The thesis of this thoroughly researched and lucidly written book is that the media trumpets scares that are not based in reality, created with ulteriThe thesis of this thoroughly researched and lucidly written book is that the media trumpets scares that are not based in reality, created with ulterior or subconscious motives to distract the public from real and much more difficult to face problems. Faceless villains in nursing homes are killing our grandparents; we don’t have to think about the troubling conditions and egregiously low funding we set aside for our oldest and most vulnerable citizens. We should worry about nuts shooting up the workplace, not downsizing and benefit cuts. We can shake our heads at "crazy" road rage drivers and not the very real epidemic of drunk driving. There are cold teen predators ready to kill us all, turned into ultra-violent murderers from video games; the problem can't possibly be the prevalence of and easy access to firearms, or the lack of funding for counseling, early nutrition, or Head Start programs. Crack and teen mothers are characterized as the cause of inner city problems, not wealth disparity and de facto segregation of our inner cities. It is always the evil crazy individual, not the larger social evil. It's easy to scapegoat but a lot harder to address cultural problems in which we are all complicit. We like to spend as little as possible to remove symptoms, and almost nothing to address the cause of problems; the over-prescription of ADHD medicine being a prime example. Glassner calls out the media for glorifying self-styled but uninformed “experts,” writing alarmist and lurid pieces on scare stories, using anecdotes as evidence, and inflating isolated incidents into an disquieting, but nonexistent trend.
The importance of this misdirection and obfuscation is more than just making the public believe that crack and unwed mothers are prime evils in society. Not facing the real problems is causing untold damage to the fabric in our society by funneling much-needed money into fighting chimeras like unsafe air travel and made-up diseases. At the end of the book he muses, “Will it take an event comparable to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to convince us that we must join together as a nation and tackle these problems?” In three years, that tragic event would happen, but sadly, the media remains as obstinate and destructive as ever....more
George, nicknamed Suds, has just entered third grade, and he's worried about the schoolyard chant “first grade babies/second grade cats/third grade anGeorge, nicknamed Suds, has just entered third grade, and he's worried about the schoolyard chant “first grade babies/second grade cats/third grade angels/fourth grade rats.” Being an angel in third grade means that his new teacher, Mrs. Simms, will hold a competition every month to see which student deserves to be awarded the halo, a small yellow circle that serves as a reward for the best-behaved, kindest, and most perfect third grader in her class. Suds (who gets his name from his predilection for taking baths in times of trouble) is determined to be the first to earn the halo, but he's finding the challenge stressful enough that he needs more than a few baths. Does he have to be good outside of school too? (Does he have to be nice to his little sister?) Should he be more like best friend Joey, who doesn't take the competition seriously at all? And if Mrs. Simms doesn't actually see him doing a good deed, does it even count? Spinelli is a Newbery winner author (for Maniac Magee) and he knows how to write for kids. This is a charming book, perfectly attuned to a rising third grader's fears about fitting in and meeting expectations. It is written in simple language, but the concepts it deals with are grand. The chapters are short, the pace is brisk, and the characters are fully fleshed out. The amusing and embarrassing situations in which Suds finds himself will be familiar and comforting to third grade readers. The moral is apt and useful, and will be an epiphany to those who think they can predict the ending....more
Nine stories of Gordianus the Finder’s early career, showing the relationships and decisions that shaped him into the well-connected and -respected fiNine stories of Gordianus the Finder’s early career, showing the relationships and decisions that shaped him into the well-connected and -respected figure he is in the later novels. In “The Consul’s Wife,” consul Decimus Brutus, hires Gordianus to ascertain whether his wife is placing coded messages in the daily news about his upcoming murder (Saylor is very good at writing wealthy, beguiling Roman femmes fatales). In “If a Cyclops Could Vanish in the Blink of an Eye,” Gordianus solves (or does he?) an odd occurrence having to do with some missing clay figurines in his own house. In “The White Fawn,” Gordius ventures into the not quite friendly territory of Sertorius, the general who set up his own Roman state in Spain, to track down a senator’s grandson who may have joined the rebel. In “Something Fishy in Pompeii,” Gordianus solves a case of inchoate copyright infringement at a garum (pickled sardine sauce) factory – one of the details of food and festival that bring the ancient world to life in Saylor’s books. In “Archimedes’s Tomb,” Cicero hires him to solve the murder of a friend at the tomb he discovered. “Death by Eros” is a tale