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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in btripp_books' LiveJournal:

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Wednesday, December 21st, 2022
10:18 pm
Howdy ...
After many years of not reading (the details of this strange condition, a side-effect of running my own publishing company, can be found in the early entries here), I got back into the habit around 2002, and in February 2004 began to post (in my main LiveJournal) little reviews of books as I read them.

In November 2005, I discovered LibraryThing and began to log in my extensive library. As there is a "review" section for every book listed there, it occurred to me that linking back to my book review posts might be a useful thing to do.

However, I didn't want to "blur the lines" dividing what I primarily use LiveJournal for and what I see LibraryThing being. As such, I started this new journal, just for my book reviews, and have copied over all the book review posts from my main journal to this new one.

- - -

Oh, hey ... would you be interested in hard-copy versions of these reviews? I had so many people suggest to me over the years that I should "do books" of them, that I eventually pulled the trigger on the concept. I'm finally caught up with this, with eleven volumes currently available, 2016 on back through 2004-6 ... click here to check them out!





IT'S FINALLY DONE!
After years of working on creating some sort of an index for this site,
it's finally here! Click on the buttons below for listings by author and title:


Index by Author


Index by Title



By the way...

EVERYTHING ON THIS SITE (http://btripp-books.livejournal.com/ and all subsidiary pages)
IS COPYRIGHT © 2007-2017 BY BRENDAN TRIPP.

Due to recent developments at LibraryThing.com relating to users' book reviews, I felt a need to make a formal statement of copyright claim.



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Sunday, January 28th, 2018
3:35 pm
Writing your truth ...
This is one of those books that was sitting around in my to-be-read piles for years (I got it via one of the B&N after-Xmas on-line clearance sales), I'm guessing since '06 or '07, and it only got into the actual reading pipeline last fall. I see that there's a “revised” edition of this out, which, oddly, only followed this one by three years ('08 vs '05), but via a different publisher … needless to say, I have no idea what the difference between the two might be. I'm using links out to the listing for the copy that I have, however, so there's no confusion.

Anyway, Jeff Davis' The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing is the type of thing, that were it not so good, might well be subject to ridicule on these pages, as it is, on the surface at least, a pretty “out there” combination of Yoga and Writing (hence the odd formulation of the title). However, I find that there are over a dozen of my little bookmarks in this from my read-through, and that's usually a sign that I was very much into what the book was presenting.

Helpfully, the author is pretty much open on the whole philosophical underpinnings of the book, and starts out the introduction with defining its premise:

Yoga's philosophical principles and myriad skillful tools (upaya) can help you as a creative writer deepen your writing practice, become more versatile in your writing process, and enrich your writing style.
Davis appears to come to this professionally from the writing side (both as a writer and a writing teacher in numerous settings), with Yoga being a passion/avocation/devotion of his (he has photos of him in assorted unpleasant-looking contortions illustrating an appendix) … he does have a reality of the state of most writers, reassuring us that “if your day's most physical act has been to walk to the corner shop for a coffee and a bagel” … “being able to twist your imagination with a flexible spirit is more important for authentic writing than being able to secure your foot behind your head”. Whew, that's a relief!

The book's structured as 24 chapters unevenly distributed across four sections, which are themed to a “Journey”: Making a Few Preparations, Setting Out, Facing Emotional Crags, and Looking Back & Looking Forward, and are somewhat distinguished by varying tones, as appropriate to each. Much of this, as one might expect, shifts back and forth between Yogic material and Writing advice. Since the closest that I come to being a “Yogi” is likely to be a fondness for "pic-a-nic baskets", most of what drew my attention here was on the writer side of the fence, for example, this little gem:

If developing a regular schedule is new to you, even if you've been writing for years, you might use this simple formula: 3-60-15. Write three times a week for sixty minutes each session for fifteen days (that is, three days a week for five weeks). Or this formula: 7-60-15. Seven days a week for sixty minutes for fifteen days. The fifteen days is a marker to see if this changed habit will stay; it provides a reachable end.
He follows up with with broader guidelines, and notes of how some of his students reported that using this discipline “changed their lives”. Now, I don't want to give the impression that this flips back and forth between the Yogic and the Writing, as the various poses/practices he suggests are targeted to particular writing challenges. One of the few that didn't elicit a “that ain't gonna happen” response from me was one that was for a piece of writing “that needs expansion”, and is described as “Hold Your Breath to Make Space”, which starts with sitting in a chair, and then lying on the floor (in Savāsana - “Corpse Pose”), and working on expanding the volume of your breath, that you then imagine “literally opening up” the segment of writing you're trying to enlarge on. OK, it seems there's a bit of jump there, but hey.

So, forgive me if I seem to be ignoring the āsanas, but this really is a book for writers to use Yoga as a tool, and not a book for Yogis to improve their writing, and the material for writers is solid, and of value even if you don't throw a single mudra. An example of this is his persona/dummy/ventriloquist model for obtaining “mentors” that are only present in their words: “A remote mentor is a writer still living, yet who advises a writer solely via the mentor's texts. A dead mentor is the same, of course, just dead.”, which he notes allows one to exist in a virtual sat-sanga (“community of like-spirited individuals”), which means you never need be alone as a writer. He offers up an exercise:

      When you've found such a mentor, find a passage – fifty words, a hundred words, may suffice. Then read and heed – slowly – the syllables, the twists in syntax, the edgy wit or bawdy humor, or the saturnine gravitas that drums through the paragraphs. Let the passage wash over and in you. Then begin to record, word by word, this passage. Notice how your body feels as you handwrite these sentences' rhythms. Your inner ear cannot help but tune in … {to} … the cadences, the images, the twists, the tones.
The author goes on to detail how to apply and expand this exercise, over several very interesting (but a bit to dense to cherry-pick quotes for here) pages. Further on, he dips into advanced writing seminar stuff, looking at parallelism, antithesis, and then offering this juicy bit:

      Sometimes we write with such fury or reverie, disgust or jubilation, that our voice beckons us to repeat phrases and clauses. In such writing, our writing bodies and voice may need the shapes of anaphora or epistrophe. … anaphora, the repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginnings of successive clauses or sentences. … Epistrophe … the repetition of the same word or group of words at the ends of successive clauses or sentences …
This (of course) then dovetails into a discussion of the breath, the biology of breath, and then into Prānāyāma, and eventually back to stuff like iambic word patterns and rhyme schemes – with a smattering of examples, some bordering on snark, such as:

Although writers like Emily Dickinson and Robert Creeley seem content with tight breaths, some writers – like Walt Whitman, Faulkner, and Norman Mailer – seem to inhale to a count of ninety (I think Mailer inhales once a page and Faulkner once every two pages).
… and finally into additional Yogic breath work.

Another topic that gets its own chapter is that of First Drafts … frequently a major point of neurosis among writers. Any writer who produces a lot of copy knows that it's better to get words on the page and then spend as much as 3x the time it took writing it to edit it into something presentable … and the author starts out this charming chunk of text with a very wise admonition:

Permit yourself to write crap. Pull out the leftovers, worn-out drafts from ten years ago, if reworking them gives your imagination something palpable to sink its teeth into. Even if what you start to write sounds as if you've been writing the same thing for years, write it. … If you insist on drafting only when you feel each word must be recherché to avoid your words tasting like a rechauffé, then you might actually starve your muse. You'll have time later to clean up the mess – the excess, the overwriting, the creative indulgences, the melodrama – that you made. For now, enjoy the trek. Drafting, like cooking, can be messy.
Interestingly, this gastronomic-themed passage leads into a section describing how various writers have used darkness and/or blindfolds to generate their first drafts, which then gets around to the idea of writing from one's “third eye”, which ends up in another exercise (done seated) that involves energy channels, breath, the physical eyes, and a number of interior elements. Heck, this one I might try.

Unfortunately, as is often the case when I have a lot of little bookmarks in a volume, there are many which, when returning to the book, I have no idea what I was indicating (some days I wish I were one of those people who scrawls notes in books … but no), and most of the middle parts of this suffer from this lapse. Most so far have been pointing to passages I found enticing, but next was a “factoid” that I found fascinating (albeit somewhat stretching credulity – its prime source seems to be a newagey “research center”):

… the heartbeat's waves can be graphed on a machine called and ECG … its charge apparently is so strong that an ECG placed within three feet of you can measure your heart's waves and energy field without being directly hooked up to your physical body. That is, your charged heart casts off energy around you. Literally. You body inhabits that field. Literally.
Of course, some of these point to snippets that stood out as particularly arch, such as the note in a discussion of satire that warns that “Many readers, especially of the self-important sort, just don't get irony, wit, and satire.”, along with some rather painful examples where this miscommunication went badly.

There is so much excellent information in The Journey from the Center to the Page that I fear that I'm giving it short shrift in just highlighting the writing bits I was enthused about. As noted, most of the Yoga parts were sort of a moot point for me, although were interesting enough to read about, but there's also a whole lot of “autobiographical” material here that lent a richer matrix for the rest. At the end there's an appendix where Davis demonstrates poses mentioned in the exercises, arranged with reference to the chapters in which they appear. Also, and this was one of the things that I found very useful, there's an appendix of well over a hundred “key terms” which is primarily the Yoga vocabulary, but with a smattering of scientific and linguistic terms (“beta waves” and “syntax” as examples) … quite a handy list to have available.

Again, I don't know what's different with the (slightly) newer version than the one I have (aside from being listed with a bit longer page count), but this is available new for as little as six bucks (including shipping) from the new/used guys. It appears that the 2008 edition is still in print, so you might be able to find this at your local brick-and-mortar as well.

This surprised me in being a really superb book for writing skills (the author must teach fabulous classes) given the Yoga theme, and it should be something that every writer ought to consider for their “writing” bookshelf.


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Sunday, December 31st, 2017
10:59 pm
What should be and what not ...
I thought I was done with having to “pad” orders to get up to free shipping minimums when I signed up for Amazon's “Prime” service, but since their creating the “add-on” category of products (which require a minimum order total to be able to get), I find myself digging through the Dover Thrift Editions listings again looking for just the right fit, price-wise, to nudge the total to where it needs to be. Obviously, this is not the set-up for an overly enthusiastic purchase decision on a particular book, but, as I have noted many times previously, the Dover books give me a chance to fill in gaps from my English Major, and that's the case with picking up a copy of William Butler Yeats' "Easter 1916" and Other Poems.

Now, I'd certainly read some Yeats in college, but he was fixed in my head more due to his involvement in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (including his famed conflict with the notorious Aleister Crowley) than his poetry. Not that this is misplaced, Yeats himself is quoted as saying that magick was “the most important pursuit of my life … the mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write” – and I, frankly, expected this to come out more clearly in his writings than I found it to be. As is often the case of the Dover books, this volume includes a fascinating introductory essay which reports that he spent thirty years pursuing Maud Gonne, whose own metaphysical interests significantly influenced him, and led to a far more mature level of writing in his later years. As is also almost always the case with Dover books, the main body of this one is a reprint of some long-since out of copyright publication (from 1922), which itself was collected from a couple previous volumes of Yeats' writings from 1919 and 1921 (and, as he lived to 1939, these would possibly have been produced with his input).

Of course, the bulk of this is poetry, which, despite the thousands of pieces that I churned out back in the day, I find very hard to write about in a “broad strokes” manner, making it difficult for me to provide some overview of these (and I doubt that anybody has much interest of me getting into the minutia of particular poems). So, I'm going to be passing along bits and pieces that I found interesting and maybe making a few comments on those. I was disappointed that I only found that I'd stuck in two of my little bookmarks here, and these both are in one long (going on for seven pages) poem. This is further complicated that said poem, The Phases of the Moon, is one of his “conversation” pieces, where two or more characters are tossing sections back and forth, leading to the near-certainty of confusion if simply quoted here as is.

To start with, however, I'm going to be dropping in what is probably his most famous piece, The Second Coming from his 1921 collection:

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Now, that was sort of what I was hoping much of this collection was going to be about … but, no. While there is mystical/spiritual stuff strewn through, much of this is fairly mundane, dealing with relationships and daily activities.

There is, however, that other theme that Yeats is famous for, being one of the voices of the Irish movement for independence from Britain. The introductory essay here notes of the second collection from which poems were selected: “It was composed in the shadow of the Easter Uprising of 1916, released in the latter days of the Anglo-Irish War (1919-21) and read during the Irish Civil War (1922-23) and eventual establishment of the Irish Free State (1922)”. The intro essay suggests that Yeats, “a Protestant-born Anglo-Irish aristocrat”, had not been particularly supportive of the cause in its early years, but eventually found himself “strenuously devoted” to “Irish cultural and political nationalism”, which caused his work to take up a more activist stance. Here is the last stanza (of four) of the titular Easter 1916 poem:

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
As noted up top, I only had two of my bookmarks in here to point me to “the good stuff”, and both are in the long piece The Phases of the Moon. Again, these were things that I found most appealing (and, frankly, a lot of the poems here were “meh” at best to my ear), so this probably does nothing for conveying the overall tone of this collection, but I'm not going to type up something I didn't care for:

                    Robartes
Twenty-and-eight the phases of the moon,
The full and the moon’s dark and all the crescents,
Twenty-and-eight, and yet but six-and-twenty
The cradles that a man must needs be rocked in:
For there’s no human life at the full or the dark.
From the first crescent to the half, the dream
But summons to adventure and the man
Is always happy like a bird or a beast;
But while the moon is rounding towards the full
He follows whatever whim’s most difficult
Among whims not impossible, and though scarred
As with the cat-o’-nine-tails of the mind,
His body moulded from within his body
Grows comelier. Eleven pass, and then
Athenae takes Achilles by the hair,
Hector is in the dust, Nietzsche is born,
Because the heroes’ crescent is the twelfth.
And yet, twice born, twice buried, grow he must,
Before the full moon, helpless as a worm.
The thirteenth moon but sets the soul at war
In its own being, and when that war’s begun
There is no muscle in the arm; and after
Under the frenzy of the fourteenth moon
The soul begins to tremble into stillness
To die into the labyrinth of itself.
and …
                    Robartes
And after that the crumbling of the moon.
The soul remembering its loneliness
Shudders in many cradles; all is changed,
It would be the World’s servant, and as it serves,
Choosing whatever task’s most difficult
Among tasks not impossible, it takes
Upon the body and upon the soul
The coarseness of the drudge.
Anyway, there's a taste of what's in here. Frankly, I'm surprised that I didn't run into more of his writing when in college, but the turn of the last century wasn't much in my curriculum, so his was likely among those which only got touched on via the massive main English Major texts.

"Easter 1916" and Other Poems, being a Dover Thrift book, is likely to not be sitting on the shelf at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor, as its cover price is a mere three bucks (hence having nearly no margin for the retailer), but it's a handy thing to have on your wish list at the on-line book behemoths (where it's even at a discount at the moment), for fine tuning order totals. I'm not particularly enthused about this collection, but I'm glad to have “loaded it into my brain”, so that if the topic of Yeats comes up I'll be less vague than I would have been prior to reading it.


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Saturday, December 30th, 2017
11:52 pm
Falling out ...
So, maybe it's “just me”, but this seems to be an example of how fickle the serendipity of the dollar store can be. I allow the “just me” option, because I really don't do a lot of “due diligence” when eyeballing a book there before it goes into the cart. Is it non-fiction? Check. Is it a subject that I have an interest in? Check. Does it look like a reasonable read (i.e., not 600 pages or in some itsy tiny font)? Check. Is the physical copy in good shape? Check. … That's pretty much it for how deep I get into analyzing a dollar store book purchase.

And, sometimes I get surprised.

When I picked up Jesse Schenker's All or Nothing: One Chef's Appetite for the Extreme, I assumed it to be another memoir of a life in the culinary arts. The dust cover flaps were heavy on the author's achievements in the restaurant field, James Beard, Zagat, Forbes, New York, and Iron Chef all get referenced. Sure, his problems with drugs and the law are mentioned, but the sense was more “talented Chef overcomes youthful challenges to become trendy restaurateur”, which is also the tone of the back cover quotes. However, out of a 260-page book, about 150 of those are pretty much Schenker's “drug journal”, reminding me of an extended “drunkalogue” that one might hear at an AA meeting (in fact, this book fits neatly into AA's “Big Book”'s “Our stories disclose in a general way what we were like, what happened, and what we are like now.”). While a passion for the kitchen does weave its way through the main part of the book (approximately chapters 2-11 out of 16), the main take-away here is a harrowing tale of substance abuse, eventually redeemed by cooking skills.

Given that the early growth of his culinary experience runs in parallel with the less-addled times of his drug experiences, the book is pretty much half and half, which is confusing to an extent. If one takes the bio from his web site, one could walk away with no sense of the depths that he ended up hitting, and yet this book is plainly plugged on the same page (and elsewhere with a YouTube video that featured pictures of Schenker that really should have been in the book to help envision the version of him that's featured through most of its pages) … pushing out a story very different than that of the star chef.

{Arrgh … I had 2200 words written and the netbook went into some sort of spasm during which it managed to lose 2/3rds of my brilliant blitherings the review at the above point (despite the wordprocessor supposedly saving progress every 10 minutes) … I'm now attempting to pick up mid-stream three weeks later, all of which really sucks. Technology … can't live with it, can't eat it instead of cereal in the mornings!}

If one just picked up Schenker's book and flipped to the table of contents, one might assume it was primarily about cooking, as the sixteen chapters each have a culinary term as a title (and each chapter starts with a definition of the associated term). However, none of these have more than passing connection with the contents of the chapter (well, with a few exceptions, the first chapter is Mise en Place, which is the term for setting up a kitchen workstation). The book starts out at his restaurant Recette, as he's getting the staff ready for a 27-course tasting menu, and makes the segue to his back story with his getting ready to check on how a sauce is coming, pulling a tasting spoon out of a pocket:

      There had been a spoon in my back pocket for as long as I could remember, but the spoon's intended use had changed so completely that even I was caught off guard at times. Once I had carried a spoon to cook drugs on the streets of Florida, and now it was there to prepare haute cuisine for Manhattan's foodie elite. …
He starts the telling very early, with how, at age one, he had to be locked into his room at night to keep him from getting out and falling down a steep stairway right outside his room … in the mornings his mom would find him asleep on top of some furniture, where he'd spent most of the night stripping the wallpaper off the walls … he notes “I've never felt comfortable in my own skin and have always needed an outlet for uneasiness.” He soon found one outlet, although the timing seems iffy to me – he claims that at age four he became fascinated with cooking, and especially that of his great-grandmother, “Nana Mae”, who died when he was eight, so I guess the things he reports doing with her must have happened. He reports:

      For me, being in the kitchen was like taking a Xanax. I finally had an outlet for all of the emotions that were too uncomfortable for me to really feel. I had never known what to do with those feelings. In the kitchen I had a sense of freedom and space and, most important, order and clarity. It was the only time the restlessness within me subsided.
Schenker grew up in Florida, but every summer his family headed back north, and he and his sister spent June at the house of his aunt and uncle (and cousins) in New Paltz, NY. This was ideal for him, as he could be in constant motion, keeping up with his older cousins … who also introduced him to his other passion – drugs – with his first experience with marijuana at age twelve:

… as soon as I stopped coughing, it felt as though a part of myself had suddenly been lifted away. Ever since I was a baby peeling wallpaper from the walls of my room, I had never been able to get rid of that twitchy, anxious part of me. The big wool blanket that I'd been carrying around my whole life like a fucking disease suddenly lifted, and that feeling trumped any escape I'd previously found through acting out, clowning around, or even cooking.
… I was changed forever and there was no turning back.
Upon his return to Florida, his behavior changed, and while he was still way more interested in culinary arts than most kids his age, he also became a great fan of pot, and began hanging out with others who shared the latter interest. Run the calendar ahead a couple of years and he's discovered girls and found that it's a lot easier to stay supplied with weed if you're selling it, plus he “never felt so popular or important” as when kids looking to score clamored around him in the hallways at school. As one might expect, this sort of notoriety tends to spread, and he soon (at age 14) had his first arrest:“… I felt a sort of perverse excitement about being arrested … All I could think was, Wow. This is fucking cool.. He, as at this point was usual, manged to talk his parents into fighting for him, and they ended up sending him to a hippie psychologist that he actually liked, and who warned his family that he probably needed long-term rehab – warnings that they ignored. Soon after he was caught with marijuana in school, and managed to avoid getting expelled, just serving a one-week suspension during which he and his family went on a ski trip to Aspen … teaching him the lesson that he could get away with anything.

