Monthly Archives: January 2015

Book Review — Oscar Wilde The Dover Reader

As with most people I have heard of Oscar Wilde, but unlike most people who managed six years of college I have never read him. I did hear of “Dorian Gray” in passing, and it even piqued my interest when that character had an appearance onPenny Dreadful. Still, it was never enough motivation for me to sit down and read it. Not that I am lazy when it comes to reading, but quite the opposite. I find it difficult to fit in books read purely for pleasure and putting it on a “to be read” list is like adding a drop in the ocean.

Wilde’s writing carries a deeper theme than what lies at the surface. At the time of the reading, I did not know that I was familiar with one of Wilde’s short stories “The Selfish Giant.” I saw the animated short back in the early 1970s and remembered it still today. It is a simple story with a moral and a religious theme. Simple, but elegant. Wilde’s short fiction pieces are very pleasurable. The nonfiction samples are interesting in themselves. More than just making a point, Wilde does it with style in “The Decay of Lying: An Observation.” The use of a Socratic dialog to discuss Romanticism and Realism fits right in with Wilde’s flair.

The other included works include the play “An Ideal Husband.” A play about marriage and blackmail and acted in over the top melodramatic fashion. Wilde’s most famous play is also included — “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Here again, wit, humor, and satire make this a classic. The longer work of fiction included in the collection is “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” A story of art, vanity, the obsession with youth and beauty. Even back then Wilde can comment on the superficialness of society.

The Dover Reader provides complete stories and plays rather than excerpts. Although not a complete collection, the material included seems to be the most popular and lasting of Wilde’s work. There is not detailed introduction with this collection providing background on Wilde or his work. There is a short three page “Note” presumably written by the editor Janet B. Kopito. All in all, this is a great collection. Most of the works included can be read in a single sitting, lunch break, or train ride commute to work. A great collection to familiarize (or refamiliarize) yourself with Wilde and his writing.

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Book Review — The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s

The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s by Doug Rossinow is a fairly comprehensive look at the Regan Era. Rossinow is a professor of history at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota and is the author of numerous works, including Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America. He has been a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Oslo and is past president of the Peace History Society.

The 80s were a golden age for me. I became an adult, spend time in Southern California courtesy of the Marine Corps, traveled the world, and was employed the entire decade. I rocked to Van Halen and later to hair bands. I worked on computers, rode motorcycles, had a bumper sticker that read “I’d rather be killing communists in Central America” and had a great decade. Thanks to modern social media, I have caught up with several friends from back then and we all look back fondly on that time. The future was bright back then. America was back on the rise and we were riding the wave.

I think we all have favorite presidents that captured our imagination. My grandmother spoke highly of FDR. My parents praised JFK. My son loves Clinton. For me, it was Reagan. It’s was morning again in America. Needless to say after college and especially after graduate school my youthful idealism faded with the facts. Rossinow seems to have those same initial feelings: a proud Reagan supporter, who later has second thoughts.

The Reagan Era is not an attack on the former president, but a very well-documented account of the Reagan years concentrating on Reagan and his staff. Investigations of Edwin Meese who seemed to invite scandal became Attorney General before resigning “vindicated” by a finding of “Insufficient evidence to indict.” There were scandals outside the government too. Banks, Savings and Loans, and televangelists all found their way to the headlines. Many people gained power in this era such as William Casey, James Baker III, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and many more.

We had a Red Scare of our own as we saw communists “in our own backyard.” We sponsored freedom fighters in Latin America and Africa. The later without much public attention. Jean Kirkpatrick tried to ease the idea of supporting right wing dictators over left wing dictators (communists) by suggesting the right wing is more open to democratic reforms than the left. We entered an arms race. We built a six hundred ship navy. We developed the MX missile and developed an intermediate range missile just to make the Soviets remove theirs from Europe. Reagan defied the logic of the anti-ballistic missile treaty with a far-fetched Strategic Defense Initiative. America did win the Cold War, but it was not exactly like we think we did. Rossinow provides a great deal of documented information on exactly how it happened.

