Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Dangerous Otto Katz: The Many Lives of a Soviet Spy

Although born a Baby Boomer, I was raised by parents for whom WWII was the defining event in their lives. Every year on December 7, my mother sent me off to school with the admonishment to remember that it was Pearl Harbor Day. My family watched every movie ever made about the war and all of the television series set during the war.

The Cold War with its accompanying Duck and Cover Drills defined my life. Signs in public buildings directing visitors to fallout shelters were ubiquitous. NATO stood guard in Europe. A war was being fought in Viet Nam to prevent the spread of Communism in Asia. I read long and deeply trying to understand the how and why of the Communist threat that hung like a malevolent cloud over my life.

When I picked up this book, my first thought was “Otto who?” I thought that I knew just about everything about the political threats of the first half of the Twentieth Century. The reason I had never heard of Otto Katz is that he was so successful as a spy, few people ever knew his real name. Born in 1895 to a wealthy Czech family, he was a lazy playboy and a “useless” soldier during WWI. After the war, he drifted to Berlin joining the art scene and becoming a true believer in Socialism.

It was his wealthy background and artistic contacts that made him such a successful spy and fundraiser for the Russians. He travelled the world using different names and passports making him difficult to track by Western intelligence agencies. He spent time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, in Hollywood amongst German expatriates such as Marlene Dietrich and the director Fritz Lang, and in Mexico City where Germans who had fled Hitler’s Germany had settled.

In the end, it was his cosmopolitanism that did him in. In Stalin’s paranoid mind, anyone who had spent significant amounts of time outside of the Eastern Bloc was suspected of having been turned by Western intelligence agencies. The fact that Katz was a Jew sealed his fate. He was tried and executed in 1952.

Author Jonathan Miles does a good job of tracing Katz’s complex life. The book is rich in detail about Katz’s life up to the beginning of WWII. After that point, the narrative becomes less detailed and more hurried as if Miles is impatient to get to the end of his story. Katz’s trial, execution and rehabilitation a decade later are given short shrift. I wish that Miles had taken more time and given more weight to the last decade of Katz’s life. It was an important period not just in his life, but also in world history. WWII shaped the political landscape of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Katz was an important participant and deserves a full treatment of his entire life, not just part of his life.

Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury USA

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Just Enough Jeeves

If you have never read anything by P.G. Wodehouse, this book is an excellent place to start. It contains two novels and a collection of short stories, all featuring Bertie Wooster and his omniscient manservant, Jeeves. The stories collected here span most of Wodehouse’s career, from among the first Jeeves stories to the last.

One drawback to reading an anthology like this is that it is much like watching a House marathon on television. The plotlines are all the same. In House’s case, the first 15 minutes are devoted to the setup, introducing the new patient, his/her misdiagnosis and the friends and family surrounding him/her. The next forty minutes see House and his team pursue various clues while making wildly wrong diagnoses until in the final ten minutes House has an epiphany and comes up with the correct diagnosis. The fun, of course, is in the byplay between the characters and like any good mystery, guessing which are the real clues and which are the red herrings.

Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories are much the same. Each story starts out with Bertie and his friends and relatives faced with a seemingly insurmountable personal situation, which after much drama is neatly solved by Jeeves. The fun in these stories is the dry, English humor and guessing what solution Jeeves will come up with. “Drama” is relative. Like Seinfeld, these stories are about “nothing”. Nothing important (to anyone but the rich, selfish characters) ever happens. No one ever dies or is seriously hurt. Yet to the characters in the stories, the situations in which they find themselves, are of vital importance. Only Jeeves can save them.

All the stories are told from Bertie’s point of view. We are never privileged to enter into Jeeves character or thinking other than to hear his explanations of the solutions he comes up with to solve the dilemmas of the idle rich. His simple but effective answers to their seemingly insurmountable problems, offers him an opportunity to comment on their ignorance without actually calling them morons. Bertie and his friends and family remain blissfully unaware that he is mocking them.

Review copy courtesy of W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Cleopatra: A Life

The reviews of this book present an interesting dichotomy. Scholarly reviewers rave about author Stacy Schiff’s ability to flesh out the life and times of a queen about whom very little is known. Other reviewers complain that there is very little about Cleopatra herself in the book. Although not a professional historian, I am firmly in the camp with those who stand in awe of this recreation of an extraordinary woman.

History is written by the victors. As Schiff points out, in Cleopatra’s time they were men, Romans whose culture did not allow for powerful women or female rulers. In their eyes, she was the enemy who had seduced Caesar and Mark Antony, bent them to her will and contributed to their destruction. Subsequent authors through the ages, accepted this interpretation of her and embroidered on it.

In this book, Cleopatra’s life is placed in the context of both the Egyptian culture that she ruled and the Alexandrian culture of the ruling class (her ancestors were Macedonians who had conquered Egypt). Both of these cultures allowed for a woman ruler, unlike many other ancient cultures. To the Egyptians, she was a goddess, the incarnation of Isis.

Both cultures allowed her to rule without a husband unlike many future European queens who were forced to make the difficult choice of remaining single like Elizabeth I of England or choosing a husband who either alienated her subjects like Prince Philip of Spain, the husband of Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary, or cost her her throne like Lord Darnley, the husband of Mary Stewart of Scotland.

Her world is brought to life in this enchanting book. One can almost smell and feel the humid, spice laden air of Alexandria and the chill of the Roman hills. The colors, the pageantry, the rites and the people come alive.

It’s been more than thirty years since I last took an ancient history course but the author provides plenty of background information on each country and personage who was a part of Cleopatra’s life. I was able to follow along with no problem.

Unlike the heavy, ponderous style of male biographers, Schiff’s writing style is peculiarly suited to her subject. Her light feminine style provides the perfect voice for a smart, fearless, feminine queen.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans

The title of this book, Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans is a bit off-putting. Reading it, I mentally prepared myself for a diatribe written by a disgruntled low-level employee out to get his pound of flesh. We all know that health insurance companies are in the habit of denying coverage and raising premiums, occasionally exorbitantly, but they aren’t all that bad, right? Surely not as bad as the Wall Street firms that first took away our retirement savings and then our jobs.

I worked in the financial industry for 25 years. Nothing I saw there was as heinous as what is revealed in this book. Put simply, Wall Street may take away people’s money, but health insurance companies take away people’s lives.

Author Wendell Potter was an insurance company executive, heading up a PR department. For years, he participated in the shameless pursuit of profits over lives until he finally came face to face with the effects on real people of what he was doing. Visiting a clinic set up on a fair ground offering free health care to those who had no insurance and no means to pay for health care, he saw ordinary hardworking people reduced to being treated in animal stalls.

He has written about his experience in the health insurance industry, as well as his epiphany, in a straightforward manner, making it more powerful than if he had penned an hysterical screed. He takes us, step by step through the changes in the health insurance industry from a privately held companies offering true health insurance to the modern publicly owned companies whose focus is on profits rather than health.