By freshman year in high school he was “young, full of nervous energy, with no respect for boundaries and a lot of extra time on {his} hands” and he “filled the void with pot, cooking, music, and sex”, and soon had another drug bust on his record – resulting in only being sentenced to 50 hours of community service, which his father managed to make go away before he'd clocked even an hour. Despite having no consequences from his actions, Schenker eventually hits that scary point in the addict's life – when his substance of choice stops working for him … this is a classic description (when he and his girlfriend are passing a bong back and forth in the bathroom at a party):

… this time something wasn't right. Finally it hit me. I was high, but I still felt the anxiety. The emptiness and anxiety were back; they were there even while I was smoking. This had never happened before. It struck me that pot was no longer enough to fill the gaping hole inside me.
He wastes no time in looking for a replacement, digging through the medicine cabinet, starting with various cold medicines but moving up to the Oxycodone that had been prescribed for his sister following dental surgery. He notes: “Nothing relieves emptiness like opiates.”, and obtaining these becomes his new obsession. In eleventh grade he starts attending a technical school which has a Culinary Arts Program, and he takes to the material immediately, and soon was cooking at an area restaurant, but he “could feel the pull in two directions, between the serenity of the kitchen and the euphoria of the drugs”. While he was a natural in the kitchen, and moved up to better restaurants, that environment provided him with access to people with access to drugs, and he moved to Percocet, Darvocet, and OxyContin, and was physically addicted by 17. He dropped out of the academic part of school (opting for a GED), while continuing with the cooking classes. He kept getting better positions at fancier restaurants, but the drugs started to make him (and his kitchen pals) a less reliable employee … so one of his buddies and he decided that a long trip to Europe would be a good idea, and connived the travel costs from their parents. They flew into London, but soon moved to Amsterdam because they figured the drugs would be easier to get there … eventually he talks his way into getting pain killers from a local doctor and “the rest of the trip was a drug-filled orgy of food, booze, sex, and of course pills” – although he did pick up a lot of culinary ideas on the way.

When he returns, he moves to Tallahassee, and soon hooks up with a methadone clinic, which eventually boots him out after a random urine test showed he was dabbling in other drugs … he notes: “Heroin gets all the notoriety when it comes to withdrawal, but kicking methadone is actually much worse.” He finds a “pain clinic” that provides him with something for the withdrawal, but he's needing more, and tries to work a deal for drugs that ends up with him being arrested as a opiate dealer – despite his not having any. His father (and therapist) steps in again and gets him into a rehab facility. He, of course, finds a way to get drugs there, using his food budget to buy them (and being lucky that the urine tests of the day didn't show OxyContin), and running a side-hustle of cooking for other folks in order to eat. He moves from rehab to a halfway house, and is able to get a job cooking again, and then convinces his parents to rent an apartment for him. The new job first exposes him to a guy who's dealing in cocaine, which Schenker uses, and eventually to another employee who hooks him up with heroin; he describes his first fix: “Pushing the plunger into that single vein was perhaps the most gratifying experience of my entire life to that point. … There was no going back from here.”

He starts stealing to support his addiction, goes through a number of drug centers, always just playing the game to get by, and ends up getting into another halfway house that lets him work, and he's back in a kitchen, but he bails on both to crash with a friend, and remarkably gets yet another job, savoring his time cooking “despite being completely drowned in drugs”. However, this doesn't last, and he ends up “running” for a dealer, who he eventually rips off for a whole safe full of drugs. Amazingly, in all this time he keeps getting hired to cook, although most of these gigs don't last long for obvious reasons. He keeps getting in deeper and deeper, discovers crack, starts posing as a male prostitute (although he only reports stealing from the Johns), and can't even keep a job at a deli. He and his buddies move to following around dealers to rip them off (while not getting killed). The sordid stories continue for pages and pages and pages, and he eventually hits bottom, there's a warrant out for his arrest, and when a cop picks him up in a horrendous area of Fort Lauderdale, he ends up smiling in the back of the car saying “I'm going to get my life back.” He spends three months in county jail before getting transferred to a jail-based rehab program where he starts to get the AA/NA message: “… I was dry and sober for the longest time since I was twelve years old, and something was different. I had been beaten down so low that I knew the only way was up from here, and I was finally willing to do whatever it took to get there.”

He discovers that there is a “kitchen detail” and he gets on the midnight to 5am shift, and he starts to organize the processes there. This makes that part of his rehab … although hardly gourmet … passable for him, and after another six months he's transferred to a work release center, which was still very rigidly confined. He was all of 21 at this time. After a couple of months his parents came to visit, after four months, he'd earned the ability to go get a job … which, of course, he got immediately, and after a while he gets offered a position of sous chef at another property the owners were opening. His passion for cuisine began to accelerate, and he writes: “Without drugs to spend my paychecks on, I bought cookbooks instead, devouring at least ten new cookbooks each week.” Soon after, he moves out of the halfway house and gets a small apartment in Miami.

His sister moves to New York, and his parents set up a celebratory dinner, which Schenker pleads with them to be at Gordon Ramsay's eponymous restaurant there. He is totally blown away by the menu, and on the way out, he button-holes the manager to say he's a chef from Miami and he'd love to work there … and the manager tells him to send an email to him, that he'd forward to Ramsay. Schenker doesn't expect much, but as he's just about to board his flight back to Florida, he gets a call offering him a “stage” (a sort of trial run) … he goes back to Florida, explains he's going to need to take some time off, and is back in New York a couple of days later. This (after 70% of the book) is where the culinary story starts.

If it seems remarkably lucky that he got that call back, after one day (and voluntarily staying until 1am cleaning), he's hired. What follows is a look into what happens in a restaurant kitchen of that caliber, highlighted by Chef Ramsay being the demanding perfectionist with every bit of the “charm” he exhibits on TV. Schenker stayed (despite the pressure, and sometimes outright harassment) for quite a while, but the idea of moving out to his own place was gelling in his mind. He began “staging” in other restaurants, and goes into detail about several of these, and the techniques he picked up at them. He and two other chefs were talking about options, and they ended up with the idea of doing an after-hours dinner service at a bakery location where they hung out and sometimes cooked … and this became Recette, initially being a one-night-a-week event, but soon expanded, as the management at Ramsay's restaurant essentially forced his resignation there. Recette presented a particular challenge, as the space operated as a bakery until 5pm, and they had to spend the time to clean the place up, convert over to culinary cooking, and switch to a fine dining setting … every night.

A gal he'd been close to in eighth grade also re-entered the picture, both as his girlfriend and something of a manager for the non-cooking parts of the Recette operation. He was also doing a fairly strenuous program of private dining, both for events and as a “private chef” for a (wealthy) guy in New Jersey … a drive he'd make with all the food. Schenker details some mind-numbing schedules and points out that his attending AA/NA meetings tailed off to nothing … always a bad sign:

      Of course, recovery requires rigorous honesty, not only with other people but also with yourself. As I slid down the slippery slope of addiction once again – this time to work instead of drugs – I stopped being honest with myself. Instead of accepting that I was powerless and relinquishing control, I feverishly grabbed the reins and drove myself further and further away from the peace I had finally found.
Obviously, the situation with the original Recette wasn't scalable, and he began thinking of a free-standing restaurant. He pulled in his dad as a business partner, who hooked him up with an old friend who was a venture capitalist, and got his New Jersey client financially involved as well, and soon had the money to get a place. He goes into a lot of detail of getting ready to open a new restaurant, still called Recette, and it was a success as soon as it opened. He keeps dipping into perceptions about his recovery, and the chaos of the restaurant. There's a long section about the process of getting reviewed by the New York Times, and the excitement of the resulting star rating (and rave).

More family stuff follows, engagement, wedding, pregnancy, his mother's cancer, his grandfather passing, etc.; the industry kudos as well, nominations for James Beard awards, Iron Chef, etc. He also has some health issues (getting sent to a diet doctor), which escalated to what seems like outright hypochondria. His internist finally sends him to a shrink who prescribes an antidepressant, that he's, understandably, hesitant to get on: “I worried that Celexa would lead to a stronger pill, and then a stronger one, and then a stronger one, and then an even stronger one after that.” He does start taking it, with good results, and his wife points him back to AA, along with working with various therapists.

He eventually finds “a dream” space in a restaurant that was about to go under, and he and his backers manage to get it, and he opens his second (much larger) place, The Gander, right as his wife is having their third child. And, the book pretty much just ends there (admittedly, that's in April 2014, and the book came out that September, so it is arguably “up to the moment”). As I indicated above, this is pretty much two books, the descent into a drug-fueled Hell, and his exploding onto the New York restaurant scene. While the latter is only about 30% of the book, there is plenty of “food porn” (although, sadly no pictures) to enjoy in the telling for those looking for the kitchen memoir material.

All or Nothing has only been out about 3 years at this writing, so I guess I really lucked out in getting a copy of the hardcover at the dollar store. It's still in print (both in the original and a paperback edition that came out mid-2015), and the on-line big boys presently have both at deep discounts (72% and 58% off respectively) … however, if you want to go lower, the new/used guys have new copies of the hardcover for under five bucks delivered. Which, of course, means that if this sounds like something you might enjoy, you don't have much of an excuse for not picking up a copy.

While I wasn't expecting this to be the book that it was, it does touch on two of my interest areas, addiction/recovery and restaurants/cuisine, so I found it fascinating on a number of levels (if it not being a particularly comfortable read at numerous points). You might find it similarly engaging.


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Thursday, December 14th, 2017
10:21 pm
“Brent Cross Blues”
Once again the “Almighty Algorithm” over at LibraryThing.com's “Early Reviewer” program matched me with a very odd book. Of course, I have something to do with this, as it was one of the books I put in requests for a few months back, but it's always such a crap shoot on that, as the publishers typically toss up a perfunctory paragraph or two describing the book, and one will generally go with those to determine what to raise one's hand on as being willing to get a copy to review. If you'll indulge me in a bit of a gripe, the LTER primarily offers fiction, which I have been notably avoiding for the past decade or so, and the pickings for non-fiction can be quite slim, so my gauge for what I'll request is not too finely calibrated, being something along the lines of “oh, that sounds reasonably interesting, I guess”, which does leave me open to getting books that I might not typically pick up in a retail environment.

It would be easy to assume that the main attraction I had towards Anthony McGowan's The Art of Failing: Notes from the Underdog would be that particular “art”, with which I've had way too much experience, however, the description provided was evocative, asks if I've been “rubbish at life”, and even name-checks Morrissey, so I was hooked. What would have been more useful would have been to clue me in to just how, English this book is (yes, “rubbish” in that context could have been a hint), because that's the number one take-away I had on it … not that this is a bad thing, per se, but it's not just a wry diary composed by an English writer, it is a series of personal scenarios absolutely steeped in English culture (which, oddly, sort of put me off a slight bit). The author has a dozen or so books out, but mainly in the youth market (some of which sound like they're actually surrealist gay porn, like The Bare Bum Gang and the Holy Grail … but I digress), with the current title apparently being a bit of a new voice for him.

Anyway, I have about a half dozen of my little bookmarks in this, pointing to the places I thought were particularly arch, and I'm probably going to be leaning on these heavily, as there's not much of a “story arc” here, except as a “year in the life” sense. The book is set up in four parts, Autumn, Winter, Spring, & Summer, and is composed of little essays/scenes that range from just a title (“There Isn't A Pool”), to as much as five pages in length. My OCD was certainly triggered by the first entry being September 5 of one (not specified, but since this just came out in October 2017, I'm guessing it's 2015) year, and the last entry is September 13 of the next … and while most days have copy, there are quite a few that don't (I talked myself out of counting them), so it's not quite the obsessive journal/diary of that time that it might have been.

This jumps right into a continuity, with the opening paragraph giving both some of the key players, and a sense of what tone the book tends to:

      A limp dappling of autumn sunshine persuaded me that I should walk Mrs McG down to the underground station, efficiently combining this act of conjugal kindness with Monty's urgent need for a morning constitutional. The surging horror of the early commute was over, leaving just the aimless milling of the stragglers and idlers. They reminded me of those defective spermatozoa one reads about, destined never to meet with a comely egg, thrashing in circles, or slumped, broken, at the side of the fallopian tube, or blindly swimming the wrong way through murky uterine seas.
A good deal of the text wanders around like this, which, one might suppose, could be a fairly accurate detailing of what is actually bubbling up in McGowan's head when he sits down to extrude words to page. A couple of paragraphs later in this section (“Bum Ball” – it's a bit too convoluted to explain here) he uses a word that is simultaneously huge, charming, and an interesting alternative to “yuppification”, which I just had to share … in his description of “the embourgeoisification of my part of North London”. You're welcome. Oh, another note I should get in here is about the cover graphic. One of the repeated settings of the book is the British Library, where he goes to write. And, while one is not supposed to bring food to the desks in the reading rooms, the author likes to sneak in a banana for a mid-morning snack, and he had discovered a certain level of amusement with using a marker to add some text to the banana – in the early going here there's an embarrassing scenario played out via this, which (no doubt after much editorial/promotional discussion) is how the title ends up written across a piece of fruit on the cover.

Run the calendar ahead to December 28, with the author visiting his childhood home town:

… Leeds has always been brittle, superficial, vain; less friendly than the other great northern cities. The kind of place where you can get your head kicked in for spilling a pint or looking at another lad's bird. We didn't invent football hooliganism, but we raised it to a kind of Platonic perfection, back in the late 1970s, bringing to it the clarity of line, the mastery of form and colour, of early Renaissance art. Everything that came after was mere decadence and decay.
McGowan goes on (visiting a drinking establishment dating from 1715, Whitelocks) into reminiscing about his youth, which I figured was worth sharing (especially the first and last sentences):

      The patterns in the faded flock wallpaper, every stain in the carpet, even the ancient nicotine shadows on the ceiling were the ghosts of my old friends from teenage drinking days. And though I thought I saw them among the heavy coats of the crowd by the bar, I was looking for a version of the way we were then. Now we wouldn't recognize each other, or what we've become. Nothing to do but dilute my beer with the tears of nostalgia and loss.
Perhaps it's my own refined sense of failure that caused these sorts of bits to particularly grasp my attention, but that does seem to be the case. Given my near-endless job search (seriously, people, it's been 9.5 years at this point!), the following reflection had to be noted … from January 7:

      Few things are as depressing as job applications. You feel the despair and desolation wash over you like Bangladeshi flood waters. And then you realize that the only people qualified to give you a reference are retired, dead or hate you.

And then you hit send with relief but no hope, like a drunk urinating in a bus shelter.
The last bit of that being the title of the section (of which I opted to spare you the middle ten lines). The next piece I'd tagged had to do with the author's 50th birthday party. I have to admit that the attraction of this probably hinged on one word (being something of a vocabulary junkie, I obsess over words that sound great, but I don't know), plus a neat bit of composition surrounding it (from January 20):

      But there's always sadness to parties, isn't there? The party begins to die from the moment it is born. And when it's gone, it's gone forever. That party will never come back.
      Rosie made Mojitos. It was kind of cute seeing a twelve-year-old girl professionally mashing up the lime and rum. She was the hit of the party. I moved from group to group, trying to be attentive, trying to give everyone that flensed sliver of my soul. But I couldn't summon up the panache and vigour. I didn't have a meaningful conversation, or even a humorous exchange, all evening, and my speech narrowly missed the mark.
{This term, in a more defined setting, also appears in the section from July 8.}

There are various sub-themes (or scenarios) that repeatedly come up, including his doing classes at various schools' creative writing programs, shopping excursions with Mrs McG, book industry events, adventures while walking Monty, and encounters with his “dwarf doppelgänger” who he names (although never actually meets) Heimlich. Many of these get set up with intros like “It being a while since I've enjoyed one of my clothes-shop humiliations ...” or “My bad luck with jumpers continues ...” (another of those British context things – that section would be quite more depressing if it was from an American “first responder” setting). I wish I could efficiently communicate how funny (to me, at least) much of this is. Unfortunately, the parts that had me (literally) LOL'ing tended to crop up in sentence fragments that were hilarious in context, but the background text necessary to make those funny here would take more blockquoting than I think either of us want to deal with. However, I'm going to put in a couple of paragraphs to give you a last-line payoff that I thought was excellent (yeah, “your mileage may vary”, and all … oh, and it's part of “Three Annoying Things”, hence the numbered paragraphs):

      2. I've had some new photos done to replace the absurd one that's on the internet, and which makes anyone who books me on the basis that I might look like it weep or guffaw. The new photos are excellent, except for the fact that they look like me. Or at least a Dorian Gray-like portrait of my soul. So there, staring out with filmy eyes is a narrow-lipped, dissolute, shabby roué, on the lookout for a countess to fleece.
      3. Nobody liked the pan-fried mackerel I made the family for dinner. They didn't like it because it wasn't very nice. And there, glistening unwanted in the pan, grey stripes on paler grey, exuding a vague aroma of failure and helplessness, it looked even more like me than the photos.
The following is another bit that I'm guessing snagged me with enticing multisyllabicisms, but it deals with him meeting a lady at a party. I'm snipping this from several paragraphs to give the flow of what I found most interesting … but it gives the main part of “generational connection”, a topic I've recently been contemplating via making the acquaintance of a couple of gals who are two and three years my junior (and hence “get” most of my now-ancient pop culture references).

June 16. Went to a little drinks party for the Faber Academy tutors. It was fine, although none of the other tutors had the faintest idea of who I was. I'm used to that – there's a fundamental asymmetry at work. Most children's writers read adult books, but few adult writers (unless compelled by their reproductive mishaps) go the other way. So I swallowed down my ego, with as much beer as was necessary.
      One sweet moment was provided by finding out that one of the tutors was exactly the same age as me. It was deeply strange and rather wonderful. She's from Cornwall and I'm generic northern, but we had precisely the same frame of reference. …
      It all made me think how much texture, how much richness, you lose, when you're just a few years apart in age. …
      It also generated a very slight erotic energy – one based not at all on physical attraction, but purely on the fact that we were epistemologically conterminous. …
I think by now you're getting the gist of the book, but I wanted to leave you with another bit of the funny to further the impression that this provided me with more LOL moments that any other few dozen volumes I've read of late. This one's from September 1's “God Bless You, Plucky Norway”, which deals with the author getting an unexpected royalty check for his sales in said country:

      The windfall meant I could thicken the children's gruel with lard, while I feasted on Scandy delicacies – Ryveta and some kind of disgusting raw fish, apparently “cured”, although if it was cured, how come it was still dead, eh?
Badum tish!

As you've no doubt sussed out at this point The Art of Failing was a quite interesting read, especially for a vocabulary geek, full of wry observations, a window into the Brits on a level equal to the Graham Norton Show, and some really delightful composition. That said, it is a bit strange, being sort of a collection of near-daily observations cranked out over just a few days beyond a year, with no unifying theme or specific point to it all. As noted, this just came out a couple of months back, so it's no doubt obtainable in the brick-and-mortars, which could be your number one option for this, as the on-line big boys aren't presently knocking anything off of the (very reasonable) cover price. While this might not be an “all & sundry” recommendation, it is well worth the reading – if nothing else I found out about a near-endless stream of ephemera regarding English to-go food items and their accouterments (wooden forks for curry on chips?), and you're likely to similarly expand your world by reading this.


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Monday, December 4th, 2017
5:48 pm
“And I guess I just don't know …”
I'd thrown in this Dover Thrift Edition of Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater at some point in the past few years to nudge the total of an Amazon order up towards either free shipping, or the point where one can get “add on” products (with a $3 cover price, it's a great way to both do this and get some “classic” I'd missed previously). This had sat around for a while, but it was mentioned a number of times in a book I'd recently reviewed, so it seemed like a good time to throw it into the “currently reading” mix.

To be frank, I expected something more. That book on dreams made this sound practically psychedelic, which it hardly is, and copy like that in the introductory essay (which introduces De Quincey as “one of the great prose stylists of the English language, and a singular and interesting figure in the British literary milieu of the early nineteenth century”) sets it up to be something far more substantial than it struck me to be. It is also fairly short, at 70 pages, and was initially published in London Magazine in September and October of 1821. The introductory essay additionally notes that this reprint of the original release is considered the “best edition”, as De Quincey's expansions and revisions (such as an 1856 version that is three times the length of this) did nothing positive for the literary value of the piece.

As it is, the book is in two parts, the first consisting of “To the Reader” and “Preliminary Confessions”, and the second having “The Pleasures of Opium”, “Introduction to the Pains of Opium”, and “The Pains of Opium”. The introductory essay notes that De Quincey was generally (although this hardly seems the case in most of the book, where his descriptions seem to be of some solid form) taking laudanum, “a tincture of opium commonly used and legally available in early nineteenth-century England”, which the author echoes in the first chapter, when he's discussing the availability: “Three respectable London druggists, in widely remote quarters of London, from whom I happened lately to be purchasing small quantities of opium, assured me, that the number of amateur opium-eaters (as I may term them) was, at this time, immense ...”.