We like to remember the 80s as a Golden Age and of rebirth of America. Rossinow show us cracks in the facade. In fact, many of the problems we see today have their roots in the 1980s. It was when the 1% grew in wealth and the middle class shrank. Although Reagan is known for his historic tax cut, the tax increases and revenue enhancements are pushed by the wayside. The man who wanted less government increased spending considerably. The Reagan Era covers many aspects of the decade. I just chose a few to mention here. Nearly a quarter of the book is documentation and cited sources. The information is accurate.

Otto von Bismark is credited with saying “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” The eighties no matter how much I enjoyed them are rather like Bismark and his sausage. They were great… until I learned how they were made.

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Book Review — Manga Classics: Les Misérables

I usually don’t read graphic novels, but when I do it’s usually at the urging of a friend. I have, however, read Les Miserables and was deeply impressed. I was really pretty stunned by the story and left thinking it was the greatest book ever written. In fact, my complete five-star review of the book reads “Possibly the best novel ever written. Wow.” Not my longest or most descriptive review, but one of the most honest. A very good friend of mine has been reading Les Miserables for quite a while now and keeps me up to date with her progress and bringing up points I have forgotten about in the last few years. So, I picked up this Magna Classic as a refresher.

First this is written in the Japanese standard style. The reader will start at what would be the last page of a Western book and proceed “backwards” and read from right to left. I have an electronic copy so other than reading right to left I just wipe my finger opposite and do not notice a difference.

Les Miserables is about 1,500 pages of prose and converting that into a graphic novel would seem like a challenge in itself. This book contains three hundred and fifty illustrated pages. I was expecting this edition to be the equivalent of a movie of a great book and be a disappointment. I very wrong in my initial judgment of the book. The key points and the spirit of the story are fully intact in this version of the book. The art adds to the limited words and gives a fuller grasp of the story and themes than one would expect.

The art is good and falls into the manga style. Javert has two spikes of hair that stick out in front of his face. Jean seems more Western in appearance. Most important is the portrayal of Cosette. For me, and I would imagine for many, the Émile Bayard’s 1886 engraving of little Cosette sweeping with an enormous broom is burned into my brain. Many who are nor familiar with the book easily recognize the engraving as Les Miserables. In the manga edition, Cosette keeps all her charisma, but with a slight anime touch to it. Very well done.

I have not seen the recent Les Miserables movie for fear of ruining a great book experience. I took a change with Manga Classics version of the book and was not disappointed. Yes, things were left out and not explained thoroughly, but the essence of the novel was captured and it remained true to the themes of the book. This version can clearly stand on its own, probably better than any movie. I am a bit torn recommending it to those who have not read the original novel. The novel is a masterpiece of literature that should be read. However, in this age not many people are willing to read a 1,500 page novel. Likewise, some will be turned off at a 350 page graphic novel. But, if you cannot not find the time to read the original. Read this. It captures the magic of the story.

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Book Review — Myths of the Oil Boom: American National Security in a Global Energy Market

Myths of the Oil Boom by Steve A. Yetiv

Myths of the Oil Boom: American National Security in a Global Energy Market by Steve A. Yetiv is a complex look at the international oil market. Yetiv is the Louis I. Jaffe Professor of International Relations at Old Dominion University. He has been a consultant to the U.S. Departments of State and Defense; the U.S. General Accounting Office; and CNN International where he worked on a documentary that won an Edward R. Murrow Overseas Press Club Award.

This book was a rather unexpected find for me. First, it covers very recent events in a very scholarly format. Most books looking this close to the present tend to be patchworks of news articles and what can be found on a quick web search. This book is well documented and well written. Second, this book took right back to graduate school where I worked on my Masters in International Relations, security policy. The thinking and positions put forth in this book fell right in line with what I learned years ago. The last point I am a bit embarrassed about. I did not know the US was enjoying an oil boom from shale fracking. I haven’t bought gasoline in many years and really did not pay much attention to it. I did, however, know about the natural gas boom.

Yetiv goes into great detail explaining the workings of the oil market and what effects an American boom would have on prices. It affects more than the US. Russia is suffering from lowered oil prices. The expected oil income is not enough to support government expenditures. The same dilemma is being experienced in other oil producing countries. On the other side, too high of oil prices will result in the loss of market share for OPEC countries. While Americans fear another OPEC embargo, in reality, it hurt OPEC just as well. America looked and bought from other non-OPEC sources and continued to do so after the embargo weakening OPEC’s share of the market. Conservation efforts also cut into the market share.

