Monthly Archives: March 2015

Book Review — Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars

George W. Bush had gone to war in September 2001 to avenge the deaths of almost 3,000 civilians. Yet in the resulting battles, some 18,000 more civilians had been credibly reported killed by US, and allied forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and covert drone wars.

Sudden Justice by Christopher Woods
Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars by Christopher Wood is an examination of America’s use of drones in fighting its enemies. Woods is an investigative journalist who specializes in conflict and national security issues. A former senior BBC Panorama producer, he has authored several investigations into covert U.S. drone strikes and their true effects. He was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Journalism Prize for his work, and lives in London.

If you are looking for a feel-good, America doing the right thing, patriotic book, look elsewhere. If you want a detailed history of drone operations and who controls them, this is a book for you. Be warned though, this is the type of book that makes a veteran like myself hang his head. Unlike the current wave of narrative nonfiction, this is non-fiction done in a scholarly manner. Every claim is documented. Over one-quarter of this book is citations and bibliography. I stress the diligent documentation in this book because of what the book reveals to the reader. For those who served or studied previous conflicts, the military actions, overt and covert, have changed at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Woods examines the history of drones from their non-military start through to General Atomics, the contractor for America’s drone fleet. What started as resonance resource for the Airforce turned into an assassination platform for the CIA. The Airforce was strongly against arming drones and they had a fleet of multi-million dollar aircraft that were designed for precision bombing and could carry the correct armament for the job. Perhaps the one of the best examples of this is in the opening of the Afghan War. On October 4th 2001 the US had the position of key Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar with Airforce jets just minutes away from striking, the CIA launched its own attack from a Predator drone. It failed. Omar escaped. The Air Force was more than upset.

There has been an ongoing battle between the Air Force and the CIA. The disputes ranged from the CIA’s unannounced attacks, not allowing the Air Force access to intelligence it gathered with its drones, to the Air Force flying the drones into an area of interest then being told to hand over control to the CIA.

Aside from who actually flies and controls the drones, there is also serious questions about the precision of the attacks. Touted as a means to kill terrorists with little to no collateral damage even through Obama’s terms as president, that claim is not supported by the evidence. Former Deputy US Secretary of State Richard Armitage account is recorded as:

Mr. Obama was popping up with these drones, left, right, and down the middle, and I would read these accounts, “12 insurgents killed” “15!”You don’t know that. You don’t know that. They could have been insurgents, they could be cooks.”

Without troops on the ground or any way to verify who was dead it was just a count the bodies game like Vietnam. What else came from the drone attacks was something called “drone porn.” Video was given to ground troops or in some cases leaked to the public showing the elimination of targets. This was used to increase the moral ground troops showing that the war is being won. Also terms like “bugsplat” came into common usage as a word to describe the aftermath of a drone strike on a person.

It is also interesting how members of the military look at the drones. Interviews with Marines show them skeptical that a drone could supply the close air support they need. Marines trust A-10s and their pilots, not drones. The Air Force has had trouble filling the positions needed for drone pilots. Flying conventional planes is still preferred among those wanting to be a pilot. There was even an uproar by military members and veterans over a proposed Distinguished Warfare Medal for drone operators and analysts. As one navy veteran stated when he thought of bravery and valor it actually meant to be there, not thousands miles away.

The drone use was summed up by a senior British military officer:

British RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) are operating on a peace time trigger, while the US military ones are on a wartime trigger. And the CIA has no trigger guard.

The expansion of the War on Terror has crossed many borders. There are many new questions being raised about methods, national sovereignty, human rights, assassinations, and even constitutional rights of US citizens. This is a timely book on what may be the Bright and Shining Lie of the twenty-first century.