A bit of biographical background might be useful here … the author appears to have been a sickly child, and had health issues which initially led him to taking opium to reduce pain. He was born into an aristocratic family, but not one with great wealth. He seems to have been quite taken with the class thing, and certainly had impressive surroundings (when not penniless). He is reported to have been a bit of a prodigy at languages, having been an expert at Greek by age 15. He also was rather aimless, having a hard time staying at any school long enough to actually graduate, and spent a lot of time searching out the famed writers (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Charles Lamb) of the day. When he did have money (he got an inheritance at age 21), he tended to fritter it away, and repeatedly ended up totally destitute (which seems to be the main reality of this book), only attaining financial stability in his 60's.

While I have a couple of my little bookmarks in this, there weren't many “must use” passages that came up as I read it … and, honestly, my general take-away was that he was whiny, unfocused on anything other than his fix (oh, and this one girl), and constantly complaining. It's hardly an “autobiography” in the sense that it brings any linearity to his telling, and while there is a general arc of his life, with the writing coming from (it would appear from what I could tease out of the introduction, the book, and assorted biographical materials) ages 19-36 (although I'm not sure when he initially finished this, that would be his age at its serialized publication). The fact that this is (at least nominally) a “drug journal”, brings with it the predictable downsides of the genre – the writer is on drugs while trying to write (despite the famous quote mis-attributed to Ernest Hemingway) – leading to a certain degree of haziness in the product.

Anyway, I'm going to dip into this to grab some bits to use that I hope will at least give my readers a sense of De Quincey's book. The “Preliminary Confessions” section starts off with a bit of his history, how he was much smarter than any of his professors, and his attempt at sneaking away from Oxford in the middle of the night (he gets away, but not without issues). Oh, one thing I should mention about the writing … it is fairly small type, tightly set, which goes on and on and on, with a paragraph break every three pages or so … making the flow of the narrative just a fire-hose. At one point he gets some money from his family and goes on a hike through Wales, occasionally trading letter-writing for shelter. This, like most of his plans, falls apart, and he eventually finds himself in London. Here is a little of his description of his state there:

And now began the latter and fiercer stage of my long-sufferings; without using a disproportionate expression I might say, of my agony. For I now suffered, for upwards of sixteen weeks, the physical anguish of hunger in various degrees of intensity; but as bitter, perhaps, as ever any human being can have suffered who has survived it.
Really, this is pretty much the tone of most of the book. For a time he seems to be “squatting” in a house, with a young girl, it's cold, they have no food, but it's shelter. He eventually finds some of his aristocratic contacts, and at least gets fed on occasion. He loses track of his “Ann” (he never got a last name), who he was infatuated with. I won't burden you with the text dealing with that, but it, like most of this, goes on and on.

Part II begins with a section which is pretty much just the author showing off his knowledge of Greek drama, myth, and footnotes set in Greek that “the scholar will know”. He starts “The Pleasures of Opium” section with a recalling of his first encounter with the drug:

By accident I met a college acquaintance who recommended opium. Opium! dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain! I had heard of it was I had of manna or of Ambrosia, but no further: how unmeaning a sound was it at that time! what solemn chords does it now strike upon my heart! what heart-quaking vibrations of sad and happy remembrances! Reverting for a moment to these, I feel a mystic importance attached to the minutest circumstances connected with the place and the time, and the man (if man he was) that first laid open to me the Paradise of Opium-eaters. It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless: and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London. My road homewards led through Oxford-street and near “the stately Pantheon,” (as Mr. Wordsworth has obligingly called it) I saw a druggist's shop. This druggist – unconscious minister of celestial pleasures! – as if in sympathy with the rainy Sunday, looked dull and stupid, just as any mortal druggist might be expected to look of a Sunday: and, when I asked him for the tincture of opium, he gave it to me as any other man might do: and furthermore, out of my shilling, returned me what seemed to be real copper halfpence, taken out of a real wooden drawer. Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity, he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself.
OK … so, he then gets into discussing other reports of opium, comparisons with it and alcohol, goes on about “the Turk” as a source of opium, and how other cultures view it, spins back off into his aristocratic friends and their relationships to alcohol and drugs, and into places for experiencing drugs, such as the theater, orchestra, or opera house (and where it's worth it to pay more for better seating).

Thus I have shown that opium does not, of necessity, produce inactivity or torpor, but that, on the contrary, it has often led me into markets and theaters. Yet, in candour, I will admit that markets and theaters are not the appropriate haunts of the opium-eater, when in the divinest state incident to his enjoyment.
So, we next move to “Introduction to the Pains of Opium”, which, I must confess is so much of a blither that I can't find a coherent bit to excerpt for your illumination. There are pages that go along just fine, and then swerve off into sub-references that would, unfortunately, take paragraphs to put in a reasonable context (the whole tale of “the Malay” who comes unannounced to his house is particularly bizarre, as well as the “painting” parts). So, I will spare you.

I do, however, have a bookmark in “The Pains of Opium” section … this, however, is not that, but something that might more plainly illustrate this point in the book:

… This was now lying locked up, as by frost, like any Spanish bridge or aqueduct; and, instead of surviving me as a monument of wishes at least, and aspirations, and a life of labor dedicated to the exaltation of human nature in that way in which God had best fitted me to promote so great an object, it was likely to stand a memorial to my children of hopes defeated, of baffled efforts, of materials uselessly accumulated, of foundations that were never to support a superstructure, – of the grief and ruin of the architect. In this state of imbecility, I had, for amusement, turned my attention to political economy; my understanding, which formerly had been as active and restless as a hyena, could not, I suppose (so long as I lived at all) sink into utter lethargy; and political economy offers this advantage to a person in my state, that though it is eminently an organic science (no part, that is to say, but what acts on the whole, as the whole again re-acts on each part), yet the several parts may be detached and contemplated singly. Great as was the prostration of my powers at this time, yet I could not forget my knowledge; and my understanding had been for too many years intimate with severe thinkers, with logic, and the great masters of knowledge, no to be aware of the utter feebleness of the main herd of modern economists. …
What I had marked was a discussion of his “re-awakening to a state of eye generally incident to childhood”, which while fascinatingly expounding “four facts” on the topic (and, perhaps, being the most useful part of the book), runs a solid two pages. which doesn't seem to have much chance of abbreviation. The rest of the section sort of drifts off, with a couple of additional brief sections (from 1818 and 1819) tacked on at the end.

Needless to say, while Confessions of an English Opium Eater had its charms (both as a historical window to its time, and some rather entertaining writing), it wasn't exactly a pleasant read. Of course, as a Dover Thrift Edition, the cover price on this is a mere three bucks, so you're not going to be out-of-pocket much to give it a go.


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Sunday, December 3rd, 2017
11:08 pm
“… as long as there's a sucker …”
This one almost didn't make it into my cart up at the dollar store … a mix of it being a paperback (hardcovers survive the after-market so much better), having a near-hideous cover, and being touted as being the book on which a movie that I'd never heard of was based. Given that Robert W. Greene's The Sting Man: Inside Abscam was a quite interesting read, I'm glad that it got past my resistance. Since reading the book, I dug into the stuff around it, and discovered that American Hustle looks like a movie I should check out at some point (it has quite an impressive cast). It's also notable that this book originally came out way back in 1981, and was only resurrected by Penguin Books in 2013 when the movie premiered.

The main character here, Mel Weinberg (doubtful to ever be confused with Christian Bale, who plays him in the movie!), was a life-long criminal (a con artist into all sorts of scams across the globe in the 70's), who ended up being the engine that drove the Abscam investigation, which broke in February 1980.

One interesting thing is that this book came out as quickly as it did … Greene did 237 interviews with Weinberg in less than a year, plus had access to both government files and confiscated material in evidence, as well as the hours of videotape that were key to the prosecutions. The author, who died in 2008, was a well-established investigative journalist, who had even worked for the New York City Anti-Crime Committee in the early 50's. The recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, he spent most of his career at Long Island's Newsday, where he built up quite a resume of impactful reports. Anybody who grows up in a major urban center suspects this, but it's also something of a hope … hard-boiled newspaper guys having a real connection with devoted denizens of the criminal underworld. In the Preface (one of the few places where Greene injects himself into the telling), there's this little gem to get things going:

I like Mel Weinberg. He is different. But, in many ways, he is more honest than many of the people that I know. And when he lies, he does it with verve.
Oh, one more thing to note … I only have one of my little bookmarks in here, and that in the introductory chapter at a point where all the subjects of Abscam are listed … so I'm going to be winging this with impressions from the reading, but there are so many amazing stories in here that I'm sure you'll be getting numerous random blockquotes foisted on you.

The book starts out with Weinberg's arrival to testify in court in August 1980 … it allows Greene to sketch out some basics (as Weinberg's waiting to be called in and mulling things over) of the main character's career, some of the key players on the FBI side, and a general arc of how things got to this point (including the listing of various politicians either indicted or implicated). This also is where the broad strokes are set in place regarding Weinberg:

Mel Weinberg does not look like the smooth, prototypical con man. He is squat, resembling a gray-bearded fireplug; a few strands of carefully arranged brown hair tenuously bridge his bald pate. He speaks with a gravelly voice in the rich accents of his native Bronx and he talks the slang of the underworld.

Weinberg was the difference. He had run every con game in the business for more than thirty-five years and had been arrested only once. He was a master of the sine qua non of the confidence world: the plausible story. He could talk his way into and out of any situation. He knew how to stall, cajole, inveigle and entice.
One thing to note about the book is that it uses some interesting format elements to bring in assorted bits of information. There are “SCENE” sections in the regular flow of the text that present a “snapshot” of a particular moment, which might be otherwise a bit of a non-sequitur, there are sections set in a different type which appear to be excerpts from the author's interviews (not just with Weinberg, there are some with FBI agents and other figures) which are broken out as “TAPE ONE” through eighteen, and then there are back-and-forth transcriptions from evidence tapes (both audio and video, I'm assuming) which just show up at appropriate points in the narrative. These all make for a richer read, if somewhat choppy at times.

I really liked that about the first third of the book covered Weinberg's delinquent youth through his growth into a high-grossing con man. Perhaps most charming of the early stories deal with glass – his dad had a small-time glass factory, that was always on the verge of bankruptcy. Weinberg had gotten into a deal with the local Glazier Union, where he'd go around at night, and bust out windows (with metal bolts shot with a slingshot from a moving car) at stores, etc. that had been installed by non-union workers. This little scam evolved into a various permutations, including stealing newly installed glass from construction sites – in one case talking his way out of being busted in the act so efficiently that he had the cops helping him load the sheets (that were the “wrong glass” that his boss insisted he fix “on his own time”, in the middle of the evening) onto his truck. He had another scam where he'd install a lesser glass (“demiglass”, that was polished on only one side) instead of what the clients paid for … his con here was to have had a bunch of stickers printed with “made in” and various countries identified – he'd match the country with the buyer's ethnicity and say something like “this is supposed to be the best glass there is”, and showing them where it was (supposedly) imported from – he claims that he never once had to replace it (while pocketing the difference). These cons eventually worked their way up the foodchain, and he was working with crooked (glass) insurance companies … the money from that went into investing into several legitimate businesses, including one where some of the partners were relatives of a major Mob figure. At one point, these partners decided they wanted Weinberg's part of the business:

“The mob plays for keeps,” Weinberg explained. “Smart con men stay on the good side of those fellas. If they want you to step away from something, you step away. Tomorrow's always another day; you keep on livin', and you can always go to them for a favor.”
The various permutations on the glass swindle eventually fell apart (although not until he'd played out a scenario with a cousin who was causing problems which involved a very large “enforcer” that Weinberg shot with blanks, got his cousin to come up with cash to pay folks to “make the body disappear”, and subsequently more money for “protection”), and he had to move into new ventures.

Weinberg always had at least one lady on the side, and in 1970 he met Diane, who was English, and had culture and taste that he found “impossible to define and imitate”, but he figured “if he couldn't be it, he'd own it” and convinced her to be his mistress. She must have liked him, as she took him back to England to meet her parents … on which trip his new career opened up. While there, he met an unnamed con man who “specialized in front-end schemes” where businesses looking for loans (but not able to get any legitimate banks to help), would find the con man, who'd offer to put through a loan application for a fee, depending on the size of the loan. This fee was supposed to cover research and reporting on the business and transfers with the banks. Weinberg ended up with a whole directory of fake banks in various locations around the world, which were usually just names and numbers – which would all go to a “bank” in some less-regulated country that wouldn't have more than a few thousand dollars of “deposits”, but would have a “Telex” (this was in a far different tech environment) and a person there to respond. The con was to stall as long as possible (a Weinberg specialty) before “the bank” responded with a letter regretfully declining the loan. There was another level of this, where the mark would be sold fake CDs, saying his company had X amount of funds on deposit with the fake bank, for a fee of 5-15% of the face value. This ended up putting the mark in the position of committing bank fraud, as he could take those CDs and use them to get local loans … in that earlier tech world, the local banks would typically just Telex the issuing “bank”, and be told that the mark, indeed, had that much on deposit there. Weinberg saw this as “a scheme of sheer beauty”, and jumped into it with enthusiasm.

So, “Swiss Bank Associates” was born, with “offices” in New York, London, and Zurich – the latter two being there not only for cachet, but that two top-tier hotels in those locations had a policy of taking messages for anybody, assuming that a guest had simply not as yet checked in. This worked like a charm, and Weinberg started clearing a quarter million a year (in 1970's dollars), after a lot of “business costs” to keep up appearances. He also didn't pay any taxes, as there wasn't any “there” there … the only physical presence was a phone line in the apartment he had set up for Diane, and he “kept all his records in his head”.

Eventually, this scam grew, and Weinberg aimed to be “the biggest”, with a permanent office, and “franchised agents” (con men in various ports of call) feeding business in. The name changed to London Investors … setting it up had cost him $70k, but he made that back in the first month. Aside from on-site staff, there were also paid-off cops working as limo drivers (to bring marks in from the airport or their NYC offices), and bugged limos and conference rooms. At this point the book runs through lots of “scenes” with fascinating looks at the array of scams he was running around the world.

One thing that seems a little odd is that, over the years, Weinberg had been acting as an occasional tip source for the FBI … which almost got him in trouble at one point … he was involved in a scam with the aging owner of a casino hotel in St. Martin, which ended up, through some convoluted turns, in Weinberg's name. A few days after the transfer, he gets a call from famed Mob figure Meyer Lansky, who informed him that he no longer owned the hotel, and he would be sending associates down to complete the deal … which involved Weinberg handing over the papers to an “obvious hoodlum”, who ripped them up and threw them on the floor. As in previous situations, Weinberg decided that living was the best option in some situations.

London Investors came to an abrupt halt in 1977 when one mark opted to be aggressive (being enraged at not getting his loan), and took the entire matter to the FBI and local prosecutors which led to Weinberg's one conviction (and a 3-year sentence). Because “Lady Diane” was a co-defendant in this, he didn't really fight the case, opting instead to get a deal where she was totally off the hook, with him pleading guilty (he insists that he could have beat the charges on his own). An interesting side-lite to this is in one of the “tapes”, which notes that he never sent stuff via the post office (using package courier services by the airlines), specifically to avoid mail-fraud charges!

The next chapter starts with profiling some of the FBI agents who were key parts of Abscam, and a case they were working on while Weinberg was in jail … they realized that the particulars of the investigation and Weinberg's skill set were a very good match, and both his previous tipsterism and his deal to save Diane appealed to the agents, so they reached out to him. Needless to say, he was very eager to help. The scam he was going to be developing in that case involved a phantom Arab, which eventually became Abdul of Weinberg's new Abdul Enterprises, and eventually the Ab in Abscam.

In March 1978, he was meeting with the FBI team, trying to come up with a theme for the sting:

… OPEC and oil still dominated the headlines and Weinberg's hint of ties with Arab investors over the past few months had brought the hustlers swarming. Weinberg suggested the idea of naming a specific Arab … he decided to use the name of the aging Arab millionaire he had befriended a year or so before … The original theme, quickly approved by {the FBI agents}, fleshed out over the following few months …
      The emphasis sometimes changed, but the basic version of the sting had Weinberg acting as the American agent of his old pal, millionaire Arab businessman Kambir Abdul Rahman … According to the scenario, Abdul, who supposedly resided in one of the Arab Emirates, when he wasn't living in Switzerland, Beirut or Cannes, was related to Arab royalty.
      Some targets of the scam were told that Abdul's money could not be loaned out at interest because of Islamic laws against usury. As a result, these marks were told, Abdul needed an unlimited supply of bogus certificates of deposit from offshore banks or forged certificates from legitimate banks. These certificates would be given by Abdul to his Moslem banks and he would then be able to withdraw cash equal to the face amount of the certificates and quickly invest the cash at interest elsewhere.
      Other targets were merely told that Abdul wanted to invest as much of his millions in the U.S. as possible because he felt it was only a matter of time before he would have to flee the wrath of his ripped-off citizenry. This version was used more often as the scam progressed and Weinberg promoted his friend Abdul to the ruling rank of Emir.
Between Weinberg and the FBI, they created a fairly air-tight background for “Abdul”, including depositing a million dollars in a Chase account, with an executive there who was privy to the scam, and would vouch for the wealth of the Arab, should targets get into deep due diligence (which many did). There were also letters from the State Department (ginned up by Weinberg – not sure if the FBI agents would have gotten involved with that) attesting to Abdul Enterprises working for the “Emir”.

One fallout from Abscam was the change in a lot of regulations for investigations of the kind … working with Weinberg was certainly a “grey area” in the law, although carefully keeping their toes on the “just legal” side of the line.

… like all great swindles, Abscam was an illusion built on careful attention to details, subtle presell and the target's own greed.
… Weinberg was widely known in the business as a crook and swindler. If he pretended to be anything else, he would raise suspicion. … He created the impression that he was hugely paid by Abdul and didn't want to do anything so outrageously crooked or disloyal that he would lose his cushy job. On the other hand, he let it be known, he was a crook at heart and wasn't averse to jacking up the price of something that he was purchasing for Abdul and splitting the difference privately either with the seller or the agent who set up the deal. The Arab, he said, would never notice an odd million here or there.
Honestly, the scam, as it grew, got too convoluted to really follow in the reading, and it's certainly not being condensed here. Suffice it to say, it went from a few specific corruption cases to a much wider net of public figures. One of these holds a fairly pivotal role, Camden, N.J. Mayor Angelo Errichetti, who became a close confidant and partner-in-crime with Weinberg … although never knowing that Weinberg was working with the FBI the whole time. Errichetti was one of those politicians who knows everyone and has his fingers into everything … in the transcription from Tape Eleven, Weinberg describes him:

He always looks relaxed, but his mind's goin' a mile a minute. He's got deals goin' all over the place and he's always lookin' for a new one.
Through him, the investigation got into the casinos, the unions, and dozens of corrupt governments all across New Jersey and surrounding areas. His contacts (and contacts of contacts) were key to getting in front of the Congressmen that ended up going to jail. As noted above, there were various twists on “the story” (they even set up another “Emir” to work a parallel and connected probe down in Florida), but the tale of Abdul wanting to come to the U.S. was central to most of the high-level work … as Weinberg and the FBI team would be presenting opportunities for personal and district gain if things were made easy for the “Emir” to get established in the U.S. As things progressed, the meetings were shifted (at the insistence of the FBI) to a townhouse in Georgetown they had set up for recording, etc. While this had a certain panache as the “Emir's” local pied-à-terre, Weinberg worried that somebody checking background might find that it had been being used by the Feds for a while in another investigation.

Anyway, lots and lots of crooked politicians, etc., took the bait, got videotaped accepting large payoffs, and ended up going to trial. Which brings us back to the start of the book. I don't even want to get into the complexities of the trials, but Weinberg's presence was a complicating element, as he was always what the defense attorneys focused on – although he took this as a personal challenge. There is also a nagging sub-theme (that never gets fully fleshed out) about the Newark FBI office which was constantly trying to sabotage the investigation – but the implication that they were affiliated with one or more of the targets (if not outright crooked on their own), is pretty clear.

As noted up top, The Sting Man initially came out way back in 1981 (and you can still get “good” used copies of that hardcover for about five and a half bucks delivered), but was re-released as a paperback in 2013 to support the movie. Oddly, this does appear to be out-of-print except for the ebook version, but you can get “like new” copies from the new/used guys for under five bucks delivered. I found this surprisingly engaging, and quite enjoyed the way the book was broken up with the assorted elements noted above. If you have an interest in crime, corruption, and the dank inner workings of a professional con, you should consider checking this out!


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Wednesday, November 29th, 2017
3:13 pm
Everybody's looking for something ...
Sometime I think my epitaph might end up being “they were all odd books”, as often as I start off noting that the title being reviewed “was an odd one”, but this is certainly well among the ranks of the odd books. I picked up Andrew Burstein's Lincoln Dreamt He Died: The Midnight Visions of Remarkable Americans from Colonial Times to Freud at the dollar store, which could be considered the natural habitat of “odd” books, ones that didn't manage to get traction via the retail channels. Frankly, from the title, I'd expected this to be more woo-woo than it ended up being. I suppose that, had I checked out the author's bio before getting into it, I would have been less off-base, as he's a history professor with a dozen books out (primarily about Thomas Jefferson and other Revolutionary-era figures), as well as presence in various media. Interestingly, this book had been offered in the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program back when it was coming out in May 2013, and for some reason I'd not requested it then.