The lengths to which health insurers go and the collusions in which they participate are extraordinary. They routinely deny coverage to people who need it and drop coverage of people who become ill. They hire outside PR firms who form bogus grassroots groups who lobby in favor of health insurers. They provide statistics to back up all of their false claims that any kind of healthcare reform is bad.

Potter devotes an entire chapter to revealing how health insurers torpedoed Healthcare Reform using all of the dirty tricks he had discussed in previous chapters. The reason we have no public option is because it would put the health insurance industry out of business prompting them to wage all-out war against it.

It took the death of a child who was denied a liver transplant to convince Potter to leave his job with CIGNA. He devotes his time now to healthcare reform advocacy and as a health insurance critic. He testified during the healthcare reform debates, but obviously not enough people listened to him.

In my opinion, this book should be required reading for every member of Congress. They need to know how they have been bribed and manipulated by the health insurers to do what’s best for the health insurance industry instead of what is best for the people who elected them to office.

Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Press

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen

I was so excited when this book arrived from I couldn’t wait to dive into it. After all, it promised a brand new view of Elizabeth I, “…portrayed here as the product of women….” The reader is assured that it is “…a thrilling new angle by the brilliant young historian Tracy Borman.” The author herself guarantees that she has “…focused the story upon those women who help to reveal Elizabeth the woman, as well as Elizabeth the Queen.” 418 pages later, I am still waiting for a revelation.

This book is only interesting to readers who know little or nothing about Elizabeth I. For the rest of us, it is just a tiresome rehashing of all the familiar stories. Elizabeth’s relationships with her half-sister, Mary and Mary, Queen of Scots. Her ladies in waiting, both those who served her selflessly and those who “betrayed” her with secret pregnancies and secret marriages, usually in that order.

There are no new insights into any of these women, their lives nor their influence on Elizabeth. The only original thinking in the book is a few brief pages on Elizabeth’s similarity to her mother, Anne Boleyn. Most biographers point out her similarities to her father, Henry VIII. This biographer looks at her resemblance to her mother both in looks and personality and how she used both to manipulate the men around her, again like her mother.

This single original thought could have fit comfortably into an article or academic paper. There was no reason to write a book.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

George Eliot in Love

Many years ago when I first became aware of George Eliot as a Victorian woman who openly lived with a man without benefit of marriage, I eagerly sought out her novels thinking they would be as scandalous as her life. Imagine my disappointment upon discovering that the books were conventional Victorian novels, no different from the books of Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope or Henry James, all of whom she knew and with whom she socialized.

The mystery of how a woman who flouted Victorian conventions while writing stories observing those conventions has finally been solved for me by Brenda Maddox’s excellent biography, George Eliot in Love. This small volume, which the author calls a "…short life of the great Victorian author…." is a sympathetic treatment of Eliot’s life and career.

It is in some ways, a typical Victorian love story. A woman, Mary Anne Evans, too ugly for marriage has several brief love affairs before finally finding a man, George Henry Lewes, who can ignore her looks and love her for herself. But there the story becomes more modern. They are unable to marry because he is already married and has acknowledged his wife’s children by her lover as his own thereby depriving himself of grounds for divorce. Nevertheless, George and Mary Anne live as man and wife, she taking his name.

She had been a journalist and editor but with his encouragement, turned to writing novels using the pseudonym George Eliot. He nurtured her talent, shielded her from critical reviews and managed all of her business affairs. Her fame grew and people began to "forget" that she was not married to the man she was living with. Their love also grew. This book is as much a love story as a biography.

Unlike most modern biographies, this one does not dwell on its subject’s flaws. The author mentions the possible physical relationships Eliot had before meeting Lewes, but doesn’t speculate. She also mentions but dismisses rumors that Lewes was unfaithful to Eliot. She doesn’t make a big deal of Eliot’s marriage after Lewes' death to a much younger man. There is no titillation here, only the story of two soulmates who defied society to be together.

Having gained a better understanding of George Eliot as a person as well as an author, I am keen to re-read her novels.

Review copy courtesy of Palgrave MacMillan

Friday, October 22, 2010

Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables

I was a little put off when this book landed, unsolicited, in my mailbox. I don’t like being reminded that I am growing older. Reading the blurbs on the back cover, I was intrigued by the fact that the author was a widow who had lost her husband of forty years quite suddenly and didn’t miss him. That alone was enough to encourage me to read the book.

It turns out that after his death, she realized that her marriage hadn’t been as happy and fulfilling as she thought. Now her life was her own, unencumbered by a husband who had been an emotional burden, and she could finally live her life on her own terms.

Joan Gussow is a nutrition educator, activist and passionate organic gardener. Her garden feeds her body and her spirit. She uses it in this book as a springboard to discuss nutrition, the environment, life in general and her life in particular. She is a talented writer who can start off writing about potatoes, veer off on a discussion of travel leading to the plight of Magellanic Penguins and end up back in her potato patch without losing the reader’s interest or attention.

She had written a previous book about her garden, This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader, which I have never read because I don’t grow food, only flowers, and didn’t think that it would interest me. I know better now and will pick a copy knowing that it will be a wonderful read and not just about veggies.

Review copy courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Dark Game: True Spy Stories

I haven’t read a Young Adult book since, well, since I was a young adult. After a lifetime of reading “adult” books, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book, meant for a young audience, readily held my attention.

What was particularly satisfying was the amount of historical background provided for each spy. Their life and times are described in enough detail to give a well-rounded view without overdoing it and perhaps losing the interest of someone who is not familiar with the historical eras described.

The author covers the whole of American history, from the Revolutionary War to the end of the twentieth century. I was also pleased to note that both men and women, good guys and bad guys are the subjects of the book.

This is a great book to introduce young people to the history of espionage in the United States. It is also a quick and fascinating read for adults who can use it as a jumping off point for more in depth research into this intriguing subject.

Review copy courtesy of Candlewick Press

Friday, October 8, 2010

Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future

Many years ago when I was in college (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), there were no required courses other than the ones for your major. You better believe I didn’t crack a math or science text for four years. But, once I graduated and entered the real world, I discovered that there is a reason why those courses are taught. Contrary to what many disgruntled students will tell you, that knowledge is relevant to everyday life.

Take economics, for instance. I didn’t take it in school, but I started reading up on it afterwards. It was the era of WIN (Whip Inflation Now) and the Laffer Curve and waiting breathlessly for the money supply number. What did all of this mean? I slogged through economics tomes written for a popular audience, reading and re-reading the dense prose only to come away with a vague notion of the concepts that the authors were trying to convey.

I don’t know if some of that knowledge finally began to sink in or if economists are dumbing down their books but lately I seem to be able to finally grasp economic theories. And they are all theories. Back in the Reagan years, Keynesian economics was declared dead. In the aftermath of The Great Recession, Keynes is looking pretty prescient.