of unrequited love and murder by a state of Eros. In the titular story, the detective solves the puzzle of how a gladiator who died in front of an audience in the arena could be seen alive and well later. “Poppy and the Poisoned Cake” features a son who may or may not be an attempted parricide, and another Roman femme fatale. The last story, “The Cherries of Lucullus,” is one of the more fascinating. Famed epicurean and general Lucullus, famous general and epicurean, hosts Cicero, Gordianus, and some others to dinner; he wants Gordianus to ascertain whether his old one-eyed gardener, who looks after his very rare cherry trees, is actually his old enemy Varius. It’s not exactly a mystery, more a character study, but it evokes Rome and the Roman world with believable detail and research. Saylor’s Rome is always enthralling; there is as much history as drama, which is essential. These are not modern people merely draped in togas, but Romans, enjoying the games, food, culture and mores of their time. Saylor weaves information and suspense with an expert hand....more
The fifth Blanco Country novel. Country star Mitch Campbell, a phony good-old-boy (real name Norman, a druggy Northeastern prep school bro), is slatedThe fifth Blanco Country novel. Country star Mitch Campbell, a phony good-old-boy (real name Norman, a druggy Northeastern prep school bro), is slated to headline a rally for the National Weapons Alliance in Blanco County. Just before the event, Mitch shoots an illegal immigrant in a mushroom-induced paranoid fit. It falls to John Marlin, game warden and oft-reluctant murder-solver, starts an investigation which leads to Campbell’s ranch and threatens the NWA’s carefully managed reputation. Following the example of the previous volumes in the series, this is no straight mystery, but a surreal mass of mayhem, satire and tortuous subplots. Mitch is being blackmailed about his secret past; a former TV star tries to track her missing ex-husband, who has turned vigilante in light of the news that their son’s killer may be pardoned; and of course Billy Don and Red play their delightfully oafish part, trying to break into Nashville as songwriters.
Rehder satirizes hunters, the NRA, and those on the other side of the issue, but as with all good satire, he makes some serious points about touchy topics. All of Rehder’s writing quirks are on display here: his rapid-fire (ha!) scene and setting changes, his army of characters, and his over the topic manic silliness, especially in action sequences. There is suspense, drama, action, a great deal of humor, even romance (could Marlin have finally found a serious love interest?). It’s a great deal of fun, just like the rest of the series....more
In a future where a wide swath between Mexico and the US is a recognized fiefdom known as Opium ruled by opium warlords and cultivated by lobotomizedIn a future where a wide swath between Mexico and the US is a recognized fiefdom known as Opium ruled by opium warlords and cultivated by lobotomized “eedjit” zombies, a young boy named Matt lives on the compound of a feared drug lord named El Patron. Early on, he learns that he is a clone of the ancient, decrepit kingpin himself. Aside from a friendly bodyguard and the woman who raised him, he’s treated with scorn and disgust by most of the family and employees, although El Patron orders everyone to act normally around him. Gradually, Matt realized why El Patron needs a clone, and it’s not because he wants an heir. Making his escape, he spends some time in a pseudo-socialist Mexican orphanage workhouse before finding his childhood friend, and some measure of meaning in his life.
This is an interesting and original book; Matt’s slow realization as he learns what the reader already assumed gives it a chilling suspense, and the pacing is good. I thought the quality fell a bit in the Mexico section; Farmer seems to have been intent on critiquing the hypocrisy of an Orwellian socialism, which is not only attacking a strawman, but is rather out of place compared to the overall tone of the book. Worse, the main resolution of the book happens off-scene, and Matt is simply told of the fate of everyone he knew at the hacienda in Drugland. It’s a bit of dramatic let-down, though it sets things up nicely for a sequel. ...more
Meggie and her bookbinder father live alone in a house crammed with books and the joy of reading. When a mysterious visitor named Dustfinger arrives,Meggie and her bookbinder father live alone in a house crammed with books and the joy of reading. When a mysterious visitor named Dustfinger arrives, calling Meggie’s father “Silvertongue,” Mo acts secretive and alarmed. They take a trip to the house of a relative, Elinor, who is just as book mad as they are. There, however, they are set upon by kidnappers who want a specific book, and Mo himself. When they’re captured, Mo reveals his terrible secret. When he reads aloud from books, he brings the characters to life, literally. Ten years previously, he read so lyrically from the book Inkheart that a pair of the book’s villains appeared in our world, while his wife was spirited into the book! With some help from Dustfinger, who is by no means an ally but wholly self-interested, the three try desperately to work out a plan that will end the villain Capricorn’s reign of terror as well as get his wife back – a plan that depends on help from Inkheart’s own author.