In contrast to one of my on-going gripes, the subtitle here is closer to what the book is about than what the title might imply. This could be due to the author's son coming up with the title (and most of the chapter titles), as a more descriptive title would have been “Dreams In Early America”. Burstein does go into a bit of a defining in the Preface:

      Let me underscore that this book, while an emotional history, is not an “interpretation of dreams” sort of book. Dream-interpretation guides have been disseminated across centuries and across cultures. Their chief value is as cultural artifacts. Modern neuroscience has determined that the symbolic character of dreaming, so central to past analysis, has been overdrawn. This includes the work of Freud, whose sexualization of dream symbols is now widely discredited. Yet dream researchers around the world are asking more questions than ever before about the meaning of our dreams. Influenced by their writings, I engage repeatedly with imagery, labyrinthian stagecraft, and identifiable feelings exposed in dreams. We may not understand them fully, but to any historian, impulses matter.

      This book is about Americans who lived from the late colonial era to the opening of the twentieth century. Its cutoff date is the arrival of modern psychoanalysis with the publication of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. I say with confidence that you cannot understand the twentieth century's fascination with psychology unless you first understand prior generations and their fascination with dreams. We know how our American ancestors communicated across distance. We have a pretty good sense of how the modern world became modern. We tend to be less sensitive to the subtler changes taking place across time and space in the moral imagination and in face-to-face communication. As a product of culture, dreams offer new clues to the boundaries within which emotions were allowed to be revealed and recorded.
The book's eight chapters (plus Epilogue) are set out across three Parts, which are chronological divisions, “To 1800”, “1801 – 1860”, and “1861 – 1900”. The chapters themselves have titles like “From a Lofty Scaffold, John Adams Spies an Elephant”, which don't represent themes, but pull particular images from a random story in each chapter (they don't even seem to be targeting famous names, as three of the eight didn't ring a bell for me). The book pretty much starts out with Revolutionary figure Dr. Benjamin Rush, who, despite being a scientist, wrote down many of his dreams. Indeed, it appears that writing to one's friends and relatives notes that included the content of one's dreams seemed to be a fairly common thing at the time. Unfortunately, I only have a handful of my little bookmarks in here, which means that few among the multitude of stories particularly stood out. Certainly, it's interesting in the opening chapters to read about dreams (an personal situations they revealed) of notables such as John Adams, but few of these appeared essential towards understanding the book as a whole.

The subject of dreams appears to have been widely integrated across colonial society. Not only did Dr. Rush lecture on the subject, and dreams were topics of letters, but they also appeared in popular booklets and even newspapers, where readers would send in reports of their dreams (and get them published). Burstein further notes that the Philadelphia Magazine (edited in 1775-6 by the great Thomas Paine) included articles which “addressed the dream state”. There were additionally those who were attempting to create a national mythos via “epic poetry”, which often used dreams as set-ups for the “visionary strains” of “an empire of imagination”. A popular genre in the late 1700's was the “dream book”, in which angel dreams were a frequent theme.

Why did so many early Americans dream of guiding angels and dead relatives, receiving glimpses of heaven from their keen, all-knowing nocturnal visitors? Think of the regular church-bell ringing as funerals took place in every community. This was their world: burying children, burying neighbors.
Needless to say, the bloodshed of the Revolution didn't do anything to lessen the frequency of funerary activity. The author goes into the various permutations of these books, and has the following (where I did have a bookmark) which I thought was very interesting in terms of putting this all in classical context:

      Nary a one of the dream guides of this era failed to highlight Artemidorus, the Roman dream master from the second century A.D., who lived in what is today western Turkey. The greatest of ancient interpreters to have had his teachings preserved, Artemidorus saw nocturnal vision as lighting the way to the future. Greek temples as early as the seventh century B.C. show dream therapy being practiced, and Artemidorus famously placed all dreams into one of two categories, as either oneroi, the future-directed, or enhypnia, the mundane and meaningless. Consistent with the eighteenth-century medicalized association of anxiety dreams with obvious biological processes, he dismissed dreams that taught nothing or simply went over the day's events – dreams that did not predict – as deriving “from an irrational desire and extraordinary fear, or from a surfeit or lack of food.” And he added “People who live an upright, moral life do not have enhypnia or any other irrational fantasies …, for their minds are not muddled by fears or expectations.” Instead of wasting their time on bad dreams, they allow their souls to wander into the place of oracles.
As well as dipping back into the Greco-Roman world, there are some digressions here into Native American use of dreams, both as direct reports, and the records of missionaries. This then leads at a look at some Afro-Carribean dream work, which leads back to Dr. Rush, who was “an early and vehement opponent of slavery” and “used the dream formula in putting forward his view in opposition” to it.

Again, the bulk of the book is what Burstein dug up in his research, organized in a general chronological flow, yet grouped together to illustrate certain themes. Unfortunately, it's beyond what I'm able to bring to this page to create a sensible set of highlights (such as long-time president of Yale College, Ezra Stiles, “kept a diary in which he occasionally noted the dreams others told to him that he found especially curious” – with numerous examples). He gets into some of the developing religious groups such as the Shakers and the Quakers, and how dreams manifested in those and numerous other organizations of enthusiasts of “the all-important subject of vital religion”. This then sort of morphs into a look at the Romantics (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, etc.), who were widely read in America (Byron appears to have been a favorite of Abraham Lincoln). Playing off of this, at one point the author notes:

Citizens in the early years of the republic, rather than stigmatize themselves, limited themselves to acceptable scenarios in dreams that they narrated. They wrote down dreams that they could nearly understand. As the nineteenth century proceeded, the necessity of doing that diminished. Workaday people marveled as the poets captured the wild beauty of dreams and artfully imagined the outer limits of what a dream can say.
The book moves on to some American authors, such as Washington Irving, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and (oddly) tales of several mid-level political figures whose dreams managed to survive in a form that Burstein could discover a century or more later. There are a number of rambling looks at people who were “noted dreamers” (as I suppose one would put it), and how dreams wove through their experiences … some of which are presented as pages of excerpts from diary entries. The second part of the book ends with a brief name-check of Walt Whitman, who “assimilated the song of nation into the song of self”, standing in for the general “nostalgic or utopian visions” of the mid 1800s.

The last section deals with dreams of the latter half of the 1800s, which means, of course, the Civil War. The topic of dreams seems to have been all over the board, from dreams pressing the stances of both sides of the abolitionist cause, then the war, to dreams involving Lincoln, among many other political and military figures. Needless to say, a large percentage of these were “invented dreams” put out for their propaganda value. Still,

In their letters and diaries, enlisted men, wives and sweethearts, families caught between the warring sides, and hapless prisoners enduring miserable conditions all contributed errant dreams to the emotion-packed literature of the day.
This listing of voices pretty much defines what's in a good deal of the last Part of the book. In between narratives of forlorn dreamers, there's a couple of digressions into thing such as music in dreams. The Civil War material leads up, as one might expect, to the dreaming of the title character, with a good amount about what Lincoln thought about dreams, and a few of his own (including the prophetic one). The post-war period again returns to authors (who, I'd guess, make for good source material, being in the habit of writing things down), with Louisa May Alcott (and her hero, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was still keeping “a reliable journal in the postbellum years”), and Mark Twain – who is the subject of a chapter's title. Twain's well-documented career gets several pages, before serving as a pivot point to William James and the Society for Psychical Research, for which dreams were just one of a number of ways of reaching other realities. The author notes:

More or less from the day the Civil War ended, both published and unpublished dream reports took on an increasingly sensational character. It was not by chance: they were meant to be deliberately shocking.
Much of what follows this revelation sound quite like what one might find blaring from the covers of check-out line racks at the grocery store. Needless to say, the newspapers of the day used these sorts of dream reports as ways to build circulation, involving contests to find a “Champion Dreamer”, etc., … “Dreams made good copy.” However:

The final two decades of the nineteenth century have been dubbed the “golden age” of memory studies, when the fast-developing discipline of pschology turned to the nature of memory and related pathologies. … Thus, a movement was under way in the study of the human will and the nature of introspection, even before Freud and his younger associate Carl Jung burst onto the scene.
In the Epilogue (titled “Were They Like Us?”) Burstein attempts to pull together many of the threads and metadata run through the rest of the book. Frankly, I think I'd recommend folks to read this first, as it puts a context around everything else that goes before, and it would make quite an interesting free-standing essay. Although I have half of my little bookmarks in this section, none of them point to “pithy” quotes to drop in here, just places where the author's arguments appear to be particularly solid, given the preceding material.

Lincoln Dreamt He Died appears to be out of print in the hardcover edition that I have, but seems to be available as either a paperback or an e-book. The new/used guys have the hardcover for a few bucks (new), which, with shipping, is still less than what the paperback is going for. While I rather liked the over-all thrust of this book (and the Epilogue), I must admit that reading lots and lots and lots of ordinary people's dreams got to be a bit of a drag. However, I'm a cranky cynic, and if you're more open to that sort of thing, you probably would find this a perfectly engaging read.


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Sunday, November 26th, 2017
4:39 pm
On such a timeless flight …
In internet security, there's a form of hacking called a “brute force attack”, where vast numbers of permutations of characters are thrown at a log-in, assuming that sooner or later the password will be entered. The number one take-away I had from this book reminds me of that. The author dedicates this to the “400,000 men and women” who made the Apollo program happen. That's one heck of a lot of people working towards one goal.

I found Craig Nelson's Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon up at the dollar store, and as it was a nice hardcover on a subject that I was generally interested in (tech/space), it ended up in my cart … and in my to-be-read piles for quite a while. While I do have an interest in the space program (what kid who grew up in the 60's doesn't?), it's not exactly one of my passions, and, to be honest, this is really more than I needed to know about the Apollo program. When I got around to doing this review, I had sort of anticipated having a bunch of my little bookmarks in it to point me to what I thought were specifically notable passages … unfortunately, I seem to only have dropped in four, and all of those in one section … so, I'll be doing some “tap dancing” here to pull out enough to give you at least a broad-stroke look at the book.

While Nelson dedicates the book to those involved in the whole endeavor, the book's core is the story of Apollo 11, the mission that brought the first human beings to the Moon (and safely back to Earth – something that was not necessarily a given). Structured in three parts (which are not specifically defined), the narrative is a bit meandering … while it gets where it needs to go (the Moon, eh?), it doesn't exactly take an overly linear path to get there. It starts with the Saturn V launch vehicle being moved out of the over-50-stories-tall Vehicle Assembly Building, and towards the launch pad. Needless to say, the book would be briefer than its 400 pages if the story started there and just progressed through the mission.

One gets the sense of how much research went into this in the sheer mass of detail involved in descriptions of everything – and how many hours of interviews (both archival from NASA and other sources, as well as ones done specifically for this project) provided the constant flow of insights about who was doing what, thinking what, saying what, etc. While these elements make the book a rich and vivid read, they also make it a bit hard to encapsulate here. At some points one gets the sense that all four hundred thousand people involved are going to get name-checked, and so it's also a bit challenging to sort through the key personnel. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that there may be quotes from three different figures in a single paragraph, meaning that a particularly notable turn of phrase encountered in the reading might actually be the reminiscences of multiple voices (such as in the descriptions of the sound of the ready-for-launch rocket).

Here, however, is one bit that directly addresses the complexity of the hardware, and how risky the entire venture was:

The missile had six million parts, which meant that, under NASA's rigorous target of 99.9 percent reliability, six thousand of its elements statistically might fail.
At one point “something was leaking, somewhere” in the week before the launch, and they had to figure out what, where (once located – the sub-system would have taken the better part of a week to swap out), and how it could be fixed … Nelson reports that “one tech very carefully tightened a nut to see if that would fix the problem … and it did”, enabling the pad crew to resume their 1,700-page launch control plan! There are also a large number of surprising details, such as that the early programs' capsules were capable of doing landings on land as well in the water, but they were designed for emergency escape from the Florida launch pads, and were iffy on their targeting (and NASA didn't want to be planning a landing in “White Sands and ending up in Albuquerque”).

From here the book takes a look at the predecessor programs, both of the Air Force (before NASA, an civilian agency, was formed), NASA's Mercury and Gemini programs, and von Braun's German work. There are some stories of both how the Nazi scientists got over to the American lines at the end of WW2, and how some of them were quite the characters (and several being not as politically “reformed” as NASA's public relations would have people believe at the time). Speaking of the P.R., the book notes that the very most hated activity for the Apollo 11 astronauts, Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong, were not hours spent in assorted simulators, but the press conferences that they were required to participate in. Nelson says that the agency, while nominally “transparent”, had a significant anti-press bias (despite having inked an exclusive deal with Life magazine) – but for a generally unsuspected reality: “other reasons for institutional secrecy were NASA's fears of revealing to Congress and taxpayers just how risky its missions actually were”. Some transcripts of these media events are included, and the divergence from what the press was looking for (“how do you feel about X?”) and how these engineers and test pilots responded (Armstrong answered a question about what he'd take with him if he could take anything, and he responded “more fuel”) is telling.

Again, there's massive amounts of detail here, and a flow that swerves between looking at the technology, its place in historical development, the astronauts themselves, both those on the Apollo 11 mission and those around them, over-views of their backgrounds and family lives, and a certain look at the culture of the less-than-swinging 60's. Some politics drifts through, as the project to reach the Moon was put forth by Kennedy, shepherded through by Johnson, and came to pass under Nixon.

There also are lots of fascinating data bits, which are sort of hard to extract from context here, from the number of hours of training the various astronauts spent in readying for the flight, how those broke down between simulators and other “experiential” locations (various points in the southwest to experience working in craters, etc.), and the like. An interesting digression is into the history of simulators, which date back to the very infancy of flight, in 1910, with the first “VR” version coming in 1929 when the Link Piano and Organ Company adapted organ bellows to work as the pneumatics for simulating pitch, roll, and yaw. The same company designed the first trainer for Project Mercury.

One quote (and there are chunks of this which are reports from a half a dozen key non-astronaut figures in a row) describes the astronauts as being “over-trained”, and it goes into a good bit on how the stress played out on them and their families … this is a sample:

In time, Armstrong's, Aldrin's, and Collins' training grew unbearable. Aldrin got so overworked that, while commuting one day in a T-38 jet, he had to double-check the compass to remember whether he was on his way to Florida or Houston.
Of course, it didn't help that most people involved didn't really expect the mission to outright succeed … there were so many essential points in the process where things could go very badly wrong (as had been the history of our unmanned Moon probes previously), that there were contingencies for aborting all along the way, and, for the worse case scenario, writer William Safire famously had developed a speech for Nixon to give in the event that the astronauts were lost.

To give an example of how the telling gets convoluted, early on in the book Nelson starts plugging in mission times, with “T minus 5.25 hours” appearing with nearly 300 pages yet to go. This time stamp is from their wake-up call on the day of the launch, but the narrative goes into a listing of many of the items that were going out with them, some jokes the astronauts made about thing things they could have done (sprinkling gold dust on some of the rocks – ensuring that they'd be back to the Moon sooner than later), and then going off into a description of the intricacies of their spacesuits, and how they differed from previous versions. This then leads to the process of getting them into the capsule and ready for launch. The remainder of Part I walks the reader through the rest of the countdown and to the actual launch.

Part II is fascinating, and worth picking up Rocket Men on its own … I'm pretty sure that it's not the first time that the material's been covered, but I think it's the first time I've seen it. This set of chapters largely looks at the cold war context of the space race, and has details on how von Braun rose through the Nazi hierarchy to get to head their rocket program, how his team mainly got to the American lines at the end of the war, and how they got settled in various small towns in the U.S., which became primary hubs for NASA's development programs. What is amazing here is all the info on the Russian space program, how they picked up the remaining rocket scientists from Germany, and had them working with the existing designers in the U.S.S.R., the arc of the Soviet space program (and political issues – one of the main excuses given for the construction of the Berlin Wall was to stem the tide of high-value individuals fleeing to the west), and how many disasters and near-disasters they had (but never admitted to until after Soviet Union collapsed). One chapter is a walk-through from the launch of Mercury-Redstone 2 (with a chimpanzee, “Ham”, on January 31, 1961), on to Yuri Gagarin's successful manned flight a couple of months later, to Kennedy's somewhat panicked response, and buying into a “Manhattan Project” style program to catch up and go beyond the Russian's achievements (which was quoted as having only a 50/50 chance of success), with the disastrous Bay of Pigs as a background, a whole lot about U.S. politics around “selling” the space program including the actions of JFK, LBJ, and RFK, among many others in the Congress.

Run the clock forward to 1962, and the Cuban missile crisis, which led eventually more communications between the Kennedy administration and members of Khrushchev's hierarchy, which eventually resulted in Kennedy's address to the United Nations on September 20, 1963, in which he proposed a joint mission to the Moon with the U.S. and U.S.S.R. both bringing their expertise to the project. This was rejected by the House of Representative three weeks later (despite a note here of Khrushchev's son saying that his father had been open to the deal). Two months after the speech, Kennedy was dead, and Johnson (who was very involved in the space program, due to the main HQ for it all being in Texas) in control. Jim Webb, the head of NASA, along with Johnson, used Kennedy's death to enshrine the space race in popular culture (by October 1964, 77 percent of voters were in favor of the massive project), and to leverage congressional support. Also in October 1964, the Soviet Central Committee removed Khrushchev from power, altering the entire international dynamic of the previous few years.

The last chapter in this part starts out with the Apollo 1 accident (on February 21, 1967, a fire erupted in the cabin during a test, killing all three astronauts), and the renewal of the chase between the two superpowers, with each moving ahead and then falling behind (a similar disaster happened in the Russian program four months later, when Soyuz 1 failed and crashed to Earth from orbit). It's noted that “NASA history would now be divided into two distinct periods: Before and After the Fire.”, as it “led to an across-the-board overhaul of NASA and its subcontractors”. This was, evidently, needed, as it's detailed how neither North American (the Command Module), nor Grumman (the Lunar Module) were making trouble-free deliveries. Still, NASA went ahead with the Apollo 8 mission (which was the first manned orbit of the Moon, although the Soviet Zond 5 had orbited the Moon with “a collection of bacteria, seeds, plants, flies, worms, and turtles” – all of which were incinerated when the capsule reach 23,432° F when returning to Earth), which appears to have succeeded more on luck than anything else. Oh, there are also some “special” descriptions of what vomiting in a space capsule is like, as well as the scatalogical inefficiencies of some of the other systems on board, plus how the famed “blue marble” shot almost didn't get taken.

The last part of the book starts off with time stamp “GET 00:01:00” (and I can't figure out what “GET” means, and I spent a chunk of time Googling it, but it's evidently after launch, as “T” is before launch), and walks through most of the mission, interspersed with background info and assorted digressions (such as the 20-point checklist for the procedure to urinate – which, if you're interested, gets dumped “overboard”, creating a unique type of “space junk” out there). The details of how the astronauts worked in the capsule are quite engaging. This is the section where I had my little bookmarks, but most of them seem to be pointing to “factoids” such as the fuel mix needed to fire the engines in space (where, in the absence of oxygen, they'd have to self-ignite), or that the computers (each module had a “17.5-pound Raytheon” computer) on board had a whopping (not) memory of 36K each (roughly a million times less than a low-end desktop PC at this writing). Another thing that gets tossed out there (when backgrounding stuff about the Moon) is:

Though a quarter of Earth's diameter and an eightieth of its mass, the Moon is so large – of 150 moons in the solar system, ours is the largest in relation to its host – that many believe it should be properly considered a planet, and that together we form a double-planet system.
Another thing that “I did not know” is that there was a procedure failure when moving into the Lunar Module, and instead of going to a vacuum in the connecting tunnel, there was still air in there, and when the modules separated, that “puff of air” contributed to navigation errors that led to the Moon landing being five miles off target (and having some tense time looking for a flat place to set down – they landed with less than 30 seconds left before Houston would have instituted an abort).

So, at GET 102:45:58, Neil Armstrong radios “The Eagle has landed.”, and the rest is history. Well, not for the book, of course … there's a look at what's happening back on Earth, both at NASA and with the astronauts' families, plus, of course, a detailed review of what it was like for the first two men to walk on the Moon to get through their mission. An interesting detail is: “Aldrin, meanwhile, had to remember not to lock the cabin door after exiting Eagle, since the designers had neglected including a handle on the outside.” … oops! Because of the first Moon walk being televised, there were something like six hundred million (with some estimates running up to a billion) people around the globe (something that figured into a particularly excellent Doctor Who episode) watching it live.