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Book Review — Rosehead

Rosehead by Ksenia Anske

Rosehead is a work of fantasy fiction by Ksenia Anske. I first heard of Anske through Twitter and ended up reading and reviewing the first book in the Suicide Sirens series. Last week I was fortunate enough to meet her at the Dallas Amtrak station. Anske is currently finishing up her Amtrak Writers Residency and had a short layover in my city. The few minute meeting confirmed that she is very much like her video posts, smart, quick thinking, genuinely a very nice person, and a very good writer. She was born in Russia and immigrated to the United States in 1999.

Most of my reading is non-fiction and very occasionally I will drift into a fantasy. I do like Russian fiction and that was probably the reason I became interested in Anske’s writing. There seems to be something a bit different from American and English Literature a bit of magic, so to speak. Although Anske now lives in America, she has kept some of that magic in her work. I picked up Rosehead two weeks ago as something different to fit between books on Xiaoping and America’s use of drones in war and enjoyed the break.

The tone is set from the opening line:

Lilith Bloom had a particular feeling that the rose garden wanted to eat her.

This story is set in Germany and although some very weird things happen, they are taken in stride. There are some surprise but not the crippling shock you would expect, this is a fantasy novel, after all. Lilith, the main character, also has her trusted pet a whippet — Panther Bloom Junior. Panther is more than just a loyal dog. He can talk. A talking dog shouldn’t be a big deal, after all, Bulgakov had a talking cat who shot pistols and played chess in his novel. There is also a much more serious underlying story about prescription drugs and our nation’s youth.

This novel turned out different than I expected and all in good ways. Lilith is almost thirteen, but this is not a young adult book for teenage girls as I first suspected. Also, this novel being fantasy leaves quite a bit outside the willing suspension of disbelief. It is not a novel that you fall into and believe it is happening around you. It is more like a scary story your grandmother would tell you. You knew it was a story, but you were intrigued by every word. Rosehead is that type of story.

I really enjoyed the story and the build up to an exciting finish. The characters are all very well developed as are the relationships between the characters. There are the typical mother-daughter friction and father protecting “daddy’s girl.” Relationships between Lilith and the other characters develop in a believable manner. Lilith’s relationship with her grandfather and his estate are the centerpiece of the book. There are a few reoccurring themes in the book some are obvious and other’s the reader will have to discover.

Over the years, I have read plenty of independent fiction. Most are adequate, several have been simply terrible, and very few have been great. Rosehead falls into that last category. Anske is a great storyteller and it shows in her work. I found Anske’s novel to be a refreshing change in the current fantasy offerings. An outstand piece of independent fiction. Read Anske’s books or the roses will eat you…

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Book Review — Writings on an Ethical Life

Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer

Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer is a collection of essays examining ethics. Singer is an Australian moral philosopher. He is currently the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. He specializes in applied ethics and approaches ethical issues from a secular, utilitarian perspective. Singer is well known in the Animal Rights community. He is to animal rights what Richard Dawkins is to evolution and atheism, but seemingly kinder and less bellicose. I was expecting a re-hash of Animal Liberation, and there are portions of that book in this collection, but I received a much more human to human ethics lesson.

Many of the essays examine ethics with the use of thought experiments. The idea that we can easily recognize something as being wrong, yet fail to see the same thing in our everyday lives. Utilitarianism is looked at and examined from different angles as well. Social issues like abortion, wealth distribution, starving children, and animal rights are all examined.

Since it is a collection of essays, the topics cover a wide range of subjects under the general umbrella of ethics. The definition of ethics itself is discussed and compared. The search for a one size fits all code of ethics is discussed as well as the roots of Western (Christian) ethics, which has itself evolved over time. Utilitarianism is discussed as the once possible standard. As much as the idea of providing the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people sounds good on the surface, it has a darker side. Typical thought experiments deal with the idea of killing some people so that a majority can survive — a few suffer (die) so the majority can live would fall into the realms of utilitarianism. Take it a step further into a real world example. China’s one-child policy as a method to control population and allow for enough resources for the population was considered barbaric by some because it leads to abortion (another ethical question) and infanticide. To borrow a pop-culture phrase, “Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? ”

