Book Reviews: Summer 2016

By: Anna Faktorovich, PhD

Non-Fiction

A Curious Study of Malpractice in the Assassinations of U.S. Presidents

*****

Fred Rosen. Murdering the President: Alexander Graham Bell and the Race to Save James Garfield. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press: Potomac Books, September 1, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-61234-768-4. $27.95. 248pp. 5.5X8.5”. 11 illustrations.

 

This book found me at the right moment, just as I was researching the strange deaths of author-publishers such as Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Sir Walter Scott and Virginia Woolf. In their cases, mind-altering drugs, including mercury and arsenic, were given together with bleedings, teeth extractions, blisterings and other tortures that contributed to their deaths. The cases described in this study are more sinister and are supported by detailed records. Fred Rosen crafts a mystery novel structure as he begins with the suspicious malpractice-related death of a president at the turn of the twentieth century before moving decades backwards and then gradually relating the assassination attempt on President James Garfield that failed to kill him from the impact. Alexander Graham Bell was working feverishly to create the first x-ray machine to help find the bullet still lounged in the president, but meanwhile a physician stepped in that chopped up the president’s insides deliberately, and still failed to find the bullet, meanwhile sabotaging Bell’s experiment to prevent him from using the x-ray machine to locate it. Afterwards, this physician shot meat, eggs and blood up President Garfield’s anus as a cure for his lack of appetite to feed him from the other direction, thus eventually causing Garfield’s slow and painful death. This physician remained unpunished and complained to Congress about the average payment he received for the months he spent torturing the President, because he expected to make significantly more to make up for abandoning his practice for the duration. Anybody that has ever wondered if their physician might have malevolent profit or psychotic motivations for performing harmful procedures should read this book. It is not meant for malpractice lawyers because it lingers too casually over the details of the story, rather than debating the merits of a potential lawsuit. It is a unique history of a dramatic moment and presents sufficient evidence to convince readers that a great wrong has gone unpunished.

 

 

A Colorful and Mesmerizing Book About the Weird

 

 

Dean Miller, Jessica Firpi, Wendy A. Reynolds, M.S.Ed, eds. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Unlock the Weird. Orlando: Ripley Publishing, a Jim Pattison Company, September 2016. ISBN: 978-1-60991-165-2. $28.95. 9X11.75”. 256pp.

 

*****

 

This book hypnotized me as I walked by it at Ripley’s ALA exhibit. I had asked for a review copy of one of their latest released when I was doing an interview with their Vice President of Exhibits and Archives, Edward Meyer, before the event. I was only able to get one of their books from decades ago through Pines library loan, and it was, as I expected very different from this new version. At the time the two girls exhibiting the books told me that they could not give me one of the eye-catching display copies, even on the last day and at the last hour of the exhibit. Then, they mailed a copy to me around a week after I returned home. When I say the cover is hypnotizing, I mean literally, as there are three giant, bloodshot eyeballs on it that move, gradually following a person walking by. The title is echoed in a series of chains that these eyeballs are sitting on. The cover is a bright green and the words are extruding from the page, so that even a blind person might have noticed it even from many feet away. Obviously the low price can only be explained by the fact that it was printed in China by Leo Paper. A US printer, would’ve charged at least twice more for this full-color, complex creation.

The press release that came with the book mentioned some curious stand-out stories from this collection. One is about a man climbing the Swiss Alps “on all fours as a goat,” using extensions that allowed him to really take the posture and other advantages that sheep have when climbing mountains. He joined a herd of goats for this climb. The eyeballs on the cover make more sense when the issue includes the story of Birdman Ted Richards, “who had his ears removed and his face and eyeballs tattooed to look like his pet parrots!” While I have studied Irish and Scottish culture a good deal during my PhD research, I never came across the Irish event of “sheep dung spitting.”

This book opens with what I believe is an unusual element in this series, a history of some of Robert Ripley’s achievements, perhaps in honor of close to a hundred years since Ripley started what is now a major franchise. The history includes one of Ripley’s only color paintings of a Chinese ship “rebuilt from an 1890s cargo junk,” which Ripley then sailed all the way to a private New York island, but then it sold at his estate sale in 1949 for only $5,500, so it has not been retained in the Ripley empire (6-7). In my interview, I asked Meyer about sword-swallowers, and they were featured in this introduction as well, with a note about the February 27, 2016 Ripley’s “big swallow” event in Orlando that was a part of the Sword Swallowers Day, wherein 17 swords were swallowed among seven swallowers (10-11). These pages are also filled with invitations for readers to send in their ideas and projects to possibly be included in a future book, exhibit or the like, so those who are up to something weird, should look at Ripley’s website and send something in.

I also asked about the two-trunked elephant in the interview, and I guess they have a lot of similar animal mutation abnormalities in their books and exhibits, because this issue includes a photo of a mountain lion with a set of extra fangs at the back of his head (20). And I asked about the shrunken human heads, and found a curious variation on this theme: the Toraja Corpse Cleaning Ritual, wherein families dig up their elders, clean them up and parade them around town. The story includes a dramatic photo of an Indonesian man adjusting an elaborate native hat onto a male corpse in glasses, while the female corpse in a similar outfit stands by his side. Digging up and displaying the remains of ancestors is a normal part of some cultures, and this helps to explain why shrunken heads are such a commonplace and popular exhibit in Ripley’s museums (24).

Many of these stories are fantastic news articles, like the parents in March, 2015 who passed cheat sheets to their children in Bihar India to help them pass the 10th-grade examination mandatory for continuing their education, leading to 600 students being expelled, after the police had to detain these crazed parents. The photo of the parents climbing up to first through fourth floor windows is amazing, and this is a great symbol for the world’s cheating tendencies.

There are also numerous x-rays of a horn in a woman’s head, scissors in a man’s skull, as well as photographs of a baby without a nose, a woman with a foot-knee, or an inversed foot, and an 8.8 foot long man in Thailand. The scientific details and precise records make the evidence presented more believable and less grotesque than the older Ripley’s issue I found in the library.

It was entertaining to browse casually through this book cover-to-cover, and it was better than watching several episodes of Discovery Channel’s shows on unusual animals and other oddities, and that’s saying something for me. I would recommend subscribing to this annual series to all public libraries. It’s odd that the Pines system in Georgia hardly has any of the last twenty or so of these great books, and most library visitors are only exposed to older versions that pale in comparison to this color pallet. I doubt somebody can use this book for scientific research, but even a scientist should find something inspiring and surprising.

 

 

The Laws of Web Design

 

 

Jason Beaird and James George. The Principles of Beautiful Web Design, Third Edition. Collingwood (Australia): SitePoint Pty Ltd, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-9922794-4-8. $39.95. 194pp.

 

****

 

This is a better book than some of the other web design how-to books I have reviewed. It discusses some of the basics that are taught in a college design program, rather than only the concepts utilized by self-taught web designers. It also offers better visual representations of these concepts, whereas some other books only use clipped websites. The writers created original content for some of the concepts that fit with their exact arguments. One image that’s memorable is a giant drawing of a monkey in the middle of a photograph of a city to demonstrate proportion: “If we place an object in an environment that’s of smaller scale than the object itself, that object will appear larger than it does in real life, and vica versa. This difference in proportion draws viewers’ attention to the object, as it seems out of place in that context” (27-8). The book is full of helpful advice like this. One drawback is that the bulk of the discussion is irrelevant for somebody working with a standard WordPress or the like template, as it’s difficult to tilt headers or change the color scheme in these boundaries. The primary audience is a web developer that is starting from scratch on a blank page.

The book is separated into sections on “layout and composition,” “color,” “texture,” “typography,” and “imagery.” On the layout side, there are explanations about the “grid theory” or the “rule of thirds,” which is the reason most website templates have three columns that can hold text or have a double column on one side and then a third of the width column at the other side. I have had difficulty understanding the “balance” concept, and I wish it was explained better here. The approach used is that when an image is balanced, especially when it’s asymmetrically balanced, it simply looks like it is. The authors demonstrate with a picture of a giant flamingo on one side of the page and a series of small flamingos at the bottom and then other elements higher up that appear to be randomly scattered. They note that if one of the elements were to be taken away, the remaining picture would lack balance. But, creating two mirror images as the background of a website, while it might be perfectly balanced, is hardly the most appealing or the best design. Then again, if this book went into calculations of balance, I probably would not have felt that it’s worth it to go into these details, as it’s too time consuming for what these calculations could contribute.

I also wished that there were more free, public domain image, graphics and other element finding ideas. Most of the image sources described are from paid services, and there is even a section that strongly discourages using any free graphics in designs.

The “Psychology of Color” section was also confusing because it talked about all of the stereotypical associations with the primary and some secondary colors and many of these conflicted and made me doubt the color choices on my websites and book covers, without explaining how to fix potential problems. I mean, let’s say I am using a purple-blue background on my website, and I read here that purple stands for wealth and blue stands for a lack of appetite and calmness. Should I change the background to red to stress love and certainty instead?

I did make three notations on things I should try in my future designs. One was the html for the © sign: “©” – I just added it to the Anaphora website, as I realized that a copyrights notice is supposed to be included. I also made a note to check out FreeImages next time I am searching for free photos for covers. I usually use Pixabay, but I might find some additional ideas there. I’m not sure if they overlap. An initial search turned up some pretty good, quality photos and there are more ways to search through them, but Pixabay advertises having twice more images, and everything on that site is free, as opposed to the mix of free and “stock” or paid-for images. The last thing I really should try and haven’t attempted yet is masks. Beaird and George explain that they “used a vector image of a pair of kayakers as a mask around which to crop my original Saluda River picture” (178). What remains is the outline of two men in a boat, while this image is filled with a photograph of a river scene. This is frequently used to insert an image inside of text, as they also illustrate, instead of simply using a single-color or texture inside larger letters that are the focal point of a cover or website.

Overall, there is lots of practical advice here for designers, and I’m sure any designer will learn something new or inspiring if they browse this book, even if they have already gone through a design program. Beginning designers will probably want to experiment with these ideas, or they might be too abstract.

 

 

The First Steps to Programming Made Easy

 

 

Bryson Payne. Teach Your Kids to Code: A Parent-Friendly Guide to Python Programming. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2015. Aged 9+. ISBN: 978-1-59327-614-0. $29.95. 310pp.

 

***

 

I grabbed this book in the final hour of the exhibit. It was at a distribution booth, and the guy in charge told me to only take two books, while I had four. These also included a more complex book on hacking, the book on design, and another title. I was perplexed for a couple of minutes because while I would never have bought a book about coding or hacking nor even taken it out of a library, if this was going to be a free review copy, I could keep them on a shelf and browse through them as I got inspired. For example, recently I was watching a workshop on metadata via Ingram, and realized that I was supposed to be using html in book descriptions to make parts bold, italic and the like. So, when I saw these books, I could imagine that I am missing out on something by not learning how to code and do other technical things that even 9 year old children can do now-a-days. The organizer saw my frustration and let me take all four books.

The first thing I realized as I looked closer at this book at home is that it is specifically focused on Python, rather than C++. This made me wonder if this was not a practically applicable language, but I was happy to find this definition of it: “a simple, powerful programming language. Python is taught in introductory computer science courses in high school and college, and it’s used to run some of the most powerful apps in the world, including Gmail, Google Maps, and YouTube” (4). The next thing I learned is that it’s a free language that’s available for download at https://www.python.org/. The book recommends downloading Python 3, but since its release Python 3.5.2 has been released and this is the version I downloaded. It warned me that this newer version would not work on Windows XP or earlier. Right after this, the book jumps into the first program, wherein it asks users to prompt Python to say “Hello, world!” This is where I got a bit scared, not really of re-typing the phrase, print(“Hello, world!”), but of getting addicted to programming and spending the entire night on programming experiments, instead of writing these reviews. I previously was tricked into making an 7-minute movie when I was just trying to do a brief experiment with Flash, so I know I have that addicted to technology personality. But, if I ever decide to make an app, this will be the book I’ll look up and Python will already be on my computer. But, first I did try the “Hello, World!” program and it worked. It was much easier to use than I anticipated.

The next chapter looks at “turtle graphics,” or drawing with an imaginary turtle that moves across the screen according to the directions the programmer enters. Unlike drawing in Photoshop or Illustrator, this tool allows for the creation of mathematical images, such as a loop where the line keeps moving out by equal amounts in a continues left turn spiral. The same can be done with spirals. With the help of color and some complexity this tool can create modern art images that are precise to the dot. This would probably be very helpful in modern art building design, where the stairs or an oddly shaped roof has to end up at a specific point from a given start, but can have twists and turns that would be impossible to sketch by hand without calculus and probably not even with that. There’s also an explanation how Python can act as a basic calculator. There’s also a Caesar cipher creation explanation. I was just writing about the Beale treasure cypher that an NSA agent decoded and proofed to be a hoax with a program, but I guess all he needed to solve this cipher was this Caesar cipher tool in Python. The Caesar cipher is a simple cipher that uses two rings of letters, and to find the meaning of letters in one of them, you have to check the other (small or larger) one. To solve this cipher with a program, it has to shift a letter by a certain number of letters. Then, there’s the section on “counting cards”… Why would a nine-year-old need to count cards, and yet this is a fun intro to programming games. The sections on interactivity for apps and on bouncing and otherwise manipulating an animation in a game should help to make a usable program for a sellable app.

This is a great resource not only for kids, but also for adults that never learned basic programming when they were young, and now think about as some kind of a wizard-tongue only for the initiated. I would recommend only trying it when you have a few free weeks because otherwise you’re just building yourself up to be frustrated. All those fun apps I could be making… The next Facebook? How hard can a social media app be?… But I’ll move on to the next review.

 

 

Serious Lego Art

 

 

Nathan Sawaya. The Art of the Brick: A Life in Lego. San Francisco: No Starch Press, Inc., 2015. ISBN: 978-1-59327-588-4. $29.95. 248pp.

 

***

 

Nathan Sawaya is described on the flap as “the artist who first brought LEGO ® into the art world.” The front cover attracted my attention when I saw it on the shelf because it pictures the torso of a man who is ripping himself in half, all made out of Legos. I recently saw a video on YouTube of dancers falling apart, and tearing themselves apart with the help of high-tech animation, so this reminded me of that. When I looked closer and saw that this book is all about Legos, I was a bit taken back because I’m not really a fan of this art form, having outgrown it by ten or so. Then again, I’m including an interview in this summer issue of the Cinematic Codes Review with the Vice President of Ripley’s and he and the latest issue of their best-selling series featured paintings made out of gum balls, or other strange components, so using pop materials in art has been a best-selling trend for at least the last few decades. Thus, I think it’s important to take a look at these works to see how they compare with other modern and classical arts.

This high-quality paper and top-color book was obviously also printed in China to rival the other coffee-table books in this genre in relatively low price.