There were a number of risky actions still to come, a successful launch of the cabin portion of the Lunar Module (which was “considered the most perilous moment of their voyage”), a successful docking with the Command Module (involving some fancy flying by Michael Collins), a successful “Trans Earth Injection” (where the computer fires the engines at the right time and right angle to get the Command Module back to Earth, rather than randomly out into space), and successfully doing a re-entry that would let them splash down in the general area of where the Navy was waiting for them.

The final chapters of the book address the changes that the Apollo 11 mission made in science, the view of space exploration, and even international politics (and how, in the disappointing American decision to not expand exploratory missions in favor of the Earth-orbit shuttle program, other nations such as China and India have moved forward with their own projects).

Rocket Men is a lot to take in, and I've sort of skimmed the surface here, focusing on the stuff that mainly interested me (hey, it's my review), and skipping over the rest (political, social, family, etc.). It is an amazing book for the level of detail brought to the reader, and I highly recommend it to anybody with any interest in the space program, the cold war, (recent) American history, or related topics (I've enjoyed some of Nelson's previous books, so it's an easy thumbs-up).

There appears to have been a newer version than this 2009 hardcover released, but both of the hardcovers seem to be out of print, with just a paperback edition (plus e-books, etc.) currently out there … however the new/used guys on the online big boys' sites have copies of this hardcover that will only set you back five or six bucks … and I encourage you to check it out!


Visit the BTRIPP home page!



Monday, November 13th, 2017
11:13 pm
... and you've got me wanting you
I'm having a bit of a quandary as to how to approach this one. First of all, I have to admit it's been almost 3 months since I read it (long story), so it's not particularly “fresh” in my mind, although I do have maybe a dozen of my little bookmarks in it pointing to stuff I found of particular interest. Flipping through it, I'm realizing that if I tried to give it an in-depth look, we'd be having to negotiate a 10,000 word review, but as it has a virtual “fire hose” of information, I'd feel like I'd be skimming if I didn't delve into some of the details. Oh, well, here goes an attempt to reach a middle ground on it.

Dr. Robert H. Lustig's The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains is a fascinating, if not fun, book … and came into my hands via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program. I am very torn here between outright enthusiasm about much of the depth of information, and the buzzkill (somewhat literally) of its author's attitudes and crusades. My first qualms come, as they often do, with the title/subtitle … I, frankly, expected a quite different book than what this ended up being, something along the lines of a marketing tell-all about “hacking” our minds and “corporate takeovers” of our bodies. Nope. Not even close. While Lustig rails against “Big Sugar” and other societal bogeymen, very little info here verges into the practical tell-all territory of, say, Ryan Holiday's Trust Me, I'm Lying, or similar marketing books, which is what the front of this would have suggested to me, were I walking past it in a bookstore.

The author has been in a long battle with sugar and fats (and obesity and resultant disease), with a number of publications out on the subject (most notably, apparently, his Fat Chance which is name-checked on the cover). One can hardly fault his background … he did his undergrad work at M.I.T., got his M.D. at Cornell, has a law degree, is a pediatric endocrinologist specializing in childhood obesity & neuroendocrinology, and “has authored 120 peer-reviewed articles and 70 reviews” … and his medical training is certainly key in the parts of this that I found most valuable. However, there were various “red flags” for me here, not least of which is that he's based out of the University of California, San Francisco, which, while not Berkeley, is unarguably the “ground zero” region for loony-tunes public policy advocates, and one has to wonder if his particular crusades would find far less support in more politically/philosophically moderate settings.

Anyway, in the broadest of broad strokes, the book is about brain chemistry, the body's reaction and processing of various substances, how these systems have parallels in other behavior, and how those behaviors are encouraged by those making money on them. Oh, and how pretty much anything that we're evolutionary hard-wired to want to consume is bad for us.

Despite the above, there is a certain measure of humor in the book, with self-depreciating asides counterbalancing the occasional jabs at certain groups and individuals. And, ultimately, the core of the book is philosophical, with two sets of paralleled related concepts: pleasure and happiness, and reward and contentment.

… because pleasure and happiness, for all their apparent similarity, are separate phenomena, and in their extreme function as opposites. In fact, pleasure is the slippery slope to tolerance and addiction, while happiness is the key to long life. But, if we don't understand what's actually happening to our brains, we become prey to industries that capitalize on our addictions in the name of selling happiness.

Reward and contentment are both positive emotions, highly valued by humans, and both reasons for initiative and personal betterment. It's hard to be happy if you derive no pleasure for your efforts – but this is exactly what is seen in the various forms of addiction. Conversely, if you are perennially discontent, as is so often seen in patients with clinical depression, you may lose the impetus to better your social position in life, and it's virtually impossible to derive reward for your efforts. Reward and contentment rely on the presence of the other. Nonetheless, they are decidedly different phenomena. Yet both have been slowly and mysteriously vanishing from our global ethos as the prevalence of addiction and depression continue to climb.
While the above may seem like an extensive quote, he follows this with two pages of contrasting reward and contentment … which is awesome stuff, but I guess you'll have to pick up the book to get into those. And, mind you, I've not even gotten out of the introduction at this point.

He notes that most of the work in this area has been done on animal models (and can you compare “depression” in a rat with depression in a human?), and that “most human studies … are correlative, not causative … you can only say that two things are related to each other” (following up this with a page of details regarding brain scans, blood tests, neurochemicals, etc.). He also notes that:

… the connecting of our moods and emotions to rational public policy is complex, nuanced, and indirect. People can't be told what to do. As a New Yorker, I admit that if someone tells me to jump, my first two words in response are not “How high?”
In the first chapter here, he primarily looks at the idea of happiness (in relation to pleasure), from word roots and historical contexts, on through global polling and even genetic factors. He says that the book is about our culture not distinguishing between the related reward and contentment, even at the biochemical level, noting that this becomes “the basis for many of today's most successful marketing strategies”, and drives “the six biggest industries which sell us various hedonistic substances (tobacco, alcohol, food) and behavioral triggers (guns, cars, energy)”.

The second chapter is about cause and effect … “You see declining school performance. I see inefficient brain mitochondria. … You see drugs of abuse. I see presynaptic transporters of postsynaptic receptors. … “, etc. Pre- what, post- what? Yes, the science stuff … he goes on to say “we're gong to need a very short (I promise) course in neuroscience”. Now, here's where it gets frustrating for me, I really enjoy this part of the book, but it's an amazing rush of info, and I'm guessing putting much of any of the details here will just be confusing (let alone taking up way too much space), so I'm going to try to cherry-pick some items that will help make later stuff make sense. These various experiences have their roots in brain chemistry …

The reward pathway utilizes the neurotransmitter dopamine to communicate between the neurons of the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the dopamine receptors of the nucleus accumbens (NA) to generate the feelings of motivation that attend reward and learning.

The contentment pathway utilizes the neurotransmitter serotonin to communicate between neurons of the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN) and multiple sites throughout the cerebral cortex, where the brain interprets impulses as “good” or “bad”.

The stress-fear-memory pathway consists of four areas. The amygdala, or your “stress” center, is in communication with the hypothalmus (at the base of the brain), which controls the stress hormone cortisol. The hipocampus or your “memory” center interprets memories as both good and bad. … The fourth area is the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) … that inhibits behaviors that put you at risk. …
If you think that's a lot, those are actually just the describing labels for graphics of the brain … the actual copy related to these is much more rambling (it describes the vagus nerve – shut down by the hypothalmus in times of stress – as “the vegging, chillaxing nerve”) and detailed. Speaking of detailed, there is a lot of fascinating stuff in here of receptor sites, molecules that bind to those, how these get processed, and sent on to trigger other things … but there are lots of these, so if you like this stuff as much as I do, you're going to have to pick up a copy of the book. Since these three pathways come into play a lot in the book, I guess I'm going to throw in the following as well:

      These three pathways generate virtually all human emotion, and in particular those of reward and contentment. The motivation for reward is experienced when the dopamine signal reaches the NA. A host of different stimuli (power, gambling, shopping, internet, substances) generate signals of reward, but that internal feeling of reward is pretty much the same whatever the trigger. This is also why virtually any stimulus that generates reward, when taken to the extreme, can also lead to addiction. …
      Conversely, while experiencing happiness is predicated upon sending the serotonin signal, the actual interpretation of that signal isn't as simple. It also depends on the receptor that is receiving that signal, which changes how you experience it. …
Speaking of receptors, there's one that's found in many of these brain pathways, the CB1 receptor, which is geared to connect with anandamide, an endogenous brain compound, which is similar enough to marijuana's psychoactive component, THC, that either works to alleviate anxiety, heighten mood, increase social functioning, and makes us want to eat (cf. “the munchies”). There was a drug developed a decade ago called rimonabant, which was leveraging the latter of those effects to be a quite successful anti-obesity drug. Users lost a lot of weight, largely due to no longer getting any pleasure from eating. Unfortunately, “they derived no pleasure from anything”, and 21% of those on the prescription developed clinical depression, with many committing suicide. Lustig says this “clearly demonstrates that the biochemistry drives the behavior – and the emotions”, and suggests “that reward-seeking behavior is a double-edged sword”, with benefits to the species, but not necessarily to the individual (a section on love/lust follows, which I'm skipping due to the complexity, as it involves “two different neurotransmitters … two different brain areas of residence … two different targets of action … two different sets of receptors, and two different regulatory systems … each influences the other”).

This brings us to Part II (of V), only 15% through the book. Obviously, my concern with running 10,000 words up top was right on the money if I keep up this way. There are a few things in this part that I found quite engaging, that I want to get in here, but the latter 3 parts I think I can skim over a bit, as they're more “social” and thereby lend themselves to paraphrasing more than the chemistry does.

The title to Chapter 3 is “Desire and Dopamine, Pleasure and Opioids”, which would make a nice combo of album names for the right band. He starts this out noting that “regardless of the species, the motivation to attain reward (eat, fight, mate) remains virtually intact and unchanged throughout evolution” and points out the role of cash in our culture “because money buys prestige and power and sex and big toys”. And all forms of reward have the danger of manifesting addiction (as he notes, “one reward is never enough”, or as the great Tom Lehrer put it: “More, more, I'm still not satisfied!”).

I wish I could stick some of the chemistry graphics from this in here (that's both iffy on “fair use”, and impractical working from an ARC, as the images in here are low-res versions of what I assume to be in the final published edition), because they're fascinating, such as the four steps of “dopamine synthesis and metabolism” and “synthesis and metabolism of serotonin”, which feature juicy descriptions such as “The amino acid tyrosine is acted on by the enzyme tyrosine hydroxylase and receives a hydroxyl group to form L-DOPA” (you see the difficulty with paraphrasing here) … plus one that I think I'll end up at least walking through here in a bit.

The next chapter, 4 - “Killing Jiminy: Stress, Fear, and Cortisol”, deals pretty much with the words there, but with a lot of details on stuff like the “cascade” of chemicals that lead to cortisol, and the dance of the amygdala and the PFC (prefrontal cortex) in behavior. An interesting point brought up here is that, with repeated chemical assault, neurons with specific receptors can be killed off and they don't grow back. Chapter 5, “The Descent into Hades” picks up on this:

There's a price to pay for reward. It used to be measured in dollars, pounds, or yen, but now it's measured in neurons. As the monetary price of reward fell, the physiological price of reward skyrocketed.
This deals with the way reward drops with repetition, and how this can lead to outright addiction, he notes: “If the post-synaptic neurons are only damaged but still alive, your dopamine receptors can regenerate over time.” … but if you don't stop the behavior, the neurochemical process can “snowball”, with reactions all up and down the pathway getting critical. Of course (and this is most clearly illustrated in heroin users), timing the cessation of behavior is key, because otherwise there will be withdrawal, as the body tries to deal with the sudden change of chemistry, and going back after a time (to one's previous “normal” dose) can manifest as an overdose, being more than the now-less-tolerant systems can handle. He lists the 11 criteria (in a somewhat more discursive mode than this list currently defining addictive disorders), and then discusses a number of different examples, and the brain chemistry behind them, including one fellow (illustrating “addiction transfer”) who goes from being hooked on cigarettes, to alcohol, and then sugar (and “wanting to tear his eyes out” when he tried to kick that addiction). This leads into a look at John Pemberton, the Atlanta pharmacist that invented Coca-Cola, who had become addicted to morphine following the Civil War and “developed his sacred formula {as part of} a long-standing attempt to wean himself off his addiction”. He spent 21 years searching for an opium-free painkiller, and:

Ultimately, he developed a concoction that included cocaine, alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. Four separate hedonic substances, four somewhat weaker dopamine/reward drugs, to take the place of one very strong one.
I'd love to type up the paragraph here where he walks down the list from heroin to sugar (on three levels of access), but while it's charming, it's a bit long (but fingers grandma as a reliable sugar “dealer”), so you'll have to pick up a copy. There is this, however, that plays into the later chapters:

Everyone has become a willing consumer of the two lowest common denominators. Sugar and caffeine are diet staples for much of the world today. Coffee is the second most important commodity (behind petroleum), and sugar is fourth.
Which brings us to Chapter 6, “The Purification of Addiction”, which starts out with a very interesting overview of the history of “hedonic substances” – noting that “prior to the eighteenth century, virtually every stimulus that generated reward was hard to come by”, and aside from behaviors such as gambling and prostitution, there was pretty much only sugar and alcohol to be had. He walks through assorted historic notes: the Yamnaya people were trading cannabis 10,000 years ago, the Sumerians first referenced opium in 5,000 bce, the first mention of wine is in 4,000 bce, and the first mention of a commercial brewery in Egypt in 3,500 bce … and the first description of addiction is in China around 1,000 ce.

The next bits in here are pretty much sociological and economic. There is a 67% use rate of alcohol in the adult U.S. population, with nearly a quarter of those being “binge drinkers”. Lustig notes that the profit margin for “Big Pharma” is 18%, but contrasts that with the processed food industry (big users of sugar) at a whopping 45%. He points out that “virtually all humans have a sweet tooth … it's inscribed into our DNA”, and implies that this is evolutionary “because there are no foodstuffs on the planet that are both sweet and acutely poisonous”. Sugar “was a condiment” up until WW2, when the drive to create new-better-faster overtook the food supply, and really started to get into everything in 1975, with the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup. The two types of dietary sugar, glucose and fructose, have interesting differences. On one hand, Lustig describes fructose as “vestigial”, being that “there is no biochemical reaction that requires it”, yet glucose is essential, and “if you don't consume it, your liver makes it”. They also differ in how they impact the brain (in scans), with glucose activating “consciousness and movement” areas, and fructose lighting up the reward pathway “and several sites in the stress-fear-memory pathway”. The rest of this chapter delves into particulars about sugar, and controversies of making an essential food item an “addictive substance”.

This brings us to Part III of the book, looking at “contentment”, with its first chapter (#7), being the rather straight-forwardly titled “Contentment and Serotonin”. This first looks at what drugs “evidenced the greatest societal impact” … Lustig claims it to be Prozac, citing the figures that between 16-18% of Americans are likely to suffer major depressive disorder, “and that any given moment 6 to 8 percent of the people you know are affected”. He says “psychiatric drugs are truly a miracle of Western Civilization”, yet modern psychopharmacology arose from a “serendipitous finding” involving a tuberculosis drug that vastly improved the moods of those taking it. When Prozac (the first in the class of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors – SSRIs – currently the #3 most prescribed class of drugs) came out in 1986, its prescriptions exploded, largely because it was effective for both “retarded” (would kill myself if I had the energy) and “agitated” (anxious, irritable, sleepless, and miserable) depression. One of the effects of this was “in-patient psychiatric facilities closed faster than Blockbuster Video … there weren't enough depressed people in the hospitals to keep them open”. While currently “more people under the age of sixty-five take antidepressants than any other medication”“there's no biomarker for depression, no blood test that your doctor can administer”, and the diagnosis of depression is based on a questionnaire that scores subjective responses – perhaps being the reason so many end up on these drugs. Most of the rest of this chapter looks at the brain chemistry of serotonin, but there was one factoid I thought I'd pass along … while dopamine has only five different receptors (with two of those handling most of the traffic), serotonin has at least fourteen, making “it very difficult to piece together what is happening in any specific brain area”. One of the main take-aways from this is: “the quest for happiness begins and ends with optimization of your serotonin neurotransmission” (throw in 42, and you've pretty much got all the big questions answered).

OK, so next is probably the most “fun” chapter here, #8 – “Picking the Lock to Nirvana”, which deals with hallucinogens. There is another graphic here that I wish I could reproduce – it shows the chemical structures of serotonin, psilocybin (“shrooms”), LSD (“acid”), mescaline (“peyote”), and MDMA (“ecstasy”), all of which have extremely similar forms. In the caption Lustig notes:

The tryptamine derivatives psilocybin and LSD can bind to both the serotonin-2a receptor (the mystical experience) and the serotonin-1a receptor (contentment). The phenylethlamine compound mescaline binds only to the serotonin-2a receptor. MDMA or ecstasy … not only binds to the serotonin-2a receptor, it binds to the dopamine receptor as well.
Much of this chapter involves the research in this area, the political responses (sub-section “The Feds Raid the Party”), but also looks at the resurgence of hallucinogens in a number of fields, especially in hospice situations, where they can be much less isolating than heavy doses of opiates (and, in an a study that I encountered elsewhere, the use of ketamine to treat depression) … and at some more of the chemistry. He describes a 1997 study which was looking at specific reactions of different brain areas to hallucinogens, starting with the visual cortex, Lustig reports: Injection of radio-labeled psilocybin lights up the visual cortex like a Christmas tree.”

He closes this chapter with a bit of a warning, which, I suppose, speaks to the overall thesis of the book:

      We are our biochemistry, whether we like it or not. And our biochemistry can be manipulated. Sometimes naturally and sometimes artificially. Sometimes by ourselves but sometimes by others. Sometimes for good and sometimes for ill.
Next up is Ch. 9, “What You Eat in Private You Wear in Public”, which deals with food and brain chemistry. This looks at how you get serotonin from tryptophan – “the basic ingredient to inner contentment”. There's the better part of a page here walking the reader through the chemistry, with one take-away being that only about 1% of the tryptophan ends up as serotonin in the brain eliciting the comment “It's no wonder we're unhappy.”. He discusses the relationship between serotonin and sleep, and notes that our consumption of large amounts of sugar and caffeine doesn't help. As one would guess from the chapter's title, he goes into a lot of types of food, which leads him to introducing “metabolic syndrome”, a number of chronic metabolic diseases:

… heart disease, hypertension, blood lipid problems such as hypertriglyceridemia, type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, chronic kidney disease, polycystic ovarian disease, cancer, and dementia …
He uses metabolic syndrome as a bit of a catch-all, from suggesting that well-marbled beef comes from cows with it (that just got butchered before getting sick from it), to pretty much “what ails ya”. This then moves into looking at gut bacteria, and omega-3 fatty acids (noting that the best source of these is in algae – we typically get it secondhand from fish), including lots of details that I'm sparing you.

Did I mention that there are 19 chapters, each addressing a different topic (in considerable, and sometimes quite technical, detail)? We're up to Chapter 10, “Self-Inflicted Misery: The Dopamine-Cortisol-Serotonin Connection”, which could be called “Stress, Drugs, and Rock & Roll Brain Chemistry” featuring MDMA, LSD, the functions of the DRN (dorsal raphe nucleus), a quote from George Bernard Shaw, references to the Dalai Lama and Scarface, and insomnia, depression, & suicide. Lustig charts out the chemistry involved in depression, addiction, and unhappiness (which “hovers at 43 percent of all Americans … {who are} on the same spectrum as those who are clinically depressed, they're just not as severe”), while suggesting that we might have less “free will” than we suppose (“Our environment has been engineered to make sure our choices are anything but free.”), leading us into the next Part, IV – “Slaves to the Machine: How Did We Get Hacked?”

In the last two Parts, things get somewhat murky, as the book moves from chemistry into sociology (to pick one descriptor of several that could apply). I'm opting to deal with Part IV as a continuum, something that aligns with Lustig's note about these five chapters saying that he'll demonstrate:

… how the confusion between these two terms {reward and contentment} in the name of “progress” has inflicted personal, economic, historic, cultural, and health / health care detriments to individuals and to society in general. Moreover, this confusion continues to be stoked by industry and government in order to preserve and sustain persistent economic growth at the expense of the populace.
He starts off with the Declaration of Independence's “happiness”, first noting the decline in the mean American life span over recent years, going into a lot of demographic data, and breaking that down by race, and making other assertions along those lines (and throwing in an Eagles lyric quote to liven things up). From the Declaration, he visits Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason, from whom was borrowed the “happiness” bit, which got replaced by “property” in the Constitution (cf. the 5th Amendment) … dopamine trumping serotonin. Pivoting on a quote by Aristotle, he then looks at drugs, both legal and not, with a survey of how strong narcotics, prior to 2000, were primarily available just in intravenous form, but in recent years there has been a growth in oral forms, and doctors prescribing them. This is partly due to a 2001 change in Joint Commission (certification organization) standards that required hospitals to add “pain” as a vital sign, with state boards punishing doctors for inadequately addressing pain. Of course, that's one side of the coin … Lustig notes that in states that have legalized pot, the use of SSRIs have declined inversely proportional to the increase in marijuana use.