In the mid-1980s, the US reflagged Kuwaiti ships and provided a large military presence in the Persian Gulf. Twice late last century and this century the United States sent forces to the Middle East, Iraq in particular. A large portion of the world’s oil flows through the Persian Gulf. Yetiv explains why the US considers it vital to ensure the free flow of oil in the region. Surprising to many it has nothing to do with the US supply of oil. Sixty percent of our oil is imported but very little of it through the Gulf. Of our imports, 3/4 come from our own hemisphere — Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, and Columbia.

The US oil boom is also put into perspective. It is expected to peak in about five years. Others argue that technology will extend that peak into the future. Regardless, it is limited. The North Sea oil gave a boom in the 1980s driving the price of gas to under a dollar, but it did not last. Oil markets are complex as are the players. In America, we talk about Big Oil and its role. Most of the countries that we import from are not controlled by Big Oil. They are nationally owned. Nationally controlled oil has its problems ranging from corruption to managerial apathy. There is not the profit motive to drive these organizations. Therefore, their efficiency and willingness to develop new technology is lacking.

Myths of the Oil Boom is probably the most up to date scholarly look at oil security. It looks at the big and long term picture. Oil is vital to the world. We are a petroleum based world economy and as new powers are rising, China in particular, new concerns and threats to stability are realized. While America may fight wars for oil, China develops a foreign policy of cooperation with resource rich nations to secure its oil future. For example, while the world placed sanctions on Iran, China offered to buy its oil.

Our world has changed since the days of the Cold War. It is more complex and less stable. Results of Cold War policies are being felt, especially in America with the Middle East. Yetiv brings together all the complexities, clears misconceptions, and presents a clear picture of energy security. My copy of the book is thoroughly marked and noted; this is a book for those wishing to know what a course in international relations is like. Extremely well done and very relevant.

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Book Review — The United States of Excess: Gluttony and the Dark Side of American Exceptionalism

“…we are all equal in the eyes of God. But as Americans, that is not enough, we must be equal in the eyes of each other” ~ Ronald Reagan

The United States of Excess by Robert Paarlberg

The United States of Excess: Gluttony and the Dark Side of American Exceptionalism by Robert Paarlberg is a look at America’s love of conspicuous consumption. Paarlberg is a professor at Wellesley College and Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He has written several books on food policy and politics including the very comprehensive Food Politics.

Back in the 1970s I remember a television called Good Times, the main character JJ would talk about the good life that was coming his way when he’d “Sit back in my Cadillac and have a Big Mac.” The American dream, even for the poor in the television show, seemed so desirable back then. Looking at that line today, forty years later, it reflects on what is wrong with this country. We have become wasteful and energy hungry society coupled with an ever growing obesity problem and a dietary nightmare. It’s like we took a simple line and carried it to the extreme.

We have changed as a country. Office chairs used to be rated at 300lbs, now they are rated at 600lbs. The new Yankee stadium was built with wider seats. Airlines like SouthWest will charge you for a second seat if you cannot fit into a single seat. Almost a quarter of our calories come from eating outside the house from 5% in 1960. The rear view camera and dashboard display in modern cars may be convenient, but for many too big to turn around in their car seat it is the only to look back. In 1969, 40% of children walked or rode a bike to school. By 2001, that percentage dropped to 13%. Less than half the adult population gets three hours of exercise a week.

We like to drive and not just any cars. We like big cars. We like big houses all of which take more energy to heat and cool. America uses one-quarter of the oil used every day in the world. Advanced countries in Europe and Japan use far less energy and maintain a comparable standard of living, if not better. We trust our corporate lead economy. We allow our government to fall into the hands of lobbyists. Our school lunch program is declining in quality and reason. In the 1980s, we laughed when Congress considered ketchup a vegetable, but today pizza is considered a vegetable because it contains tomato paste (Schwan and Conagra lobby). French fries also count as a vegetable (potato lobby).

Paarlberg covers many areas including the public and governmental belief/disbelief in global warming, alternative fuels, and why Americans use so much fuel in their daily lives. It is not a book that points fingers as much as it is used to explain why we are the way we are, how we got there, and why we stay. Our diets and lifestyles have evolved, and Paarlberg explains the history and guides the reader down the complex path. A very fact filled and interesting read.