As much as we like to think there is a clear and well-defined ethical code we often miss what is in front of us. Singer uses an example of a man who buys a rare car as a retirement investment. He can’t insure it and plans to sell it to cover his retirement cost. He drives it occasionally and one day he is out and a situation develops where he has a choice of saving his car or saving a child on some railroad tracks, but not both. He chooses to save his car. Of course, this is meant for the reader to show outrage at the actions of the man. How could anyone choose to save an item over a human life? It seems to be a very clear-cut case of the man acting unethically, yet we do the same thing every day. We may not watch the child die, but we know there are children dying of exposure while we buy new clothes. New clothes not because we need them, but because ours no longer in style. The same can be said about the new car, new electronics, new phone that we want and do not need, especially when that money can be used to feed the starving. Does that make us as guilty as the man who saved his car?

We see, experience, and even support activities that are ethically hypocritical. Say on the issue of abortion we oppose abortion because the fetus is a child and it is innocent of any wrongdoing that could possibly justify its death. It is an ethical position, but not the only one. But, on the other hand, we oppose programs like WIC, medical care, headstart, and other programs that cost money because now that innocent child shouldn’t be a burden on others.

Some of the examples above were mine based on Singer’s examples, but they all seem to share one common feature. Individual ethics in today’s world seem heavily dependent on personal cost and discomfort. It is easy to be ethical when it does not cost you anything. But if it cuts into your earning through taxes or takes away luxury you believe you deserve, it is suddenly a new issue and a different set of reasoning. This collection of essays, if they do nothing else, will make the reader think and hopefully think in a different way. More than a collection that was made to simply agree or disagree with, this collection will inspire debate on the topic of ethics, which is what is needed.


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Book Review — Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life

Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life by Alexander V. Pantsov, Steven I Levine is the biography of arguably the second most important person in modern China. Paston is a professor of history and holds the Edward and Mary Catherine Gerhold Chair in the Humanities at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. He has published numerous scholarly works including fifteen books, among them The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution 1919-1927 and Mao: The Real Story. Levine is research faculty associate, Department of History, University of Montana. He is the author, co-author, and editor of numerous works, including Mao: The Real Story and Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam, co-authored with Michael H. Hunt.

Without a doubt, Mao played the key role in creating twentieth century China. He molded the country to his ideals and kept China on the path he saw fit. From a budding relationship with Stalin to breaking with Khrushchev over reforms, violently interfering in other socialist countries, and his general boorish public behavior, Mao lead China on the “true socialist” path. Behind Mao were trusted colleagues, one would rise to set China up a world power in the twenty-first century. Xiaoping for the most part was behind the scenes shaping what would become modern China and its mix of socialism and capitalism.

Xiaoping was a long time follower and supporter of Mao from his earliest days fighting the Japanese and Chiang Kai-shek. He became a loyal follower of Mao and rose through the ranks. From his early days studying in France as part of “Diligent Work-Frugal Study Movement,” Xiaoping became disenchanted with the capitalist world. He joined the Communist Youth League and then the Chinese Communist Party. He also studied in Moscow before returning to China. He recalled his Moscow days were much more comfortable than his time in France.

In the West, Xiaoping is probably best known for his quote: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” Although devoted to Mao, Xiaoping like others who turned to communism were probably more interested in ending colonial rule or bringing their nation to their rightful place in the world. In the bipolar post-World War II world nations and leaders wanting independence often turned to the communists because it was the capitalist countries that were doing the colonizing. Xiaoping wanted to see China occupy a place of prominence on the world stage. His work as a “capitalist roader” inside China’s elite shaped China into the powerhouse it is today. However, it was the same ideas that caused him to get purged in the Cultural Revolution. Unlike many victims of purges, Xiaoping came back and returned to the party elite.

A Revolutionary Life covers not only Xiaoping’s life but also gives a history of China in the twentieth century. Xiaoping’s life is presented as part of the timeline of China as much as it is about the individual. The writing is very detailed as well as very well documented. This book is a little examined but important part of history as well as the basis for the current growing Chinese hegemony. An outstanding history and biography.