In his book, Aftershock, Robert B. Reich offers his own theory as to the cause of the Great Recession. He lays out the evidence that the concentration of wealth in the hands of the top one percent of the population, leaving the middle class with stagnant or falling incomes forcing Americans to pile on debt just to stay even, was the root cause of the debacle that is still affecting our economy today. He points out that the same conditions existed prior to the Great Depression.

Everyone seems to be able to agree that the only way to get the economy moving again is if the middle class starts borrowing and spending again. The only way that that is going to happen is if we can put everyone back to work. Reich disagrees, pointing out that full employment didn’t help the middle class before the Great Recession because the jobs that were available didn’t pay as much as the jobs that had been outsourced. The same is true today. Many people who have found work, are working part-time or working at jobs that pay significantly less than the jobs they lost. He devotes his last chapter of Aftershock to his suggestions for fixing the structural problems of our economy.

Like the old Chinese curse, we live in interesting times. As we struggle to find a way to kick-start our economy, we would do well to remember that the Great Depression dragged on for years until the government was willing to go deeply into debt to fund the wartime economy which offered many good paying middle class jobs and launched decades of prosperity.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend

I really have to start reading the book blurbs more carefully when I enter the Book Giveaways on GoodReads. This is the second book I have received that is not what I thought it was when I signed up. I thought this book was about Samuel Colt and the invention of the Colt Revolver, a nice segue from the previous Giveaway, They Rode for the Lonestar; the Texas Rangers having made the Colt Revolver famous.

Instead, this book is about John Colt, Samuel’s brother, and the murder he committed for which he was tried and condemned. To make things more confusing, throughout the book both brother’s lives are described in tandem, switching back and forth between them, leaving the reader to wonder just exactly who the book is about. Or is it both of them? A nice little twist at the end, which I won’t reveal, explains how and why the brothers’ lives were so entwined despite their very different temperaments, professions and places of residence.

Both brothers are interesting, but I was particularly fascinated by John. Growing up, he was a cut-up and ne’er-do-well who as an adult finally found his calling as an accountant. None of the accountants that I know could be even remotely described as rabble-rousers. They are all terribly straitlaced and conventional. John Colt, despite his troubled past, was not only a good accountant, but he also wrote a book on accounting that was so popular it went through nine editions. It was the final edition of the book, The Science of Double Entry Book-Keeping, that was the cause of the quarrel between him and Samuel Adams, his printer, that resulted in the murder of Mr. Adams. Fully half of the Killer Colt is devoted to the trial of John Colt.

I was also unaware that the author, Harold Schechter, is a noted writer of true crime books. Not normally a fan of true crime books, I was pleasantly surprised that Mr. Schechter writes from a historical point of view rather than the usual lurid and titillating approach typical of that genre. He quotes extensively from the contemporary press to provide the emotional color of the trial. He provides enough background on the City (Manhattan), the press and the various figures involved to allow the reader to fully appreciate the crime, the trial and the emotions swirling around them.

I am a huge fan of history so I loved this book. Through it, I gained a snapshot view of a particular time and place and really felt like I was able to enter into the lives and feelings of the people populating the narrative.

Review copy courtesy of Ballantine Books

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Great Silence: Britain From the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age

The Great Silence, a history of the aftermath of WWI as experienced by the people of Great Britain is curiously relevant as we wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The issues facing returning soldiers then are the same as the issues facing returning soldiers now: disfiguring injuries, PTSD (called “shellshock” during and after WWI) and a lack of jobs. A significant difference for families is that we are much better at retrieving and returning bodies of our dead soldiers to their families for burial. During WWI, many men were blown to bits or their bodies were lost in the mud of the trenches. Others were buried far from home in cemeteries in France.

"The Great Silence" referred to in the title is the two minutes of silence that was observed nationwide on the first and second anniversaries of WWI. This was in stark contrast to the celebrations marking the Armistice in 1918 and the Peace Parade that was held in July of 1919. Playing an important role in the Peace Parade and the anniversary observance in 1920 was the Cenotaph, a war memorial designed by eminent architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens. The book ends with the funeral and interment of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey, an event that was to stand in for all the funerals of all the dead whose families had no bodies to bury.

I was a little confused by the review of this book by Miranda Seymour in The New York Times Book Review. In her review, Ms. Seymour criticizes the author for emphasizing the experiences of the upper class while scarcely mentioning the middle and lower classes. I did not find this to be true at all. English society underwent profound changes in the aftermath of the war. Workers held frequent strikes for better wages and working conditions. The servant class shrank significantly as former chauffeurs, cooks and maids sought better opportunities in hotels and offices. The Sex Disqualification Act enacted in 1919 opened up new career opportunities for single women, many of whom were widows. A popular book, Married Love, advocated birth control and healthy sexual relationships within marriage thereby making marriage more of a partnership of equals rather than the traditional man as supreme head of the household. All of these changes which affected the middle and lower classes are given extensive coverage in the book.

The Great Silence which covers a longer time period and more wide ranging topics is organized similarly to the author’s first book, The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm. This allows the books to be read separately or together. Both offer insight into these important historical eras, the events of which helped define the modern world.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Society

Whenever I read a book that I really like, I always check out the bibliography to see if there are other books on the subject that I might like to read. I pay special attention to books that are specifically mentioned in the text of whatever book I am reading. Lately, one title has come up over and over, Guns, Germs, and Steel. I read it when it was published in 1997. Because so many authors are using it in their research, I decided that it was time to read it again.

Rereading this book was a pleasure. Enough time has passed since my first reading, that I experienced those “aha” moments again. Moments when what the author is saying is so clear and makes so much sense that I find myself wondering why I have never looked at the subject in that light before. His thesis is very simple. The reason that Eurasian peoples conquered and colonized the world was not because they were smarter than the so-called primitive societies that they encountered. Instead, the reason was simply that they had more plants and animals in their environment that were suitable for domestication which led to population increases which led to more people to come up with technological inventions such as the writing and sophisticated weapons.

Peoples lacking enough plants and animals in their environment that were suitable for domestication either got a later start at food production and technology or never moved beyond the hunter-gatherer stage. Which is not to say that they were any less intelligent. My favorite anecdote is about two English explorers who perished while attempting to traverse the outback of Australia, an area where the aboriginal tribes had been able to find enough food and water to survive with no problem for thousands of years.

And while it is true that many conquered peoples died from the diseases that were introduced by Europeans, those same Europeans died of tropical diseases at the same rates until 20th century medicine was able to overcome them.

It’s no surprise that this book has become a classic. Nor should it surprise anyone that it is the Ur text for anyone writing on climate, food and human civilization.

Monday, July 26, 2010

They Rode for the Lone Star: The Saga of the Texas Rangers, Vol. 1: The Birth of Texas--The Civil War

The usual criteria on most sites that sponsor book giveaways, is that you have posted reviews of similar books in the past. This is good for the giveaway sponsors. They are assured that you have actually read the books and that you post reviews. But it’s frustrating for reviewers who wish to widen the type of book that they read and review. I find myself reading and writing reviews for the same type of book, over and over again.