Next he gets into contrasting happiness (the surveys of which peaked in the 1950's, with figures being pretty much steady since 1972) with money. Oddly, studies show that one's level of happiness is not directly tied to one's money, but “how well you are doing relative to everyone else”, and that seems to be true across all settings. This leads to a look at global figures and how the GDP of countries don't predict happiness. The U.S. is #13 on a list of “happiest countries”, with a number of European socialist countries in the top 5, implying that in an artificially “leveled” population, there's less reason to be unhappy with one's position within society. Back in the U.S., a study showed that “contentment demonstrated a logarithmic relationship with income until a maximum of US$75,000 … after that, the relationship disappeared” with more income above that hardly moving the needle – “reward is not contentment, and that increasing reward does not translate into happiness”.

From here he gets into a chapter about individual vs. corporate rights, featuring various historical elements, and a list of what he sees as particularly pernicious, laying most of the blame at the feet of the Supreme Court, and more specifically Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in a series of decisions in the late 70's. He notes that “… we're all now living in … Powellville. All dopamine all the time with a soupçon of cortisol thrown in to stir the pot.”. Much of this approaches “rant” territory with Lustig launching salvos at various industries, parts of government, and assorted politicians … and outright stating that the manipulation of the brain chemistry from the first parts of the book is both intentional and based on substantial research.

The next chapter gets edgier … “naming names” of corporations the author feels need calling out. These include Coca-Cola, and McDonald's, as well as a handful of media pushing sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. From there he turns to the whole erectile dysfunction industry, which stands in for the more general use of “fear” in marketing, and raising the question of what separates “marketing” from “propaganda”, and introduces (to me, at least) the term neuromarketing, which is based on facial coding and other analyses of subjects being exposed to marketing materials. Next to get roasted are smartphones, with issues raised from accidents while texting, to anxiety issues related to gaming, to the medium being used as a vehicle for “bullying”. This then slides into a look at Facebook, which strangely segues into the economics of the stock market, “elastic” vs. “inelastic” price gauging of products, and this in relation to “hedonic stimuli” such as alcohol, gambling, and, of course, sugar (which Lustig claims “wastes $1.8 trillion in health care spending”). The last chapter of this part is called “The Death Spiral”, and is a less-than-cheery look at disease, health care, insurance, and Social Security (described, accurately, as a “legal Ponzi scheme”). The main take-away here is basically that we're screwed – on several fronts.

The last part of the book is “Out of Our Minds – in Search of the 4 C's”, which are (to not leave you hanging): “Connect”, “Contribute”, “Cope”, and (oddly) “Cook”, and, as you might suspect, these are also the topics covered in the last four chapters. Here the author attempts to chart a way out of the “corporate takeover of our bodies and brains” of the subtitle. This starts with reviewing the serotonin material (with focus on “-1a” receptor) preceding, dips back into the hallucinogen studies (with the “-2a” receptor), and then drifts into religion. Here he goes into a quick run-through of various experiments on believers and non-believers, even to folks in 12-step programs, and comes up with the concept that “it's the social engagement or emotional bonding that correlates with contentment”. This then moves into a look at how our social structures may have evolved, the benefits of “performing acts of compassion”, how contact with others can effect us (à la one study that suggested “obesity can be transmitted within social groups”), how much of the brain gets involved with processing feelings of rejection, and why “social media” doesn't quite stack up as “social” interactions as far a brain chemistry is concerned.

The next chapter, “Contribute”, deals with value exchanges – primarily money, of course. One interesting study cited had a group of lottery winners, compared with a control group, compared to a group of accident victims, both of the non-control groups had “spikes” (positive and negative) of happiness in the short term, “but over the next several months each group's level of subjective happiness returned to baseline levels”. This leads into a discussion of food (with the interesting data point that the U.S. spends 6.7% of the GDP on food, vs. both the French and Japanese who spend more than twice that, at 14% … noting that we buy lots of subsidized foodstuffs). He then introduces some work on materialism and sense of well-being, including the suggestion that there's an inverse correlation between these (which he backs up with a Ben Franklin quote). Next comes a look at work situations, “altruism vs. spite” (involving interpersonal games and related brain activity), messing with behavior by dosing with citalopram (an SSRI that increases serotonin), the psychology of Chinese depending on whether the lived north or south of the Yangtze, a pitch for volunteering (which “improved depression, life satisfaction, and well-being, as well as … a 22 percent reduction in risk for death”), and some brain chemistry related to donating money vs. having similar amounts put in play via taxation.

In “Cope” the topics of sleep, mindfulness, and exercise are considered, in relation of the concept of “adaptive or maladaptive” stress. Much of this has to do with nurturing the prefrontal cortex (which needs all three of those), but “unfortunately, our environment has claimed our PFC as collateral damage”. The sections dealing with sleep are a bit “naggy”, with all sorts of studies about sleep deprivation (which costs the U.S. economy $83 billion a year), plus dictates about how you should sleep (turn off the TV – he must not have hyperactive squirrels running around in his head that need to be distracted some nights!). He moves from nagging about the TV to nagging about “screens” in general, and then runs this into a rant about multitasking. This gets contrasted with meditation, which he not only recommends but touches on a couple of practices, and notes that regular meditators “have clear differences in brain structure”, although he does admit that there's no clear answer regarding if it's people with those brain differences who choose to meditate, or if meditation causes these changes. He mentions some mindfulness programs, and uses these to segue into the exercise topic via a study that used mindfulness training as an add-on for one group of obese subjects. This then goes into the differences between “visceral” and “subcutaneous” fat, the former being “the driver of the diseases of metabolic syndrome and depression”. Remarkably, there are studies indicating that mindfulness meditation can decrease this fat, and other studies showing the effects of exercise between pairs of twins. He, of course, suggests that exercise is likely to improve mood, and could be boosted in combination with meditation.

Finally, we end up at “Cook”, which seems to be an odd spin on this, except that he's framed this in contrast to “toxic food” (that stuff that's being sold to us – especially sugar). He has a bunch of statistics here, one of the more telling is that the American Heart Association's recommendations for sugar consumption for children is just 3-4 teaspoons per day, when the actual consumption is 22 teaspoons per day (for adults, it's 9 and 19.5 … unless you're not Caucasian, with those demographic groups consuming a quarter to a half more). What makes this a difficult subject on a personal level is that only about 51% of the sugar we consume is in forms (desserts, etc.) that we'd recognize as sugar – the other 49% is essentially invisible, added into almost everything to provide end-user appeal: bulk, coloring, flavor, moisture, and preservative functions. However, some of his figures look pretty iffy from where I'm sitting (for instance: “sugared beverages alone account for 180,000 deaths per year worldwide” … uh, OK). The remainder of the chapter is a pretty rough attack on all things sugar (especially those nefarious folks who constitute “Big Sugar”), and recommendation that sugar be subject to the same sort of governmental assault as was levied at tobacco over the past half century or so.

Anyway, I really didn't expect (or want) this to go as long as it has (nearly 6,000 words!), but there is so much info in The Hacking of the American Mind, that I really felt like I wasn't doing it justice to do a non-orbital fly-by and call it “reviewed”. Of course, the science of this probably attracts me more than most, so you've had to suffer through some of that, but I assure you, I only skimmed the surface. While I don't agree with the author's Big Government solution to Big Sugar, the non-political parts are very interesting, and this would likely be a good read for anybody interested in what goes on in their brain, or what goes into their mouths. This just came out a couple of months back, so should be available a the surviving brick-and-mortar book stores, and the online guys currently are knocking nearly 40% off the price … so you might consider getting your hands on a copy.


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Tuesday, October 31st, 2017
6:37 pm
Challenging ourselves to be better ...
This was an easy decision when I saw it on the shelf at the dollar store this summer, as I've been a fan of its author for quite some time, and was very interested to see what he had to say in book length (as opposed to his Twitter or Facebook posts that I typically see). So, Allen West's Guardian of the Republic: An American Ronin's Journey to Faith, Family and Freedom got into my shopping cart, without much preconceptions (or data) about the book (as is often the case with dollar store finds).

If you don't know Allen West, he's currently a conservative commentator, but was formerly a one-term Congressman from Florida, after having served 22 years in the army. You might guess that this book was more of a biography, but only the first quarter is really focused on his story, with the rest being his “philosophy” in assorted areas (albeit in the context of his experiences). The book is broken up into five Parts, “My Conservative Roots”, “Conservative Principles”, “Conservatism in the Black Community”, “The Future of the American Republic”, and “Conclusion”. The middle three (each having 3-4 chapters) seem to be almost free-standing looks at their subjects. Obviously, the subtitle's reference to being an “American Ronin” begs some explanation, and he sets this up in the Prologue (although he doesn't really carry it forward much as a theme):

… rather than offer a conventional autobiography, I'd like to share with you my philosophical beliefs and the reasons why I love this country and why I shall fight wholeheartedly and fearlessly for the future of our republic.
      My story actually has its roots centuries ago in Japan.
      I've always been drawn to the warrior spirit and the code of the samurai. But it is the ethos of the ronin that truly resonates with me.
      During Japan's feudal period, from the late 1100s to the late 1800s, a samurai who lost his lord or master, either through the master's death or the samurai's loss of favor, was known as a ronin. …
He goes on to explain that these samurai were supposed to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, and the ones (the ronin) who did not were shunned. However, there must have been enough of them to have regulations regarding their status, as they were allowed to be armed, and be employed as bodyguards, etc. He frames having lost his father in his mid-20's as “losing his master”, and he “pledged an oath” to continue in the nation's service:

      And just like the ronin, I have remained an outsider, hewing to the code by which I was raised.
      My parents, my earthly masters, had brought me up as a conservative in every sense. They encouraged and championed my commitment to conservative values. Now I stood alone. I soon experienced the ronin's sense of undesirability, humiliation, and shame. I was treated as persona non grata not only by those who didn't share my views but also by some in my own African-American community.
      Because I refused to succumb and live my life according to other people's code, I was cast out. …
Although I'm jumping ahead a bit here, what probably resonated with him in the concept of the ronin is that he left the military through less-than-voluntary means (here's an article from just a few months after the fact). As any number of Leftists will harp on and on about, he ended up being put through Article 15 proceedings, which most of the MSM seems to want people to think is the equivalent of the Nuremberg trails. West discusses this over a couple of pages, and I'm going to just grab bits to give you the broad strokes:

In August 2003 we received intelligence reports that a particular Iraqi policeman had been providing information to the enemy, leading to an increase in ambushes on our patrols. We needed to detain the policeman for questioning because we believed something was about to happen. … The policeman had been stonewalling our interrogators, and we needed results. So I made the decision to put additional pressure on him with a psychological intimidation tactic. … He cried out to Allah and provided several names of individuals who intended to do harm to me and my unit. Afterwards there were no further attacks … {he immediately reports the incident, and takes responsibility} … During the hearing my defense attorney … asked if I would do it all again. Without hesitation I responded, “If it is about the lives and safety of my men, I would walk through hell with a gasoline can.” … Ultimately, as a result of the hearing, I received an Article 15, a nonjudicial punishment similar to a traffic ticket. I was fined five thousand dollars, given an honorable discharge, and retired with full rank and benefits. … I had lived up to the parting words {his father} shared back in October 1983 as I prepared to depart for Fort Sill: “Most of all, take care of your men.”
Anyway, the first chapter, “Early Lessons” takes a look at his family, their history, his youth, life growing up in Atlanta, school issues, and his move towards the military (both his parents worked in defense jobs) with University of Tennessee's ROTC program. Much of this is quite charming, but nothing stood out to quote here. Next is “Shaping Operations”, which appears to be a technical term:

      In military vernacular there are two types of operations: decisive and shaping. Before any decisive operation, there must be a shaping operation to set the conditions for the final attack and to ensure victory is achieved and objectives are met.
      My military career was the shaping operation that made me the man I am today.
This is primarily the story of his moving towards his long military career, with a lot of details of units, assignments, training, officers, etc., but also has some pieces about figures (like Colonel Chamberlain from the Civil War battle of Little Round Top, or the vets who ran the JROTC program at his high school) that he holds as exemplars. This moves into chapter three, “My Warrior's Code”, which is a bit more philosophical look at the military (and politics), with special honor given to a particular mentor:

Character is simply defined as doing what is right when no one is watching. … Courage, competence, commitment, conviction, and character were the fundamental principles of leadership I learned from a man who, had he been born centuries before in Japan, truly would have been a samurai master – “Steel 6,” Colonel Denny R. Lewis. … These principles form my personal warrior's code and combine with honor and integrity to shape my personality. I often wonder what Capitol Hill would look like if more elected officials possessed the same code. … I believe that we've come to a point in America where our elected officials possess no code whatsoever.
Oddly, for something that functions as an autobiography, this first part (at about 1/3rd of the page count) is pretty much it for a walk-through on West's life. The next part (also about 1/3rd of the book) is a review of just what he tells you it is – Conservative Principles – and is a fascinating read. At a point between the military and congress, West spent some time teaching history, and this comes out in a big way here. I've read a lot of political stuff over the years, and the “Philosophical Foundations” chapter is one of the clearest and most convincing expositions of the underlying philosophical stances of the popular options out there, from the concept of the “social contract” to an in-depth discussion of the differences of world-view of systems that evolved from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There's a look at the transition from Charles II to James II in England, and the eventual framing of the English Bill of Rights, and how that shifted the landscape of concepts of government. This then moves into the chapter “Governing Principles”, which starts out with Jefferson and Madison. This is not all philosophy, as West takes a number of broadsides at the sort of tax-and-spend behemoth that we're suffering these days, with quotes from such thinkers as Frédéric Bastiat, Ayn Rand, and Alexis de Tocqueville, whose warnings of just the sort of things that the Alinsky-inspired crowd have saddled the nation with over the past few decades. Of course, the blame for much of this falls to John Maynard Keynes, ignoring the cautions of Alexander Hamilton that the growth of government … would subvert the very foundation, the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America. Thomas Jefferson would have likewise been aghast at what the so-called “progressive” Left has made of our system: “To compel a man to furnish the funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” West runs through what he refers to as “governing principles” of the Founders, and how they're being erased before our eyes:

      If we are to live up to the governing principles our founders established, then we have a mighty responsibility to preserve the power of the individual citizen. We must resist government's constant fearmongering and exploitation of our sympathies, which cause us to gradually and imperceptibly surrender individual sovereignty and liberty, drip by drip.
West starts out the “Pillars of Conservative Thought” chapter with an arch quote from Napoleon Bonaparte: “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap.” (this paired with a doozy from Nancy Pelosi) … the chapter is something of a rant about how corrupted things have become vs. ideals. This leads into “Conflicting Philosophies of Governance”, which is something of the previous “Principles” evolved into their modern manifestations, or, as West clarifies:

… during times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. So in this chapter, it's time for a revolutionary act: to define truthfully what {Obama's} “fundamental transformation of America” means. … If we're fundamentally transforming America, it must mean we're moving toward the opposite of limited government, fiscal responsibility, individual sovereignty, free markets, strong national defense, and traditional values.
This leads back to Locke and Rousseau, with a few nods to Ronald Reagan. West connects the dots between Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx, and even reprints eight of the ten planks of The Communist Manifesto to show how each has been pressed to service by “progressive” regimes administrations since the early 1900's. I marked several pages in a row here, but there's so much that needs to be conveyed, that I can't really cherry-pick bits to put in here. This section is one of those that I really wish could be required reading in schools – if, of course, schools weren't the first things the Left sought to take over.

The next section looks at “Conservatism in the Black Community”, which to most people sounds like a joke, although West is very clear about how conservative his upbringing in Atlanta, GA had been. Needless to say, this is very personal to him, which can be inferred by the title of the first chapter in it, “The Soul of Our Souls”, and he has a pretty good definition here: “Conservatism in the black community was not so much about political inclinations as it was a way of life that we called 'old school.'” He sets the conflict here as the philosophies of Booker T. Washington (“self-reliance and economic independence”), vs. W.E.B. Du Bois (advocating “black protest, militancy, and pride”) … “Compare Booker T. Washington, the consummate conservative, with W.E.B. Du Bois, the radical leftist, and you can see the origins of the current conflict in our community.” Obviously, West is supporting a return to the vision of Washington, and goes into a lot of painful detail of how black communities have decayed with ever-increasing governmental intrusion. Next is “The Big Lie and the Twenty-First-Century Economic Plantation” which takes head-on “the people who promoted the big lie that government will solve your problems”. He ticks through a list of big government programs that probably sounded real good to liberals, but were disasters for the very people that they were intended to help. I wish more people came to the same conclusions that West has here:

I believe these programs were never meant to rectify problems but to increase dependency on government, all for political gain. Through the Great Society, the government created this economic plantation where the only real “benefits”are the electoral votes keeping the subsistence providers in power.
He goes through a litany of statistical decline, from fatherless homes to prison population percentage, calling it a “social Armageddon” “Yet the so-called black leaders, nearly all of them Democrats, refuse to identify the true cause of these horrible statistics.”

Chapter 10 is “The Hunt for Black Conservatives”, and this isn't about seeking out them, but the pattern of attacks on them. He leads off with a story that ran about him on a satire blog, that makes up an entire interview that supposedly happened between West and a CNN reporter. Despite nothing being true in it, leftist media picked it up and ran it as real, and neither CNN nor the reporter ever bothered to deny the piece. West points out that this is straight out of the Alinksy playbook, and asks the very reasonable question: “Why is it that any philosophy in the black community that differs from the established liberal canon is viciously attacked?” He goes into the character assassination campaigns that the Left has waged against a long list (he has several dozen cited) of black conservatives … and offers the following as a very plausible reason this happens: “The Left must destroy black conservatives because it cannot afford to have freethinking, independent-minded black Americans. If we begin to pull away from the dependency society … the Left loses.”

West then takes another turn, looking forward in “The Future of the American Republic” … the first chapter of which is “Republic or Democracy”, in which he has a fairly concise framing of the question, which also casts shadows on the American educational system (in that most people have no clue):

If there is to be a future for our nation, it means understanding America is a republic, not a democracy. The future of the American republic depends first and foremost on ensuring the citizenry and the voting electorate understand the basic framework of this grand experiment.
He goes on to discuss how many more college courses favor Marx over Jefferson, cites several founding fathers specifically warning about “democracy” (vs. a constitutional republic), and lists numerous really horrible governments that have come to power “democratically” (mainly in the Arab world) in recent decades. He charts out how things went downhill, and especially points to the 17th Amendment, which changed the method of seating senators from being appointed by state legislators/governors to direct election (where pandering to the mob seems to be the norm).

Next is “The Dilemma for the American Republic”, which leads off with this choice bit: “it's not just that we are abdicating the freedom, we're doing so without a clear understanding of the issues or the unintended consequences of our surrender.” He paints a very grim picture of how things are, and how they have been going, and suggests that America is primed for a “third party”. He sets out the philosophical conflict as being between those working for an “opportunity society” and those hell-bent on driving us deeper into a “dependency society”. While he doesn't specify what a possible third party would look like, he notes the Republican Party has been fading into the “Democrat Lite” Party, and has a quite biting description of the Democrats:

Today the Democratic Party has drifted so far to the left it has lost touch with the fundamental values of our constitutional republic. The Democrats have truly embraced modern-day progressive socialism, and I would challenge anyone to show me where that model has ever been successful anywhere in the world.
West walks the reader through disastrous Democrat-driven legislation and government programs, the decay of once-thriving cities like Detroit and Chicago after lifetimes of Democratic control, and describes how “the dependency society confuses privileges with rights and sells everything as a right”. On a more politics-in-general mode, he notes:

Through microtargeting and divisive segmentation, the political machine figures out what buttons to push to maintain power. And voters fall for it over and over again. They reward the impostors and charlatans.
In the final chapter, “Servant Leadership Versus Self-Service”, he starts out contrasting recent vile Democratic administrations with the character of the Founders and fellow Americans of their era, featuring a choice quote from Samuel Adams: “If ever a time should come when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats of Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.” … needless to say, West sees himself as such a patriot, and this then leads to a return to the samurai/ronin imagery, where he details the elements of Bushido (warrior code). While I'm sure that Mr. West can't be accused of wanting America to become some echo of medieval Japan, he certainly is advocating a significant shift from the direction the country's been going over the past 50-100 years. He closes the chapter with a famous quote from Reagan, about “if we lose freedom here”, which is the ultimate thrust of his thesis.

