”: “Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform… How is it that from Beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness?—from the covenant of Peace a smile of sorrow? But thus is it. And as, in ethics, Evil is a consequence of Good, so, in fact, out of Joy is sorrow born. Either the memory of past bliss is the anguish of to-day, or the agonies which are, have their origin in the ecstasies which might have been. I have a tale to tell in its own essence rife with horror—I would suppress it were it not a record more of feelings than of facts” (67). Poe is summarizing just what I have been trying to say about the significance of horror as a genre not because it frightens, but because it allows authors to display extreme depths of feelings. Misery and tragedy have more dimensions than happiness and comedy; horror paints a more intense scene or portrait. Given the popularity of supposedly horrifying scenes in popular culture, most of the public can benefit from exploring these roots of the genre to become better critics of the horrors they are regularly hit with.

A Truly Short Guide to Modern Architecture

Adam Sharr. Modern Architecture: A Very Short Introduction. $11.95. 166pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-878344-2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


I did not know just how tiny this book would be when I requested one of these A Very Short Introduction series texts. It’s the size of my hand in length. Here’s a summary of this particular little guide on architecture: “Somewhere between 1910 and 1970, architecture changed. Expensive buildings were transformed from ornamental fancies into strikingly plain reflections of novel materials, functions, and technologies. Modern architecture promised the transformation of cities from overcrowded conurbations to spacious realms of generous housing and clean mechanized production set in parkland. Adam Sharr tells the story of how modern architecture developed and produced its powerful cultural images, and considers the new building materials and techniques which shaped modern buildings such as innovations in steel and concrete, and the advent of electric light and air conditioning. He concludes by asking whether contemporary architecture still remains fundamentally modern.” When I first took an art history class back in college, I was stunned by the modernist movement and its architecture. But as I put together my own tiny house a year ago, I realized a few likely truths about this movement. There is an old, long wooden house that used to belong to a school directly behind my house that makes up half of the view out of the window facing me whenever I sit at my computer to write. A few people have asked me about it when they see it in photos of my house. I have started telling everybody that it is “disheveled wood” that I am using to contradict it with the clean simple fresh-wood lines of my house. Why do I say this? Because saying that I could only buy a piece of land in a dumping ground of old falling-apart buildings would not be very cool or socially acceptable. And a good deal of rich people is spending millions on houses and place this kind of distressed wood prominently as tables or walls in their enormous ultra-modern-equipment kitchens. Another revelation was that builders use “modern” simplicity of materials as an excuse to sell cheap products at a higher price. Builders are only interested in the difference between how much raw materials cost and how much a developer or a buyer is willing to pay for the finished product; the greater the difference between the two, the higher the profit. Thus, I have come to the conclusion that the movement for clean lines, and the subtraction of ornaments has helped the bottom line of architects, while costing consumers of this architecture in lost artistic innovations. My answer to the question proposed on the cover is that this type of architecture is no longer “modern”, and that architects need to go beyond it to find new ways to use environmentally friendly materials without sacrificing the craft or skill involved in truly innovative or really inventive of new ornaments and shapes design. While I disagree with the philosophy of simple, repeating shapes and the promotion of empty unutilized space, there are many ideas in this book that have not been popularized in this general trend that might be sources of inspiration for new directions in truly modern (or at the edge of innovation) architecture. For example, there is a discussion of Ebeneezer Howard’s “Garden Cities of To-morrow” 1898 proposal or the unrealized Ville Contemporaine (1922) with “cruciform towers built from mass-produced parts” (68-9). The book is divided into parts that describe the sub-movements in this field, like the International Style, Le Corbusier, as well as sections on the ethics of architectural production. A curious section is on how a “reinforced concrete entrepreneur” like Francois Hennebique managed to sell this concept as superior among the various other building methods available to builders (48). The book’s chapters are divided into iron and steel, reinforced concrete, brick and the less material-centric “light and air”. Black and white photographs throughout demonstrate the main subjects under discussion. Anybody who is about to build a “modern-style” house or building should at least read this introduction to understand the philosophy and materials it is propagating; as going into it just because an architect told you to do it would go against your best interests.

Advanced Physics for Growing Experts

Robert L. Jaffe and Washington Taylor. The Physics of Energy. 874pp, images. ISBN: 978-1-107-01665-1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.