Not so with the giveaways on GoodReads. They continually surprise me with their choices for me, starting with the very first book, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I had no science fiction works in my "library". They Rode for the Lone Star is another surprise. I have no "westerns" in my library.

I signed up for this book on a whim. I know very little about Texas and thought that the whole Texas Ranger "mystique" was one of those "everything is bigger and better in Texas". I am happy to report that I was wrong. The Texas Rangers are, and were, much more than a state police force.

They have a long, proud history that dates back to the first settlement of Texas by colonists from the fledgling United States. Texas Rangers were initially a militia force, defending "Texians" from hostile Native Americans and Mexicans who also claimed Texas. Rangers fought in the battles for independence from Mexico, in the Mexican War after Texas achieved statehood and then in the Civil War, on both sides of the conflict. The author ends this, the first volume of his history, at the end of the Civil War.

The history of Texas and the Rangers is covered in detail, sometimes too much detail, and includes discussions of uniforms, weapons, tactics and seemingly every move in every battle fought by every ranger. And yet, despite all of that detail, a lot of knowledge is assumed on the part of the reader. I found myself wanting more information on important events like the fall of the Alamo, which admittedly fall outside of the scope of this book.

I was a little confused by the use of numerous watercolors by the artist Bruce Marshall. Since he is a contemporary artist and not someone living during the time period covered in this book, I was unsure why his imagined scenes of battles and equally imaginative depictions of Texas Rangers, their dress, weapons and horses were used in a serious historical work. Much better are the paintings, photos, daguerreotypes and woodcuts from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries portraying the actual persons and scenes as they appeared at the time.

This is an excellent book for any student of Texas and Texas Ranger history. The narrative, which can be daunting, is broken up by sidebars with details on people, places, battles and weapons, mentioned in the text and by illustrations of same.

Happily for me, the book I was sent was autographed by the author. I collect books signed by their authors and am pleased to add this one to my collection.

Review copy courtesy of Lone Star Publishing

Monday, July 19, 2010

Ruminations From the Garden

This book was not at all what I expected. Somehow, when I read the blurb about it on the Early Reviwers’ page on LibraryThing, all I took away from it was that the author had planted a garden and tended it by hand while ruminating on our dependence on oil. Even the book jacket quoted the author "What will happen if the oil runs out or becomes so expensive we can’t afford to buy it?" I was looking forward to some homespun wisdom and suggestions for energy independence.

What I got was a blog in book form. A blog like the hundreds, maybe thousands, of blogs that I stopped reading long ago because all they offer is the regurgitated arguments and solutions of pundits and talking heads. There are no new or original ideas here.

When the author does offer a few original, non-energy related ideas, they are breathtakingly ignorant: homosexuality is caused by over-population, mentally ill people are not sick – they are in touch with the spirit world, the death penalty frees evil spirits to infect other people.

Mr. Ford should stick to writing about what he knows best: ranching, animal husbandry, cowboys, and immigrants, both legal and illegal. I found those parts of the book fascinating. If you excised all of the faux philosophy, this would be a wonderful book on life in south Texas.

Review copy courtesy of Speir Publishing

Monday, July 12, 2010

Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam

Back in the early 1980’s while the Cold War was still raging, I used to joke that I must be on some FBI and/or CIA watchlist because of my growing collection of books on the Soviet Union, including books (in translation) authored by Soviet writers who were not dissidents. My curiosity about all things Russian stemmed from my idea that you can’t "hate" an enemy that you know nothing about.

Fast forward to 9/11 when we realized that we were facing a new enemy, radical Islam. Again, my curiosity was sparked, but finding books about Islam that didn’t demonize it have been difficult to come by. Author Fred M. Donner, a professor of Near Eastern History at the University of Chicago, presents us with an objective look at the beginnings of Islam in his book Muhammad and The Believers, which he has been working on since 2000. It is a badly needed perspective on the hotly debated subject of the origins of some of the more radical beliefs espoused by today’s terrorists.

Most books and opinion pieces today take one of two positions. Either Islam is a religion of peace or it is a religion of jihad. Professor Donner shows us that it is both. Islam started out as a radical movement of monotheists in an area of the world dominated by polytheists. Members of the movement, who called themselves The Believers, stood out from other cults and religions because of their piety and righteous behavior. Initially, they embraced Christians and Jews who were also pious. It was only after the death of Muhammad and the question of succession had been settled after two civil wars that Islam was rigidly defined and codified, restricted to only those who followed the teachings of the Koran who were now called Moslems.

Towards the end of Muhammad’s life, The Believers embarked on what we today call jihad, battling the adjacent Persian and Byzantine Empires that they considered ungodly. Within just a few generations, Islam had spread across North Africa and into Spain. Admittedly, the initial impetus to the expansion was the overthrow of neighboring infidel empires, but after some time, the Islamic leadership began to depend on the revenue generated by taxes imposed on subject states.

I think that this is what should concern us in the 21st century. Those who claim that modern day jihadists are twisting Muhammad’s teachings or that jihad is a modern concept are wrong. Jihad and the forced conversion or overthrow of non-Islamic states is nothing new. It has been going on since the founding of Islam. But, just as Christianity was able to evolve from the militancy of the Crusades and the Inquisition, to more peaceful means of recruiting new members, so should Moslem leaders begin to turn their followers from the concept of violent jihad to non-violent jihad, converting new members with missionaries rather than soldiers.

Although written for a popular audience, Professor Donner is unable to break out of his scholarly writing mode. He has taken a subject that is incredibly fascinating and made it dry, dry, dry. Dull, dull, dull. I literally fell asleep several times while reading it. In the future, I would suggest that he employ a ghost writer geared toward popular readership. The topic that he writes about is much too important not to be accessible to as many people as possible.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Betsy Ross and the Making of America

Normally when I review a book, I first read the book and write my review, then I read reviews written by other people. In the case of Betsy Ross and the Making of America, my introduction to the book was via a review in the New York Times Book Review dated May 9, 2010. It was not a flattering review. The reviewer, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a professor at Harvard, accuses the author, Marla R. Miller, a professor of American History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, of "sentimental fiction" which "weakens her own historical prose, which is strong enough to stand on its own" and "defeats the ultimate purpose of her book, which is to rediscover the woman behind the legend." Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the fact that, other than books for children, this is the first biography of Betsy Ross ever written. Intrigued enough to buy and read the book despite the poor review.

By the end of the first chapter, I had forgotten about the scathing review and was completely hooked. I literally couldn't put the book down. This was American history as I had never read it before. These were real people and real experiences, not the usual dry recitations of politics and battles and tactics. I never liked American history. I felt it was boring compared to the thousands of years of history of Europe and the Mediterranean. Having been forced in high school to memorize every battle and every general of the Revolutionary War, I subsequently tuned out the following 200 years, learning just enough to pass exams while devoting my spare time to Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors and English kings who chopped their wives' heads off. Now that’s history.

