Monthly Archives: November 2014

Book Review: Looking Past

Looking Past by Katharine E. Smith

Looking Past by Katharine E. Smith is her second novel. Smith runs Heddon Press a small independent publishing company that has put out several works of fiction and historical fiction.Looking Past past is advertised as a book that will strike a chord with mothers, daughters, and daughter in laws everywhere, and it seems that the author wished to raise that bar by placing a copy in the hands of a Marine.

I read and review a wide range of books but generally stay away from books that fall into the romance or chick-lit category. Looking Past, I am happy to say, avoids both these categories and is a rather engaging fictional memoir. Sarah, the main character and narrator, tells the reader her life story. Although still young, Sarah has much to tell and her life seems to be fairly normal in matters of believability, but interesting nonetheless. We all have events that shape and mold our lives from a young age, and he event that is imprinted on Sarah is the loss of her mother when she was eleven years old. Although she enjoys a close relationship with her father, she does not have that female confidant and mentor she needed while growing up. As a result, Sarah grows to become somewhat socially awkward in high school.

In college, Sarah keeps to a small group of friends and after a rough start has her first serious boyfriend. This is where the real story is told. Sarah’s story is a story of relationships that form around her: Her boyfriend, his mother, her father, and her father’s first love interest since his wife’s death. This is where the book shines. The development and dynamics of the relationships create the interest in the story. I have found that many stories will use sex in one way or another to keep the reader interested, but here the “burning loins” are absent. Any events between consenting adults here are completed with the much classier “screen fading to black” effect of the end of a chapter. It seems very human of Sarah to want to share her life with the reader, but yet wanting to avoid giving too much personal information to a stranger.

Sarah is a likeable, well defined character who plays the role of a fair and reliable narrator. Through Sarah’s telling Looking Past provides an interesting character study and reveals relationships between the different characters and their priorities in life. For some it is career. For others it is family and who is actual qualifies as family. For some it is letting go of the past and living in the present. For some it is discovering what they are really committed to. Smith does an excellent job of creating a complex array of characters, interactions, and priorities. Any thoughts that this book would not hold up to a male reader are unfounded. Historically many female writers have written stories with female lead characters that have been read and enjoyed by all. Perhaps Looking Past will allow some male readers to a see a bit of themselves in the character James, and correct themselves. A great book for all.

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Book Review: On Anarchism

On Anarchism by Noam Chomsky

On Anarchism is a collection of excerpts from previous interviews. Chomsky needs no introduction as he is well known as a voice of the far left — articulate and well spoken. He is not the political sound bite of the evening or 24 hour news channel. He is the details and the details that get drowned out of the mainstream media.

As a professor of linguistics Chomsky knows words mean things. He sticks to the proper usage of words rather than the contemporary view. Historically, libertarian does not mean the same thing as it does in the US. It does mean minimal government interference in life, but in a socialist way. Chomsky use libertarianism, socialism, and anarchism. There is not much of the defining the terms as in other more complete works. But, socialism had little to do with the Soviet Union which was not socialist or communist, but totalitarian. The only real difference between right wing dictatorships and left wing dictatorships is ownership. The state is the property owner in left wing dictatorships and foreigners are the owners in right wing dictatorships.

Chomsky champions the worker and the individual. Citing Tocqueville, Chomsky makes the point that many governments (including our own) are based on the right of property over the right of the individual. Remember the Bill of Rights came two years after the Constitution. He makes the stand that the US operates under State Capitalism just as the Soviets were State Socialism. The state becomes the problem in both. The idea of the free market in the US is “baloney” according to Chomsky. America has a planned economy. The state subsidies to agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and technology allow these industries to profit. They do not rely on the market, but on tax dollars. The difference between America, the Asian success stories, and the Soviet Union is the amount of state centralization and bureaucracy. The Soviet system was inefficient, but it did provide a safety net for the people. Compare the standard of living before and after the fall of communism.

In a democracy the power should lie not just formally in the population, but actually in the people. People are losing control of the government. Politicians court corporations and favor their interests. American’s themselves seem to be caught up in a trap. They hate taxes, but want roads, schools, and a huge military. What is called a welfare state is the recognition that every child has a right to food, healthcare, and an education. This recognition came with a century of work from labor and socialism.

Adam Smith the champion of the free market believed people should be free. They should be free from authoritarian government and authoritarian institutions. Chomsky argues that Smith was the opposite of a capitalist. He believed that people’s character involves sympathy, solidarity, and the right to control their own work.