In the Preface, Sawaya explains that at an earlier time he was a “lawyer,” before he committed himself to the “obsession” of making Lego art. I assumed that after a brief Preface, the rest of the book would just be the museum-style series of his best work, but obviously he’s a lawyer, so he had to create text to explain these compositions and life in general. He begins by stressing that art is necessary and helps people fight psychological problems, in defense of the accusations levied against him when he traded the law for art. The preface is accompanied by a photo of him eating ice scream in front of one of his own giant Lego lion statues in front of a Romanesque building in the fuzzy background. I didn’t even notice this statue at first glance, and thought that he just used this as his artist photo. He explains later in the book these “Patience and Fortitude Lions” statues in detail, writing that he had been a fan of the New York Public Library since he was doing research at NYU back in 1991, and created these in honor of the library’s 100-year celebration. They mirror the giant classical statues of lions that stand at the edges of the sidewalk around the building. “For the hundred years of their existence, Patience and Fortitude had been an integral part of city life, witnessing innumerable parades, wearing Mets and Yankees caps… and standing strong in 100 million tourist photographs” (28-33). The statistic about the number of tourist photographs is clearly fictional, but this is inspirational. On the other hand, Sawaya had a chance to create an original work of art that might stand in front of that library for another hundred years. The guy who was offered that chance a hundred years earlier made the impenetrable and impossible to miss lions, and when the Library pretty much told Sawaya he could do whatever he wanted, he decided to do a joke mimicry of somebody else’s idea… I mean, it’s a funny idea, but will it still be funny a decade later or will somebody petition to take his Lego lions down? For example, will Lego be around in a hundred years, and if not, won’t the Legos become outdated with a reference? How long did it take him to make these lions? Could he have learned how to do stone work and designed a complex statue that would rival the lions in that span of time? Why was he approached instead of somebody that could make the next David? I don’t know if these lions make him happy, but they make me pretty sad.

A better joke is the “Red Dress” project wherein he was solicited to create a dress out of Legos that would be put on a live model for Dean West, an Australian photographer, to photograph her in the rain outside an abandoned theater, as if waiting desperately, all dressed up, for a date that didn’t show up. There are other photos in this series, which also includes a Lego umbrella a man is holding and other innovative components. Sawaya explains that the process of working with another artist took him out of his comfort zone: “over the course of several years, I found myself driving thousands of Nevada miles to find the precise kind of fencing he wanted… and taking photos of a Los Angeles storefront at four in the morning because we couldn’t afford the official permits.” What confuses me about this project is how they could dedicate so much time and effort into it without any funding or a buyer that was willing to take the finished pieces off their hands. I guess they were just doing this for fun and for the sake of art, and that’s noteworthy (36-45).

Another ridiculous project is the Hugman: “…I’ve made dozens, maybe hundreds, of Hugmen and left them all around the world wherever I happen to be” (58). Some of these are giant tree-huggers, while others are tiny huggers around iron fences. In all cases it’s a man who is hugging something, adjusted for the proportions and location of the hugged object. I’ve never seen these guys in any city, so perhaps somebody tosses some of the little guys in the trash during regular city street clean-up hours…

A more serious project is an enormous “Blood and Blubber Dinosaur” that was developed after his first and extremely successful solo exhibition in April of 2007 at the Lancaster Museum of Art in an Amish town in Pennsylvania. Because he had 25,000 visitors in six weeks, he committed and spent three month creating the dinosaur which sold to a natural history museum. It’s technically more impressive because it has a lot of hanging parts and complex movements, unlike some of his human statutes that take simpler positions and have less bones or other elements sticking out.

Any kid that’s playing with Legos should read this book for inspiration and give creative Legoing a try. The joke is pretty tragic when he brings in all the other Lego artists, all creating these simplistic mimicries of art. I was hoping I would be convinced that Sawaya is taking steps in a radical artistic direction, but I was disappointed. Still, as a book about modern art, it’s pretty good because here is an artist describing his craft and art in great detail, and with some good humor. There should be more works like this by modern artists that draw circles and squares and sell this stuff for millions.

 

 

A Grammar Book for Those Who Want to Learn Even If They Don’t Have to

 

 

Christine A. Hult. The Handy English Grammar Answer Book. Canton (MI): Visible Ink Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-57859-520-4. $21.95. Language Arts. 420pp.

 

***

 

This book breaks the usual formula for English grammar books I have used previously in my composition classes, but it can theoretically be used for this purpose according to the Introduction and its content. One example of this break is how most sections start with a question, rather than with the topic being covered. “How do I use commas correctly in addresses?” (83) “How do I decide whether an Internet source is reliable?” (159) The table of contents is short and does not include all of these short sections, so it would be pretty difficult for a student to figure out which part of the chapter might answer a given question without reading all of them, and sadly most students opt to avoid reading when this is the only alternative. The contents primarily broadly divide the book into sections on the origins of the English language, on basic grammar concepts, sentence structure, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, essay organization, academic writing, writing style differences between social sciences, in sciences, in the arts and in business, as well as ESL and digital elements of writing. The appendixes and additional content takes up nearly half of the book, starting on page 277, and includes model papers and bibliographies as well as charts, and commonly used linguistic elements.

The introduction explains that the book attempts to follow a 2014 change in the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy (for college and secondary schools) that encourages a shift towards “regular practice with complex texts and their academic language” (xi). But the book includes few such complex texts, and primarily explains the mechanics of English language rules, without offering many exercises in reading.

It was difficult for me to read too much of this book, despite an initial urge to, because in the first chapter after the Introduction, “The Roots of Modern English,” I found this sentence: “All religions and mythologies include in their creation stories the beginning of language” (1). The trouble is not that Hult is starting a book on grammar with religion, but that she is missing the preposition “of” between “stories” and “the beginning.” This is a pretty unreliable start for a grammarian, though she is retired or has an emeritus status at Utah State University.

I have also read the bulk of the content in this book at several other grammar and English linguistics textbooks before. Does this sentence surprise you: “the earliest written records, writings of the Sumerians of 4000 B.C.E., are barely six thousand years old” (1)? This sentence of its equivalent that gives a number to the start of language always pops up in the first pages. There is also an explanation of the difference between Old, Middle and Modern English.

I would say that some of this content usually appears in more advanced, borderline graduate textbooks, so I think high school students would be a bit overwhelmed by this information. If you have not read about these fundamentals and you want to, you’re the target reader for this book.

 

 

A Detailed History of Native Americans across the United States

 

 

Yvonne Wakim Dennis, Arlene Hirschfelder, and Shannon Rothenberg Flynn. Native American Almanac: More Than 50,000 Years of the Cultures and Histories of Indigenous Peoples. Canton (MI): Visible Ink Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-57859-507-5. $24.95. Native American Studies. 644pp.

 

****

 

The Introduction clarifies a word that does not stand out in the title, but is an unusual one in this context. This word is “almanac.” I was just reading about Benjamin Franklin’s almanacs and he did not include too much information about the stars and the moon too, mostly writing proverbs of advice for those who are struggling with poverty. The writers of this book are using the word “almanac” to mean “settlement” of Native American “communities” (ix). I took this book because it promises to be a great overview about Native Americans in case I ever write a new story that touches on their experiences. I previously included Native characters in my poetry and in The Battle for Democracy novel. Every time I drive through a reservation on my many migrations cross-country, I want to do a more in depth research trip. But other than stopping at a horse farm, at some sites, at the Native shops along the road and some museums, I feel as if I haven’t done as much close-up research to-date. But since their culture keeps inspiring me to bring Native characters into my stories, the least I can do is read books like this that browse over subjects that I would be particularly embarrassed if I got wrong because I only did online research. So, I’m excited that this book has joined my collection for free.

This book is particularly appealing because unlike introductory books that focus on individual tribes or even parts of tribes, or talk about Native Americans’ mythology and other nebulous and ungrounded topics, this one is firmly rooted in facts of proven historic record. In addition, it is broad and covers tribes, settlements and traditions of not only Native people in the Northeast, Southwest, Midwest and the like, but also in Alaska and Hawaii. Hawaii is a relatively new state, so its people are frequently treated in separate books, just as Australian aboriginals aren’t treated in the same book with American Natives. The authors explain in the Introduction that upon their publisher’s request, they also included some brief information about Native people in other parts of North America: Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Greenland. Those sections are pretty detailed, with information about notable people, major tribes or “communities,” population statistics, modern issues, and historical event datelines. This wide encyclopedic coverage makes it ideal for fiction writers and those who research Native Americans and want to have a reference guide if a question pops up.

There are many photographs, paintings, graphs, historical documents and other archival images in the book, which makes for an enjoyable read. I think it would also be palatable for a Native American history college class. One photo that grabbed my attention is of President Bush, and the description under it reads: “While the government under President George W. Bush promised better services in education and health care for Indigenous peoples, his administration failed to budget for these promises and even cut some programs” (46). This is from a section called, “Bare-Bones Budget: First Decade of the Twenty-First Century.” So this book would probably also be of interest to current or past residents of reservations because understanding what has been happening to Native people as they have been consumed into the United States should help them to determine what they can do to improve this frequently dire situation. As a linguist, I also appreciate the diagram of “characters of written Cherokee as created by Sequoyah. Cherokee is still spoken and written today” (103). I have used online translation programs and have found similar diagrams, but this one seems to be clearer and more legible, so I’ll probably use it at some point. The descriptions of different Native American “animal spirits” and mythologies will also help, because frequently they are mixed together into something akin to the Scottish kilts that Sir Walter Scott designed when he was “selling” Scottish Native culture to King George IV. Another good feature is that this book includes some recent successful Native American astronauts and outstanding achievers in other fields, as this helps to show where some from this culture were able to rise despite the restrictions reservations and other boundaries have put in their paths.

This is a great encyclopedic reference guide to the culture and history of Native Americans of the United States.

 

 

Why Trump and Kiyosaki Do Not Want You to Be Rich

 

 

Donald J. Trump and Robert T. Kiyosaki. Why We Want You to be Rich: Two Men, One Message. (2007). Scottsdale (AZ): Plata Publishing, LLC, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-61268-091-0. $18.95. 334pp.

 

*

 

I read my first Rich Dad, Poor Dad book back in high school because I started working as a CPA’s assistant and this got me thinking about wealth acquisition and how I might start my own business. On this first read, I read the book cover-to-cover with excitement, constantly hoping that practical lessons would follow, but mean while benefiting from the cheers of encouragement for me to create my own business instead of looking to work for somebody else. When I was done with the book, I was temporarily elated, but as I started studying economics in college and then later as I started creating businesses of my own, the ideas in this book faced into abstractions common to how-to books, and I started thinking of it in the same way I reflected on my temporary reading-spree of all things Tarot and telekinesis-related at around that same time. But, when I saw Robert T. Kiyosaki’s memorable face on a cover with Trump’s face on the other side and recognized the design formula of the Rich Dad franchise at ALA, I felt obligated to now review this series and to contemplate Trump’s extensive publications list at this junction in history as Trump is making a serious attempt at the presidency.

From an economist’s perspective the subliminal message behind the nonsense that crowds this hack repeat is that there are secrets to practical business success that those who are privileged with the knowledge do not reveal out of fear of being ostracized by wealthy business partners. The existence of these secrets is dangled before the reader, but they are repeatedly reminded that these secrets will not be revealed in the pages a desperate reader might be mining. Here’s how this is phrased in the Authors’ Notes at the start of the book: “We believe it is time to get smart with your money and become rich rather than to count on the government and politicians to care for you and your money.” The lack of concern about what the government is doing about who makes “money,” has resulted in de-regulation that now allows for a few giant corporations to dominate most segments of the American economy. On the micro-level, if a business owner does not take advantage of tax breaks, and assumes that the amount the government is taking out of his profits is fair, he or she will not grow rich by this apathy. The current government policies towards businesses are such that they are the reason so many new businesses fail, and only those who are already “rich” can support the notion that government can remain as it is because all of their interests have already been made into law. Few small business owners would argue that their tax rates should be raised, but if they are paying taxes, it would be outrageous if they did not “count” on the government to return on these investments in their government in terms of benefits from the government, which might be better roads along a commute home, or social security, but if money is going into government via taxes, and nothing is coming back, the system is corrupt, and cannot be blindly supported. There’s an emphatic section on neither of the authors being politicians, and then in parenthesis this note: “Donald has considered running for president” (5). If Donald becomes president in this election because he spews similar propaganda about people doing stuff for themselves… the money being paid in taxes will be funneled out towards to giant businesses with his help while he explains that the poor should mind their own business. So, this book is not merely the babbling of corrupt businessmen, but has a chance of becoming national policy. Here’s another scary thought, later in the book, Kiyosaki draws a parallel between Trump and Hitler: “…the social, political and financial environment… enabled Adolf Hitler to be elected German Chancellor in 1933… his rise to power was in no small part due to the middle class having their savings wiped out” (35). Since he said Trump is planning on running, and explained that the American middle class has been wiped out in the past decades, then it follows that Trump being elected President is likely to bring out a Nazi regime because there is nobody in the middle to stand up for themselves against the corrupt policies of the government. In his response to these comments, Trump recommends vandalism of buildings to encourage the government to demolish them in distraught areas like Detroit… Why? He explains that this is better than “groupthink,” or following the herd… (39). But if that herd are the people who would write a petition for the buildings’ demolition, or would have refrained from vandalizing, isn’t it saner to be a part of that herd?

Most of the details in this book made me giggle nervously as I considered what they seem to be saying, and what the message means in practice. For example, the Introduction explains in a section, “The Problem Is Education,” explaining that US children test “above the world average… at the 4th grade level. But by the 12th grade level, they are far behind” (2). If he looked more at the numbers, he would have realized that an average American’s reading level is the 4th grade level, as there are few popular mystery or romance novels written above this level that manage to become bestsellers. In fact, Kiyosaki’s books are written at this level… and that’s why they’re bestsellers. This book keeps repeating that Americans need more “financial education,” and yet with an entire book to provide this necessary skill, they mention few actual basic finance concepts that their readers desperately need to succeed.

Kiyosaki has one honest moment after he describes meeting Donald with the “celebrity treatment” he usually gets (his tardiness, obnoxious grandiosity etc.): “Instead of feeling honored to be asked to write a book with Donald Trump, I felt miserable” (17). And Donald replies in kind to these comments: “Writing books can be enjoyable, but it’s a lot of work, and my schedule doesn’t allow for much extracurricular activity…” (28). With intros like this, readers are probably equally excited at this point of the book. Both Donald and Kiyosaki have created shady academic programs, and Donald’s at least has been scrutinized by the media by the hack writing it’s built on. Despite their obvious derision towards writing, both of them keep hacking away and profiting in the millions, while their publishers have to reject top economists’ books because they cannot compete in selling potential.

Later on there are accusations that the social security system is a “Ponzi scheme” because the millions of retiring baby boomers are outrageously planning on taking advantage of their Social Security and Medicare benefits, for which they have been paying across the length of their careers (44). A Ponzi scheme? It’s only a Ponzi scheme if the US government has been misappropriating the input funds, not if it’s a version of a mass savings account into which people place their money with the expectation that they would get it back at retirement time…

Meanwhile, Kiyosaki stresses that “stockbrokers, real estate brokers, financial planners, bankers and insurance agents” are “selfish” because they are selling things instead of teaching people how to “fish.” Further on: “We do not sell investment advice or tell people what to invest in. We are teachers… People are secretive… find your own secret formula” (44-6). Kiyosaki is selling his workshops, financial board games, books, university classes and other components of this teaching program across nearly every page of this book. Yet he is criticizing real estate brokers for selling houses? The job of a broker is a lot less risky than the business of buying a house and then attempting to flip it. A baby boomer that uses his entire life’s savings on one bad investment in a house will have to live on the streets for his retirement, while if he became a broker for fun after retiring, he might make millions assisting others in buying houses they want at the price a seller is able to accept. Kiyosaki’s secret formula is to keep giving nonsensical advice while he’s selling other merchandise, including the buildings he is flipping. In fact, later in the book, he recommends that “couch” potatoes should “visit a business broker… and research what businesses I might be interested in” (158). It is surely smarter to be that business broker than that poor couch potato who’s being forced to toss money at the wind in his direction.