I was not bowled over by this book. It’s an interesting premise, even if it has been done before, but the book is overlong at 540 pages or so. The characters are flat (the villains uninterestingly and thoroughly villainous; Meggie and her father are selfless and beatific), as well as obtuse, which I found irksome. It’s absurd to think after you’ve been kidnapped from your own home by a mad, violent, powerful man who wants something from you, and then escaped, that you can simply meander back to that home with your ordeal over. It’s downright stupid to think that situation can be resolved by talking. Some of the conceits of the plot are also a bit ridiculous: a normal, illiterate man from a magical but medieval world appearing here with nothing but the clothes on his back, somehow rising to become a crime lord? And even established as he is in the story, Capricorn is the sort of tyrant who could be dealt with by two men with handguns; hardly an indefatigable enemy. Finally, once the main conflict has been established, the book drags; the plot repeats itself and Funke takes a dreadfully long time to get to the real point of Capricorn’s plan, to unleash a murderous magical creature on this world. For all that it is a love letter to classic children’s literature (Tinkerbell is appropriated as a minor character, as is a figure from The Thousand and One Nights), I found it more boring than engrossing. I’d rather reread E. Nesbitt.
The author recounts her life, both personal and professional, from growing up in a large tight-knit family with a French mother who taught her kids abThe author recounts her life, both personal and professional, from growing up in a large tight-knit family with a French mother who taught her kids about real food, crusty bread, creamy cheeses, and the like, through the parents’ divorce and Hamilton’s rise from thirteen-year-old waitress to line cook to chef. She also discusses her marriage of convenience to an Italian man and her trips to Italy, which grow more bittersweet with every year.
I have mixed feelings about this book, because as a reader I take the narrator’s tone very personally; other readers might not. At first, I enjoyed the book with unalloyed pleasure. I got the title from a list of food writing Anthony Bourdain recommended, and it’s easy to see why the book appeals to him. Hamilton is an unflinchingly honest narrator, and a brilliant writer. She matches Bourdain's opinionated partisanship, visceral attitude, and past replete with scofflaw delinquency, and, I dare say, her writing is more fluid and expansive. Her commentary on the value of hard work, making one’s own way, and dealing with hardships is admirable. Her opinion of the perennial hand-wringing over “where are women in cooking” question has a steely practicality and impatience for attention seekers (“cook, ladies, cook!” – and the rest will follow). But it’s her section on her marriage that marred the book for me. Just as I couldn’t stand the fictional Jane Eyre’s dithering and self-pity, I can’t stand the real-life Hamilton’s dithering and solemnity about her unhappy marriage. She knew she was marrying him “as performance art,” as she puts it several times (to get him his Green Card actually). She’s unhappy, yet she won’t leave him. Only a complete ignorant fool – which she is not – would think that marrying a doctor means that you’re marrying a good husband, or that an Italian man is somehow necessarily a good or exciting man. So it may be because of my own life, which this book hits too close to the bone, but I just soured on Hamilton as a person and narrator after that. Too bad really; she writes vividly and has a good story to tell. I just want to hear the professional part. ...more
Just what it says on the cover, a collection of previously published pieces of food, chefs, travel, and cultural commentary (plus one fiction piece).Just what it says on the cover, a collection of previously published pieces of food, chefs, travel, and cultural commentary (plus one fiction piece). I’m a Bourdain fan, but most of these essays are simply too short to have any real impact. That’s not to say they’re not bad; they have his trademark snide remarks, the New York swagger tempered by open-minded desire to learn more about others. In a magazine I’m sure they’re fine. But, for example, a mere three printed pages on Bourdain’s first taste of Szechuan food is nearly pointless; he barely begins to describe the taste before the essay is over. A lengthy examination of Brazilian food and culture demonstrates how much more powerful his travel writing can be when he has room (on the page) to explore. This edition had some commentary by Bourdain on his own pieces since their publication; some of his opinions have changed, and it’s fun to read him mocking his old self as briskly as he used to mock TV chefs....more
Twin 12-year-olds Coke and Pepsi McDonald, on a cross-county vacation with their professor father and writer mother, uncover a secret government plotTwin 12-year-olds Coke and Pepsi McDonald, on a cross-county vacation with their professor father and writer mother, uncover a secret government plot to use “YAGs,” or Young American Geniuses, to solve the complex problems of the nation, and find that they are on the list. When they learn that a shadowy group is preparing a terrorist attack at (one of) the country’s biggest ball(s) of twine, their road trip becomes a race against time, made all the more desperate by the fact that their parents know nothing about their mission and by the fact that dangerous “dudes with bowler hats,” as well as their old health teacher, are trying to kill them.