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Book Review — Looking for Potholes: Poems

Looking for Potholes by Joe Wenke

Looking for Potholes: Poems by Joe Wenke is his second collection of published poetry. Wenke, an outspoken and articulate LGBT rights activist, is the owner and managing partner of Xperience with a focus on LBGT rights and promoting freedom and equality for all people. Wenke received his M.A. in English from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Connecticut.

I first read Wenke last year when I received a copy of Papal Bull: An Ex-Catholic Calls Out the Catholic Church. I like his writing and as a former Catholic I liked the message too. I was thrilled when I received a copy of Looking for Potholes. The first poem, “I don’t Have to Be Right,” right me right from the start. It just happened the day I picked up this book was the anniversary of a close friend’s suicide and the poem certainly hit what I was feeling. “Withdrawl” gives a look into an introvert’s world. In “Swerve” I first noticed a move to what I could only think of as Dr. Seuss type rhyming:

I move through the dark,
doing the math,
taking the path
of least resistance,
knowing the odds,
ignoring the gods,

At first this rhyming seemed a bit on the “cutesy” side of poetry. The more I read, however, it did carry a deeper message and the rhymes created interest or pattern like the beat in a song. Some poems reflect on other people and society. It is not always in a positive light. At times, Wenke lets loose at others in a way we wish we could in life. He turns inward too. “Trapped” and “Some Place” look inside individual feelings, fears, and emotions.

I like the beginning of “My Prayer”:

Dear Devil,
please make me thinner,
If you do,
I promise to become a better sinner.
I’m pretty bad already,
but I know I can do better.

Looking for Potholes is a short collection of poetry. It was not what I was expecting after reading some of Wenke’s other books. I enjoyed and appreciated this collection more than his other works also. Instead of “attacking” religion, which usually brings grief to the reviewer too, he looks at human nature and the human experience. Wenke looks at the part of being human that is not usually written about. It is not all flowers and rainbows in the real world. People have problems. People have faults. The simple lines and simple rhymes help bring these thoughts to the forefront. Wenke uses simple methods to bring up complex issues. What I took as a bit childish early on turned out to be quite a bit deeper than my initial thoughts. Very well done and cleverly done.

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Book Review — You Got To Be Kidding: The Cultural Arsonist’s Literal Reading of the Bible

You Got To Be Kidding! A Radical Satire of The Bible by Joe Wenke

Atheists, heathens, believers in Asgard, and others may find this book funny. Biblical literalists will not. Fair warning.

I remember sitting in Catholic school, seventh grade or so, and learning about free will. The whole concept puzzled me. I remember asking “Doesn’t God know our fate before we were even born?”
“Ah, but you have free will and can change behavior and go to heaven.”
“So I can surprise God?”
“No, God knows everything.”
“So God knows my free will choices before I make them?”

I never got a good answer. I originally thought of it as something un-understandable, like imagining the edge of the universe, where it is and what is beyond it. That kept me awake at night thinking more than free will and still does. As I got older I started noticing things that did not make sense and really couldn’t continue on that path.

Wenke has seen the same dilemmas and instead of quietly walking away he plays his role as a self-described “Social Arsonist” and goes on the offensive with humor and sometimes sarcasm to make his point.

He uses the Bible and makes his case. In more cases than not God seems to be a fan of Rube Goldberg machines. Instead of using godly power to change things, he goes about it in a very roundabout method. God could have just had the Israelites walk out of Egypt instead of the plagues and parting of the Red Sea. He must have know that the theatrics would not have helped consolidate his chosen people. He had to know about the Golden Calf and the unfaithfulness his people demonstrated…repeatedly. God seemed to be present on a regular basis back then. He talked to Moses almost daily, now he just talks to Michelle Bachmann and that’s not doing her much good.