Then, there’s a set of references to Trump’s powers of chair-buying. Glancing at Trump’s sections, one sees more names and references to specific companies and people, but few of these examples actually explain how to make sound business decisions. In one of these examples, he explains that his golf course manager in California proposed buying 150 chairs for $1,500 each, and Trump saved this situation by insisting on him purchasing $90 chairs instead… (61). That’s it: that’s the whole story… What does that teach you? Here’s another one: Trump was reaching capacity at one of his clubs’ ballrooms and was considering a costly remodel. But then he noticed that a fat, old woman had difficulty getting out of one of the large chairs, and decided to sell those expensive chairs at a profit and put in smaller chairs that accommodated a larger capacity of 440 versus 300 people. Imagine a table that currently seats 7 people side-by-side now seating 10… And Trump is advertising this as a success to his potential guests (148-9).

There are several government policies and problems that are repeated dozens or hundreds of times, as if they are the repeating background shrieking in a horror movie. These include: growing trade deficit, growing national debt, falling dollar, broke baby boomers, “entitlement mentality,” rising oil prices, “tax breaks for the rich” (68-71). Trump has been leading an anti-China/ Mexico or rather simply xenophobic and isolationist campaign, all to explain America’s problems as resulting from cheaper goods being made abroad. Perhaps the problem is that Trump is learning financial concepts from Kiyosaki, who has admittedly never gone to college. Seizing all trade with China and Mexico is likely to put America in the same pause Cuba has been in due to the embargo America placed on it decades ago. The better, innovative stuff will still be made cheaply elsewhere, and now Americans will be forbidden to buy it… The same objections can be raised to any of these abstract concepts. Similar to fighting a war on “terror” in general, fighting a war on the trade deficit or on the falling dollar is quixotic. The solution to all of these problems is if more Americans became rich by finding helpful financial advice somewhere other than this book.

So, how can an average American become rich? Obviously, there are few jobs that earn enough to lead anybody to enter the upper class. The odds are better in starting a business, but only to 1 out of 100 of the attempts, as Kiyosaki explains, writing that everybody else fails within a decade of founding a business. What’s the solution? Well, you should buy Kiyosaki’s board game CASHFLOW and play it instead of starting a business and wasting your money… At least, that’s my interpretation. The argument might be hazy because he admits he “flunked out of English twice in high school” (85). Curiously, Kiyosaki takes Trump’s suggestion in the reply to his passage on page 86 that “pretty soon” the ratio of success will be “99/01,” and later in the book, on page 144, says that 1 in 100 businesses succeed, rather than 10%, correcting his statistics based on Trump’s hint rather than on any data.

In this same section, Trump goes on to promote corporate name plagiarism, explaining that one man worked very hard to start a series of companies that all failed: 3UP, 4UP, 5UP and then 6UP, before leaving this industry entirely, only for somebody else to come along and immediately make a huge success with 7UP, taking advantage of all the name-recognition his predecessor build up… Well, he also explains that this has meant for him never giving up until well past a bankruptcy because his “reality was about my dreams, not about numbers” (86-8). But “reality” is not about “dreams.” In fact, “dreams” are the opposite of reality. That guy that succeeded with 7UP committed trademark and copyright infringement according to the spirit of the law. A sane businessman should learn from one bankruptcy to avoid the same problem in the future, and anybody that is holding a business that is still at risk of collapse cannot be seriously writing books that offer financial wisdom, unless they simply explain in detail the reality that caused the bankruptcies, rather than glorifying them as minor challenges on the path to their “dreams.”

One quote that Kiyosaki put in a box of its own is: “Most financial authors write about living below your means and saving money. When Donald and I write, we write about expanding your means, enjoying life and investing your money” (91). The strong push to get people to stop saving and instead to bet their money on risky investments is the central argument in all Rich Dad books. It would be interesting to find out what percentage of major league sport players have read this series and toss their money away because they are taking this advice. Living beyond your means was at the heart of the housing bubble’s burst, and the collapse of so many other businesses in the last decade. The advice Kiyosaki offers has not changed across this turbulent time, and it seems as if he is stuck in the 1990s happy bubble, obliviously “enjoying life,” while he mentions fiscal problems merely to add some terror to his otherwise bland book.

Then there’s this bit of wisdom from Trump: “I rarely feel the need to convince people that my ideas are good, because I wouldn’t be speaking with them to begin with if I felt I had to convince them…” (108). How can this advice possibly help a starting entrepreneur? From his earliest childhood, Trump has never met with anybody that was contrary to his opinions or desires. He can refuse to meet with anybody who he knows will not give him whatever he wants: money from banks he doesn’t have to return, money from investors in a hotel that will not get it back because construction will stop and it will fail before it’s completed… On the other hand, an average person that is starting a business will never speak with anybody that he or she will not have to convince of even the most sound and outstanding idea. Most investors will refuse to meet with him or her because their thinking is just like Trump’s: if they don’t already feel convinced by the existing success of a business, why would they waste their time on the meeting?

Another hilarious part of the book is the mention of the 1969 “Cone of Learning” diagram, according to which most learning happens by “Doing the Real Thing,” the giant section at the top, versus by the microscopic dot allowed for “reading” at the bottom of this backwards pyramid (121). Now, this Cone was done in 1969, and it is an expression of a philosophy that is not based on a study that might have proved this absurd notion. Of course, if a book is filled with nonsense, like this one, by the end of it most readers will not have learned anything. But the value of the education a good book can provide should never be criticized by the writer of a bad book.

The anti-intellectual bias is taken to the extreme in another section where Kiyosaki explains that McDonald’s success is due to its “system-dependent” nature, wherein people are assumed to be idiots and are given simple mechanical uniform steps to execute as if they are in an assembly line. On the other side of this spectrum are “people-dependent” businesses where “highly educated and highly paid people” only appear to be “working hard” while they “accomplish little” (145). The McDonald brothers started a hot dog stand, gradually growing their business into a restaurant and then starting the franchise, which happened to become successful. A new entrepreneur would be starting with the hot dog stand too unless they wanted to risk bankruptcy by taking out a loan for a restaurant. The advice that entrepreneurs should create a factory-line “system” to start with is absurd in this context. You can draw a science fiction system for better food production, but who’s gonna fund your napkin dream? Sure, it would be great to pay people less, but a new businessperson’s first employee is usually themselves. In fact, Trump explains that his own father started similarly to the McDonald brothers by building homes in Queens, and then starting to build houses himself, eventually accumulating more and more money through successful builds and sales, and surely he was paying himself and his engineers pretty well for working very hard (168).

Then, after dozens of references to the problem of “foreign” oil dependency, Kiyosaki confesses that he has made the bulk of his money from domestic oil. He worked for Standard Oil, making $47,000 annually as one of his first jobs. “In 1966, as an apprentice officer onboard a Standard Oil tanker, I learned that oil is power. Today, I invest millions of dollars in oil. As an entrepreneur, I have helped start two oil companies. One failed at the start and one went public then failed” (178). Here is a real business lesson. The new oil companies Kiyosaki attempted to sponsor both failed because of competition from the Standard Oil remnants’ monopoly. When Standard Oil was broken up into components it created the major oil refinement companies that still control the market today. A new entrant into this market cannot compete with their comparatively low prices and is guaranteed to fail. It takes decades to build up a business, and neither Trump senior nor the McDonald brothers could have started profiting from a tiny oil refinery as they did from a hot dog stand or a house contracting work. But, this is not the lesson Kiyosaki takes away from this narrative. Instead, he founded the Global Energy Network International, in an attempt to fight back against this corporatacracy by ridiculing its polluting processes, but then resigned from its board a decade later, before he start writing these books. And the lesson is: “While I may sound like a hypocrite or a flip-flopper, I am still a capitalist. I still make my money from oil…” (179). Why would his environmental attempts make him sound like less of a capitalist? In fact, a clean environment in the future means more resources to exploit later on, so why would environmentalism be counter-capitalist? The more important detail is that he still makes money from oil, but he fails to disclose how he manages to do so if two of his companies failed. The only other alternative is by investing in stock of oil companies, but then why not mention which companies and what portion of his wealth comes out of this early investment rather than from his failures at business and real estate?

Trump also explains that he had the “advantage” of learning about the “rough side of real estate” from his father: “I had learned to step to the side of doorways when collecting rent to avoid being shot” (181). Firstly, it’s difficult to believe that Trump was tasked by his father to personally collect rent from tenants door-to-door instead of receiving it via the mail, or under his door, or having a building manager do it. Secondly, if being shot was a serious hazard to major real estate management in New York, how realistic is it that Trump managed to survive even one of these shootings. And if somebody has actually shot at him, why isn’t relating this fantastic story in this section? Surely, the “rough side” meant a different set of problem, so it is negligent for Trump to fail to explain these to help somebody else that might be considering buying or building a house to lease out.

I finally lost interest entirely when the book started explaining why military school and sports are better educations for an entrepreneur than business school. Just because both of the authors took these paths, it’s ridiculous that they’re advertising them to those who want to enter business. And then there were sections on “Trust in God” that detailed how faith leads to money… with an actual section called: “The Difference Between God and Gold.”

The exercises across the book are also mindboggling. One of these asks readers to attempt to double a $10 bill, suggesting lending it out to “friends” at a $1 a month interest, or buying something and re-selling it online, until one has $20 where $10 once was (227). Lending $10 to a friend? Why don’t you guys try, as a joke, calling all of your friends and asking them if they want to borrow $10 from you at a $1 per month interest? I guess if you’re in 4th grade, and this is all the money you have in your allowance… So, once again the book seems to be intended for a 4th grade reader. OK. Try calling your friends and asking them if they want to borrow $1,000 from you at a $100 per month interest… You’d have to have some desperate friends… Perhaps homeless… But, how are you going to recuperate this money as they can never repay you? Do you bring a gun and watch them stand behind a dumpster hiding from you? Or I guess you could try buying a t-shirt at Walmart for $10 and then re-selling it on EBay… I’m pretty sure there’ll be no takers at $20. If you use that $10 to buy paper, make origami figurines out of this paper, now you have a business going, and you might recuperate $20 from these sales. But, Kiyosaki specifically bans hard work in favor of letting money make more money all by itself. I have a filmographic memory and I’m pretty sure he used the same example in the first Rich Dad book, as at that time I gave a lot of thought to these exercises, and found it frustrating that I could not seriously attempt any of them.

Then he compares poor people trying to become rich to a “dying tree”: “Many people do not grow rich because they are in poor environments”: i.e. ghettos. How to solve this dilemma? By going “to a place where people are getting rich (like a real estate office or stockbroker’s office), join an investment club, or start a study group and meet new friends who also want to grow richer” (278-9). Really? Give that a try. Let’s say you’re a poor, African American, eighteen year old male with a 4th grade reading level and no chance of going to college. This exercise is perfect for you. Wearing your usual attire, go to a real estate or a stockbroker’s office… I guess, you should just sit there in the waiting room and try to ask people for their money… Obviously, you will shortly be arrested for panhandling, trespassing, harassing customers, and probably will be tazed or shot while “resisting arrest” as you’re just trying to explain, “But, Kiyosaki said…” What he said was: poor people stay poor; only the rich get richer. Trump also mentions that most people believe that success is the “territory that belongs to someone else…” also implying that those who are already successful have purchased the majority share on success in business (281). They’re wrong on all points. Everybody who is currently rich was either poor themselves at some point or had an ancestor who was and who became rich through work, and not by stalking rich people.

Trump seems so certain that nobody could have reached page 315 without dozing off that here he relates the story of a “person” he knew who Trump believed was “in the wrong business for him, which was on Wall Street, and I finally told him he was beginning to look like a loser because he wasn’t very good at it and he was miserable…” He then relates the triumphant story of how by this insult Trump managed to convince this person to close his successful Wall Street business and to start a golf course simply because this was what he enjoyed, and supposedly this made him “very successful,” but in reality this was a crazed bully move. Do you have a friend that would call your Wall Street financial firm a “loser” idea? And if this friend isn’t a billionaire, would anybody listen to this advice unless they had extremely low self-esteem and suicidal-level depression?

This review has expanded naturally. I did not intend to write so much about this book. But, Trump has a habit of suing people when they criticize him, so I felt as if I had to support my argument with as many facts as I could gather. The book opens with a negative blurb from the Wall Street Journal that criticized their ideas: “Their Book is Hot, But Their Financial Tips Aren’t.” Kiyosaki objects that the criticisms there of the explanation of mutual funds as bad because they misplace investors’ funds by pocketing the majority was inaccurate. Kiyosaki objects, but does not offer proof to the contrary or acknowledge that their mistake was failing to research the exact amount specific mutual funds pocket. The financial advice in all Rich Dad books are based on what Kiyosaki imagines to be true, rather than on real case studies or any business examples. This book simply received more serious criticism because Trump signed on to do it with Kiyosaki, and their two messages, side-by-side, are too outrageous for a book critic to pass by. Unless you are a critic interested in chopping this book up in a review, do not buy or attempt to read it, as you will be very frustrated and might end up panhandling at a broker’s office…

 

 

A Satire on Donald Trump’s Books

 

 

Scott Dikkers, Ed. Trump’s America: The Complete Loser’s Guide. Stockbridge (MA): Blaffo Books: Micro Publishing Media, Inc., 2016. ISBN: 978-1-944068-16-5. $19.95. 168pp.

 

*****

 

This book caught my attention at ALA because there is a bald eagle in Trump’s wig on the front cover perched on his shoulder. I assumed it was a satire, and then I saw Trump’s name and signature at the bottom of the Foreword and the operator of the booth had to explain that Trump did not really write it and that it was an imitation of his style. Having now read this Foreword, it’s a very clever foreword indeed and captures his nonsensical, circular writing style that manages to keep going on without really saying anything.

This is a great book for anybody that wants to have a good laugh or is interested in the science of forgery and wants to study hundreds of brilliantly executed fake documents. I created some of my own fake death certificates and coroner’s reports for a novel recently, so the detail these art designers managed to insert is admirable. For example, the “Certificate of Birth” has realistic borders, stamp and other components, and yet has obviously not been scanned from an actual certificate, but rather re-created from basic parts in InDesign. I recognize the typeface used as a recently freely released Google font that mimics a typewriter and looks very realistic. I think this font was partially erased in spots to make it look more real (14). The Report Card has bended edges and shows natural wear-and-tear, while it is obviously completely fake because the graded sections are: Math, Negotiation, Introduction to Yelling, and Bribery (15). An article about an accident that left Trump’s hair damaged has edges that don’t look entirely real, and rather as if they were trimmed to look ripped and then underlined with intermittent black lines, but it’s a very good attempt. This article is formatted just lie a real newspaper article from the 1952 era (16). The variety of handwritings on Donald Trump’s yearbook clip is fantastic because it looks like a series of young people contributed to it as no single forger could’ve mimicked all these handwritings. The ink on these also stands out, so that it looks as if these were scribbled on the book itself; in other words it’s a very realistic image and the quotes included are fantastic, like: “SEE YOU IN COURT – Mary Beth O’Connor.” A transformer-like statue composed of the various Trump towers does not look realistic as it is hovering off the ground in an unrelated photo of New York City, but it is a creative attempt (19). The mimicked covers are hilarious and really look like the books Trump authored. One of these stands out from the rest because there’s a half-naked body of a woman on it, and the title is: My Beautiful Daughter Ivanka: A Book of Erotic Photography (22-3). It’s amazing how they managed to find so many photos of Trump available for purchase. Each of the photos in the book is an absurd Photoshop edit that uses anything from a gorilla (34) to a shot of Nancy Pelosi behind the congressional podium (35) to create an alternate reality akin to what life would be like under a Trump presidency.