If I ever need to reinvent the lightbulb, I am going to return to trying to read this book. I anticipated that it would be much lighter on the science. But, I’m sure it will not disappoint the physicists that come to it searching for the latest solutions to their most challenging problems. There are plenty of simplistic books out there that lightly touch on basic physics, but any scientist that wants to take science to the next level or to the next new discovery needs a book like this one that begins where the most advanced undergraduate textbooks end. Its 900 pages are full of formulas and concepts that test the limits of human knowledge. The “Introduction” jumps into the thick of the subject without much preliminary pondering about the nature of the universe. There is actually a picture of lightbulbs in this introduction, but the key part of this term is the plural element, as the image is showing three lightbulbs (incandescent, LED and fluorescent) to demonstrate the same output of energy as visible light, but drawing different amounts of electric current (16-100 W) (8). The entire US energy grid by its sources and utilization is demonstrated in a complex diagram that I’ve never seen before, which shows how solar, nuclear, coal, petroleum and other sources intermingle across the grid and go to different uses, with 66.4% of it is all together “rejected” and unused (4). These are the introductions, and then the discussion focuses on specific solutions, like the Geothermal Carno Engine, with several formulas used to explain how it works and how to calculate its energy output and other components (194). Some of the chapter titles or subjects covered are: mechanical energy, electromagnetic energy, waves, light, thermodynamics, heat transfer, quantum physics, energy in matter, internal combustion, various energy sources, and energy system issues and externalities (storage, efficiency). The comparatively short back cover summary explains that this book asks: “What energy sources can be used to power human activity in future years? How can these sources be harnessed and what are their advantages and disadvantages? At a more fundamental level, what exactly is energy? And why are some forms of energy so much more useful than others?” Any mechanic as well as a professor physicist will find some ideas that might be applied to the real world in this multi-disciplinary and multi-directional textbook on this seemingly narrow subject that expands as the authors, Robert L. Jaffe (chair of Physics at MIT) and Washington Taylor (Physics professor at MIT), look closely at it.

How to Bioengineer a World (If You Can Understand the Directions)

Andreas Hofmann and Samuel Clokie, editors. Wilson and Walker’s Principles and Techniques of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Eighth Edition. 930pp, images. ISBN: 978-1-316-61476-1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.


This is another book that I underestimated. It is definitely not suitable for a general reader. It is only fit for advanced undergraduate and primarily for advanced graduate classes, and it can probably only be fully exploited by biochemical researchers who are already practicing in a research lab in this field. This book sets out to “provide a one-stop introduction to the key experimental techniques from across the biosciences. It covers both the methods students will encounter in their classes and those that underpin recent advances and discoveries, uniquely integrating the theories and practices that drive the fields of biology, biotechnology and medicine.” The book is written by Andreas Hofmann (Structural Chemistry Program Leader at Griffith University) and Samuel Clokie (Principal Bioinformatician at the Birmingham Women’s and Children’s Hospital). I started trying to read this book with the hope that it might help my space novel, but had to put it aside even one of the easiest section herein, “1.4. Personal Qualities and Scientific Conduct”, which offered such lessons as maintaining stamina even if an “experimental series” becomes “repetitive,” or not falling “into the trap of boredom”, a condition that can make a researcher “negligent.” Maybe it was something about this reference to boredom that made me stop reading this book on this page. But I did read it to the end of the section, benefiting from learning that I have to assess my “potential conflicts of interest”, as well as be respectful of “confidentiality and privacy” of other researchers, and follow “intellectual property” rules to avoid potential “credit” conflicts, and finally the importance of “sharing… resources, methodologies, knowledge and skills” (5-6). I put a pen here with the intention of returning to read more. But maybe I would have kept reading if the discussion about not being prideful and allowing senior researchers to take credit even if a new researcher might have done the bulk of an experiment and its writeup started hitting my own opposing viewpoints. I would have preferred a section that stressed that credit should lie with whoever does the work, and that criticized anybody engaging in plagiarism. The note about sharing knowledge seems to almost argue against taking offense at plagiarism of one’s knowledge. I’m just glad I didn’t end up in bio-chemical science, not only because this textbook is incredibly difficult to dissect (and every word must be comprehended to avoid a catastrophic explosion in a lab), but also because working closely with others and sharing credit would have been a pain in my thigh. I’m just glad I can write a review like this one on my own, putting bits that belong to others in quotations, and leaving the overall credit to myself alone. About the book: I cannot judge it fairly and should not be trusted to do so. But, as far as I can tell, it’s a book that is at the cusp of current research, and is likely to inspire biochemists in the coming years to birth new discoveries.

Helpful Guide for Anybody Starting a Nonprofit

Stan Hutton, Frances N. Phillips. Nonprofit Kit for Dummies, 5th Edition. ISBN: 978-1-119280088. New York: Wiley, 2018.