Chomsky is an idealist and admits that his ideas may not be completely possible today. However, in the eighteenth century political democracy was a dream, yet by the nineteenth century it existed. Chomsky believes that change can happen. He also believes that people need to stand up and call out injustice. In order for change to happen, it will take effort. People today are too distracted by superficial flashes and ignore their own interests. A distracted society will be taken advantage of and find their rights stripped away, usually by their own vote.

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Book Review — I Chose to Die (Siren Suicides #1)

I Chose to Die by Ksenia Anske

I received this book free from Amazon in an author promotion. That was probably a year or so ago. It “talked” to the author on Twitter mostly asking about her bicycle. I have followed her on Google plus and saw excerpts from her book readings and signings. She is a bit quirky, showing up for readings and signings dressed as a ballerina. Anske reminds me a bit of Carol Kane in Scrooged, hopefully without the slapping and the quick kick. She is from Russia and moved to the US in 1998 and learned English after immigrating. This is impossible to tell by her writing. There is no hint of an “accent” or any clumsiness with the language.

Suicide is one of those things that most people do not think much about, until someone you know takes their own life. It is a subject that then draws you in and at the same time repulses you. In this story Ailen Bright choses to end her life on her sixteenth birthday. She makes her case to the reader, but her and her best friend do spend quite a bit of time getting high so you wonder if this is all stoner talk or something deeper. Ailen is imaginative and this shows in her naming the sirens serving as legs and the faucet of a very large bathtub. Ailen spends many hours in the bathroom because it is the only room in the house with a lock on the door. The sirens become characters in her mind.

From her first unsuccessful attempt at taking her life through her second and successful the story is told in the first person in almost a stream of consciousness. There is fear, confusion, anger, and determination in Ailen’s voice. All the thoughts surrounding death, the process, and what happens afterward flow together. There is a busy and cluttered mind as different thoughts move to the front of her consciousness.

The story is good. It is definitely a fantasy, and although I am not a huge fan of fantasy, I followed the story. The story, however, was secondary for me. I was intrigued my Ailen’s thoughts and how her brain worked when facing the unknown and the improbable/impossible. Anske has a real talent in this respect.

Subject matter aside, I found I Chose to Die fascinating. It was not what I expected, and perhaps one of the few book I liked for the writing style more than for the story itself. I am sorry I let this one sit on my “To Be Read” pile for so long.

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Book Review — This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

I have read to of Klein’s other books and will admit none of them read as well as Shock Doctrine. This Changes Everything reads more like a thesis than a marketed book. Nearly half of the book is documentation and source material. If Klein says it, she backs it up.

My thoughts: The problem is not so much capitalism, but what capitalism has become. Capitalism has had its problems from sweatshops to slavery. America prides itself on being a capitalist nation, but that in itself is a misnomer. Roads, police, air space, food, education, snow removal, water and sewage are all controlled by one of the several layers of government and paid for by public funds. Many people hate socialism, unless it is their water, their children’s education, their roads with potholes.

Klein’s view of capitalism is the current system we are experiencing. Not to sound archaic but the system was much more local in the past. Local areas provided are fairly closed loop. You bought something and you expected it to last. You visited bakers, butchers, and farmers markets. This system worked well until people found that bigger was better. Bigger stores meant cheaper prices. Chains grew Walmart came into play. Things still went ok because things were still made at home. The next step was imports, which were cheaper, but not produced at home — this cost jobs. America started to think free trade might not be in its interest. Protective tariffs tried to save industry, but industry moved overseas. WTO and NAFTA came about to insure free (or fair) trade. The move was to globalization. This was the system of efficiency. Let each nation build what it builds best and trade. Win-win for everyone.

The problem with increased efficiency is there are much more finished goods being produced everyone bought what they needed. What to do after everyone has what they need? How many televisions, cars, or pairs of shoes does one person need? Advertise, make cosmetic changes, create a want and when that doesn’t work planned obsolesce. More manufacturing, more power consumption, more cars, and a new cell phone every two years. More waste, more coal power plants. It’s ok to be poor, you have an Iphone.

The system puts a strain on the planet. Ninety-seven percent of the scientist agree that man made climate change is real. The dissent does not present much of a case, except for things like if you live in Montana global warming will give better crop yields and longer growing seasons. It is mostly the poor that will need to adapt because the poor live in hot climates. (This Texas resident really questions that logic).