It is precisely the "sentimental fiction" that makes this book interesting to the general reader. Rather than a dry overview of the development of the city of Philadelphia, we see it from the point of view of Betsy's great-grandfather, a master carpenter. It's one thing to read about the tactics, such as boycotts, the colonists used to protest what they perceived to be unfair taxation. It's quite another to read about the effects those boycotts had on the local artisans and merchants. The yellow fever epidemics that killed so many residents of Philadelphia are more meaningful when we learn of the various family members lost. Rather than just numbers, they are people that we have come to know. Small details like the families who were split between loyalty to the king and loyalty to the rebellion, illustrates the upheaval caused by this colonial rebellion much better than the usual political analysis commonly found in books on the American Revolution.

The final criticism in the review with which I disagreed was that the author devoted "only" 50 pages out of a total of 362 pages to the last 40 years of Betsy's life, despite the fact that these are the best documented years of her life. I have to admit that after 300 pages, I was pretty much Betsy Ross'ed out. Not only was her life prior to and during the Revolution tumultuous (three husbands and seven daughters), but just trying to keep all the people, many of whom had the same names, straight made my head spin. The author's decision to gloss over the details of the latter part of Betsy Ross' life was a sound one. And, in the best Hollywood tradition, leaves room for a "sequel", a more in depth analysis of her life after the Revolution, to be written by the author or another historian.

After I finished the book, I went back and read the review again. My second reading of the review led me to the conclusion that the problem lay in the intention of the author. The reviewer was critiquing the book from a scholarly point of view whereas it seemed to me that the author intended her book to be read by both scholars and general readers. Scholars are more interested in facts and conclusions supported by facts. Hence the harsh review. General readers like myself do tend to speculate as we read. What was she thinking? How would I have reacted in this situation? We enjoy seeing events through the eyes and emotions of ordinary people like ourselves rather than from the lofty perspective of presidents, kings and generals.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir

This is another Book Giveaway on that I entered on a whim. It turned out to be much funnier than I had anticipated. The author had me midway through the prologue where he describes transporting five baby goats from his farm in upstate New York to Manhattan, a trip that takes several hours, during which time the goats develop diarrhea and he is forced to drive with his head out the window to get away from the smell.

I practically fell out of my chair laughing. I knew exactly how he felt. I once transported a kitten from a breeder two hours distant from my house, a kitten that was so nervous he began pooping forcing me to drive two hours with the car windows wide open in January. Unlike the author, whose passengers were confined in a cage in the backseat of his vehicle, in my case the kitten was loose in my car and being a typical feline, sought the highest elevation on which to perch. That elevation being the top of my head, with his claws firmly implanted in my scalp for balance.

I found this book both entertaining and disappointing. Mr. Kilmer-Purcell makes frequent references to his former career as a drag queen and to his partner’s career on Martha Stewart’s show. Too many references. I understand that being a drag queen and within the orbit of Martha Stewart were two defining experiences for him and his partner, but there is whole other world outside of that small universe that he seems almost unaware of.

After a lengthy set-up in which the author and his partner, find, fall in love with and purchase a “mansion” in upstate New York as a weekend house that eventually becomes a goat farm, I felt let down with the rest of the book. There is almost no discussion of their friends and activities in Manhattan, where they lived five days a week. He manages somehow to devote most of the book to the mansion cum goat farm while revealing almost nothing about the surrounding area or the inhabitants.

I would like to have learned more about his rural neighbors and his urban friends. How did those two worlds compare and contrast? What was their life like before they bought the weekend house? They had been a couple for almost a decade. What did they do during that decade? How did their lives in Manhattan change after buying the weekend house? Did they attempt to mingle the two worlds by inviting friends to visit them at their upstate retreat?

This is a great human interest story, but I feel that a big part of it is missing. It is a quick, entertaining read that is more sequins and boas than compost and canning.

Review copy courtesy of Harper Collins

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Promise: President Obama, Year One

Barack Obama is not a saint. What a relief. The Promise: President Obama, Year One, written by Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek reporter, is a refreshing change from the worshipful treatment of President Obama in Game Change. Mr. Alter provides an even-handed treatment of the first year of the Obama presidency. He shows us a president who is all too human, making mistakes in both personnel and policies but mostly getting it right.

The reader is provided with thorough background information on all of the major players in President Obama’s administration. I was especially fascinated by the description of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s agonizing decision whether to take the job as Chief of Staff or remain in the House, eventually succeeding Nancy Pelosi to become the first Jewish Speaker of the House. First Jewish Speaker? I had no idea that anyone thought that way in the 21st century. I thought that we had put silly religious issues behind us. I’m old enough to remember when (Catholic) JFK was running for the presidency and voters (including my Goldwater Republican parents) were terrified that if he were elected, the Pope would be running the country. As history reminds us, JFK was elected and governed the country without the Pope.

First Lady Michelle Obama is treated respectfully. I was surprised to learn that despite her husband never having been subject to rumors of infidelity, she is described as "a tiger when it came to Barack and other women", the example of Halle Berry’s enthusiasm in campaigning for Obama prompting the future First Lady to forbid her husband to appear with her.

Mr. Alter’s previous book, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, dealt with FDR and the New Deal. Not surprisingly, he frequently draws parallels between President Obama’s first year in office and FDR’s first year in office. Both entered office faced with a collapsing economy. Both were forced to clean up the messes left by the previous administrations. And both passed landmark legislation in their first year, Social Security by FDR and health care reform by Obama.

It’s often difficult to end a book of this length and breadth, especially with the protagonist still early in his administration and still likely to continue making history, but I found the ending to this book very satisfying. The long, drawn-out battle for health care reform takes up most of the book, but in the end the reader is reminded of President Obama’s other first year accomplishments such as banning pay discrimination against women (always close to my heart), health insurance for millions of children, tightened rules governing credit cards and the crackdown on predatory lending, achievements that have become lost in the noise and confusion of the battle over health care, but which are huge victories in their own right.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Red November: Inside the Secret U.S.-Soviet Submarine War

When you encounter a sentence like: "Despite the thickness of his wet suit, the cold still launched his testicles into his throat", you know that you are reading a Guy Book. Written for Guys by a Guy. W. Craig Reed has been reading too much Tom Clancy and too many Soldier of Fortune magazines. His macho posturing spoils an otherwise fascinating book on submarines and submarine warfare in the modern era.

Red November contains stories that are begging to be told by a professional historian. In Mr. Reed’s hands, they read like a poorly written thriller. The chapters are full of B movie dialogue. His foreshadowing is crude and heavy-handed. And I had to ask myself, did every story have to be foreshadowed? After the fifth or sixth "Little did he know…", I found myself muttering "Enough already! I got the idea." If this is the result after an editor went over it, I shudder to think what the original manuscript was like.

Despite the poor writing, the tales he tells are gripping. The unknown story of the four submarines that almost launched nuclear weapons ("Little did he know…" for each sub) during the Cuban missile crisis. The stories behind the sinking of various subs, both Russian and American. The possible raising of a sunken Russian sub. The diving feats at incredible depths of both subs and divers. The near misses. The collisions. This is great stuff.