I requested this and Garry’s book on nonprofits because I was planning on incorporate and start a non-profit publishing organization to add to my for-profit publishing business, but since I was just accepted onto a GSA schedule, I have to put this off for a later day, maybe next year. This book will be helpful when this day comes, as filling out all of the paperwork and making all those decisions about how to structure and run a nonprofit is daunting without some help. My local librarian told me that they don’t have any books on nonprofits because if anybody in Quanah wants to create one, they’d typically seek help from a lawyer rather than diving into all this legal-speak. As I started reading this book, I realized that there really is a lot I don’t understand about nonprofits. For example, it begins by explaining that a for-profit distributes the profits to shareholders, while a nonprofit has to reinvest into the venture, anything left over after expenses are covered. This explains the high salaries some nonprofit leaders pay themselves; if they don’t pay themselves these rates, they can’t take the money out just because they hold shares in the business. Later on, the author specifies that a staff member can be paid $100,000 in a nonprofit with a $5 million budget, but this same salary would raise eyebrows in the IRS if the budget was $125,000. Since I have seen troubling nonprofits in the news, this explanation eases my mind about what is an acceptable salary for an executive (like myself). I wish every page of this book was equally informative, but then it digresses into inspiring volunteers and other less tangible matters. Skipping to Chapter 2 did bring about some new revelations like that I would have to file an annual report with the IRS of some complexity after forming a nonprofit. I also learned that it might take the IRS 27 months to approve the tax-exemption status, meaning that the first couple of years should be pretty uneventful as I wouldn’t be able to apply for grants and the like without this status. Also, apparently, I would not own a nonprofit I would start, in the sense of being able to sell it; though it can be given away to another person who would continue running it. Chapter 4 does a great job of exploring the exact steps to take when starting a nonprofit, which are more convoluted than starting other types of businesses. A major surprise here is that there is an annual $850 fee for filing Form 1023 with the IRS if revenue is over $10,000 or $400 if under this amount. I am familiar with fees for filing to become a nonprofit, but this much annually—it’s almost a 10% tax is a business makes a bit over $10,000. Maybe I am misunderstanding something here; I’d have to do more research. Overall, this is an extremely handy guide that all who plan to start a nonprofit should browse before jumping into it, and check while they are in the midst of it.

Cheering Ideas on Success in Running Nonprofits

Joan Garry. Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership: Because Nonprofits Are Messy. ISBN: 978-1-119293101. New York: Wiley, 2018.


This is far from my favorite type of book, regardless of the subject it is covering. I might have requested every book Wiley had with the word nonprofit in it, forgetting my aversion to this particular type. Basically, chapter titles and subtitles explain my aversion: “The Superpowers of Nonprofit Leadership”, or “You’re Not on Top of Anything”. Superpowers? Those coming across this book are likely to need very real information and not supernatural assistance. And pessimistic predictions of doom via failing to be aware of the state of one’s nonprofit are hardly helpful. As I predicted, the “Introduction” begins thus: “I could have killed my development director…” She goes on to say she didn’t mean it this way, but I’m concerned. She goes on to describe an anecdote that has to do with this director, money and time were wasted. Then, the next section jumps into a discussion of MTV music videos. As if the author read my mind, “Chapter 1: The Superpowers” begins with a cartoon of a man in a superhero costume in a therapist’s office, asking if he could spy on an Executive meeting. This explains that the superhero bit is intended as a joke, but it just isn’t funny in a positive way for somebody who is desperately browsing this book for practical ideas rather than inspiration. On the other hand, if somebody picks this book up as summer reading, akin to a romance novel, they would surely be very amused by all this. This chapter concludes by saying that the real superpower is in “developing your core attributes in addition to skills”. There is hardly much of a difference between these two. Somebody starting a non-profit would be dealing with employees who refuse to work, are harassing, lie, and potentially defraud the company out of most of its money… Leadership in this sense is something very real and failing to know how to lead employees out of these errors can have legal and not only financial consequences… Given the heaviness of the burden of the touchy area of non-profit leadership… anybody setting out on this quest already has all the attributes and skills they can possibly need… now they need a book that can skip over what they already know and teach them how to overcome the problems they don’t yet know they are going to have—that would be a real superpower. A section on choosing the right board chair concludes with several possible problem scenarios where the chair might hit on secretaries/ subordinates in the office. So, if you’re reading this review, and thinking, “Yes, this book sounds like a hilarious read”, go for it, jump right in. If you’re as annoyed by all this as I am, navigate to the Dummies nonprofit guide also from Wiley or another more practical source.

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