The stories in the clippings exaggerate actual accusations or proven stories from Trump’s life. In one, his father is accused of repelling blacks from his real-estate (18), in another Trump offers “Urban Kids Gambling Tips” (20).

One of the more disturbing imitations is the “Breast Trump,” because it features Trump’s head with the eyes cut out and mouth wide open, teeth fully exposed, ready to pump a new mother’s breasts (21).

Most of the accusations made against him with satire seem to be accurate. For example a section, “To Be Thrown Out of the White House on Day One” includes: “Any administrative assistant over 26,” “China,” “Congress,” and “Supreme Court” (29). It seems like these are absurd accusations but not for somebody that has attempted reading one of his books…

There are also many obscene jokes like, “Meet Our New First Penis,” which features a photograph of a penis in the midst of a sitting man’s genital area covered, but not at the tip with a toupee (32).

The section that concerns me the post is “Trump’s Guide to Journalistic Integrity,” which explains that concepts like that of “objectivity” are now being redefined into: “Objectively praising President Trump’s many strengths is a sign of great credibility” (44). I’m concerned about this because I’m a member of the press, and the thought that I can’t write what I think about a potential president makes me want to move to UK.

To check on whom Trump sued I googled, “Trump sues…” and to my surprise discovered that he has been involved in a lot more litigations than I had presumed. USA Today, in “Exclusive: Trump’s 3,500 lawsuits unprecedented for a presidential nominee” (June 2, 2016) has dug up that Trump has been involved in over 3,500 legal actions, including 1,900 wherein he was the plaintiff and 1,300 wherein he was the defendant. While the “skirmishes with casino patrons” and “million-dollar real estate” clashes are curious, it’s the “personal defamation lawsuits” that trouble me as a writer. Obviously, if somebody was defamation me in print, I’d want to see justice done, but Trump has obviously malicious lawsuits against numerous people that are not fair defenses of his character and instead aim to silence the media with the threat of retaliation for negative press. In addition, the academic litigation concerns me. I mentioned this in the previous review of Trump’s book, “former students” are “accusing Trump University of fraudulent and misleading behavior” in a California filed case. He has also “been involved in more than 100 tax disputes,” and liens have been obtained against Trump’s properties for “unpaid tax bills at least three dozen times.” How can this guy seriously have been nominated as a presidential candidate by the Republican Party unless there’s something very corrupt afoot or the Party is slumbering. Maybe Trump has just lost his marbles a bit because he has been sued so many times over personal injury and other claims that he started suing for things like airplane noise against the town of Palm Beach at his Mar-a-Lago Club. The case that troubled me the most when I read about it is the claims of defamation against Sheena Monnin because she posted on Facebook that she thought “the 2012 Miss USA Pageant was ‘rigged.’” The judge actually ordered her to pay $5 million in damages, and then they settled out of court for “an undisclosed amount.” How can it be just for Trump to benefit from potentially rigging a Miss USA Pageant? It seems as if this is a case that was publicize to intimidate reporters from suggesting that he was likely to rig an election as well.

Clearly, Trump’s propensity to sue for defamation is the reason the authors and designers of this book chose to use the defamation-free or protected form of speech in satire. The same claims, if supported with facts and figures might have resulted in a barrage of charges against each accusation, as Monnin only blurbed out a single brief accusation and it cost her around $5 million.

Another note that reminded me of the previous review is the appearance of fake ads for three Trump board games similar to his actual games. These look like they were actually printed in China and professionally photographed for the ads. They seem so well thought out that I think somebody might be able to play them, if it wasn’t a violation of the Trump brand and copyrights to attempt to sell any of them.

A truly amazing book in terms of the quality of the art and content. It is the next best thing to researching Trump’s record, and should probably be done alongside this research to really get some of the more elegant jokes.

 

 

A Memoir of the Life of a Dictionary Editor and the Histories of F**k and Other Curious Words

 

 

John Simpson. The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of it All at the Oxford English Dictionary: A Memoir. New York: Basic Books, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-465-06069-6. $27.99. 6-1/8X9-1/4”. 368pp.

 

***

 

The author of this memoir is John Simpson, the decades-long editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. But is not so much a narrative of what John has done, or where he went, or who he married, but rather of how he has shaped the English language in his years as editor. He explains the thought-process and research steps he has taken before making decisions to add new words like “online,” or delete old ones that are out of use. He is now retired and an emeritus fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford.

The narrative begins with how John started working at OED, and what he studied in school. Across the text there are sections in a distinct font and in a separated block that explain the research and history of isolated words John researched, such as, “intrigued” (xiv-xv). The explained words are those that naturally or unnaturally appear in the description of John’s life. For example, as he is talking about meeting his future spouse, Hilary, he says it was: “Serendipity, perhaps” before giving the explanation of the word in a section at the end of a long paragraph where he describes Hilary as “talkative,” and “very smart, but not depressingly intellectual” (1-2).

Sadly, this book is unreadable. First, even the chapter titles are so general that they fail to communicate what unique message will be related in them. One chapter is even named, “Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk,” which appears to be just a nonsensical set of letters. While I am a bit curious to figure out if all of these are actually words he has added to the Dictionary, I don’t want to find out enough to be drawn into the chapter. It is indeed a chapter that defines LOL and subfusc (220-2), and even “windfucker” (226). The latter grabbed my attention as did a reference to the D. H. Lawrence’ Lady Chatterley’s Lover Penguin case against “gross indecency,” which apparently legalized the use of the word “fuck” in general, so that it “boldy” appeared in the Penguin English Dictionary of 1965, followed by OED’s equally brave inclusion of this word in 1972. This gains meaning when I consider that I could’ve been sued for gross indecency just for quoting the use of the word “fuck” in this context before 1960 (226-7). The discussion of the variations of “fuck” goes on for many more pages in this chapter; but the nonsensical letters in the title never appear… perhaps because they are euphemisms for the discussion of swear-words within. This is a great example, of how readers who persevere and have the time to read this book closely will find wonderful bits of important information, but those on a deadline will only notice bits of curious information. It could have been greatly improved if the editor included detailed section headings that explained the key points each delivered as this would have made it possible for researchers who are looking for specific information to locate the bits that concerned their individual research.

 

 

A Biography of Victoria’s Sex Life

 

 

Julia Baird. Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire. New York: Penguin Random House LLC, November 2016. $35: Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-4000-6988-0. Biography. 648pp.

 

***

 

I just finished writing a book on author-publishers and Queen Victoria’s name appeared several times. For example, she had a mysterious meeting with Dickens shortly before his death… I researched her background in a brief history of the British monarchs for my study. But this looked like a great reference on the details of her life in case I have to expand parts of my study, or will write something about Victoria in the future. The cover and book design is also spectacular. The portrait close-up of her face is very emotive, and the rest of the elements look more like a popular fiction historical novel rather than a work of biography (and this is a good thing, as most histories seldom have a fancy cover that attracts attention).

The next thing that stands out from the back cover description is the stress on the fact that she was “a woman who loved sex,” including indulging in a relationship with her servant John Brown. The stress on her sex life is also evident from the word “intimate” in the subtitle. The thought that this book is primarily about her sex life repels me from reading too much further because unless she had one of her lovers killed, these details are not pertinent to most of my studies. On the other hand, if I ever write a romance novel about Queen Victoria, and I previously wrote a fantasy romance about Queen Margaret, the Vampire, the obscene details might come in handy…

Another drawback is that this biography is obviously pro-Victoria biased. For example, the inside front cover pages include glorifying statements about how she “made the modern world,” and was the “most famous working mother in the world.” There is a note that she is also a “survivor of seven assassination attempts,” but no explanation as to why so many people were trying to kill her. The note that she was the “ruler of an empire,” is particularly troublesome because modern colonial theory has de-glorified the notion of empire-building as a form of enslavement of foreign governments and cultures to the empire’s will. We have been in a period of de-colonialization for a while now… So, this book seems like it was begun a century ago, when all of these things were only positive and did not have to be explained for what they really represented.

The book is divided into parts on her early life as a princess, including the death of her father, and the scheming and plot-dodging that went into bringing her up at court while avoiding an assassination by poisoning or character assassination before she even gained the throne. The second part is about her as a “Teenage Queen,” her coronation, how she was taught to rule, and early scandals that threatened her early abdication. Part 3 is called, “Albert: The Man Some Called King”; this title pokes fun at Albert’s secondary position despite Victoria being a Queen. In previous centuries, Elizabeth refused to marry because she knew that a marriage would mean she would no longer be in power, or that the King would become the true ruler and she his wife. Here, Victoria manages to edit even her vows to cross out “obey” and otherwise secures her right to remain the true ruler. This part details her sexual and political relationship and struggle with Albert, and mentions the early assassination attempts. It also brushes on revolution, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Crimea War, and other military, political and cultural events that stand out against history. Part 4 is about her life as a widow, including her love for her stallion, and interest in the Faery Queen. The last part covers other events, including a look at her “Diamond Empire,” and how the Victorian Age ended.

The writing style throughout is very casual and introduces some details about how Victoria lay on her bed or felt or thought that cannot possibly be supported with documentary evidence. In other words, some bits, especially at the start of chapters are fictionalized to deliver a dramatic narrative. They are supported with histories of the period and with biographical events that can be found in Victoria’s diaries and other sources, so most of it can be used for purposes of scholarly research. There is plenty of front and back matter, illustrations and other elements to help readers find information and stay entertained.

 

 

The Story of a Women-Electing Committee by Its Founder

 

 

Ellen R. Malcolm with Craig Unger. When Women Win: EMILY’S LIST and the Rise of Women in American Politics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 8, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-544-44331-0. 6X9”. $28. 1 graph. 368pp.

 

**

 

The cover of this book features Hilary Clinton and the title implies that it is a study of all elected women in America, so I obviously had to review this book as part of this election cycle. While I wish this book was what it promised, the story of how women have now truly won over their male counterparts in politics with Ellen Malcolm’s help, in reality, this is a highly biased history of a major political committee through the propagandistic view of its founder. The trouble is that women are still less represented in politics in American than in most other “first world” countries. The misconception that women now have their fair share and have broken the glass ceiling is spread by books like this with a fiscal and political investment in the cause so far. Malcolm writes that the last glass ceiling to break is the presidency, and cheers Hilary Clinton towards this goal. Seeing a woman elected president is an admirable goal, but what that woman does in office will determine if women running for this office in the future will be looked at as equals.

Perhaps something about the type of women that Emily’s List has been actively funding has meant that the examples they set make it so that it is still difficult for a woman without their assistance to be nominated to a major political office in America. Because I am skeptical, here is a short sample of some women currently in the Senate. There are only twenty women in the Senate today, so my study covers nearly half of them. After Stanford, Dianne Goldman, worked in city government before being elected to the Board of Supervisors and then became the Mayor, before winning a Senate seat. Barbara Levy Boxer worked as a stockbroker, journalist, Board Supervisor, as a House Representative, before winning the seat. Mazie Hirono worked as a member of the Hawaii House of Representatives and Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii, before also serving in the House and Senate. Malcolm focuses on Mikulski in this book, noting that after reaching the honor of being the longest serving female Senator, she is not running for a sixth term. Barbara Ann Mikulski was a social worker, community organizer, member of the City Council, then the House and finally the Senate. Elizabeth Ann Warren was a professor of law at Harvard and other schools, wrote many respected legal papers that led to some practical changes in the legal system, before serving on the Congressional Oversight Panel and Assistant to the President, and then winning a Senate seat. Deborah Ann Greer Stabenow was a member of a County Board of Commissioners, the Michigan House of Representatives, the Michigan Senate, the federal House, before climbing into the Senate. Claire McCaskill worked as a State Auditor, County Prosecutor, member of the Missouri House of Representatives. Jeanne Shaheen worked in the New Hampshire Senate, as a Governor, as the director of the Harvard Institute of Politics, before winning a Senate seat. This list of achievements does not sound like these were meek women without powerful careers in legal, medical and other respectable professions that needed Emily’s List’s help if they ever hoped to win an election (and there are only five other female Democrats in the Senate that I’m not mentioning here). All of these women started with hard work in the law, or community organization or academia and gradually climbed up until they were visible enough to win national campaigns. The Index isn’t in the review copy I received, so I can’t double-check how each of these women were promoted by Emily’s List, or if any of them were not. One of the women Malcolm mentions frequently is Nancy Pelosi, but she is the exception to this pattern. Instead of gradually working up to the top, she was elected to the House when Philip Burton died, leaving his seat to his wife, who was dying of cancer and designated Pelosi of all people as her successor. Pelosi never ran for the Senate, remaining in the house until she eventually won the Speaker seat for four years.

Malcolm explains her significance in the election of women in general by writing that before only widows would win their husband’s seats: “when it came to electing a Democratic woman in her own right, that had never happened” (x). To fight against this plight, Emily’s List “came up with a sophisticated marketing strategy dedicated to winning political parity for women” (x). Marketing campaign? This is definitely the problem in American politics. Instead of simply expressing political positions, and making heart-felt speeches during elections, both male and female candidates are always presenting their best angle and reciting the marketing talking points given to them by their party or committees like Emily’s List. All across the world, women have won by delivering a unique, pertinent message, but in American all messages are washed through this marketing filter. Malcolm stresses that Emily’s List is the “most powerful political-action committee in the United States” (xi). If this is the case, it is to blame for the problems they have failed to resolve despite all this power.

Here is how Malcolm explains the debt two of the women I surveyed above owe her a debt of gratitude: “Mikulski’s journey from being a scrappy street-fighting community organizer in Maryland to making history as the first Democratic woman elected to the United States Senate in her own right. It was the story of a California Democratic Party volunteer named Nancy Pelosi, who hosted a fundraiser for EMILY’s List at her San Francisco home in the eighties and went on to become the Speaker of the House” (xii). I read this section before doing my survey, but after it this makes more sense. Mikulski is referred to as a “street-fighter” and Pelosi is apparently merely a “volunteer” before Malcolm saves them from their mediocre existences. What role could Malcolm have played in a Senator’s widow’s nomination of Pelosi as her replacement on the ticket? Is Malcolm saying that Pelosi was a complete unknown and was thus pushed upwards simply because she helped Emily’s List raise funds? And before Mikulski ran for national office, she was on the City Council and hardly was she fighting in the streets waiting for Malcolm to rescue her. Why would propaganda of these grand proportions be necessary? Why would only a single woman’s campaign funding group have ever managed to get women elected? What exactly is at the root of their power? The answers to these questions cannot be found in this book because Malcolm cannot and does not examine the story as history, but instead uses the narrative as a self-promotion marketing tool.