If the intended audience for this book is armchair warriors, then Mr. Reed has succeeded admirably. I can’t, however, in good conscience recommend this book for the general reader. The history of submarine warfare in the latter half of the 20th century will be written again and better by military historians.

Review copy courtesy of William Morrow

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Monet's Passion: Ideas, Inspiration, and Insights from the Painter's Gardens

Every gardener knows about Monet’s magnificent gardens at Giverny which inspired so many of his paintings, but very few gardeners have the opportunity to visit those gardens and experience them in person. Lucky for us, Elizabeth Murray who is a gardener and photographer, has written a book about Giverny that is lavishly illustrated with her own incomparable photographs.

She spent a year as a gardener at Giverny and then returned, year after year, at different seasons to photograph the splendid landscape. The book is printed on heavy paper like a fine art book, but its text makes is a practical gardening book also.

We are treated to the story of Monet’s acquisition of the property and development of the gardens. Ms. Murray provides the information that is so important to her gardener readers of how the gardens evolved, which plants he used, where he obtained them and why he chose them. The book includes detailed diagrams of the gardens, which with the accompanying photographs, allows us to clearly visualize Monet’s designs.

Just as important, she includes information on how we can incorporate Monet’s designs into our own landscapes. Whether it is a small pond filled with his favorite water plants or “paint box” beds using the same flowers or vegetables used at Giverny, Ms. Murray offers designs and plant lists for each type of garden or container.

I may never make it to France, but thanks to Ms. Murray’s stunning photographs, I will be able to visit Monet’s garden at Giverny every time I open this book. I just have to decide how to shelve it: with my photography books or garden books.

Review copy courtesy of Pomegranate Communications, Inc.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

I read a lot of science fiction in high school. I was deep into teenage angst, certain that my life was "the worst life ever!!!" and therefore sought escapist literature. Although my homelife was indeed worse than most, entering adulthood, I discovered that one could escape the shackles of a dysfunctional family and establish healthier relationships with other people. I put aside science fiction for more "grown-up" books on history and politics.

When Goodreads offered Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in a giveaway, I entered on a whim. I had read his Stranger in a Strange Land so many years ago that I barely remembered it other than the fact that he was a fabulous writer.

Excellent writing aside, one of the entertaining things about revisiting science fiction written in the 1960’s, is seeing how the writer envisioned life more than a century hence in 2075. The author in this case was surprisingly prescient creating a world where China is a superpower, surrogate motherhood is routine and Artificial Intelligence in computers is possible. Of course, he did get some things terribly wrong. Instead of cell phones, there are landlines with very, very long cords and typewriters instead of printers.

One non-technical detail that was also off was language. In the story, the moon is a penal colony for planet Earth. The convicts sent there are from all over the Earth and should have been speaking different languages. Instead, everyone speaks English. Studies have shown that in the situation where a society is made up of peoples with mutually unintelligible languages, a new language is born composed of words and phrases from all the languages present. I learned that in a linguistics class in the 1970’s although if I recall correctly, the original studies were done the previous decade so the information should have been available to Heinlein.

Science fiction is and was never primarily about technology, however. It is social commentary, positing different cultures and traditions, some improvements and others degenerations of the cultural norms we know. In all cases, the purpose of the story is to allow us to consider issues without the distractions of our own societal rules and laws. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the story of a rebellious colony fighting for independence and the effect of that rebellion on all of the participants including a computer that has "come alive", speaking and acting seemingly like a human being.

Heinlein is pitch perfect. His story, his characters, and their motivations all ring true. The ending is satisfying. I enjoyed this book so much that I want to re-read Stranger in a Strange Land. I’m sure that I will appreciate it much more as an adult than as my former "angst-y" teenage self.

Review copy courtesy of Tom Doherty Associates

Friday, April 23, 2010

Sweetness & Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee

As an organic gardener, I am concerned with the health of the soil and the beneficial insects who pollinate crops and keep pests in check. "Colony Collapse Disorder", the mysterious die-off of honeybee hive populations, has been in the news for the past few years. Who are these insects and how did they come to be so important? Hattie Ellis’ Sweetness & Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee promises to answer that question but does so only imperfectly.

She starts out well enough, tracing first the evolutionary history of the honeybee, and then its relationship to humans. I was surprised to learn that in those same caves with the prehistoric paintings of bison and horses, are prehistoric paintings of honeybees and the collection of wild honey. She goes on to describe the most recent speculations as to how honeybees moved from the wild to become part of the domestic landscape, the use of honey in ancient cuisines and then traces the historical arc of beekeeping from ancient times to modern day, including the introduction of the honeybee to North America by European colonists.

My problem with this wealth of information is Ms. Ellis’ Eurocentric focus. She might better have subtitled her book "The Mysterious History of the Honeybee in Europe, North America and New Zealand", New Zealand having once been a British colony (Ms. Ellis is British). Other than a brief mention of Brazil in connection with killer bees and the Himalayas to illustrate her point that honeybees can withstand cold environments, she offers us no information on honeybees or beekeeping in Africa, Asia or South America.

I find it difficult to believe that Europeans were the only peoples to keep honeybees. Didn’t the Chinese invent just about everything? Why not beekeeping? And if wild honey is collected in the Himalayas by Nepalese, doesn’t it stand to reason that the more sophisticated civilizations on the Indian sub-continent would also have had a relationship of some kind with honey and honeybees?

Sweetness & Light is an excellent, but limited, history of honey and honeybees. It left me hungry for more information on these fascinating creatures and their relationships with their environment and humans.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England

One of the reasons that I like history so much is learning that people are the same no matter when they lived. They have the same hopes and dreams. They love their children and hate their in-laws. They have good bosses and bad bosses, and bouts of unemployment. They feud with their neighbors and their extended families. They are just like us but without indoor plumbing and cable.

Amanda Vickery has delved into the treasury trove of diaries, retail records, probate records and household account books to provide us with a detailed and intimate look at life during the Georgian period which she defines as 1660 to 1850. We catch glimpses into the lives of bachelors, spinsters, tradespeople and the wealthy. Changing tastes and habits are traced through styles of furniture and wallpaper. Most surprising to me were the number of "lodgers", people renting one or two rooms in a house, in cities during this period.

As fascinating as the details in this book are, I found myself vaguely disappointed. I realized that I already knew most of the information presented by Ms. Vickery through my reading of Jane Austen. In fact, Ms. Vickery quotes Jane Austen frequently in support for her conclusions. Jane Austen’s vivid descriptions of the homes and lives of her characters are perfect illustrations of the very people that Ms. Vickery is trying to bring to life for us.