Other small issues are brought up like what happened to Joseph? Jesus’s foster father is barely mentioned and not mentioned at all after “finding Jesus at the Temple.” He is not mention at the wedding feast or any other time Jesus is with his mother. Mark never mentions him and John only mentions him in passing. What about heaven? It never existed as a place for people until Jesus’s time. Previously people went to Sheol, a dull grey place where all the dead went to whether they lived good or bad lives.

Most people know that the God of the Old Testament seems kinder and gentler in the New Testament. Satan also changed too. He was sly, clever, and hung out with God in Old Testament like in the story of Job. In the New Testament, Satan is pretty stupid. He tries to tempt Jesus with the Earth. I mean, Jesus’ father made the earth, who’s earth is it really, Satan?

Wenke is a bit hard on the Holy Spirit, almost making it seem like the Aquaman of the Trinity. But, he does hold a soft spot for Jesus:

Thank you, Jesus, for hanging out with shady people. Shady people are the best company.

Thank you, Jesus, for advocating the Golden Rule,
Thank you, Jesus, for saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers

Thank you, Jesus, for expecting nothing in return.

Jesus cried at the death of Lazarus, a very human experience especially since he raised him from the dead shortly after that.

To be fair, Wenke is not balanced in his writing, but that is to be expected. You would not expect a Christian to give a glowing review to Islam or Hinduism. This is a book that delivers what is expected and does so with humor and sarcasm. Wenke does not give an emotional argument but looks at what is written and comments on it from an outsider’s view. It is not for everyone, but it does hit its target audience dead on.

This is a book review.  I am not entertaining theological questions or arguments here.


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Book Review — Defending Gallipoli: The Turkish Story

Defending Gallipoli by Harvey Broadbent

Defending Gallipoli: The Turkish Story by Harvey Broadbent is the history of the Gallipoli invasion from the Turkish side. Broadbent is a leading authority on Turkey and its history. Since 2005 he has been using his expertise as a Senior Research Fellow and Associate Professor at Macquarie University where he directed the Gallipoli Centenary Research Project, a partnership between the university, the Australian War Memorial and the ARC He is also the author of Gallipoli: the Fatal Shore, The Boys Who Came Home: Recollections of Gallipoli, and Voices of the First World War.

World War I history is commonly thought of as the Western Front. England, France, Germany, and later the US. There is little information on the Eastern Front — Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania, and Germany. The Ottoman Empire is mentioned occasionally, and probably remembered by most as “The sick old man of Europe.” The Ottoman Empire did control the Dardanelles Straight which was Russia’s access to the Mediterranean Sea. Historically, Russia had designs on Istanbul and it became Russia’s crusade to take back the “holy land” of Eastern Rome. Militarily, an effective warm water port and access to the Mediterranean was the goal.

The Ottoman Empire began moving closer to Germany and distancing itself from Britain. Germany helped the “Young Turks” rebuild its army, but two modern battleships were being built for the Ottoman’s by the British. Once the war broke out, Britain took control of the ships they were building for the Ottomans. Germany provided two cruisers to gain influence with the Ottomans. This eventually lead to the Allied intervention at Gallipoli.

Gallipoli did see the rise of two important figures in the 20th century. Although Gallipoli would turn out to be a failure for the Allies. Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, would rise to fame. Secondly, a man on the Ottoman side would rise to power. He would take a primarily Moslem country and formed a modern, secular democracy and bring his country into the Western fold. That man was Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal. He will become better known as Ataturk.

Broadbent using years of research of original Turkish documents reconstructs the eight-month siege through the eyes and reports of the defenders. He gives a landing by landing, battle by battle, and hill by hill account. There is more detail in this book than in many other books covering the entire war. Gallipoli was no small skirmish. The Ottomans suffered a quarter million casualties (86,692 deaths) and the allies 141,547 casualties (44,150 deaths). The allied forces were primarily British, French, and Australian, with support from New Zealand, India, and New Foundland.