There are many other negative absurdities in this text, like the notion that only after Anita Hill’s “explosive testimony that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her,” did “scores of women candidates” sweep “into office for the first time” (xiii). So, if not for one woman’s tragedy, none of those little irrelevant women could have won an election on their own merit? She further writes that before Emily’s List: “The political establishment had made it so difficult for women to win seats in the House, much less the Senate, that women couldn’t possibly acquire the experience and credentials necessary to be taken seriously on the presidential level.” She celebrates that with her help: “After thirty years, there is an incredibly strong bench of women with convincing credentials – senators, governors, and cabinet officials” (xvi). All across the world women have been reaching near 50/50 splits in equivalents to the US House and Senate, while in the US the percentage is still 20. So, the last thirty years has seen a much slower progress for women in office than even in some Muslim countries, where women have served as president. “Convincing credentials”? “Taken seriously”? Why do these nonsensical points need to be mentioned. All of the Senators I reviewed had “convincing” credentials, and only Pelosi had a somewhat shady “unconvincing” start. This attitude is repeated in mainstream media, and newscasters ask if Hilary Clinton can be taken seriously or if she has convincing credentials seeing that she is a woman. That’s sexual discrimination because it distracts attention from her political positions to her sex organs…

Perhaps the trouble with Malcolm is that she started out as “apolitical” when she attended Hollins all-women’s college in 1965 (1). She writes that she was awakened from apathy by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, followed by the race riots that led to 26 deaths, 700 injuries and 1,500 arrests in only one of the over a hundred cities that erupted in violence in 1968. These events convinced her that she had to fight “poverty and racism, as well as the war” (2). So that in 1970, she moved to D.C. to join “a new nonpartisan, grassroots ‘citizens’ lobby’ called Common Cause” (3). She did later lose this passion for politics when she surrendered her presidency over Emily’s List recently, prior to publishing this book. It is possible, that Malcolm’s pessimism about women in office stems from the conditioning she experienced growing up in the 50s. But what do assassinations of two men have to do with the power struggle of women. Women’s rights are not mentioned in the trinity of political causes she initially set out to right. Also, Malcolm spent most of her life between Common Cause and her own committee, so she is the one with limited real-world political experience, and if anybody was fighting in the streets among the women mentioned in this review, it was probably her. Perhaps, her bitterness with the winning women she says she admires stems in the fact that she started where they started, but was never elected to a major political office herself. I would be very interested in reading a detached, critical biography of Malcolm’s life in a couple of decades.

 

 

A Thoroughly Researched Thriller about the Sabotage of Hitler’s Atomic Bomb Project

 

 

Neal Bascomb. The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 3, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-544-36805-7. $28. 6X9”. 16pp BW insert/ maps. 384pp.

 

****

 

This is a thoroughly researched and cited historical thriller with finely crafted descriptions that add the aroma of fiction to a historically documented storyline. This is one of the first novels I have been with notes and a bibliography that are as extensive as an equivalent history. Usually, fiction writers do note cite their sources, or if they do, they only mention them briefly in acknowledgements or a short bibliography. So, it is refreshing that Bascomb took this alternative route. When I write historical fiction, I am always perplexed how I can invent a parallel history so that I only get inspired by the histories and biographies I review, rather than taking specific details from them. The method of writing documented near-accurate historical fiction is one that I hope to see more of in the future. Bascomb used to be an international journalist, and this probably contributed to his ability to treat any lack of proper citation as potential plagiarisms or liability claims. He uses “top secret documents and never-before-seen diaries and letters of the saboteurs.”

The Prologue begins in 1943, at the climax of the action, when the Allie “saboteurs” are skiing across Norway forests and plains towards the only heavy water generating plant in the world, Vemork, in an attempt to sabotage its operations and to keep the Nazis nuclear plans at bay. Then the narrative moves back to 1940, when a Nobel Prize winner, Joliot-Curie explains to a group of interested parties that to complete the atomic bomb project there was only one ingredient he and the Allies did not have and “the Germans were also interested in the production at Vemork” of the heavy water (4). The Germans move into this plant before the Allies can make a move, and force Vemork’s engineers to “push production into overdrive.” Now the only solution for the Americans is to destroy the plant. At this point of the cover description, most readers are probably wondering how the Americans ended up getting this heavy water if those crazy skiers actually destroyed its only producer?

The obstacles seem superhuman as they had to make an incredibly long ski journey in the snow and through a forest populate by wild beasts and the armed Gestapo.

Most of the narrative is action-based, but there are also some great to-the-point descriptions of nature. For example: “When they were not practicing for the sabotage, the men kept fit, exercising around the extensive grounds. One day, a burglar on loan from a local prison showed them how to break through locked gages. Another morning, they arrived at breakfast to find a monk-like figure sitting at one of the tables…” (143). The monk and what he taught them saboteurs’ team are then explained in detail. Most passages in the book are equally densely packed with information.

For anybody who is a history buff of the World War II period, this should bring it all to life. History frequently cannot cover the monks and burglars with the same drama and tangents as fiction. In a story of these events these elements might be mentioned only in passing, while in fiction they can be explored so that readers can really feel and understand what it would have been like to participate in this intense mission.

 

 

Linguistic, Cultural and Psychiatric Study of Swearing

 

 

Benjamin K. Bergen. What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. New York: Basic Books: Perseus Books Group, September 13, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-465-06091-7. $27.99. 6-1/8X9-1/4. 288pp.

 

****

 

The study of swearing is bigger linguistic field of research than most probably assume it ought to be. I included a section on swearing in my Gender Bias in Mystery and Romance Novel Publishing book because this was a topic mentioned by previous gender linguists with the hypothesis that women swear less than men. Thus, it is only predictable that the two books I grabbed that touch on swearing in this set were both written by men. I have to stay current on new developments in this field in case somebody asks me about it, so this was a good book to spot at ALA.

I noticed it on the shelf because it has a giant red F as the central element of the cover, with no photos, paintings or other images: just some smaller text in white, this big F against a blue background. I also reviewed a book on design early on and according to it, blue and red are two primary colors at opposite ends of the color spectrum, so they provide maximum contrast, though this blue is a bit shaded with black, so it does not hurt the eyes in contrast with the pure red, but it does make the F really pop out against such a dark background.

The back cover summary betrays the humorous approach Bergen took to this project: “Everyone swears… And yet, we ban the words from television and insist that people eliminate them from their vocabularies. That’s a fucking shame.” It also explains that even those who are “otherwise speechless after a stroke still shout out ‘Goddamn!’” And apparently Pope Francis said “fuck” in the middle of one of his speeches… There is also a lengthy exploration with graphs of when the word cock went out of popular usage and was substituted by the word “rooster,” in contrast with the beginning of the popular use of the word “cock” to signify “penis.” All this research comes from the director of the Language and Cognition Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego, so while it’s frequently funny, it’s also highly trustworthy.

The first chapter is called, “Holy, Fucking, Shit, Nigger,” so it really jumps into the deep water from the get-go. Chapter sections throughout are separated with #$%! an appropriate set of symbols in this context.

I have not been keeping up with the Popes since the previous couple have been pretty depressing to study, so I’m glad that Bergen attracted my attention to Pope Francis, who has been in charge since 2013… for three years now. Apparently this guy washes the feet of “patients at a home for the elderly and disabled” at Easter instead of the traditional washing of priests’ feet (99). Pope Francis is the first Pope that originated in the Americas, so it’s a huge change from past papacies: he’s from Argentina, and worked a bouncer before joining the priesthood many decades ago. Bergen does not mention his bouncer days, but rather says that it’s his “many small acts of modesty” that “have helped him build up a public image as the pope of the vulgar people” (99). Here Bergen returns to the subject of the chapter or Pope Francis’ use of an obscenity. The Pope said “in questo cazzo” in a speech in Italian (not his first language), which in English means “in this dick” or more accurately, “in this fucking…” I was thinking in parallel with Bergen’s explanation that it seems likely that this was an “accident” and “he’s just as linguistically fallible as the next guy,” or in other words that he did not know enough Italian to keep from making a mistake like this. If he had memorized a speech, he might have slipped and used “fucking” instead of maybe, “this wonderful place.” And Bergen explains that the Pope corrected himself after this by saying “in questo caso” or “in this case.” From this point, Bergen moves on to a discussion of how accidental swearing or errors in language are natural occurrences that all of us commit at some point (100). I studied Italian in high school, and when I heard the word I thought he was trying to say casa or “house” in both Italian and Spanish. Whenever I am learning a new language, the mistakes I make the most are between words that sound alike, but have fine distinctions. In Spanish, “in this fucking…” is “en este puto.” On the other hand, “in this case” is “en este caso.” This makes me suspect if the Pope knew what he was saying, despite Bergen’s and reporters’ interpretation. Surely, he would have realized that caso is identical in Spanish and English… but I guess there are some sneaky differences between the two languages so that it might be difficult to keep all of them at a conscious level. Anybody searching for a religious and psychological excuse to use swear-words will definitely find plenty of proof in this chapter.

This is a thorough study of how swearing works, why people swear and many other related topics. An average college student that wants to show that swearing is OK after being kicked out of class for doing it probably will be overwhelmed with all the data, graphs, research and supporting materials and arguments offered here. The book is a better fit for linguistic researchers and possible for linguistic graduate classes.

 

 

It’s All the Arabs’ Fault: And Other Outrageous Accusations

 

 

Marc Levinson. An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy. New York: Basic Books, November 8, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-465-06198-3. Economics. $27.99. 6-1/8X9-1/4”. 336pp.

 

**

 

As a business owner, it is my responsibility to understand the current economic climate. If the dollar is going to collapse next month, I would be in trouble if I do not anticipate the collapse and put my money elsewhere. So, whenever I see a book or film that promises to explain what has been happing in the American marketplace, I always warrant it a close review. This particular book sets out to explain a concept I learned about in economics classes back in college. After World War II, American started to prosper because the wartime created an extreme spike in American industrial production, and after it was over there were many new industries to explore that spread the wealth around and created wealth for decades to come in the 1950s and 60s. Many economists have argued that war is good for an economy because it creates these bursts of productivity that kick-start a slumbering country. In contrast, Levinson proposes that the boom was an abnormality, perhaps unrelated to WWII, and that slow growth is more natural in an economic system than any set of years that see speeding prosperity. If businesspeople expect that an economy will always be slow, they can focus on gradually growing productivity, efficiency and quality, instead of putting their trust in miraculous growth of stocks and bonds simply because of growing confidence. So, this is an important message for financial analysts and academic researchers alike.

The Introduction opens with the artificial spike in oil prices that Arab oil-producing countries instituted in 1973 because United States and Netherlands “funneled weapons to Israel” in the Yom Kippur War. They also entirely cut off the two countries that they felt had wronged them from their oil. In response, Europeans attempted to conserve the oil by instating things like the “car-free Sundays.” Meanwhile, Americans simply panicked, and attempted to come up with a policy that would ‘end oil imports by 1980 to no reasonable avail. By 1974, the “global oil crisis had passed. But from its embers, a crisis that would endure far longer and cause infinitely greater upheaval was just beginning to smolder” (1-3). This was the moment when the slowdown that has lasted to this day began, according to Levinson.

At this point, he lost me. Explaining the world’s economic problems as solely dependent on oil is like saying they are related to water shortages, or air pollution. Sure, these problems might be getting worse as the environment keeps deteriorating, but that does mean that they are causing recessions. A more likely culprit is the end of the gold standard, with Richard Nixon’s announcement in 1971. When America was allowed to print unlimited amounts of money, it obviously mismanaged funds, and allowed inflation to escalate until somebody had to be supernaturally productive to keep up with the free money that were being tossed out of windows by the American government. I wish I had found the answer in Levinson’s theory, but this is a theory I have heard before and do not agree with.

In addition, after this Introduction, the book goes on and on, describing random economic facts that barely explain the central point. The chapters have vague names that do not allow for easy browsing or comprehension. There are no sub-sections or graphs or diagrams or any other aids that might stress key points or land posts along the argument that might help a tired traveler get to the water. There might be water somewhere in there… but it might be as tough as digging an oil well to get it out.

 

 

Sentimental Southern Sweets Cookbook

 

 

Christy Jordan. Sweetness: Southern Recipes to Celebrate the Warmth, the Love, and the Blessings of a Full Life: With 197 Cookies, Cakes, Brownies, Puddings, Candies & More. New York: Workman Publishing, October 2016. ISBN: 978-0-7611-8942-8. $16.95. Paperback. 7X8”. Photographs. 304pp.

 

***

 

Only buy this book if you frequently have parties and your guests like sweets (i.e.: are not vegan, vegetarian, or on a diet). Also, the sweets in this book are traditional Southern foods with a researched history that roots them in the south of old. So, you won’t find tiramisu or sherbet here. One great thing about this book is that there are 197 recipes or around one per page or two, and this offers a lot of variations on the basics like cookies or sweet tea. Also, the difficulty level varies across the book. The first recipe that I noticed was, “Busy Week Cake Mix Cookies,” though I noticed the short list of ingredients before I read this title, and these were: 1 box of cake mix, 2 large eggs and ½ cup of vegetable oil (11-2). For a moment I had to glance at other recipes to check if this book might be entirely composed of these types of ideas (a sign of the dawn of the cooking-illiterate age). But then I spotted a very long list of ingredients for “Chewy Cranberry Zingers” that includes “self-rising flour” and “old-fashioned oats” (17-9), so I realized that the cake mix idea was a bit of a joke tossed in there. You’ll also find some good photos of these sweets, very realistic rather than staged to look supernatural.

Some drawbacks to the book is that there is a lot of sentimental content about Christy Jordan’s family and how she is sad they are all growing up, or how she loves her grandma. If you enjoy reading about these sorts of longings, proceed. On the positive side, there are some interesting boxes of extra content on: “Choosing Cookie Baking Sheets” (7) and “Simple, No-Skill-Needed Ways to Decorate a Cake” (108). Though some other sidebars are more sentimental and silly like: “Time Travel via Swing” (72-3), and “How a Homemade Cake Says ‘I Love You’” (79).

I usually find recipes online, but I have to know what ingredients I have and what I want to cook to find just the right thing on most of those websites. A book like this is for people that are preparing for an event and want to browse through hundreds of detailed recipes to figure out what they should prepare for guests that are interested in Southern cooking. The directions are more detailed here and they are reliable as opposed to some blogs or websites that are written by less mature chefs. In fact, Christy has a website of her own, SoutherPlate.com, and writes for other food magazines, and has participated as a judge on the Game Show Network’s Beat the Chefs, so she and her website are certainly trustworthy. Those who can’t buy this book, should check out her page for inspiration.

 

 

Nude Dancers at Night in Public

 

 

Jordan Matter. Dancers After Dark. New York: Workman Publishing, October 2016. ISBN: 978-0-7611-8933-6. 7.75X9.125”. Color and BW photographs. $17.95. 238pp.