A big part of the problem is the politicization of the problem. In the 1990s, both parties recognized the problem. Newt Gingrich spoke on needing to change our ways. That has all changed and the issue has become partisan, much like school vouchers or tax cuts. Climate change, however, cannot be legislated away. If science is right, there will be a tipping point where no matter what we do, we won’t be able to fix, stop, or slow climate change.

When countries move to become green they are attacked. In 2010 United States challenged China wind power program because it was protectionist. Likewise, the Indian Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission was challenged because it encouraged local industry. Even more outrageous was the US challenge against Quebec legislation banning fracking. It was challenged on the grounds that it cut off gas resources to potential industries. These actions may sound a bit odd, but it is little different from colonization. National sovereignty is becoming a thing of the past.

Mass transportation systems are another topic mentioned in cutting greenhouse gasses. America calls investing in public transportation subsidies, but using tax money to build new roads is called an investment.

Change can come, but it needs to be a movement. Slavery was not crisis for the American elites, until abolition became a movement. Civil rights was not an issue for many until Northerners saw the dogs and fire hoses turned on American citizens. The First Nation peoples of Canada are making progress in stopping pipelines, tar fields, and mining on their lands. It seems to be making a difference.

Klein uses environmental issues to attack the “capitalism” we have today. This book is filled with documented information. The reading can be a bit dry and even burdensome at times but well worth the read. Klein tackles both the environment (and she does not hesitate to call out the failures of environmental organizations) and the economy. This Changes Everything is a call to remember when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you need to do is stop digging.

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Book Review: Profits over People

Profit Over People by Noam Chomsky

Profit over people has been a rallying cry for some time now. Chomsky put this book out in 1998 and it has been revised in 2011. I remember Reagan’s deregulation and saving American industry (usually with protectionism). I was in graduate school in the late 90s and remember the push for globalization. The irony there too is I was attended a very liberal university and the international relations program was big on globalization. Globalization was seen as open and free trade with each nation producing what it did best. The increased efficiency would raise the standard of living for everyone. Fear of losing American jobs was offset by cheaper products and a rising standard of living. Finally, globalization would bring peace. With trade creating dependencies on other nations for products and exports, peace would become the logical result. All this sounded fine, in theory, and instructors made a strong case for these ideas. Peace, prosperity, and free trade sounded rather ideal. There was a problem, however.

The job exodus, low corporate taxes, government subsidies, and corporate influence over government created the concept of neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism is meant to inspire thinking of Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations. Instead, it has created a system that has lead to the 1%. In 1971, 90% of international financial transactions were in the real economy — trade or long term investment. By 1995, 95% of the international transactions were speculative; only 5% were in the real economy. Chomsky places much of the blame on Nixon and the ending of the Brenton Woods System and the regulation and oversight it created.

Chomsky quite frequently crushes the belief that America spreads democracy and freedom to nations of the world. In fact, America has a long history of supporting dictatorships. More than a few democratically elected leaders have been overthrown directly or indirectly by the US. The reason boils down to US interests. Democratically elected leaders generally owe their allegiance to those who elected them. Generally this is the poor and lower-class in developing countries. People want jobs, healthcare, and affordable housing and food. Many times this means public ownership of resources — oil and minerals. It can mean land redistribution, tariffs, and a primarily domestic economy. These are threats to “Ameican Interests.” American business wants foreign ownership of natural resources and foreign investment/control of industry. Large plantation owners are more stable than small peasant farms.

United States offered to help governments open themselves to foreign investment and ownership. In Latin America, the United States offered governments protection of their borders. This allowed military spending inside countries to be concentrated on internal security. Increased Internal security allowed governments to hold power and keep the population under control. Stability and open markets were America’s interests. In the long run, all this has done is to increase the concentration of wealth into the hands of the few.

America’s freedom is something of an illusion we hold to. We established ourselves as a free country, but only white, land owning males had a say in the government. John Jay said that those who own the country should have the voice. Madison later would follow up by stating if everyone can vote, it would harm the land owners, eventually leading to land redistribution violating the key right of property. America considered a race of people to be only 2/3s a person. Women were not given the right to vote until the 20th Century. The original inhabitants had to wait until 1924 before they became citizens in the land of their ancestors.

For such a small publication Chomsky covers a great deal of territory and I have only touched on a few items. Our world is not what we see it to be. People are too willing to believe and turn that belief to blame. How could the World Court try and bring charges against the US for mining Nicaragua’s harbors? How can the UN not agree with the United States? How can countries not allow foreign ownership of their property? The question should simply be “Why can’t people see what is really going on?”.