It’s a very light, silly book, crammed with gimmicks like codes presented within the book and a suggestion that readers follow the trip via Google Maps. With lots of actual spots of Americana oddities mentioned, such as the Donner Party Memorial, the PEZ museum, a Yo-yo museum, and the House on the Rock, the book is at times more gimmick than plot. Some parents might find it troubling that the preteens are instructed by a stranger to keep secrets from their parents, but it’s all in fun, with no real violence. It’s a simplistic kid’s book with some humor, such as when the kids gets their spy bags with Frisbees, cards, and fruit, which the kids are disappointed to learn are not laser Frisbees, spy camera cards, and bomb fruit, but actually just plastic toys and food. ...more
In the not-so-distant future, America teeters on the brink of economic disaster as the baby boomers start retiring. Enter beautiful young ex-Army-turnIn the not-so-distant future, America teeters on the brink of economic disaster as the baby boomers start retiring. Enter beautiful young ex-Army-turned PR flak, coulda-gone-to-Harvard-but-Daddy-spent-the-tuition-money crusading blogger Cassandra, who on her blog suggests that Baby Boomers voluntarily kill themselves for tax breaks, saving Social Security costs. When young people take to the streets, the ineffectual president (who happens to be in cahoots with her father, who is now a software tycoon and party patron) makes her an enemy, as does a TV preacher. But the cause is taken up by a young congressman who shares an eyebrow-raising past with Cassandra, and soon people are starting to talk about actually passing the “Transition” bill into law.
I wasn’t too impressed with the previous Buckley I read, Supreme Courtship, and this book is of about the same weight. Buckley’s satire, as I said about that book, is the toothless satire of the contented conservative shooting blanks at straw men. The fact that his heroine must be “hot” and blonde “with liquid, playful eyes and lips” shows how concerned he is with serious ideas. In over 300 pages, none of the characters seem very interesting, and the dialogue at times is positively ridiculous; his ideas about software are equally out of touch. His scenarios are mildly amusing but not actually comic, and he has no real point to make about Washington, just a modern modest proposal. Light, frothy, somewhat arch, but it lacks punch....more
In the days after 9/11, New York police officer Brian Remy tries to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head, but succeeds only in causing a sorIn the days after 9/11, New York police officer Brian Remy tries to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head, but succeeds only in causing a sort of temporal brain damage, in which he flits in and out of awareness of his own life as though through staccato, disconnected snippets of film. Apparently recruited for some black ops anti-terrorist unit, he sporadically comes to his senses to find that he has gotten involved in some unpleasant and untenable situations – taking mysterious packages, going through citizens’ correspondence, beating and intimidating Arabic suspects, sleeping with women he doesn’t know whether he loves or is just using for information. He has no idea what the reason for it all is – his genuinely confused questions about what he’s doing inevitably taken as kidding or rhetorical musing – and as the black ops sting heads toward an insane, disastrous conclusion, he is helpless to stop it.