 

*****

 

It was impossible to go by this book without looking closer because there is a naked ballerina dancing across a busy New York City street at night on the cover. The book organizer even gave me a poster of that same woman in a hat next to a lit theater that showed a less muscular pop dancer with her imperfections and details showing. I didn’t realize I got the poster until I just started this review. I thought it was an over-sized inside flap. The best-selling photographer previously succeeded with a dressed version of this idea, Dancers Among Us. The photographs in this book come not only from New York, but also from Paris and Amsterdam. It’s hard to imagine how he managed to bypass indecency laws in all of these places. I mean other than the hat… they’re totally naked, and a good proportion of them are guys. Can you imagine any guy dancing around city streets naked and not getting arrested… Only for art’s sake… One solution might have been to shoot in a studio and Photoshop the dancers into separate cityscapes, but the texture and lighting of the scenes looks like the dancers were really inside these locations. The private parts are tastefully disguised, but somebody walking down that street from a different angle would’ve seen the whole cucumber. And some photographs, like the one of a black male and an Asian female in a split standing with eyes closed, show several passersby staring at their nudity in disbelief (3). Matte confirms that this was no picnic in the introduction: “It was frequently very cold, it was usually late, it was dangerous, illegal, exhausting, and, of course, they’re naked” (ix). The goal for Matter and the dancers was “beauty” and excelling in their crafts of dance and photography to create superior images that lift photography into a higher cultural plane. Great statues of antiquity and nude, so it is empowering that some artists are working to find classical beauty in the human body again, instead of cheapening it into a low-brow sex object.

The book is divided into sections by mood: ferocity, stability, vulnerability and ecstasy. In each of these sections, the images are striking and all but the cover are in black and white, making them look more like etchings or photos of statues. An image from Chinatown in San Francisco shows a man suspended at the tip of a giant lamp, while striking a position that would be hard to pull off on sound ground. So, he looks like he is an extension of the carved dragon winding around the post, with his muscles so exquisitely formed that he looks superhuman (4-5). Then there’s one images of a close-up on a woman’s nipples, as she’s spreading her legs on top of an NYPD Police car (9). How did they manage to find an abandoned cop car, or did the officer give them the OK? In many of the images the dancers are in the midst of a complex high jump that had to be captured with a special camera because they seem frozen in mid-air as they must’ve been rapidly falling. In many of the images the people blend into statues to look as if they are part of the composition, and in some cases convincingly belong there in dim lighting. Another shocking set of images is of a dancer on a snowy night at near nine-months pregnant, with her arms folded and looking up with anticipation, and then her holding and looking down at a baby shortly after it was born on that same but snow-less street (184-5).

There are some funny behind-the-scenes explanations as to how some of the trickier shots were actually made.

This is a great book for any photographer that has taken a shot of a person. There are interesting experiments in combinations of scene, character, motion, light, and other elements that expand and continue teaching the more you look at them. It would probably also be enjoyable for somebody that likes to look at naked people, but somebody that is hoping to find obscenity will find classical nude art instead, but hopefully even they won’t be disappointed.

 

 

An American Way of War?

 

 

James Kitfield. Twilight Warriors: The Soldiers, Spies, & Special Agents Who Are Revolutionizing the American Way of War. New York: Basic Books, October 2016. ISBN: 978-0-465-06470-0. 6.125X9.25”. $27.99. 390pp.

 

***

 

This is a study of how the war on terror is fought worldwide by the US military, Special Forces, CIA and police units, focusing on how they cooperate and develop new strategies to match new threats. The research comes from a journalist and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

This book is easier to dissect because it is chronologically organized from start to end, so readers can go to the section that meets their particular interests from the period before 9/11, 1998-2001, through 2015. The chapter titles are also explanatory, with some focusing on al-Qaeda, others on the American Jihad. But, most have vague names like, “Prodigal Soldiers,” as is usual in recent histories of this type.

The book is full of names, details, and other critical information on the specific people, groups, agencies and maneuvers that make up the War on Terror. It is a heavily researched study, rather than a slightly fictitious or watered down book. So, it should be helpful to political science students and professors who want to understand what has been going on in this international conflict. At the same time, the book zooms into individual characters and allows readers to become engulfed in the narrative, if they are looking to spend more time with it. For example: “Brian McCauley was a one-man networking machine in Kabul. He had a gift – uncommon in the button-downed culture of the FBI – for putting people at ease with sharp with and self-deprecating humor. He would open meetings with diplomats and ambassadors by noting that they were real ‘pointy heads,’ whereas he was a former enlisted Marine who had earned his college degree in night school” (108). This passage also reminds the reader that the narrator is highly biased towards the fighters he is depicting. He goes on to explain that there was a good reason for Brian’s “wisecracking” that made it a positive characteristic. Such bullying and name calling even of one’s superiors must be the bane of the army, and it’s troubling that the narrator approves of it. On the other hand, if there is bullying, Kitfield had a responsibility to honestly report it, and perhaps he would not have found new funding for his research if this same detail was biased in the other direction.

Those who want to understand what’s going on in what is becoming the longest war in American history, should definitely read this book, but be careful to separate the biases of the author or narrator from the documented facts presented.

 

 

Death-Defying Adventures Abroad and Inside

 

 

Cathryn J. Prince. American Daredevil: The Extraordinary Life of Richard Halliburton, the World’s First Celebrity Travel Writer. Chicago: Chicago Press Review, October 2016. ISBN: 978-1-61373-159-8. $27.99. 323pp.

 

****

 

This is a biography of Richard Halliburton’s travel writing in the 20s and 30s. Adventure in those days was riskier than it is today, and apparently he nearly died by falling out of his plane as he strained to take the first aerial photographs of Mount Everest. While his achievements were celebrated, he worked to hide his private life, which was highlighted by his homosexuality. The book is authored by a journalist that has traveled the world herself, so she uplifts his triumphs and failures to tragic lows and comedic highs.

Photographs from Halliburton’s travels, maps of his progress, and detailed notes and an index guide the reader, and should help any serious researcher mine for the needed bits. At the same time, the narrative is written in a style of an adventure novel. It opens with a description of Halliburton at the start of his peak years: “The fair-haired young man shivered against the cold, despite wearing three sweaters and two pairs of pants…” (1). It must have been difficult to describe what he wore on this occasion as opposed to where he was or what he wrote in his column. Details like this take a bit of fiction and a lot of background research on the period. Three sweaters? You can’t tell that from a photo. There are many other personal details scattered throughout like: “He swam endless laps at the YMCA to keep fit” (42). This should be a good read for somebody who just wants to read casually about the life of an adventure reporter. Anybody considering this line of work will probably learn about the pitfalls and central steps to success. So, anybody from a casual reader at a beach, to a researcher of Halliburton’s life for a new biography should benefit from this thorough and dramatic book.

 

 

Your Health, So Don’t Ask Me What to Do About It…

 

 

Robert Alan McNutt, M.D. Your Health, Your Decisions: How to Work with Your Doctor to Become a Knowledge-Powered Patient. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-4696-2917-9. 150pp.

 

***

 

McNutt is lobbying for patients to empower themselves by learning about their illnesses and telling their doctor what is wrong with them and how it should be fixed. This is a pertinent problem today because with numerous online sources of encyclopedic medical information that can easily be googled, it is tempting for patients to attempt to solve the mystery of what’s ailing them on their own. In addition, we are in the midst of the Big Pharma war for more unnecessary psychiatric and minor illness drugs, with these being recommended in TV ads. These ads usually end with the note, “Talk to your doctor about…” So, a book that sets out to tell patients to be their own doctors is controversial in this climate. I definitely research what might be wrong with me every time I feel unwell, and everybody else should too. But, I have had to track down drug interactions and other serious errors in my doctors’ prescriptions over the last few years. I don’t recall these types of problems a decade ago. It’s as if doctors and pharmacists are too trusting in the patient’s ability to research their problems themselves. The burden of blame is shifted onto the patients, who frequently cannot monitor intricate medical elements while they are unwell. I did not specifically request this book, so I believe the publisher sent it to me because they thought I would like it…

The book promises to explain to patients how to be right about what is best for their health more frequently by giving them the tools to research problems in a fool-proof way. This is a very big promise, and doctors go through a decade of studies to figure this out. This is a very short book to tackle such a task. The chapters are not about complex research tools, but rather about the basics like if apples or healthy eating is important for wellbeing. There is a part that attempts to explain how to understand the “medical information from experiments,” but if a patient cannot comprehend reading an experimental study… there is probably very little a chapter about this can achieve. The abstract section on determining “the Value of Potential Gains and Losses to Your Health” is also mystifying. Should patients run a statistical study to evaluate if they should choose one option or another? The gains and losses most be near infinitely varied depending on what exactly is wrong in the human body, so it seems futile to predict what would be best without a specific patient on the table in front of the reader. Really only the last chapter attempts what the book promises: “Where to Look for Valuable Medical Information.” This central chapter begins with: “When I first started practice, finding information was a tedious undertaking” (140). Oy vey. Why is this guy writing about research?! He goes on to say that he “begged” librarians to find the books relevant to his patients instead of searching for them himself… After this intro, he does not actually name any databases that are best for beginner medical researchers, and instead says that they should search (i.e. google) the term that interests them, following this by cross-referencing and re-crossing… Later on he does mention that he frequently uses the National library of Medicine’s MEDLINE and the PubMed search, as well as some other resources, but by this point he is not exactly trustworthy, and I would hesitate to follow his advice. The entire research section is three pages long.

I do not recommend this book to anybody that wants to keep faith in the medical profession or in their own ability to research their medical problems. Just don’t read it.

 

 

Impenetrable, Post-Modern Academic Exercise

 

 

Aniko Imre. TV Socialism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-8223-699-5. 315pp.

 

**

 

There are many studies published about genres, periods, styles and other niches in film criticism. This is a more curious focus than many of the others as it focuses on the touchy subject of “socialism,” particularly during and after the Cold War in Europe. A common way to study this topic is by considering how social messages were conveyed through mechanical propaganda that worked to convince Eastern Europeans that the state’s agenda was in the right. In contrast, Imre looks more to the West, and at beauty or aesthetics and practical economic developments. Sadly, like many other film studies books, it digresses into discussions of “post-socialism,” unconventional understandings of culture, and various other posts and convoluted notions that make researchers’ eyes go cross, while conveying little helpful information. She does review “programming trends, distribution patterns” and other observable elements of European television, so there is at least some grounded facts put in place before the abstractions begin to pile on.

The book is divided into strange sections: realism, history, fiction and humor genres. The latter breaks the pattern because it is not echoed with a tragedy part. Also, “realism” and “history” are usually grouped together when they are juxtaposed with fiction, and if there are sections on them, there would logically have been two sections on let’s say “fiction” and “surrealism,” but this is not the case. This disorients the reader who is trying to orient themselves in the table of contents, and this disorientation is probably intentional.

A good test of the style of an academic book is opening it to a random page, and closely analyzing a sentence: “The only alternative results specific to the Gyozike show come from ethnographic interviews with a group of preteen children conducted by Annabel Tremlett” (123). This demonstrates that the narrative is closely examining the results of a practical study, as they are questioned and compared; a unique clarity of focus without convoluted abstraction. Here’s another attempt: “The analogy has far-reaching implications for understanding the historical trajectory and political significance of television satire in a transnational framework” (244). Ah, here is academia back at the brim of confusion. What is this sentence saying: a comparison the author made previously is totally awesome and the best ever made anywhere in the world. Only the longer words that are tough to grasp for an average reader make it seem necessary. I expected a lot more of the latter in this book, so I would say that readers will be lost and confused for about half of this study. I doubt many will manage to read much of it without losing focus and simply searching for pertinent details with the help of the Index. This book is not recommended for folks who are curious about what was going on with socialism in European TV… It’s an exercise in the craft of spinning an intellectual puzzle meant for a small circle who are in on the “jokes.”

 

 

The Hidden Indian Enslavement

 

 

Andres Resendez. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 12, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-547-64098-3. $30. 6X9”. 23 B/W photos, 17 maps, and 7 charts. 544pp.

 

****

 

There have been many histories of Native Americans. I even covered an encyclopedia of Native American history in this set of reviews. But, this book takes a unique perspective and promises to uncover little-known facts about their enslavement before the abolition of African American slavery, and its continuation after it. This slavery might have been as or even more labor-intensive, as they were forced to work in silver mines and as domestics. The hypothesis that Andres Resendez sets out to prove is that it was “mass slavery, more than epidemics, that decimated Indian populations across North America.” This is definitely a revolutionary concept in the field that relies too heavily on assumptions rather than research of the causes of demise in a significant number of remains. It is difficult to imagine that a field with so many studies has any “new evidence” left, but Andres stresses that the testimonies presented have been unseen by academia. He also brings the story up to the present and ties in modern-day slavery and how the two are connected. While slavery has continued for millenniums, modern-day slavery has only become a hot topic in the last few years, thus making thus study particularly relevant.

The notes take up around a hundred pages of the book, so everything is meticulously documented. Appendix I shows that the total number of Indian Slaves in the Americas was about the same in the 1500s as it was in 1900, long after African slavery became illegal. This raises a lot of questions about the source of these statistics, the implications and how this massive slavery went barely detected by social critics and abolitionists. He does present information about Slaving Licenses from the early years and average prices for different types of slaves, so obviously the data in these graphs stems in these types of records, though it seems unlikely that the sale of Indians in 1900 was as blatantly recorded as it could legally be in 1500.

Facts are interspersed with powerful arguments across this book that make it a rewarding read for researchers and those more casually interested in this radical topic.

 

 

A Firsthand Look at Space

 

 

Mike Massimino. Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe. New York: Crown: Penguin Random House, October 2016. ISBN: 978-1-101-9354-4. $28. 6X9”. 8 page full-color insert. 314pp.

 

****

 

With a tiny rocket flying up above a guy in an astronaut uniform’s head, this cover is very catching. I wish the color insert was included with the galley, but it will only appear in the final version that will go to press. Mike Massimino is not just any astronaut too. He “helped save the Hubble telescope,” which brought him the fame some of his fellow astronauts cannot claim. I have always been interested in astronomy, especially after taking a class in it in college and learning from a professor that wrote one of the top textbooks in the field. Hearing somebody that has even looked inside giant earth-bound telescopes is exciting, so reading about the perspective of somebody that has gone into space is even more thrilling. Photos of stars, the sun, and other celestial bodies are flat and might as well be drawings, while the weightlessness and 3D perspective on objects and states of being in space are so much more engaging. As America is cutting back on its space exploration programs, more and more documentaries and books on astronauts are being released as they become rarities to be gawked at.

Massimino grew up in Long Island, then attended Columbia and MIT before joining NASA.

The style is that of an adventure novel that is grounded in specific dates, distances, names and various other bits of information that novelists lack because they do not have Ivy League educations in a field or the real-life experience of having been in the situations they are describing. In this sense, this is a better read than a best-selling thriller. If I ever set out to write a novel about an astronaut, this will be a must-read because only be learning from first-person experiences can a novelist step into somebody else’s shoes and fool readers into believing they have become the astronaut.

 

 

Abstract Study on Race, Literature, and Nationality

 

 

Okey Ndibe. Never Look an American in the Eye: Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian American: A Memoir. New York: Soho Press Inc., 2016. ISBN: 978-1-61695-760-5. $25. 5.5X8.25”. 224pp.