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Book Review — The Dover Anthology of American Literature Volume I: From the Origins Through the Civil War

The Dover Anthology of American Literature, Volume I by Bob Blaisdell

The Dover Anthology of American Literature Volume I: From the Origins Through the Civil War edited by Bob Blaisdell is a summary of two hundred years of American literature. The collection includes poetry, short works and excerpts from longer works.

As much as I read, American literature is a weak point. I like my poetry English and my literature French or Russian. I am not totally ignorant of American literature as some of it fit into my history background. Being an anthology of great works, the works themselves do not need reviewing, but rather how representative it is of the whole.

From the historical point, several keys events happened in the period: Settlement of the colonies, Indian relations, slavery, independence, westward expansion/exploration, women’s movement, abolition, The Great Awakenings, and the Civil War. Many of the writers included are very well known. Melville’s Moby Dick is sampled, Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, and Scarlet Letter is sampled, and perhaps my favorite writer of the period, Thoreau and his On Civil Disobedience is included.

The collection includes many writers that I had forgotten and some that are obscure. Margaret Fuller, the activist. writes on the role of women. Julie Ward Howe, whose name most won’t recognise, wrote a poem that every American knows and has probably sung many times — “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Other writers include those that not usually thought of as writers. Tecumseh writes to the other Indian nations for unity of the tribes. Other writers record the Cherokee Creation Story. Anne Bradstreet who composed the first published book of verse in the colonies has her work included. William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass take up the abolitionist movement. Louis and Clark record their westward journey. Lincoln’s speeches and an excerpt from Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin round out the period.

This collection does offer a view of American history through literature and personal writings. The major points in American history are all covered through one or more author. The relations between the competing races in America is also reflected in the writings of native Americans, slaves, and free men. The literature chosen brings a human touch to the history that is recorded. The writing of James Fenimore Cooper competes with Black Hawk. The creation of an American style of literature championed by Emerson, expanded by Whitman, and popularized by Poe.

Looking at this work with the eyes of an historian it comes through as a fine representation of the early history of the United States. The writers and the content reflect the moods and experiences of a wide range of Americans. As America grew from a colony to a country on the verge of becoming a power, so did its writers. The history recorded in fiction, poems, journals, and letters show the same growth. As America came to its own on the world stage, so did its writing.

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Book Review: The Great Zoo of China

The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly is a modern action thriller with a good dose technological science fiction. Reilly is an international best selling author with more than a handful of books which have been translated in to a number of languages and sold around the world.

I tend to stay away from the best seller list with my reading. I know some of it is really good, but I prefer nonfiction and books that have stood up to time. Something did catch my attention about The Great Zoo of China . I am not exactly sure what it was, but something said read it, you’ll like it. I would find that while reading this book that feeling stayed with me.

Reilly sets a perfect stage. China is a rising power and demands respect, but that respect is hard to come by. In todays world, China is the second largest economy and has grown at an unbelievable rate over the last few decades. That growth and power are still second string because China is not a technologically innovative country. Reilly makes use of Apple products, “Designed in California, Made in China.” China is very good at making other peoples stuff, but not very good at developing new technology. Even China’s military marches with knock off AK-47s. Reilly uses this to great effect in the creation of the zoo. Designed in Europe. Marketed by American advertising companies. Technology from Europe. China builds a zoo with everyone’s technology and expertise, except for some crucial secret technology China designs itself.

The star attraction of the zoo seems to be a secret in the book’s press release. All the reader needs to do is look at the cover, and read the quote before the introduction to realize it is not that big of a mystery. The mystery does work to initially draw the reader in and keep him. This seems to be a recurring theme in the book. A scientist at the VIP tour notices that the science the zoo director uses in his presentation is not quite right, however, the presentation does create a clear picture for those in the audience without the scientific background. The scientist accepts this as a teaching tool. The educated reader will also notice the same thing is being done to him or her. The science creates credibility, and although the educated reader will note that it may not play off exactly right, will accept it for what it is. Hubris seems to be a major theme, even for the reader. This creates a trap for the reader. The science and technology drift into science fiction, but the reader hangs on because of the gradual and logical movement from reality. Very well done.

Reilly does an excellent job of creating a believable and accurate picture of China. His science and science fiction is also well done. They fuse together almost flawlessly. There is a point in the book where I felt the story went well beyond science and technology, but by that point I was so wrapped up in the story that it didn’t matter. The Great Zoo of China is very well done and a very fast paced story. It is a thrill a minute with enough real sounding science to keep the reader holding on.

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