Which leads me to wonder, do we really need this book? Are Jane Austen’s books not "history" because they are fiction? Perhaps Behind Closed Doors would better be described as finding the factual basis for Jane Austen’s fictional world. Budding novelists are always advised to write what they know which is exactly what Jane Austen did. How well she wrote about the world she knew, is shown by Ms. Vickery’s extensive research into the life and times of the people of Georgian England.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans

Brian Fagan is one of my favorite authors. I was first introduced to his books in college. They were the text books in the prehistory courses I took for my major in archeology. More recently, he has been writing about the effects of climate change on human history. He has a talent for writing about complex subjects like climate change so that they are comprehensible to the lay reader without “dumbing down” the material.

With his most recent book, he has returned to the subject of prehistory with a comprehensive overview of the first anatomically modern humans, who he refers to as “Cro- Magnon” after the rock shelter where the first remains were discovered. Cro-Magnons are best known as the people who created the magnificent cave paintings in Europe.

When Cro-Magnons migrated into Europe from the Near East, it was already inhabited by the Neanderthals, relatives but not direct ancestors. Dr. Fagan refers to the Neanderthals as the “Quiet People” because they lacked fluent speech. They also lacked symbolism, religion, art and innovation. Their way of life was unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years. Unable to compete with their more advanced cousins, the Cro-Magnons, the Neanderthals gradually died out.

The Ice Age was not uniformly cold. There were periods of warmth when vegetation and animal populations changed. The Cro-Magnons were experts at adapting to the changing conditions, hunting large game when it was cold and smaller game when it was warm. The tools they left behind reflect the constant innovations that made them so successful. Their art, musical instruments and burials reveal their rich spiritual life.

The Cro-Magnons spread out all over Europe, hunting, foraging, constantly adapting to changing conditions for tens of thousands of years until the next wave of migration swept into Europe: farmers from the Near East. Did the Cro-Magnons die out like the Neanderthals before them? DNA tells us no. 85% of Europeans are direct descendants of Cro-Magnons.

“Cro-Magnon” offers the latest theories developed from hundreds of years of archeology devoted to European prehistory. The information is presented in a very readable form. No prior knowledge is needed by the reader. All specialized terms are explained. Brian Fagan has done it again, taken a vast and complicated subject and produced a book that is both educational and engaging.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It

Thanks to the efforts of Al Gore, most people are aware of their carbon footprint and ways that they can reduce the size of their footprint. But how many of us know that we also have a “foodprint”? Anna Lappé introduces us to this important concept in her book, Diet for a Hot Planet.

Thanks to the factory farming of crops and animals, the very food we eat is contributing to the problem of global warming. The production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides fill the air with greenhouse gases. The resulting degradation of topsoil from the use of chemical fertilizers not only decreases the soil’s ability to store carbon, but also releases the carbon formerly stored in soils into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.

And then there is livestock. Livestock which is fed the majority of the corn and soy beans raised in a miasma of chemicals. Livestock which produces waste in such quantity that it has to be stored in manure lagoons which leach into the soil and foul the groundwater, or flooded out in storms, pollute the surrounding countryside.

The most frightening statistic in the book is that ruminants (livestock that eats grass such as cows) produce 27% of methane emitted globally. Methane is a more dangerous greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide that we are all so fixated on. Factory farming of livestock produces more greenhouse gases than all of the cars, trucks, buses, trains and planes together in the entire world.

Having made her argument about the deadly cost to the environment of factory farms, Ms Lappé offers a solution. She introduces us to New Forest Farm, an organic farm that practices mixed agriculture where diverse crops are grown together in the same fields as opposed to the monoculture favored by factory farms. Mixed agriculture keeps the soil and the farmer’s pocketbook healthy. If one crop fails or underproduces, other crops grown in the same fields continue to produce both a harvest and an income stream, while enriching and replenishing the soil.

This is the one part of the book that I found disappointing. Ms. Lappé gives the impression that the concept of mixed agriculture is a new and extraordinary idea. It is, in fact, a very ancient idea. Native Americans practiced this kind of agriculture for thousands of years before their way of life was wiped out by Europeans. Think “Three Sisters” (corn, squash and beans) in North America. In Central America, it is known as “milpa” and still practiced in some areas. Farmers plant a dozen different crops together in the same fields. Some milpa fields have stayed fertile for over four thousand years.

Ms. Lappé then addresses the argument that organic farming is not as productive as factory farming. She rightly points out that organic farming is more productive. Then she goes on to discuss the dangers of genetically modified plants. I was impressed by her calm, matter of fact tone on this hot button topic. So many authors, both for and against GMOs (genetically modified organisms), tend to get a little shrill when discussing their views.

The last part of her book is the most valuable. She gives her readers, no matter where they live in the USA, the resources and tools they need to reduce the size of their own and their communities’ “foodprint”. She impressed me once more with the realistic solutions she offers and the level of detail, depending on how involved people would like to be in the process. Books on climate change tend to either offer sweeping generalizations or solutions that are too impractical for the typical man (or woman) on the street.

Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury USA

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Small Budget Gardener: All the Dirt on Saving Money in Your Garden

I bought my first house 25 years ago. It was an old Victorian in dire need of renovation. The yard was in even worse shape. Previously a rental, the landlord had paved part of the backyard with gravel to create a parking lot. The rest of the yard was a jumble of vines including poison ivy. I was literally starting with nothing. I didn’t even own any garden tools.

Over the next ten years, I tamed the yard. It was a period of trial and error, finding the best tools for the job, finding plants and seeds, learning to compost and most importantly, finally learning to identify poison ivy to which I am horribly allergic. That experience shaped the frugal gardener that I am now.

I wish I had had this book when I bought that house. It would have saved me a lot of time, energy and especially money. Maureen Gilmer has written one of the best how-tos I have ever read. Page after page, I found myself nodding in agreement. Following her clear step by step instructions, anyone can create a wonderful garden with a minimal outlay of money.

There are so many things that I love about this book. She tells the reader what tools to buy, and more importantly, what tools not to buy. She demystifies composting. She makes clear that organic gardening is not just better for the environment but is actually cheaper than using commercial fertilizers. Best of all, she not only tells you what materials you need, she also tells you where to find them. She talks about yard art, drip irrigation, propagation, seed starting and cold frames, all using free or recycled materials.

I only have two small quibbles with the material. She devotes an entire chapter to online sources for tools, plants and seeds, all of which are reputable dealers. What she neglects to mention are the many seed swap sites, that are also well-known and reputable, where you can trade your excess seeds for the seeds you desire for the cost of postage.

I admire the amount of space she devotes to improving and maintaining the health of your soil but she doesn’t go into the no-till method which is thought to be even better for your soil. It also saves you the cost of buying or renting a rototiller.

These are only minor omissions. I agree with everything she says and have field tested many of her ideas myself. I would recommend this book to both newbie gardeners and more experienced gardeners who are looking for ways to save money.

Review copy courtesy of Cool Springs Press

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Healing Powers of Chocolate

I have to admit that I didn’t finish reading this book. I made it to page 167 of 294 (the last 60 of those pages are recipes and places to buy chocolate). It is so poorly written that I just couldn’t read it. My initial impression was that it needed a good editor, but after the first couple of chapters, I realized that what it really needed was a good author.