 

***

 

Okey Ndibe’s memoir relates his journey from Nigeria to America, and his work as the founding editor of the African Commentary magazine, a venture that was constantly at the brink of bankruptcy, like many other literary ventures. Meanwhile, he talks about the political and cultural differences between his birthplace and adapted home. The book pokes fun at stereotypes that these countries have about each other, and the real problems these cause. It is written in a musical style shared with other African American and African writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o. “We were bored, for sure, to hell and back, even though we didn’t know it at the tie. Nobody had given the word ‘boredom’ to the agitation we felt, the restlessness within” (17). This is a good example of the style, as he returns to the concept of boredom to examine in a few circles and keeps expanding the definition instead of focusing on making the narrative more exciting by narrating what was done and said, rather than what it meant and how it was perceived. Though there is plenty of dialogue and action in other parts. Basically, this is a literary composition that has symbolic levels of meaning and that explores the state of living as a human being and its variations. It occasionally lands on the ground of practicality, but then flies off into abstraction again.

 

 

Hacking for Computer Security Experts

 

 

Jon Erickson. Hacking: The Art of Exploitation, 2nd Edition. (2008). San Francisco: No Scratch Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-59327-144-2. $49.95. 544pp.

 

***

 

When I mentioned aloud that I was exciting to try hacking with the help of this book, another visitor to this ALA booth glanced up at me with suspicion and then looked down as if she was either sharing a joke that I did not look like somebody that would succeed at hacking even if I tried, or as if she was looking away to not seem to be investigating my motivations. I am interested in hacking because I have been a victim of hacks of various sorts, some of which have cost me money or loss of privacy. All of these have been relatively minor, but the IRS sends me a special code every year because somebody has attempted to steal my identity and was trying to fill out my tax return on my behalf. If I understood how hacking is done, perhaps I would not be such an easy victim. And the same probably applies to most people in this digital age.

At the same time a book on practical hacking is problematic because somebody can use it as a starter guide to learn the skills necessary to attack others. The back cover stresses that the techniques explained here are outdated and ancient and would no longer pass current security systems. It is a foundation text on the principles of hacking aimed at programmers who call themselves hackers but lack the knowledge that would make them professionals. These basicas are grounded in C programming. A LiveCD is included with Linux programming and debugging components. It promises to teach how to “hijack… network communications” and even how to invent new exploits to current systems. It also promises to outsmart Norton and other security systems that detect threats. And like in a science fiction movie, you might even learn how to crack into computers using a “password probability matrix.” The author, Jon Erickson, teaches computer security, and the primary audience for this book is people working to stop hackers, rather than the hackers themselves.

This book jumps completely over my head. It offers complex codes and instructions and beginners definitely should not attempt it. If I am a victim of a more serious hack in the future, I think I will pick it up and attempt to comprehend it, but this is not a book that can be mastered in a month because I’m sure I’d need to read a dozen other books just to catch up to the basics that it skips.

 

 

A Memoir of Imprisonment in North Korea

 

 

Kenneth Bae with Mark Tabb. Not Forgotten: The True Story of My Imprisonment in North Korea. Nashville: W Publishing: Thomas Nelson, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-7180-7963-5. $24.99. 248pp.

****

 

This book demands attention. There is a photo of a kind-eyed Asian man across the cover, which is pretty unusual as cover design goes. It attracted me closer and when I read the subtitle, I definitely had to take this one. I spent a semester teaching at the Shantou University in China, and while I was not arrested while I was there, I felt pretty tense about the possibility that I might be arrested because of the strong opinions I expressed in class. Understanding better why some radicals are actually arrested in countries like China and North Korea can help other radicals feel more secure when they go there because they know exactly what boundaries they cannot cross and where they can venture without fear of reprisals.

Kenneth Bae took his eighteenth trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on November 3, 2012. He claims that his biggest mistake was taking his computer hard drive with him into the country, which got him stopped upon arrival. Just based on the content therein, he was sentenced “to fifteen years at a remote North Korean prison camp.” In summary: “Bae would withstand psychological torture, forced labor, and failing health – ultimately becoming the longest-held American prisoner in the DPRK since the Korean War.” The President and many other people had to come to his aid to finally bring him home. Kenneth had a false sense of security there because he was born in Seoul, Korea before migrating to the United States and eventually becoming a manager of a cultural-exchange business and a licensed preacher. The book is introduced in a Foreword by the former Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, who was in office and held a press conference to help the cause when he was informed of Kenneth’s ordeal. Kenneth opens the book in the Prologue by explaining that the chief problem for him now that he has been released is that he probably will not be able to continue his international missionary work because his visa applications would be denied due to him having been convicted of being a “terrorist” that was “plotting and working to overthrow the government of…” North Korea (xvii). To this day, Kenneth is mystified what he might have had in his hard drive or might have said or done in his peaceful missionary work that might have been perceived as a terrorist threat, and obviously the answer is, “nothing.” This is a story about false imprisonment.

After the Governor’s introduction, the book is written in a casual way that includes a good deal of dialogue and description. It should be a good read for somebody that enjoys mysteries and thrillers, as well as for those who are studying illegal detainment and human rights

 

 

Great Promise Unfulfilled

 

 

Amy E. Herman. Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life. Boston: Eamon Dolan Book: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 3, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-544-38105-6. $28. 6X9”. 67 color photos and prints. 336pp.

 

**

 

The cover initially repelled me because it features an eye with a triangle under it against a white background, alluding to the Freemasons and the various cults and fake spiritualities. But then the back cover brought me back in by promising to reveal how a Monet painting can save a business millions. Another promise is an explanation for why taking off footwear can stop a terrorist. The obvious answer to the latter question is that terrorists might have bombs in their shoes, but it seemed as if this book was promising a more significant revelation.

This book attempts to explain the art and science of human perception of the world around us, or how we can see beyond the surface or focus on the important information. This is practical awareness that helps police officers study a crime scene to determine what is pertinent, or business executives decide which employees to hire. The author, Amy Herman, is not only an art historian but also a lawyer, so this might be a more practical study of perception than some of the more theoretical academic studies or the flighty New Age versions on this topic.

The book is divided into four main parts: assess, analyze, articulate and adapt. In the Introduction, she explains that she invited NYPD cops to join her in a museum to study art, when she was helping them in visual exercises.

Sadly, there are too many rallies and encouragements in this book and not enough clear explanations: “To be a hero to our bosses, our families, and ourselves we need to shake up our worldview and shift our perspective” (12). Worrying about being a hero hardly helps a police officer studying a landscape for an armed criminal. Then in Chapter 4, she explains the ABCs like that when trying to figure out if somebody is bringing a bomb on board, Delta employees should ask what is “Fact Versus Fiction,” and then, “Who? What? When? Where?” Most of these sections are referring to a painting of a woman by Hopper, and she asks sub-questions like, “What time of year is it? The woman’s fur-trimmed clothes would usually put us in late autumn or winter, yet her yellow, cherry-adorned hat doesn’t seem to match those seasons…” (71).

As you can see, a police officer that is hoping to avoid getting shot in the field is unlikely to be happy with the help offered in these pages. But, I wish somebody else will pick up on this idea and deliver on it in the future.

 

 

Young Adult

 

 

Narratives of Colonia Female Settlers

 

 

Brandon Marie Miller. Women of Colonial America: 13 Stories of Courage and Survival in the New World. Women in Action. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-55652-487-5. $19.95. Young Adult Nonfiction. 236pp.

 

***

 

I have read a few similar adult narratives and histories of women in Colonial America, so I did not notice the fancy cover and the large font that separate this book into the young adult category. If it was for adults, it would have been more helpful if I decided to write a book about women in the colonies as there are too many dialogues and flighty descriptions here that aim to entertain kids rather than convey information. For example in the section on Martha Corey, who was accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, the accused appears before a judge, and then there is what looks like a fictionalized version of the court record. It starts with a question from the judge which is for some reason not in quotations: “Who hurts these children? She must tell what she knew. Martha repeated that she was a gospel woman, ‘& do you think I can have to do with witchcraft too?’” (161) The strange & and the unusual grammar seem to be taken out of the official record, but the first sentence is written in modern English and seems to have been invented for dramatic effect or altered from the original to improve its brevity or dramatic intensity.

The women depicted are from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the British North American colonies, as opposed to in Spanish, French or other settlements across the colonized New World. I recently read a study about colonial women in the northeast that ran, at least temporarily if their husband died suddenly, many of the print shops and publishing companies, so my perspective is a bit different than what most young readers probably visualize for women in this period. Miller explains that the colonial woman had to work in the home first to assure their family’s survival in an environment where food and other resources were scarce and typically had to be homemade. Others found employment or became indentured servants or slaves, if the alternative was starvation, freezing or other disasters. Another woman Miller focuses on is Elizabeth Ashbridge who became a Quaker preacher after “an abusive indenture.” Miller makes it sound as if an indenture was a unique plight for poor women, but nearly all of the men who became printers or gained other serious professions in the Old and the New World as they were trying to rise out of poverty did an indentured contract or an apprenticeship. And “abuse” by an employer was very common; this was the primary motivation for Benjamin Franklin’s flight from his abusive brother’s print shop to start his own publishing franchise. Another common experience is the story of Anne Bradstreet who wrote poems while mothering her children; many women on both sides of the ocean dabbled in writing for pleasure when they did not have household duties. A more unusual case is that of Margaret Hardenbroeck building a “trade empire in New Amsterdam.” I’ve read about women who ran shops after their husband’s passing, but the word “empire” seems far-fetched. The saga makes a bit more sense when the narrator explains that Margaret was sent from Amsterdam to New York to represent her cousin’s interests as a “factor,” or the business and legal representative of the family’s interests in the New World. The colonies were new enough at the time that her purse trumped her gender in business matters and she thrived (122-3). The story of Sarah Kemble Knight is more recognizable as she ran a writing school, owned a stationery shop, a boardinghouse and farms, components that were commonplace to American life and a natural accumulation of wealth led prosperous people (male and female) to their acquisition.

This issue of the Women in Action women’s biography series for youths should be an uplifting read for girls who want to find examples of courage and the hard work ethic in their American ancestors.

 

 

Fiction

 

 

A Disturbing Perspective on the Holocaust from the Youthful Eyes of a Smuggler

 

 

Jim Shepard. The Book of Aron. New York: Vintage Books: Penguin Random House LLC, 2015.

 

*

 

Nearly all of the fiction books in this set of reviews were obtained from an award-winning panel at the ALA, which I attended to exhibit an Anaphora table. Listening to these writers describe these books with pride and puffery makes it a bit harder for me to jump into negative criticism, but I’ll do my best.

 

The premise of this novel is that an eight year old boy, Aron, who lives in a Polish Jewish quarter under German occupation and finds a way to survive while his family dies by working as a smuggler. Formulaic novels of this type have to include a character evolution or change for the better that allows readers to sympathize with an anti-hero. In this case, Aron’s “humanity” is awakened by an orphanage organizer, Janusz Korczak. The idea itself seemed outrageous to me as Shepard described it, and was one of the reasons I picked up this set of review copies. Knowing that millions of Jews were being killed, is there really anything sympathetic about a smuggler that possibly explained why Germans failed to sympathize with the Jews they were killing? If these Germans were regularly dealing with misbehavior like smuggling (coupled with theft, and other petty or serious crimes) in the Jewish quarter perhaps they dehumanized the population and saw a reason to explain the need to punish them. The evil, stealing Jew is pretty much a Nazi stereotype, only in this case he is described by an award-winning Jewish author, which makes it very confusing and painful to read. The opening paragraph pretty much stresses this very point: “…my father said they should have named me What Have You Done… I broke medicine bottles by crashing them together and let the neighbors’ animals loose from pens. My mother said my father shouldn’t beat such a small boy, but my father said that one misfortune was never enough for me, and my uncle told her that my kind of craziness was like stealing from the rest of the family” (3). Aron expresses the righteousness of the beatings and his evil inclinations without humanizing himself by explaining what prompted these misbehaviors.

 

At the core, the reason the narrative lacks humanization is because there are few descriptive words used to explain the story. It runs forward with short 3-4 letter words and is full of “he said,” and “they said,” and some actions of who did what. This is very typical in modern formulaic fiction, but this is a book by the guy that was a finalist in the National Book Award and who won the Story Prize. For example, “They asked about my family and since I had nothing to say I told them about Lutek.” The youthful narrator is used to excuse the grammatical and punctuation problems in sentences like this one. Also, there is no restraint regarding mentioning what somebody asked even if the narrator had nothing important to reply to this query. Rules of drama and classical great fiction dictate that only material that is pertinent to the progress of a story should be included in the narrative. The above sentence did nothing to move the story forward. When some details are offered, the majority of the sentence is taken with repetitions of “he said” etc. rather than with the meat of the narrative. The narrator continues: “I told them that he liked to climb utilities poles just to look down on people. I told them that on crowded trolleys he liked to recite details about what happened between a man and a woman…” (39). What on earth could have happened between the one man and woman that Lutek keeps talking about on trolleys? If Aron meant to say that Lutek speculates what happens between the different couples he sees; this is not what he actually said in that sentence. And what is the relationship between what couples are up to with climbing poles and what is the significance of either of these to smuggling or Jewish sectors?

 

Aron ends up in the orphanage very early in the story, so most of the narrative is about him finding a heart as he talks about his dead relatives. Meanwhile, later in the book, during this supposed transformation, Aron explains that food was so scarce at the orphanage that: “Everyone moved as if in a daze and looked at me like I was a piece of bread” (192). This is extremely dehumanizing as poor Aron is thinking of himself as a cheap foodstuff.

 

The Acknowledgements disclose that one of the primary sources used for the book was The Selected Works of Janusz Korczak. So, one of the main characters is based on a real person, and their actual name is used. The other sources include diaries of Ghetto children, which presumably are worked into Aron’s storyline. Inserting a non-fictional character into the life of a fictitious smuggler is troubling because it suggests that this Polish-Jewish hero was involved in helping smugglers… So, the author had a responsibility to write a longer Acknowledgements explanation to specify if most of the book was fact or fiction.

 

The ending is also horrifying, but not because it is tragic. Zygmus tells Aron that he “pissed” himself. Then Aron starts wailing and jabbing at the air. Korczak stops him and recites his Declaration of Children’s Rights, for which he was known and which is referenced on the back cover, but which apparently was not mentioned until this last page. It is repetitive and services as the last lines of the book: “The child has the right to develop. The child has the right to be. The child has the right to grieve. The child has the right to learn. And the child has the right to make mistakes.” Aside from wailing, Aron is hardly more human than he was at the start. And the afterward relates that Aron, Korczak and the rest of the orphanage likely died in a gas chamber shortly after this final scene (251-3). Why isn’t the right to live on Korczak’s list, and why isn’t he attempting to fight against the death squad at this crucial moment? This one of the most depressing and pointless in terms of moral or emotional conclusion endings I have ever read.

 

 

Tragic Recollections of Growing Up in the Creek Nation

 

 

Joy Harjo. Crazy Brave: A Memoir. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. $14.95. ISBN: 978-0-393-34543-8.

 

****

 

The premise behind this book is a narrative of growing up at “the end place of the Trail of Tears,” in the Creek Nation, Oklahoma, as one of the reservation dwellers. Joy Harjo survives “an abusive stepfather” by escaping in spiritualism. This book won the CBC Book Award Silver Seal. I did not hear Joy’s talk at ALA because I believe the organizer said her flight was delayed.