The amount of death and the bloodiness of the battles would have little effect on the war. The Dardanelles did not prove to be the strategic point it was thought to be. This is especially true after Russia left the war. The research provided inDefending Gallipoli is extensive and in a Western-centric world it is important to look at the other views. Here is on instance where the victors did not write the commonly held history. Outstanding research.

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Book Review — Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?

From white bed sheets, if we must have
A flag, let it be blank,
Without fussy symbols… let us be peaceful
Lest we fly our dreams after the strangers’ caravan

Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? by Mahmoud Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish was a respected Palestinian poet and author who won numerous awards for his literary output and was regarded as the Palestinian national poet. The translation of this work is by Mohammad Shaheen. He has been a professor of English literature at the University of Jordan in Amman, Jordan since 1985. Shaheen holds a Ph.D. degree in English literature from Cambridge University.

This collection of poetry reflects the Arabic tradition of poetry. Shaheen seems to use a literal translation of the poetry which is different than what the typical Western audience is accustomed to. Other translations try to put the work in a Western form and may be easier to read. There is a noticeable difference in word use and sometimes structure too between the translations. This collection seems to closer to the original intent. This also means that it is a bit more difficult read.

There are several reoccurring themes in this collection. Olive groves, trees, birds, flowers. There is a some history in the poems too, the Moors are an example used in “First Exercises on a Spanish Guitar.” Darwish also reminds the reader of the Palestinian people as many of the poems are about leaving home, sometimes under force. The theme is also carried out in the use of comparisons like “not alive and not dead” and “there is no nonexistence there and no existence.” There is a steady feeling of being trapped in limbo like a person without a country would feel.

Other poems translate well and could have their place with Western romantic poetry — “The Tartars’ Swallow” and “A Night Which Flows from the Body.” For those expecting a heavy political or religious text, you will be disappointed. There are only a few mentions of religion Islam or Christian, and when used it is used, its purpose is a cultural reference rather than dogma or advancement.

Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? provides a look into a culture that most in the West do not know or simply misunderstand. It is art from a culture that many have not experienced. A great collection, but something many will need patience while reading because of the translation.

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Book Review — Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement (40th Anniversary Edition)

Animal Liberation by Peter Singer

Animal Liberation is the book that started the modern animal rights movement. Peter Singer, the author, is an Australian philosopher. He is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE), University of Melbourne. He specializes in applied ethics, approaching ethical issues from a secular preference utilitarian perspective.

In 1975, the first edition of Animal Liberation was published. It has become the centerpiece of the movement. The book was revised in 1990 and again this year for the 40th anniversary. The philosophy does not change, but the material is updated for the current time. For example, Revlon is no longer testing beauty products on animals and factory farming grown at an incredible pace.

Singer uses reason and sound arguments to make his points. He does not make emotional appeals. His writing on speciesism reminded me of a news story here in Texas a few years ago. There was a news story with a crying teenage girl. She had sold here horse only to find out that it was bought by a slaughterhouse. She thought it wasn’t right, even though she sold the horse as one would sell a piece of property. She thought the horse she sold was going to a good home and felt betrayed. The story made me wonder if she felt the same way when she ate a hamburger. What is the difference between mammals? Why is there no problem in the slaughtering millions of cattle or pigs, but there is a problem slaughtering horses or dogs. Also, why are dogs and cats protected from abuse but cattle, sheep, swine, and birds are not?

Singer, however, does not devote the largest part of his book to what we eat, but how we treat animals and the reasons why. He also points out the hypocrisy in the way we think about animals like I pointed out above. People oppose wearing fur, but at the same time see no problem with leather. We say we love animals –kittens and puppies — while eating a ham sandwich.

Singer also looks at Western civilization and the reasons we think about animals the way we do. From the Book of Genesis, though Greek thinkers, Roman society, and philosophers in the Age of Reason, the present Western mindset of animal rights or more appropriately the lack of rights is set. We have made progress from Roman times, but it is slow and suffers many setbacks.