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Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone

I see countless people around the globe wearing Ramones T-shirts. That’s a good thing, but I wonder if it’s like Che Guevara worn by people who don’t know who Che Guevara is. Or if they can name the guy on the shirt. — Marky Ramone

Punk Rock Blitzkrieg by Marky Ramone
Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone by Mark Bell is the autobiography of Ramones drummer Marky Ramone. Marky Ramone tells his life story which is more than his life as a Ramone. Bell is the longest playing member of the band still alive. Joey, Johnny, Tommy, and Dee Dee have all died over the last decade and a half. Various cancers took three members, and Dee Dee died from a heroin overdose.

The New York underground of the 1970s was a rough life and forty years later the list of survivors is small and shrinking. Last year Tommy Ramone and Lou Reed became memories. Of the small crowd that remains, it is good to see the history documented by Bell and others like Patti Smith. It was an important time in American rock music. There has been a steady stream of autobiographies out over the last year or two and all of them have proved to show a different side of the music. Keith Richards dove in with the drugs and a bit of self-congratulations. Neil Young wrote as a folksy, marijuana influenced, storyteller. Patti Smith wrote mostly of herself in her biography of Robert Mapplethorpe, and Bell tells his story which is much more than a Ramones story.

Most people can name a song or two Ramones. AT&T/Cingular used “Blitzkrieg Bop” as part of an ad promotion, leaving out the part of “Shoot’em in the back now.” People with a casual knowledge will tell you of glue sniffing and heroin. If you did not catch the Ramones in the 1970s, they seemed a bit odd and out of place. Perhaps what Kiss is to hard rock, the Ramones are to the punk movement — Innovators that left a mark and still have young fans today.

Bell takes us through is fairly normal early life in a middle class New York and into his early music career in Dust and his time with Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys. Wayne (Jayne) County was a transgender singer well known in the Max’s Kansas City clique. The band did not catch on it was a little too extreme even in the era of David Bowie and The New York Dolls. Bell had quite a start before even joining the Ramones. Once in the Ramones, Bell goes into a great deal of telling who the members were and what it was like being in the band. Johnny the boss and proud Republican. Joey and his OCD and physical ailments. Dee Dee the songwriter and “character” in the band who had more than a mild drug problem. Marky enjoyed drinking to excess. Among all the substance abuse, there is only one mention of the drug mostly closely associated with the band — airplane glue. That reference, however, was used in its proper context though.

Punk Rock Blitzkrieg takes the reader through a history of famous people of the era. Bell mentions meeting Jim Morrison, and when he mentions names it’s not name dropping. He was genuinely thrilled with meeting these people. Aside from the music, tours, and concerts, Bell goes into detail covering the making of Rock and Roll High School and the collaboration with Phil Spector.

Bell writes an amazingly coherent and detailed account of his life and his time in the Ramones. This is probably the most detailed history of the Ramones published and one that honestly details the relationships between the band members. Bell remarks that original members Joey and Johnny played over 2,200 shows together and despite differences managed to hold together for twenty years. This is clearly one of the best rock and roll biographies out there — honest, personal, and significant.

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Book Review — Red Plenty

Red Plenty: Inside the Fifties' Soviet Dream

An interesting piece of historical fiction that looks mostly at the Khrushchev years where the Soviet Union was advancing in science and industry. It was a tipping point of the Soviet Union. Could they plan and grow an economy that could outpace the West?

There are stories of government efforts and ambitious youthful academics all wanting to make the system work. The personal touch makes our once arch-enemies very human and wanting the same things we did– peace, prosperity, and an end to dusty rutted roads.

Each section is prefaced with some real history and the fictional sections even contain documentation. Spufford does a nice job of reminding the reader that communism was not what happened in the Soviet Union. Communism necessitates an industrialized society. England and Germany were much better candidates than Russia. The industrialized world caved to the demands of the populations with social democrats and liberal governments to put the reigns on unrestricted capitalism. Communism only seems to take root in agrarian societies. The battle became one of free markets vs planned economies.

Great story telling framed in real history.

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