Guardian of the Republic is still in print (it's only 3.5 years old, so I guess I lucked out at finding a dollar store copy), although there's not been a paperback edition of it as yet. The online big boys do presently have it at a substantial discount (over half off) which probably bests the brick-and-mortar guys … and you can get “like new” copies from the new/used vendors for about a quarter of cover price (including shipping). As I alluded to above, there are parts of this (most of the non-autobiography stuff) that I really wish everybody would read … but I realize that West's Tea-Party-influenced type of conservatism rubs a lot of people the wrong way (although I'm certainly in the cheering section). It is quite an edifying look at the state of the nation, however, so you probably should consider giving it a go!


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Sunday, October 29th, 2017
12:56 pm
I want a name when I lose ...
I had quite a battle with myself, standing in front of the dollar store shelf, wondering if I should toss this into the cart. Had it been a hardcover, it wouldn't have been a question, but this wasn't a hardcover, heck, it wasn't even a trade paperback, but a mass-market paperback – something that I've not read many of since swearing off fiction. However, I recognized the author from the band Steely Dan, and it certainly looked interesting, so into the shopping cart it went.

While autobiographies are hardly one of my more enthusiastically-embraced genres, there is a certain voyeuristic itch that's scratched by getting to peek into the lives of assorted figures with whom I've developed some familiarity. While I was certainly appreciative of Steely Dan's music, and had a couple of their albums, I was never a big fan, but was at least able to put Donald Fagen's name into the right context.

His book, Eminent Hipsters is one of those projects that I suspect involved the publisher prodding for material, as the biographical reminiscences only run 85 pages, with the rest of the book being a journal he was keeping during a 2012 tour with The Dukes of September Rhythm Review, which featured him, Michael McDonald (of the Doobie Brothers) and Boz Scaggs (of the Steve Miller Band & solo work). The book is relatively recent, having initially come out in 2013 (the introduction is dated to January of that year), with the paperback being issued in late 2014. What's odd here is that there's a significant gap, from 1969 to 2012, in the material … which not only represents a huge jump age-wise (from college to age 64), but skips over all the “rock star” elements (which one would guess would be the stuff that Steely Dan fans would be looking for in a book by Fagen). As such, this comes across as pretty much two books, one about things that influenced him in his first 21 years, and, I suppose, made him who he is, and then a look at his senior existence, on the road (and dealing with “Acute Tour Disorder”).

I wish I'd be able to give you a coherent overview of what's in the first part of the book, but chapter by chapter it's pretty much a fire hose of name checks, some I recognize, but most (being that Fagen's tastes run to jazz) I don't have a clue about. However, the chapters do have themes that they stick fairly close to, so I'll try to present at least the broad strokes. This starts in “Boswell's Version”, where he notes that his cousin Barbara (“…a knockout, gorgeous and curvy, a great dancer, and hip too. Hanging out at jazz clubs in the Village, she had no trouble getting to know the major players …”) would play hot albums for the kids, and his mom (who was “…a fine swing singer who from the age of five through her teen years worked with a trio in a hotel in the Catskills …”) was “a connoisseur of what jazz people refer to as 'phrasing'”, and among these faves of hers were the Boswell Sisters, who had, according to Fagen, “created a body of work rivaling that of Duke Ellington”. Mind you, in the two paragraphs separating “phrasing” from “Ellington” in the text, he's name checked a dozen performers, ranging from those he notes to be “now forgotten” to such mega-stars as Frank Sinatra. The Boswells, and especially Connie, serve as a central element in this chapter that allows the author to paint a complicated portrait of popular music in the 20's, 30's, and some aspects reaching into the 50's.

The next chapter is “Henry Mancini's Anomie Deluxe”, which starts out with one of the more traumatic events in Fagen's life – his father deciding to move the family to a pre-fab sprawling suburb in New Jersey when he was about 8. The descriptions of “Squaresville” eventually settle into what was on TV, including Blake Edwards' memorable Peter Gunn, whose still-cool-today theme by Henri Mancini spoke to the youngster.

Mancini didn't have to look far to find the appropriate sound to enhance Edwards's vision of anomie deluxe. At the time West Coast jazz (essentially, white bop) was being offered to college kids as part of the same package that included the Beats, open-toed sandals and psychoanalysis.
Mancini was cranking out scores for the show, and its spin-offs, putting out albums of material which “sold in the zillions”. This lets the author drift down memory lane for things that drove him to learn more about jazz, and riff on pop cultural factors, and the shift from the music of previous decades to new generations, and how Mancini's music keeps re-surfacing in surprising contexts.

The next chapter takes a abrupt turn in focus, with “The Cortico-Thalamic Pause: Growing Up Sci-Fi” looking at the author's reading preferences (if not obsessions), the cultural elements leading to these works, as well as that of the time in general:

Contrary to all the popular depictions of the fifties as a time when teens danced on the counters of a thousand pastel-dappled soda shops to the sounds of twangy guitars, the decade was, in fact, characterized by a nail-biting paranoia.
And, speaking of “general”, Fagen gets into a whole section dealing with General Semantics, which has the seed concepts that sci-fi author A.E. van Vogt spun out into a plot element of “the Cortico-Thalamic Pause” in his book The World of Null-A. The chapter moves into Fagen's first experience with San Francisco, and whips back into literature, tracing the weirdness surrounding the creation of Dianetics.

This then leads to “I Was a Spy for Jean Shepherd” … a radio personality he was introduced to by his “weird uncle Dave”. Shepherd also wrote, and is immortalized as the source of the material (in his book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash) of the endlessly broadcast film A Christmas Story. This lets Fagen get into radio issues, comedy performers (Lenny Bruce, etc.), and what does or doesn't work in broadcast vs. live. The key piece here is that Shepherd would “… get his listeners – the 'night people,' the 'gang' - to help him pull goofy public pranks on the unwitting squares that populated most of Manhattan.” and would read stories sent in by listeners, his “spies”. Needless to say, one that Fagen had sent in was read on the air, leading Fagen to claim: “My life as an independent consciousness had begun.”

Next comes “In the Clubs”, where the author tells of his experiences going up to New York City to listen to jazz, etc. It seems odd that this started when he was in his very early teens (in the early years of the 1960s). This chapter is truly amazing … but so jam-packed with details of clubs, musicians, genres, playing styles, characters, and more, that I have no way to even begin to give you samples. Guess you'll have to get the book, eh? This is followed by a very brief (4 pages) chapter on a particular favorite of the author – an all-night jazz DJ by the name of Mort Fega – which is titled “Uncle Mort”. Another 4-page chapter comes next, “A Talk with Ennio Morricone”, which is a reprint of an interview Fagen had done for Premier magazine with the guy who did the scores for (among others) the “classic” Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. Even briefer (clocking in at 3 pages) is “Exit the Genius”, a free-standing tribute to Ray Charles wherein he claims that: “When Ray Charles died in 2004, we came to the end of American culture as we had known it.” Next comes the slightly longer “The Devil and Ike Turner”, which is a fascinating look at the man, in a context that makes him look like a Delta Blues version of Faust (no, really).

The last chapter of the reminiscence part of the book is “Class of '69” which is a recalling of Fagen's years at Bard College. This was, somewhat notably, in the same general area of the planet as where Dr. Timothy Leary was running his center. The chapter starts out with the basic college stuff, questions about direction (he didn't think he was good enough at music, so initially was an English major), all sorts of heartache and/or sex and obsession, and experiments with drugs. Then he stumbles over (his Steely Dan partner) Walter Becker, and it's suddenly pretty much all about the music. There are some interesting names checked here, including a point where they had classmate Chevy Chase (yes, that one) playing drums for an band they put together for an event. The last story in this part is based on another name-check, that of G. Gordon Liddy, who led a raid on the house Fagen was living in off-campus, leading to fifty kids getting thrown in jail … they eventually get let out, but Fagen decides to boycott graduation in 1969 over what he sees as the college's involvement in enabling the raid.

Then, suddenly, it's 2012. Nice segue.

The first couple of paragraphs of “With the Dukes of September”, he backgrounds the genesis of this project, from the 1980 shooting of John Lennon, to his The Nightfly album (and panic attacks and paranoia), to getting pulled into an event series that produced The New York Rock and Soul Review, which was the predecessor of the act he's touring with. What's most notable about this whole journal is what a cranky old guy he's turned into – not helped by the much-lower tour budget that this group has vs. what he'd been used to with Steely Dan. He bitches a lot about “the TV Babies” who don't recognize classic songs, etc. As to not posting the journal on-line:

Why should I let you lazy, spoiled TV Babies read it for nothing in the same way you download all those songs my partner and I sacrificed our entire youth to write and record … (this goes on for quite a bit, and is a delightful, if long-ish rant)
Anyway, he bitches about reading, he bitches about hotels, he bitches about long bus rides (instead of flights), he bitches about pretty much everything (“The hippie stuff was fun for about five minutes and then, by late '67, the barbarism had set in.”). Of course, being an almost daily report, it is a fascinating look “behind the curtain” of a rock tour – if featuring a bunch of 60-something guys as the main players. City after city. Concert hall after concert hall. Hotel after hotel. And, everything that can be bitched about in each. Oh, and even some drugs (albeit mainly of the prescription variety).

There's a bunch of less pleasant stuff as well, like the suicide of Fagen's wife's son. Also, “ATD” – Acute Tour Disorder – which he spends four pages describing in detail in an appendix. Here's a little example of the tone of much of this, from the August 9 entry, following a show in Boston:

But after seven weeks out, ATD tends to trump joy. To boot, my right kidney's been bothering me a lot, probably because of some crystal gravel, tiny kidney stones that I sometimes get.
TMI, anyone? Frankly, a lot of the tour journal is like that – reminding me of some of my hand-written journals from places back when I was traveling – complaining about stuff because the irritations are the easiest data to access at the time.

As I didn't come to Eminent Hipsters as a big Steely Dan / Donald Fagen fan, I didn't have the reaction that a lot of reviewers had in being pissed off that he didn't address the stuff that most of them really wanted to read. It's an interesting enough book, and (were he less hostile to all things digital) would have been a great opportunity for him to have put together play lists of YouTube, etc., resources of the influences he mentions. With a close read, however, you might be able to pull this together for yourself and get quite a useful background in the sorts of music that he grew up on. I guess I need to note that his Steely Dan partner, Walter Becker, died in between my reading this, and getting around to writing the review. Obviously, that's not really here nor there in terms of my interface with the book, but a bunch of the back-and-forth with his representatives deal with it not being an "SD tour" (with the implication that they'd like him to agree to one), and that now appears to be a moot point. I guess Fagen will have to get used to the crappier hotels.

Anyway, as noted, this is a relatively recent release (the paperback came out just 3 years ago from the day I'm writing this), so there's a decent possibility of it still hanging around in the remaining brick-and-mortar book vendors. It appears that the hardcover is out of print at this point, but the new/used guys have it (for less than the paperback), if you're looking for something more substantial. The online big boys have this at a few bucks off of cover price, but the used options don't save you much (and used mass-market books tend to be a mess), so that might be your best bet should this sound like something you'd want to pick up. Again, I probably enjoyed this more because I'm not a particular fan of the author and his most notable band, and it might be an irritating tease if Steely Dan was one of your faves ... the “music history lessons” woven into the first part of the book are worth reading in any case.


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Thursday, October 26th, 2017
5:35 pm
"Don't start with an inhale."
I'm a bit late getting to this one – as it came to me via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program, and we're supposed to get the review done within 3 months … this title having come from the May 2017 batch. Oops. Anyway, I was somewhat surprised to have “won” this, as I ticked the “request” box on it largely due to Daughter #2 being an aspiring actress, and I figured it would be something that might be beneficial to pass along to her, as I have done on some other books previously. I think it's fair to say that Beatrice Manley's Your Breath in Art: Acting From Within is something that I would have been highly unlikely to have picked up had it not been for this particular conjunction of elements, but I found it a pleasant read nonetheless.

As is usually the case with LTER selections, there wasn't a whole lot of info about the book provided up front, and I found it odd that a book was coming out “new” by an author who had passed back in 2002. As it turns out, this is a new edition of a book she'd published in 1997 as My Breath in Art, and is something of a 20th anniversary edition (although there is no editorial material in the book to indicate this beyond the data on the copyright page). What I had somewhat expected to be a manual of the author's acting technique (which, certainly, it is on some levels), turned out to be quite the melange … obviously it has the acting elements, but also almost a yoga treatise on the use and function of breath, a lot of humor, pop cultural references (circa the mid-90's), and war stories from both acting and teaching acting.

Being the lazy sot that I am, I was really hoping that there was going to be some grand unifying statement here that I could pass along to you without the effort of much processing on my end, but no … the following (the start of Ch.1), however, pulls together some of the essential threads of the book:

      Whenever our acting takes an unpredictable, magical turn, it is because, somehow, the breath has touched our intuition and come up with what had been hidden in our thoughts and emotions.
      The breath is both unconscious and conscious, involuntary and voluntary. The breath works in secret; even if we don't breathe it breathes. …
This, trailing the opening quote for the chapter, simply attributed to “Star Wars”: May the Force be with you. Chapter 1 is on “The Breath”, and she goes into expansive detail on concepts about breath, and suggestions of exercises to attempt to get a more significant awareness of it. A line that starts section four here grabbed my attention as one of those “teaching” things that seems to express a hard-won idea: “We will never know when the mind will grasp a concept and the body will master its technique.” … more esoterically (if in the theatrical arena) is this:

      The audience breathes in the images we carry on our breath. If we don't breathe the character into the body, neither we nor the audience will find the character convincing.
Speaking of esoteric, here's a bit from Chapter 2, “The Way of Words”: “Vowels and consonants have their special place on the tongue and at the lips and the teeth.” … this chapter is filled with extremely detailed minutia on how to present words, parts of words, and how they function in our speaking/breathing apparatus. She also gets into some cultural history, quoting authors, actors, and poets, and critiquing some famous actors' performances in particular roles.

Chapter 3, “Letting the Body Do It Also”, has numerous fascinating looks at how assorted actors manifested stage presence as well, with analysis of what's going on. This part, naturally, also relates to the breath, at one point noting:

Athletes talk about getting the mind out of the way so that something can take over. The athlete said: “I can't concentrate when I think.” The body has to be let alone to do whatever it does, its own way. …
Muscular tension anywhere in the body can spoil a performance.
The next chapter, entitled “Learning How to Learn” (which is also the name of a fascinating book by Idries Shah), begins with a long letter that she “wrote and never sent” to her students. This deals a lot with overcoming various blocks. There are quite a few choice bits here, including:

The desire to perform is very great but it is often mixed in with self-consciousness and embarrassment. A part of the body shrinks back from its own presence; there is a pulling away from the gesture as soon as it's made.
… and:

If we let the critic in us take over, it will eventually paralyze us. There is a place in the body, an actual place, that each person's critic inhabits and which smothers natural talent.
Aside from discussing these topics, she additionally sketches out some exercises to use for getting over these blocks and related physical and psychological stressors … and recommends a “lab coat attitude” where, like a scientist, the actor experiments with these, and “continues to make changes until the right formula is found”.

The next couple of chapters, “Technique” and “Doing Nothing”, are each under ten pages. The concept of technique here is a bit like the body skills learned to ride a bike, and her thrust is on having these skills as baked-in as that. The most direct part here is:

      Technique is nothing but redeeming natural behavior, getting rid of physical tensions, cleaning out emotional garbage. All this so that we can find our way back to simplicity. When we reclaim our innocence, the self without fear or exaggeration, we are talented and intuitive and imaginative and creative and integrated.
She returns to Star Wars references in expressing the concept of doing nothing: “… Obi Wan Kenobi tells Luke to use The Force; that now he must let go of his conscious self and act on instinct.” While there are exercises suggested, the essence here comes through, I think, in a few lines, like “Doing nothing lets the intangible happen.”, and “If simplicity makes us feel stupid, ambiguity can make us crazy: don't make something happen, let something happen. … And the ultimate in ambiguity: don't try, but don't try to not try ...” which she follows up with this gem:

“Ah,” says Maxwell Smart, “the old Zen game.”
While Chapters 5 and 6 are quite brief, Chapter 7, “The Acting Chapter”, takes up (as one might expect, I suppose) nearly 30% of the book. This is broken up into three parts, “Helpful Hints”, “28 Little Essays About Acting”, and “Thinking About the Script”. The first of these is sort of “nuts and bolts” of the acting craft, looking at auditions, rehearsals, and working with directors, with one rather odd topic of “The Nose”:

Notice how often people touch and scratch their noses. The habit is so strong that I've seen performers rub their noses impulsively in the middle of a scene. It's one thing to need to blow one's nose, it's another to grab at it because the nerve endings are screaming for attention.
The 28 essays are brief, ranging from a couple of lines to a couple of pages, and are all over the board as far as subject matter. Number 21, “No Tempo”, has a great bit part-way through it: “George Burns said he didn't go on the stage to wow them. He went on stage.”, which itself sounds a bit like a Zen teaching story … and number 28 is a generally useful “What to Do with Our Hands”, which has rather pointed stage-presence reasons to do or not do specific things with one's arms and hands – including this item: “Clint Eastwood said he took a lot of acting lessons to do nothing, to just stand there.” Part three begins with another interesting quote, this from Anthony Hopkins: … Once you've learned the part – and I try to learn the whole film as much as possible – you've got the whole recipe inside you so your mind can make unconscious decisions … . While most of the rest of the book is broken up into small, often paragraph-length, sections, this part is set up pretty much as one substantial essay about scripts, and relating to and working with them.

The last three chapters are back to being fairly brief. Chapter 8 on “Oral Reading” is a delight for the writer in me, with lots of poking around in the guts of the language, and quotes like: “If we observe the punctuation we needn't struggle with the material.”, which is followed by a passage from Edward Albee getting very detailed about the nature, and expression intended, in punctuation; and then discussed by Manley in relation to her experiences, including suggesting that in one of Samuel Beckett's plays “the author was acting the role on paper”, and that “When I followed his punctuation, I arrived at the emotions he intended.” She also discusses pacing and refining technique, comparing what athletes do (“working on that single flaw, over and over”) to what she feels actors ought to be doing, as it's what “separates the champions from the merely talented.”

Next is Chapter 9, “I Remember Fear”, which delves into various examples of working around one's fear, frequently expressed as elements of roles the author played. I liked this bit:

      There are no guarantees. The hardest thing in acting is to accept that we can't control or capture a performance, that we must find ways to let a performance alone, to let it be the words and gestures, the physical expression of thoughts. …
The last chapter, #10, is “Fame!” and is quite brief, just a few pages, and looks at fame from a philosophical stance, quoting a couple of well-known names, and closing with another George Burns quip:

… I don't try to be a hit. I don't sweat. I walk out there and take it easy. I find that if I take it easy, the audience takes it easy. If I sweat, they sweat. If we both sweat, we don't smell good. …
This is followed by an appendix of “Basic Exercises” (in 10 categories), which are fairly technical … for example (pardon my skipping the bits with the actual vowel patterns):

      The lip corners float up for the vowels in the first pattern. They float forward for the vowels in the second pattern. It makes a big difference in the sound when the lip corners move with the vowel. After you practice a while it will become automatic. Float up or forward. Don't muscle it.
I hope from the preceding you've gotten a sense of Your Breath in Art … as I said, it's quite a mix of stuff, and engaging all the way through. This new edition (from a new publisher) came out at the end of May, so it should be available either at or via the brick-and-mortar book stores that handle this sort of title … which you might as well go to for it, as the on-line behemoths are presently not knocking anything off the cover price. Again, I found this quite a fascinating and enjoyable read, and would recommend it to anyone who resonates with the above.


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Wednesday, October 25th, 2017
11:14 am
Watch out for that tree?
Ah, the dollar store … what oddities you present to me, staring out from your miscellaneous and always changing shelves! Paul Rosolie's Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon was sitting there, not even three years past its publication, and, while not being one of my key reading areas, looked interesting enough (heck, it has a quote from Jane Goodall on the cover, saying it's “An extraordinary book.”) to throw a buck at. This did, however, spend quite a while in the “to be read” stacks before I got to a place in my reading where I needed an escape into “uncharted tributaries”, and opted to add it into the current reading mix.

As is often the case when I sit down to crank out these reviews (and especially after a long gap – I wasn't writing for quite a bit, due to a variety of things, and have a backlog of over a dozen books to get to that I've finished at various times over the past four months), I find myself wishing that I had stuck in more of my little bookmarks. However, this being more of a “story” (if of a biographical bent, with Green over-tones), there were fewer cues to what I would subsequently think were the “important parts” to point back to. So, I'm going to be working off of the recalls I can pull to mind, and scanning through the book here.

I no doubt have mentioned in this space that I've traveled in South America, and the “type” of Mr. Rosolie is not unfamiliar to me … although I was never specifically doing environmental tourism, the locales (and enthusiasts) for that often intersect with the archaeological tourism that was my passion at a time … having encountered Green crusaders (usually complaining about something or another that tourists/locals/governments, etc. either were or were not doing that they fervently believed they should or shouldn't be) in various exotic settings.