There is a difference between the narrative voice Joy is using and Aron’s voice. Joy’s is more authentic in that it can offer more descriptive details, while it also has similar repetitions and musical or rhythmic language. The story begins with a drive in a black Cadillac, but Joy sees “omnipresent gods” in the light outside and this is a transformative experience. She frequently jumps between her reality, such as her family’s status because of “Indian oil money,” and her own spiritual experiences and reflections. The narrator is aware that as a child she lacked the vocabulary to describe all that her senses were taking in at that moment, but she is describing it all from her adult perspective: “I didn’t know the words jazz or trumpet. I don’t know how to say it, with what sounds or words, but in that confluence of hot southern afternoon, in the breeze of aftershave and humidity, I followed that sound to the beginning, to the birth of sound…” (17).

The problem is that reality becomes hazed the further the story goes, and the older she becomes. For example, she writes, “I played with garter snakes, horned toads, frogs, June bugs, and other creatures… As I played I caught bees in my hands…” She writes that at first the bees never stung her, and it was a mystical experience, but after a neighbor warned her that she can get stung, she was, and then “stopped playing with the bees” (40). Did she have similar revelatory experiences with snakes too? The narrative stops talking about nature as much after this point. Since Native American mythology is rooted in nature, and gods dwell in the natural world, the spiritual component also dims after this revelation that nature can sting. The narrative focuses on Joy’s studies and the discrimination she faced as she struggled to excel. As she is smoking with her friends, a classmate leaps “onto the hoods of every car in the administration parking lot, crushing in the roofs, one by one. He kicked in a set of windows lining the academic building… Within the whirlwind were racial slurs, his abandoned baby self, the running-away ghost of a father. Two teachers grabbed him and threw him to the ground” (90). This is an example of a good combination of relative content to the central story, interesting action and some supernatural mist around the event to raise it above the facts.

Then the narrative moves into her adulthood, as she is pregnant without the money to buy the basic necessities for her family, while negotiating “with a husband who was essentially a boy…” (135). She works to support them, but then finds a “love letter from my husband to the babysitter,” for which she is paying, and Joy divorces him. Meanwhile she’s working in a hospital and decides to study premed in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico (136-7).

The book concludes with Joy starting to find relief from her worries and a path for her spiritualism in writing poetry. This is a point thirty years behind when she wrote the book, but she stops here as it is the climax at which her life changed and she became the person she remained until she wrote this book all those years later.

I would recommend this book for an introduction to Native American literature class. While it is classified as a memoir, only the truthful details behind it put it into this genre. Otherwise, this is a great example of Native American rhythmic, spiritualist writing. It’s also a book that’s easy to read from cover-to-cover, as the editor clearly brushed aside irrelevant details and just left in the heart of the story. Native American reservation researchers might also find a perspective from inside the reservation that offers an example of how somebody can thrive despite all the obstacles people in reservations face, including low employment and other glum statistics.

 

 

A Thrill at a Georgia Construction Site

 

 

Karin Slaughter. The Kept Woman: A Novel. New York: William Morrow: HarperCollins Publishers, September 2016. ISBN: 978-0-06-243021-2. $27.99. 416pp. 6X9”.

 

**

 

Will Trent and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation work on a case of a murdered ex-cop found on an abandoned Georgia construction site. Sara Linton, a newbie medical examiner, who happens to be the protagonist Will’s new lover, discovers that some of the blood on the body belongs to another female victim that fled the scene. Will has previously failed to put away the owner of the construction site, a wealthy athlete, away for rape, and is now facing corruption as he once again tries to catch him, this time for murder. Then, Will himself is implicated in the case because of shady connections to his past, and this creates problems all around.

The official description includes the three frequently repeated words in many marketing releases for murder mysteries: “a novel of love, loss, and redemption.” The words are at the heart of a modern mystery formula: a) there has to be a love interest, b) somebody in a love tangle must die, c) at the end the antagonist or the antihero protagonist have to find redemption and evolve into a kinder, better human being. In a real murder mystery, it would be illegal for Will to be screwing the medical examiner on her first day on the job… He would be taken off the case at the first hint of affiliation with anybody accused of murder or with the victims. And the psycho that just killed one or more people would not evolve into a fantastic guy once you get to know him… And yet, Slaughter has “more than thirty-five million copies” in print, and here I go jumping into this thriller…

The Prologue begins at the climax, as a woman is holding a knife in her daughter’s chest, as she reflects on her life as a “kept woman,” constantly prostituting herself to men that promised to stay with her and then left. She recalls that she had abandoned this daughter and feels dejected about the horror her life has been. Meanwhile, she’s also injured and picks up a door knob as a weapon against the man armed with a gun who is slowly breaking into the room where she is hiding (1-3). This is a cliff hanger, and that storyline is, as usually, abandoned, and Chapter One begins with Will Trent waiting for his dog to get her teeth cleaned in an Atlanta Dutch Valley Animal Clinic (7). Basically after starting at the climax of danger, where one woman is about to die, and another is about to fight for her life, the drama meter drops down to zero, with the most mundane and boring event. If Will was getting his teeth cleaned, he might have been a bit frightened of the procedure, and we might have felt a bit of fear in sympathy, but if his dog is getting a cleaning, there is absolutely no motive for sympathy or attachment. Will expresses his displeasure at being there, and that he was talked into it, so he does not really feel something for his doggy friend, which might have brought readers in to see him as a big softy cuddling his little baby…

Another annoying element of modern mysteries is that when a new clue is discovered, it is typically accompanied by descriptions of emotional responses of the investigators, rather than with the craft of analysis. For example, in Chapter Two, Sara recognizes the handwriting on a screen, and a page is spent in a chat about it, and reflections that Will can be sued if he dies in a building collapse as he searches the construction site. The final cliff hanger before the chapter ends is Sara asking Amanda if the blood of the victim was B negative, suggesting that she knew the victim and is distraught (64). Conan Doyle would never have written this story out this way, but then again most of his mysteries were short stories, and not 406 pages. There are only so many discoveries that can happen in a real investigation. Sure, Sara would have recognized the handwriting the first time she looked at it, but only in fiction would she happen to know the victim. Doyle would have had the detective compare handwriting samples to come to this conclusion, instead of relying on an inserted character or accidental crossing of fates. Why would anybody want to read about these coincidences instead of about the actual components in a modern criminal investigation?

Then the next chapter starts with a return to the brief description of the decrepit buildings from the Prologue, as Will is now examining it. One of the things he focuses on is that: “Urine stained the walls” (65). And a bit later on the same page, he is moaning, “Angie,” as he is feverishly trying to find her, against all odds. His first thought is urine… and then Angie? Cervantes described Don Quixote urinating, but he did it during a pause in the narrative, when Quixote is wandering in a forest, not at a point when Quixote is feverishly searching for his beloved Dulcinea del Toboso.

On that note, I had to move on to the ending. Spoiler: Angie survived, and then Will dumped her in a sticky note, which was three words long because he has “dyslexia”: “It is over.” Meanwhile, Angie is more concerned with the old Corvette she bought on a “little bitch,” Delilah Palmer’s credit card, a woman that must be dead because she won’t “get stuck with the bill.” So, Angie gets in this car, also thinking about her perfume and computer, remembers a good laugh over something else Will wrote, wherein he promised it would “last forever,” and concludes: “Forever was never as long as you thought it was” (405-6). This is also a pretty typical ending for a series. It leaves some potential that the series will pick up on Angie’s life, taking a new direction that “evolves” her character as a “kept woman”…

To summarize, if you’ve read this type of formulaic novel before and have enjoyed it, I guess you should give it a try. But if you browse through mysteries like this and wonder why anybody buys them, stay away and avoid a long drive into a dyslexic mind… of Will… the horny state investigator…

 

 

A Fairytale about the Girl-Raping and Abducting Dragon-Wizard

 

 

Naomi Novik. Uprooted. New York: Del Rey: Penguin Random House LLC, 2016. $16. ISBN: 978-0-8041-7905-8. Fantasy. 457pp.

 

***

 

The back cover reads like an erotic horror novel. Agnieszka is terrified that her best friend, Kasia, will be taken by the dragon-magician, but is surprised that she is chosen instead. The first page of Chapter 1 explains that the women who are taken by the Dragon are kept for ten years and then returned with a bag of silver. Regarding the presumption that these girls are being raped for a decade the narrator explains: “of course she’s ruined, even though the girls all say he never puts a hand on them. What else could they say?” Then the notion of being raped for a bag of silver is glorified as a fine profession: “And that’s not the worst of it – after all, the Dragon gives them a purse full of silver for their dowry when he lets them go, so anyone would be happy to marry them, ruined or not” (3). The “worst of it” is that after they return from their time with the Dragon, they do not want to stay in the village, and instead abandon their families to go to a university, or to marry up in the city, or to become courtesans (4). The NPR review on the back cover proclaims: “…Clear your schedule before picking it up, because you won’t want to put it down.” The fantasy/ science fiction monster formula is certainly taken to the extreme in this story, which probably contributes to its addicting effect. I wrote about this formula in my Formulas of Popular Fiction book. It is a bit exaggerated and the enemy at the start is not a clear-cut evil, but this only adds to the drama, as the uncertainty of if the girls are raped and drugged to forget where they came from or if the Dragon is a version of the Beast, beautiful on the inside, increases the tension. The trouble is that it is not being sold as a pornographic masochistic fantasy, but rather has a painting of a castle, a princess in a tower and other fairytale components on the cover and the blurbs and description also mention the words fairytale, stressing that it is intended for young adult readers. I would not be thrilled to read the rest of this novel from this intro as I would have assumed that it would just be the saga of a decade of chats or long silent glances between a girl and a Dragon, followed by her receipt of the money and departure. The attainment of money is usually accompanied by marriage in a hyper-formulaic fantasy plot. While the setup suggests, this story would be different, the heroine finds her prince in the Dragon, who after a brief separation comes for her in the village to give her even more money and to hold her hand… and presumably to get married a bit later.

She does fight alongside the Dragon, on which she rides, rather than passively waiting for the prince to save her, as typical in most other formulaic fantasies (of old). One of these scenes is crowded with soldiers, horses, a monstrous heart-tree (the fruit of whose siblings she is eating at the end), and a horse-head chopping mantis. The Dragon, the heroine and her friend, Kasia, fight against all these forces, as they are also decimating each other in a hurried mass of action (200-1). It is similar in this to the Harry Potter formula of introducing new monsters and letting the action of clashes with enemies in between anticipation of battle lead the narrative forward.

This is a “hurrying” novel that is intended for young readers, and it does manage to brush against the sexual surface; in other words, it suggests that there will be a series of rapes in the opening pages, but ends the book on a handshake, allowing readers who have a dirty mind to imagine what happened afterwards. Somebody that likes fantasies should be able to hop in for a ride, and might be entertained by the adventure. It includes enough description and plot twists to surprise and engage the intellect of these younger readers, so it’s better that they read it versus nothing at all.

 

 

A Novel about Modern Slavery in the Food Processing Industry

 

 

James Hannaham. Delicious Foods: A Novel. New York: Back Bay Books: Little, Brown and Company, 2015. $15.99. ISBN: 978-0-316-28493-6. 367pp.

 

**

 

This book was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. James Hannaham teaches creative writing at the Pratt Institute, and I think these achievements set a higher bar for this work in contrast with perhaps all of the other works on this list. Hannaham was pretty star-struck in the ALA panel, and he expressed his deep admiration for Jim Shepard and how he felt humbled to be following him in the talk. He made a few fumbles and joked about them, and was one of the only authors that elicited a laugh from the audience. This was mostly before he got to the meat of his book, and then it got pretty silent and glum in there. It is intended to be a “funny novel” ( BookForum), but also a “harrowing” (The New Yorker) “horror story” (Daniel Woodrell), as blurbed on the back cover.

The book begins with a widow’s search for relief after the death of her husband in drugs, so that she is easily fooled by the promise of money into working for the slave farm. As she remains missing, her son, Eddie, sets out to recover her. But, he ends up on the same drugs and at the same farm with his mother, so that in the “Prologue: Little Muddy,” he is driving with nothing “above the wrists,” or without any hands (3). Hannaham explained that he spends the bulk of the novel in this tragic handless drive, while reflecting about the events that got him there.

Eddie had spent six years in that farm without realizing that he was being kept in Louisiana. And instead of hoping to find a police station, in the end, he is only afraid that he will be stopped for swerving and charged with stealing the car. He was a child when he got there and is only seventeen by this climatic drive. Eddie drives all the way to Houston, trying to locate his old neighbors and relatives, to no avail, at least on the first few excruciating stops. The details of the drive are painful, but are told with humor, as Eddie explains that after getting his zipper down in a restroom ones, “he couldn’t pull it up,” and he had to ask puzzled gas gawkers to help him fill in the gas, and none of them reported him or called for medical assistance (4-5). One of the best parts of this description is that it looks at realistic problems somebody driving without hands would have, rather than at purely spiritual or humanitarian problems he might have been dealing with. Meanwhile, he heads for Minnesota in a completely crazed and irrational run towards no logical purpose, as in a drugged delirium. Then, when he finally arrives in St. Cloud, Minnesota, he becomes a handyman to make a living, and excels at this craft so that he opens his own shop downtown two and a half years later. Oddly, the cliff hanger fear Eddie has, despite all this success is that, “someone will reveal everything that happened on that farm, and you will have to go back” (19-21). In other words, this start seems to foreshadow that Eddie will be found out, and the climax will see a triumphant conflict between him and his former enslavers.

When the book resumes at the beginning with Eddie’s mother, Darlene, the narrative is in third person but it is written in a vernacular, grammar and the like of a poor, uneducated, drugged up, Southern woman: “…Out all the stuff a motherfucker could say, not realizing he had spoke to somebody who gone to college…” Gone to college? “…Seem to Darlene that everything she strove for turned out as a hot mirage…” (23). This is a strange combination because typically authors like Mark Twain use the Southern vernacular when they engage first-person perspectives of the poor in a region, but instead the narrator is speaking in a dialect with broken English… Who is the narrator? Apparently, it is not the college educated professor writing the book… Later in the book, odd punctuation is also used, as in this line with my quotations: “Last night, he said, around nine thirty” (39). All of the dialogue across the book appears without opening or closing quotation lines that separates what somebody said from who said it and how. I have seen these type of errors in other books, but here it detracts from the clarity of the narrative. The errors become more obvious later in the book, as the simply narrative in the Prologue devolves into more emotional monosyllabic lines like, “Ma?” There are some philosophical discussions about the Civil War, high percentage of Mexicans and the like intermixed with paragraphs like this: “You know you want that, right? How told her. He mocked her with a exaggerated grin. All you people want is some watermelon” (116). The lack of an “n” in “a” before a word that starts with a vowel must have been frustrating for a professor. It’s like a nightmare essay from a developmental composition student. I guess it makes the narrative more authentically tribal or like the poor locals speak. But, does the story of modern-day slavery deserve to be developed with clear-sighted details rather than with these emotional hits at stereotypes? It is a curious linguistic exercise, even if it is a frustrating one.

Overall, this is a better novel than many others because it attempts to enter a very unique universe of modern slavery and to see it not as researchers see it, with due distance, but rather as the type of drug-riddled and mind-dead characters that are typically extracted from these circumstances. Even if Eddie was sane and drug-free when he entered the farm, so many years of being dehumanized and drugged probably would have created this hazy and confusing universe. Most of it is a stream of consciousness of madness and misery. When this is compared with fake romance novels or repetitive mysteries, it is certainly a better brand of fiction.

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