It’s written with more of a satirical black humor than this plot summary implies, a sort of modern Catch-22 as written by Don Delillo, with the typical distant lens he views humanity through to make it seem foreign and alien. There are, indeed, a couple of scenes that pay almost direct homage to Joseph Heller’s masterwork, such as when Remy’s high school son pretends that Remy is dead, and he, his wife, and son have a straight-faced, absurd conversation about honoring grief and having respect for the son’s wishes. Or another scene where some intelligence officers looking at some evidence, including a photo of a man eating in a restaurant, begin an earnest, utterly irrelevant discussion of how to properly cook it, and what wine might go best with it. But the mordant humor gives way to a spooky noir feel in the second half of the book, and although the botched terrorist sting is clearly political satire, it lacks the deadpan absurdity of the earlier half, and comes to a comparatively predictable ending. Altogether, this a tense, readable, original political satire, the work of a major modern talent....more
The irascible and short second grader, Stink Moody, is outraged when he learns that Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Friend of all things smallThe irascible and short second grader, Stink Moody, is outraged when he learns that Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Friend of all things small (like James Madison, the shortest and best president), Stink takes up the cause for Pluto. Stink gets into a feud over this issue with a classroom rival, Riley, who has been to space camp and so comes off as a know-it-all, until his teacher suggests a debate. Stink wins the debate but learns a bit about not judging people until you get to know them, and sees Riley in a new light. This book contains the usual cheerful silliness of the series, and I enjoyed the real-life moral of looking to other people’s motives. There isn’t exactly a healthy respect for scientific opinion, though, which is a minus. It doesn’t matter how Stink and his pals feel about Pluto. The teacher should have given them the facts of how Pluto no longer fits the scientific consensus of the definition of planet. It’s just a kid’s book, but it’s rather dangerous to venerate popular sentiment over science. We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts....more
A sequel of sorts to her maddening, fascinating, invaluable memoir Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now, this book chronicles Wong’s returnA sequel of sorts to her maddening, fascinating, invaluable memoir Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now, this book chronicles Wong’s return to Beijing in 2008 to find the woman whom she denounced as a traitor at the height of the Cultural Revolution. This betrayal has gnawed at her over the decades, and she makes the trip despite her fears that she will either find out nothing in the face of intractable Communist bureaucracy, or that the woman was imprisoned, tortured, or killed. Bringing her family with her for support, she tracks down a lot of old friends and foes who seem happy enough to see her but aren’t exactly thrilled to talk about the bad old days, suffers through a banquet under the watchful eye of a humorless cadre, and marvels at the changes in Beijing since her college days. (This last despite the fact that Wong lived there as a reporter off and on into the 1990s and made a few visits even in the early 2000s – this shows the tremendous rate of growth the city has undergone.) Little by little, and despite some obfuscations and lies from her sources, she gets a few hints about the woman’s fate – but then it’s time to come face to face and hear her story.
In my review of Red China Blues, I called Wong “deluded,” “naïve,” “blind,” “dangerously stupid,” and “an unrepentant spoiled fool,” which seems a bit harsh now that I write it all out like that. Nevertheless, that book did seem like a personal apologia for her actions, while this one is, as she says, “tantamount to a Maoist self-criticism.” This is a much more palatable book in terms of the narration – Wong shows a little more perspective about truth and consequences here – and equally fascinating in terms of the human stories it tells from China’s tragic 1960s and 70s. Wong’s own story is heartfelt and suspenseful, but what interested me the most was the historical whitewashing she encounters. No country likes to talk about its black marks – America still celebrates Columbus and the Pilgrims as heroes, the Japanese don’t mention war crimes or the Rape of Nanking, Germany outlaws swastikas but would rather not talk about the extent of Nazism’s prevalence – but the ability of the Chinese to switch gears so drastically and with such equanimity is intriguing. As Wong writes, “It makes me wonder why, in a nation as vast as China, so few people try to come to terms with their past.” Yes, it’s painful to revisit oppression, and no one wants to admit he was the oppressor, but the apparent wholehearted enthusiasm with which the Chinese have thrown their lot in with rampant capitalism and materialism is unsettling. It’s as if the moral compass isn’t fixed; the Cultural Revolution was correct because it happened that way, and now laissez-faire capitalism is correct because it’s what’s happening. It’s troubling to think in terms of such a collectivist mindset, but it’s hard to escape it as well. ...more