There is very little original writing in this volume. Most of the material in it was previously published in Ms. Orey’s previous two books. It is obvious she merely copied and pasted passages from those books into the manuscript with no regard to narrative flow.

She uses tables of information lifted directly from other sources (with proper attribution) without any discussion. The most egregious fault I found was her description of a tour of a chocolate factory. She was unable to make the tour, so she used the notes of a friend who did go on the tour. Just the notes in raw form, again copied and pasted into her manuscript.

Some of her writing reads likes notes also. I found it very jarring to encounter sentences that were grammatically incorrect or that had no point. She tells the same stories over and over, each time as if it were the first time that the story has been used.

Her tracing of the history of chocolate is marred by her lack of geographical knowledge. Countries wander from Central to South America and back again, depending on which page you are reading.

As for those “healing powers”, she is correct in citing the trace nutrients found in chocolate. However, reputable scientists have pointed out that they are found in such minute quantities that you would have to eat 25 pounds of chocolate every day to gain any benefit from them. Ms. Orley smoothly skates past this little detail by recommending a “dosage” of 1 to 2 squares of dark chocolate per day as part of a healthy diet (she recommends either the Mediterranean diet or the French diet) along with regular exercise. She neglects to mention that it is the diet and exercise, not the chocolate, that is providing the health benefits.

She lives in the San Francisco area and takes us on a tour of the chocolatiers in that city, breathlessly describing their incomparable chocolates, recommending that readers choose those chocolates rather than chocolates from anywhere else. She then goes on to admit that she eats plain old Hershey’s Dark Chocolate. From Pennsylvania.

Review copy courtesy of Kensington Books

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime

Having been bombarded by lots of juicy tidbits, I did something that I rarely do: I purchased a book the day it came out. I didn’t wait for a sale. I didn’t wait for the paperback. I bought it now because I had to have it now. I knew already that the Clintons have a dysfunctional marriage. That McCain chose Sarah Palin as a running mate in an attempt to steal the spotlight from Obama. I wanted the dirt on Obama.

Don’t get me wrong. I supported him throughout the campaign, voted for him on election day and now rant about the shenanigans in the House and Senate that are preventing him from doing the job he was elected to do. It’s just that he’s so perfect. No one can possibly be that perfect.

This book was a HUGE disappointment. It all but deifies Barack and Michelle Obama. I include Michelle because the other candidates’ spouses were thoroughly trashed. Except Todd Palin who got off rather easy.

The first two-thirds of the book were riveting. Every bit of dirty laundry belonging to Hill&Bill was hung out to dry. Every detail of every misstep of her ill-fated campaign was endlessly analyzed. John Edwards was portrayed as hopelessly out of touch, his wife less saintly than her reputation. The implication is that she drove him into Rielle Hunter’s arms.

Barack Obama could do no wrong and his campaign was perfect.

The last third of the book covering the election, had much less substance. It felt thrown together. What should have been the most exciting period in the run-up to the election with all of the material being provided by Sarah Palin’s mangling of the English language and attempts at gravitas instead managed to be almost boring. There were a few behind the scenes anecdotes that did much less harm to her reputation than the skewering she received from SNL and other late night comics. The big revelation that Cindy McCain has a boyfriend falls flat. All of the tired criticisms of McCain are trotted out.

And Barack Obama could do no wrong and his campaign was perfect.

The authors promise much more than they deliver. They have an obvious bias towards Obama. I feel cheated. I was promised “The Race of a Lifetime” but got “Barack and Michelle Obama are saints and everyone else are sinners” instead.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The People of the Abyss

What Jacob Riis did for New York City with his photos of tenements, Jack London did for London with his book, The People of the Abyss. The abyss that he referred to was the squalid East End of London, where the poorest of the poor lived and died.

All of the horrors are there, described not by a dispassionate historian keeping a professional distance in his reporting, but in eyewitness accounts of and interviews with people living in appalling conditions.

What I found most horrifying about this book is that so many things haven’t changed since it was written at the turn of the last century. His descriptions of homeless people forced by the police to literally walk all night due to a law which forbade sleeping in public places brought to mind the sweeps done in our own cities, forcing the homeless off the streets and out of our sight.

Healthcare was an issue then just as it is now. Families were forced into poverty and sometimes starvation when the husband, the main breadwinner, was injured, became ill or died. The majority of bankruptcies in our own time are caused by overwhelming medical bills.

More than a century ago when this book was written, when a man was out of work due to illness or injury, his wife was unable to adequately support the family because the only jobs open to her paid too little. Sadly, in our own time, women are still not able to adequately provide for their families on their own because they are paid, on average, 70 cents for every dollar a man earns doing the same job. A statistic that should outrage everyone (but strangely doesn’t) is that post-divorce, children slide down the economic scale, sometimes into poverty thanks to their mothers’ inability to earn a living comparable to their fathers who actually ascend the economic ladder post-divorce due their higher earning power.

The cost of housing, rents equal to half their income, brings to mind the mortgage crisis we are suffering today. As the cost of housing during the last real estate bubble, reached stratospheric levels, families were forced to pay more and more of their income for housing, leaving little to actually live on. All it takes is a job loss or catastrophic illness for them to find themselves on the street as the banks foreclose on their homes. Their counterparts a century ago faced a similar fate for the same reasons. Job loss or illness resulted in the loss of the tiny rooms that they rented.

Yet for all the similarities, there are important differences. We have laws governing the workplace and a social safety net that prevents the worst of the gruesome results of illness and unemployment described in this book. Laws about workplace safety and working hours prevent employers from exploiting their workers. Unemployment insurance replaces a portion of lost wages. Food stamps and free or reduced cost meals in schools stave off starvation.

We have come a long way since 1902. After reading this book, I realized that we still have a long way to go.

Review copy courtesy of Hesperus Press Limited.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America

I’ve been reading books on climate change for years. Almost all of them deal with just the science behind climate change and how science can stop or reverse climate change. Thomas Friedman’s book looks at climate change from an economic point of view.

His thesis is that climate change is caused be economics. It’s not bad enough that the American way of life is the worst in terms of pollution. Even worse is that the citizens of the developing world aspire to an American lifestyle. The effect of that many people all living an American lifestyle would be devastating for our planet.

Fortunately, Mr. Friedman’s thesis goes on to say that economics can save the world that we are currently destroying. His thinking is that the same ingenuity and resourcefulness that were responsible for the rise of America, making it the aspirational lifestyle of the third world, can be channeled into new, green industries that will mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

He rightly points out that it will take more than the lists of “easy ways to go green” that are so popular these days. There is nothing easy about going green to save the planet. It will require a radical rethinking of how we live, work and play.

His final argument is that this same need to develop technologies to save our planet will benefit us economically. Whole new industries will arise and new jobs, which are so desperately needed now, will be created. No matter how you look at it, ecologically or economically, we cannot afford not to go green.