Some of this is how we are raised. Today we are so separated from our food many do not associate it with its source. I remember real butcher shops where men still cut your meat from sides of beef right in front of you. Today meat comes in white styrofoam packaging with pads underneath to absorb any excess blood. Blood might remind a customer of the process. We tend to forget or ignore how the meat gets into the neat packaging. We think of “happy cows” on a farm, not feed lots. We think of farmers hand milking cows and animals living long happy lives grazing in fields rather than cows that “used up” after two years. Image and reality are vastly different.

Animal Liberation still holds true to its principles after forty years. The updates have kept up with current developments and Singer still does use reason over emotion to back his points. It is an informative read, but not one that gives comfort or pleasure. It is information that does need to get out, read, and discussed. No matter which side of animal rights the reader stands, this book reminds the reader of what is really taking place and let’s his or her conscious make the decision.

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Book Review — Coolidge

Coolidge by Amity Shlaes

Tucked in between Woodrow Wilson and FDR were three presidents that are not usually given too much attention. Harding died in office leaving his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, to take over. Following Coolidge is Hoover, a great man, but remembered for Hoovervilles and the Great Depression.

Coolidge himself is a remarkable man and provides a very interesting biography. A great speaker and the first president to make a radio address, he was better known as “Silent Cal.” The story goes that a dinner party a young woman sitting next to Coolidge challenged him that she could get him to say more than two words during the dinner party. At the end of the party, Coolidge looked at her and said, “You lose.” Although considered a negative person, Coolidge was one of the most accessible presidents. Notes in the book tell of how many handshakes an hour Coolidge gave at events; an amazing amount when you break it down into shakes per minute. More than just a stuffed suit, Coolidge was photographed as in an Indian headdress, fly fishing gear, and dressed as a cowboy — not what one would expect from a stiff New England Yankee.

Coolidge, economically seems to have been Reagan’s role model. In economics, he looked to cut spending anyway he could. He lived a rather frugal life and applied that to his view of government spending. He thought of the government budget should be the same as a household budget. World War I created a massive amount of federal debt and it was his duty to fix it. As the governor of Massachuttes, he fought against strikers including the Boston Police department. He supported the Mellon Plan for tax cuts to increase revenue, and the plan worked. Coolidge managed to reduce the national debt and create a surplus. He fought hard to prevent the surplus from going into new spending programs. Coolidge also stayed out of state’s business. States should handle their own problems. When The Great Mississippi floods hit Coolidge kept the federal government out of the relief effort. He made a personal donation and helped with fundraising, but there was no “FEMA” type response like today. He also kept out of the Sacco and Vanzetti case because he believed it was a state matter. Coolidge seems to be the proto-Reagan right down to problems with the (original) Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Of course, there are differences between the two men, but the similarities are surprising enough.

Shlaes writes an excellent biography of a little-known president. From his simple roots and unexpected accent to the presidency, Shlaes covers the details of the man’s life and dispels the myth of a “do nothing” president. Clever, witty, steadfast, and quick to the point, Coolidge was much more than his current political image.

Thanks to Rachel at for the recommendation. Check out her site for other great reads and commentary.

Author’s Biography: 

Amity Shlaes graduated from Yale University magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1982.

Shlaes writes a column for Forbes, and served as a nationally syndicated columnist for over a decade, first at the Financial Times, then at Bloomberg. Earlier, she worked at the Wall Street Journal, where she was a member of the editorial board. She is the author of “Coolidge,” “The Forgotten Man,” and “The Greedy Hand, all bestsellers. Her first book, “Germany” was about German reunification.

Miss Shlaes chairs the board of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, situated at the birthplace of President Calvin Coolidge. Michael Pack of Manifold Productions is making a documentary film of her movie “Coolidge.” Her new book is “Forgotten Man/Graphic” with artist Paul Rivoche. This book is for classrooms and thinkers everywhere.

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