A girl whose goal is to be rich forms a club with her friends to further that goal. Their idea is to create a fake UFO picture and shop it around to nA girl whose goal is to be rich forms a club with her friends to further that goal. Their idea is to create a fake UFO picture and shop it around to news outlets. Against all reasonable expectations, this actually succeeds, until one of them has a crisis of conscience. This is a silly, over-the-top, very kid-centric story, with the sympathy all on the side of the kids, who are materialistic, lying, and scheming, but not at all malicious. One of the characters speaks in an absurd faux-Australian which grates after a while, and there’s little consequence to the kids’ machinations, but it’s all in good fun....more
The fourth Blanco County mystery. In this entry, game warden John Marlin helps the police to search for a missing SUV owner who may have drowned in aThe fourth Blanco County mystery. In this entry, game warden John Marlin helps the police to search for a missing SUV owner who may have drowned in a flash flood, while a local lowlife's house burns down in what seems to be a meth-related explosion. Marlin suspects that the two incidents are somehow connected, and they are – but in true Rehder fashion, the plot has dozens of disparate threads that intersect. The main story involves a state senator who has a rather embarrassing kink, being blackmailed with photos of his proclivities, to force him to ban the controversial high fences around properties which stop deer from migrating freely. There’s also a missing Corvette and charity money, a lowlife and a party girl on the lam, a would-be country star turned hit man, a pet psychic, a creepy stalker, and of course the loveable louts Red and Billy Don. Marlin’s problem is that his oldest friend, Phil, appears to be implicated in the blackmail; and then there’s his crush Nichole, putting herself in danger as well. I know that Rehder’s frequent, staccato character and setting changes, especially during action scenes, may irritate some readers, but I find his rapid-fire, red-herring style engaging. Well-paced and intricately plotted, with sly humor, goofy characters, and a few moments of suspense, this book is on a par with the other books in the series. Over the top mayhem makes for fast-paced, diverting fun....more
Investigating successful kids and programs at low-income schools and high-achieving prep schools, as well as interviewing psychologists and neuroscienInvestigating successful kids and programs at low-income schools and high-achieving prep schools, as well as interviewing psychologists and neuroscientists, Tough challenges some conventional wisdom on causes of failure (poverty, teacher quality) and contends that nurturing character in children and young adults is the key to success. He argues that the gap between poorer and wealthier kids’ success levels is caused not mostly through lack of cognitive stimulation, but through a chaotic environment where mothering attachment is lacking and childhood traumas are plentiful. Evidence for this abounds: there is a drop-off in performance among elite prep school kids who have had no lessons in determination and failure management; the ACE score, a measurement of childhood trauma, is a reliable indicator of future performance; and a student’s GPA is a better indicator of college completion than standardized tests, regardless of the quality of the school (which makes sense: a kid in a chaotic environment with a high GPA obviously had high determination, while a kid in the richest prep school with tutoring and enrichment opportunities abounding, with an average GPA, is clearly not working as hard as he could be. The good news is that according to some of his interview subjects, mothering skills can be taught and non-cognitive skills such as curiosity and grit are malleable traits and can be developed fairly late in life.
I found this book to be inspiring and important. Written in an easy, engaging style, with great ideas and surprising revelations bursting forth from nearly every page. The broad studies and character interviews are extremely valuable, while a surprisingly long discursus on chess isn’t so much – and why Tough gives any page time to the “bell curve” idea, which is basically giving a little air time to Hitler, is beyond me. Of course, in a way it’s a depressing book, because it makes clear how totally the system has failed low-income kids, giving the most needy the least instruction – though Tough notes that some programs, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, are trying to make a difference. In the end, Tough diplomatically addresses what few dare to, though I have advocated for years: we don’t need teacher reform or school reform quite as much as we need family reform. It’s a delicate thing for a well-off white person to criticize the parenting skills of poorer minority parents, but the fact is that with a few simple lessons to new parents after a child’s birth, many costly problems would be avoided before they began. They do it in Germany – it’s too bad so many policymakers in America are so short-sighted when it comes to helping others....more