I bring this up to explain that my reading of Mother of God was not without some amount of irritation at points … irritation that I'm guessing would not be engendered in others' experience of the book. One of my favorite societal quotes is from the late, great Johnny Carson, who said “It takes all types to fill the freeway.”, and I try to remember that when I start grumbling about “those people” (in whatever context that grumbling arises). This is not to say that the work that Mr. Rosolie and his ilk do is unimportant, he discusses his conservation mission on his web site, and has founded Tamandua Expeditions, which offers “wildlife research, conservation, and responsible volunteer/adventure travel”.

Anyway, Mr. Rosolie was a misfit in the New Jersey environment he grew up in …

As I got older my ambition began to boil and my fight with the education system intensified … Through middle school and freshman year of high school I broke all kinds of records for detentions and suspensions and made my way to each June feeling I had barely survived … As my grades dropped below the point of no return, and my total suspensions for the year hit double digits, my parents suggested I drop out and go to college.
This in his sophomore year in high school. He got his GED before the next school year began and (while he eventually ended up in college) spent all his time trying to find some Green organization that would take on an 18-year-old “untrained high school dropout”, preferably in “the most isolated and remote spot possible” (noting that “everything else was tourism”). Remarkably, he eventually heard from a researcher working in southeast Peru, who was needing assistants. He fibbed a bit, but got set up for spending his winter break down there, a two-day drive into the jungle from any civilization. He immediately took to it (even drinking the river water the first time it was offered) and claims to have soon been getting special treatment by the folks running the research station, and was sleeping out in a hammock in the jungle soon after his arrival (instead of what sufficed for “indoors” at the center).

Needless to say, he'd found his passion. Unfortunately, he has to get back to the States for college. He does start a web site and promotion program for the Las Piedras Station, in the “Madre de Dios” region (hence the book's title), which is successful enough to get him back there again (and again and again).

Now, I had a bit of an internal struggle at this point. The book is very much a “story”, with lots of characters, places, and scenarios, and I could either go into considerable detail, or just give you the broad strokes as I see them, plus highlights … and I'm opting for the latter. If you want the details, hey, go pick up a copy!

There is a lot of information here about the Amazon basin, its flora, fauna, geography, and the threats it is facing. The longer he stays, the more involved he gets, and seems to be always having to push himself to new personal challenges … of the type that tend to leave you dead – a situation that he only narrowly avoids at several points in the story. He still goes back to the U.S. for college, raising money and booking trips when there, allowing him to return to the Amazon. However, during one semester, a professor (who taught a course on “Ecology, Economics and Ethics”) challenges him to go on a trip to India. Aside from the academic value of this, and the opportunity to see elephants and tigers, he meets a young lady there, who is a significant side-track in the story. She's from India, and he decides she's his “soul mate” and proceeds to woo her from half a planet away. They eventually win her family's approval, get married, and she comes over to this side of the world (and into the jungle).

In the early chapters in the book, he copies some of his field notes on the wide array of animals he sees out in the jungle, but a not insignificant portion of the book deals with a few specific critters, including (if not especially) Anacondas. Big Anacondas. Real big ones … he describes a particular encounter with a monster snake:

This snake was as thick as a small cow, and easily twenty-five feet long. … I could see her watching us, sampling the air with a great black tongue, itself the size of any ordinary snake.
He also has notable experiences with jaguars and other forest creatures, but one of the oddest of his story involves a baby giant anteater, which he adopts (or vice-versa), and becomes his constant companion, sleeping with him in his hammock, and going into the jungle with him. There are pictures (so I guess it happened – web joke). However, at one point he gets a horrible tropical disease (I could have done without that picture – his face covered with neon green pustules), and has to be evacuated to civilization for medical attention … during which time the anteater disappears. However, much later in the book a female giant anteater (and her brood) shows up, and acts familiar, giving Rosolie hope that this was his friend, returned to the wild.

One of the “suicidal adventures” involves him going upriver to an “undiscovered” zone that the patriarch of a local family tells him of. He works his way up river, seeing more and more amazing sights (he notes an inverse ratio of the presence of man and the wealth of wildlife), has a risky near-encountered with an “uncontacted” native village, and eventually has to try to find his way back, still short of his destination. It turns out that there is a high iron content in many Amazon basin trees, which can mess with a compass, and he found he was hiking in large circles, and coming nowhere near where he was planning to get. He has a terrifying encounter with a jungle cat that was nose-to-hammock in the middle of the night, and has to try to survive a massive storm featuring hurricane-strength winds … this, on one hand, made the jungle a very dangerous place, and on the other, swelled the river extensively … which ended up saving him, as he was able to jump onto a huge tree that was being swept down the river, and ride it on a break-neck journey of many miles, until he had to head to shore before smashing into a logjam. He'd gotten far enough down river that he managed to encounter a boat, which took him to a jungle lodge, and thence to the relative safety of places he knew.

At one point he's chided by the head of the Las Piedras Station that “Sometime the bad guys win.”, and this was very nearly true for that center. His friends had lost control of it (having been on quite shaky financial ground all along), however, the group that had taken it over eventually found it a financial drain, and his friends were able to reclaim the facility. Unfortunately, they only got back 1,200 acres of the 27,000 acres they'd previously had – with the other owners looking to sell the rest at a hefty profit – possibly to logging interests.

Well, there you have it: adventure, animals, romance, skulduggery, and fighting the good fight. It's all in Mother of God, and I've only skimmed across the surface here (and I think I may have conflated different adventures into one narrative in the above). While I didn't love this book, it certainly had enough going on in it to keep my interest, and it may be something that you'd like as well.

As noted above, this is a relatively recent book (hardcover coming out in 2014, with the paperback following a year later), and both editions appear to still be in print. The on-line big boys actually have the hardcover going for less than the paperback, offering it for over half-off of cover price. The new/used guys have “very good” copies of the hardcover edition for half of that price (including shipping), which would be your best bet dollar-wise, if you can't find a copy still floating around the dollar stores. Unless environmentalism is one of your top interests, I don't think this one's a “buy it at retail” recommendation, but it's an interesting read if you do get your hands on a copy.


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Saturday, September 30th, 2017
1:47 pm
A "hep" and a "balou" ...
So, I was sort of surprised when “The Almighty Algorithm” over at LibraryThing.com's Early Reviewer program picked me for one of the copies of Paula Poundstone's The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness … sure, I've read and reviewed other humor books (most recently one by Chelsea Handler), but I'm pretty sure there were fans of Ms. Poundstone also in the running who would have been more enthused to have been assigned this volume. Now, I'm not a non-fan of her comedy, and I'm certainly familiar with her (although it's probably been quite a while since I caught her act in any media), it's just that I'm on something of another wavelength.

In getting myself organized to write this review, I noticed something that I'd missed previously (or got the sense of when reading this), which is that the contents (the “experiments”) of the book are based on activities spread out over seven years, which certainly puts them in a different context than one would (or, at least, I did) get in reading it (except for her kids ending up in college by the end). One of the first "ha-ha" moments with this is on the cover … the promo blurb by the venerable (which I'm saying with the nicest intent – I still fondly remember her characters on Laugh-In) Lily Tomlin: “A remarkable journey. I laughed. I cried. I got another cat.” … one of numerous kudos from recognizable names the book attained.

After some mental back-and-forth, I'm thinking that a basic walk-through of the book is going to be the best approach to it. There are a dozen “experiments” over thirteen chapters (one, the “Get Organized” experiment is repeated), each reasonably free-standing. I do have a half-dozen of my little book marks in here, so there are things that I felt well worth passing along. Oh, yeah … one more thing: in an obvious attempt to make this all look “scientific”, each experiment is broken up into sections like conditions, hypothesis, variable, uncontrolled variable, field notes, procedure, qualitative observation, constants, environment, analysis, equipment, laboratory assistant, factor, inference, and conclusion (and I may be missing some), although these are not set up in any particular order, and some are as brief as a single word, while others go on for several pages. And, another caveat: while I'm certainly not Paula Poundstone (although we're nearly the same age – which could explain the Lily Tomlin quote), there are quite a few of these that would clearly “not end well”, and I reacted with a heartfelt “what were you thinking?” to her travails, which sometimes go well beyond “suffering for one's art” (or whatever).

Chapter 1 – The Get Fit Experiment
One thing to note up front … these ramble, with parts of them about the experiment per se, but with other parts about her home life and kids, and some about her professional life. In this, she signs up for taekwando classes, paying for two twenty-one session packages up front, as she notes “for science”. There's a somewhat odd section here about doing radio interviews to promote ticket sales for her stand-up gigs around the country … which then segues into a long story about doing some activities with one of her adopted kids. Neither has much to do with the “experiment”, but possibly does set up the parameters for what she's perceiving as “happiness”. Of course, getting fit is a bitch, and she comes to it from zero … at one point she reports: “… the workout was grueling. Honestly, I could turn in after the jumping jacks and wind sprints …”, while later adding “Qualitative Observation #3”: “There was no part of me that didn't hurt.”. More stories about care of pets and kids ensue, but she does set up something that gets re-used throughout the book:

So, am I happier? Part of the problem is that we as a species have never come up with a standard form of measure for happiness: teaspoons, volume, decibels, maybe something akin to blood alcohol level. Maybe a small amount of happiness could be a “hep”, after my old cat Hepcat. I like that: a hep of happiness, and if you're lucky enough to amass four of those, you've got yourself a whole “balou” of happiness. That's a lot. And, yes, I did have a cat named Balou.
She does end up getting some results, realizing that she's feeling great after carrying 30lbs of kitty litter down to the trash, an activity she notes “is generally not a mood enhancer”, and while she does manage to lose weight she comments that “I have a bad feeling that my fat has a highly developed homing instinct” … as Larry the Cable Guy would say: now that's funny right there.

Chapter 2 – The Get Wired Experiment
The premise of this is “The entire world seems to believe that “being connected” is the key to happiness; I wish to no longer stand on the outside looking in.”, that after confessing that she writes everything by hand and has her assistant type in stuff for her web site and her previous books, further noting “I don't even know how to turn on the machine.” Aside from the writing thing, she also has some goals for doing web video “to hook up with my audience directly”. I wish I could pass along her Jeffrey Dahmer quip here, but it would involve too much set-up … but its one of those little things that make the book charming. As I've been a computer user since the early 80's, I have to admit that a lot of this experiment is quite painful to read. She has a computer guy come in to get her set up on her new laptop, and the first thing she can think of to learn is how to send an email. Send. An. Email. Oh, and this one also has a “Qualitative Observation #3” worth passing along (which I immediately shared with my wife): “I hate auto-correct. I don't need a machine correcting me, I have two teenage daughters.” Aside from attempting to make and upload little videos, she's also introduced to Facebook – which spurs “Qualitative Observation #4”: “Computers are addictive.” and sets up a (much) later observation: “Twitter has to be one of the stupidest, most narcissistic activities humans have ever come up with, and I was enjoying it very much.”. Prime take-away point from this experiment's Conclusion: “Getting wired comes with too much compulsion to be the key to happiness and you miss too much real life while messing around with tech stuff.” … I believe I've had that pointed out to me before.

Chapter 3 – The Get Earthy Experiment
In which Ms. Poundstone decides it's a wonderful idea to go backpacking with her daughter who suffers from Cerebral Palsy … really. To her credit, she presents the clear “Qualitative Observation #1”: “My life is a series of self-delusions.”. As one might expect, the preparation for this is cringe-worthy … oh, and once they get going: bugs … and bears. And, lest you think this experiment is without mirth, here's its “Qualitative Observation #8”: “After you pee like a man, you don't ask for directions.”, which sort of leads to “Qualitative Observation #10”: “It's good to not be eaten” (see “bears”, preceding). Despite the difficulties of the project, she decides that backpacking with her daughter was “good for a couple of balous and a few heps of happiness”.

Chapter 4 – The Get Organized Experiment: Part One
This one ends up with “Experimental Error” as its conclusion and “There's no way I can do this alone.” as “Qualitative Observation #3” (which oddly appears after #5 and #6), which sets up Chapter 6. It starts out with the rather revealing: “I lost my beautiful house years ago. I went broke before it was cool.”, which is sort of a sub-theme here … unlike some other comics, her career seems to be high on accolades, and low on cash, with her being big on NPR rather than on late-night cable. Here, the “Hypothesis” is a Dorothy Gale toned “I am sure that getting organized will make me happy. I just know it will.”. The set-up on this is that when she had to unload her house, and get a rental, she went to a much smaller space, while simply moving everything in, much of it yet to be unpacked, which she excuses due to being vastly behind on handing over her previous book to her publisher, and simply focused on that.

By the time I completed my first book, I was so overwhelmed by the chaotic residue left behind, I didn't know where to begin. So I didn't. Then I didn't some more.
This experiment was a difficult read for me, as Poundstone is a “saver” in much the same way as I am, if in different particulars (although, I could painfully relate with her throwing out things kept for decades), with “Qualitative Observation #1” really summing up the mental state involved: “If I throw away a screw I find in the junk drawer today, I guarantee the refrigerator door will fall off tomorrow”. Over the years she has bought numerous magazines with promises of getting one organized, including a copy of Oprah's which was about people who regularly tidied their spaces, which she misread as tie-dyed and notes “Now I had quite a mess on my hands.” … waka, waka. She confronts the clothes, the kids' old toys, the photos, the books, the videos, the bills, paperwork for pretty much everything:

I sorted paper for three solid hours and thought that it might be time to establish the “negative hep” measure. I was hemorrhaging heps of happiness.
Chapter 5 – The Get Reel Experiment
It appears that at some point in the previous experiment Poundstone promised her kids something about sitting and watching movies together all day (possibly some point near when one of the kids chimed in with “Mom, you're never going to get the cats to sleep in alphabetical order.”). She also explains that they don't watch any TV, with the kids only getting to watch videos at specific, special, times, so this promise “was an especially exotic one”. Much of this chapter hinges on the chaos of her home environment, the interactions and personalities of her kids, and the urinary habits of her numerous cats. She mentions having “tons of movies” (and given the descriptions, that might be a weight estimate), but very minimal tech ability to run the various machines dedicated to playing these … noting: “Buzz Aldrin couldn't figure out the sequence of buttons to push to watch a movie in my house.”. These experiments aren't dated, but one part of this involves going with the kids to a “video store” (do these still exist?) to select films, as it appears that the hundreds at home just wouldn't do. This leads into another swing through the personalities of her kids, and trying to rein in their understandable sudden desire for “forbidden fruit”. The bulk of this chapter is a walk through their day … which video, who's complaining, her take on the various films (her play-by-play on Fast Five is notably arch), letting out the dogs, letting in the dogs, what cat is sitting/pissing where, and the consumption of snacks. Ultimately, the experiment is chalked up as an ordeal, vaguely scheduled to be repeated in the future, when they still believe it might make for some happiness.

Chapter 6 – The Get Organized Experiment: Part Two
Yeah, my reaction would be “tried it once – didn't work”, but here we are again on getting organized. This time she opts to hire a professional organizer {shudder}, which she rather sensibly hadn't thought of before “they're pricey and … do absurd stuff like make you put everything you own out on your front lawn.”. She eventually picks one who's a “green organizer” (whatever that is), and charges $75/hr … way out of her budget. A lot in here is about her kids, as lot of the clutter relates to her kids, and there's one bit about something discovered in a closet that she tries to defend keeping, yet: “It cost me thirty-five dollars to tell the Green Organizer that story, and she wasn't moved at all.”. Needless to say, given my own neuroses in this area, the entire process was a difficult read. Poundstone does however really nail it at one point: “I was afraid that if I got rid of all of the memorabilia from my past, I wouldn't remember it anymore.” … a point I've made over and over when it comes to assorted gee-gaws which are my only physical link to some notable life event, that realistically only comes to mind when in the presence of said item!

Chapter 7 – The Get Rolling Experiment
This one is definitely in the “what was she thinking?” zone, although it begins with overtones of a classic mid-life crisis as she drives her elder daughter up to college in Oregon. The emotional impact was such that:

I needed to do something drastic to score some happiness. Until now, I had experimented with what I thought would make me happy, but I was wrong a lot and this was beginning to feel urgent.
Her solution? Rent a fancy sports car. Really … despite her very next line being “I am thousands of dollars in debt.” Now, perhaps I'm not the ideal person to “judge” this … I live in a walking / public transit city, and have never “really” owned a car (long story, but I did nominally own cars at two points in time), so the L.A. car culture is something that might as well be about ice skidders on Titan. Anyway, she looks up a luxury car rental place online and after skimming through various cars, she focuses on a Maserati (“because of the Joe Walsh song”). On the site there are prices, which she assumes to be for a week's rental, however, once she gets on the phone with a rep, she's steered towards a Lamborghini, and discovers that its rental price, of $1,576.93 (!) (!!!), is for the day. Twenty-four hours … (oh, OK, so that is just a somewhat more reasonable-sounding $1.10/minute). Still, she perseveres (“for science”). As one might expect, it's a lot more car than she can handle (see VCRs above), and keeps stalling at stops. Her son is, however, absolutely thrilled to get driven to school in it, and she convinces a friend to go ride with her (after her assistant demurs). She finds it's not much good for getting groceries, spends a lot of time going 5mph in bumper-to-bumper traffic, still she admits that she did get “several heps of happiness” driving it. Go figure.

Chapter 8 – The Get Up and Dance Experiment
The set-up to this one is somewhat convoluted … she's waiting for her daughter to get out of a store in a mall … she's next to a group of “swing dancers” … she'd read a book about activities that release oxytocin – dancing is one of these – and she asked one of the gals where she learned to do it. And, so, she's off to visit the “Dance Doctor” for a 45-minute private class. She's a bit better at this than she was at taekwondo (“I definitely garnered three to four heps of happiness from my very first class.”), and he “prescribes” her 2-3 private classes a week. Poundstone, however, is not the best student, and takes to it very slowly, with slow being the key:

He was playing the slow version of “The Letter” at an even slower speed. It sounded like the artist's voice had been altered to protect his identity in public testimony, and yet I could still barely keep up. … Today I learned the Charleston. It's supposed to be a snappy step, but we're doing it to “Fire and Rain.” It looks like tai chi when I do it.
She tries dancing around her son, who says “Please don't.” which spins her into a digression into teenagerhood and a reminiscence of her own teen years, and assorted scenes from her kids' schools. She eventually moves on to group classes, and, despite her expectations from having taken all those private lessons, she “sucked”, a judgment further enhanced by “Qualitative Observation #10”: “My dog plays Jenga better than I swing dance.” (ouch). While she decides that she wants to continue to learn swing dancing, she pretty much sums up this experiment with the beginning of “Qualitative Observation #11”: “Dancing is really fun. Not being able to dance while others can is not nearly as much fun.”

Chapter 9 – The Get Warm and Fuzzy Experiment
This takes quite a long time to get to the point, but it's about her deciding to begin hugging, well, everybody, which is perhaps well-illustrated in “Qualitative Observation #2”: “TSA agents hate hugging.” (she later notes “I think I'm already on the national Do Not Hug list.”), which is furthered in “Qualitative Observation #3”: “When you walk around the airport smiling and trying to make eye contact with people, you look like Carol Channing panhandling.”, which is followed by the “Field Note” about her son walking to another gate in hopes “to board a flight to another destination altogether.” A lot of this chapter has to deal with her role on NPR's Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me! (which she's taking her son to a live taping of in Colorado, hence the airport stuff). She apparently hugged everybody in line at Red Rocks, to which she attributes “a whopping two balous of happiness”, as well as “a residual hep” upon reading a tweet later reporting her hugging. Otherwise, there's “Qualitative Observation #5”: “Some hugs fill you up, and some hugs suck the life out of you.”

Chapter 10 – The Get Purring Experiment
This one also takes quite a while to get set up, with lots of musings on the evolving lives of her kids, including one great quip about her second daughter, also now in college: “I miss her, but I know she's alive by the Starbucks charges on my MasterCard bill.” This eventually gets prefaced by the thought: “I look longingly at my cats before I pass out at the end of the day, but it occurred to me recently that I almost never spend any quality time with my animals.” … so, “I am going to see how many heps of happiness I can get from spending a day with my cats and dogs.” She claims to keep catnip (a gift from a fan) in a safe, and “sometimes late at night, I can hear the cats in there slowly turning the dial trying to decipher the combination”, she unlocks some of this, and unboxes a complex cat toy (another gift from a fan), which is immediately quite popular with the dogs, who then must be hustled outside to not be an impediment to the cats.

Like the movie-watching day, this is broken up by the time of the observations. Amazingly, the cats do seem quite interested in the toy. She also takes to brushing the cats … which I believe she has 13 of … which is intermittently disturbed by unwanted phone calls. Much of the content here swings back and forth between complaints about her son's school, and by-name interaction with the various cats and dealing with the dogs. Make that 16 cats. She spends most of the day brushing the cats, so by the end, the house is a mass of cat hair, filling up the vacuum three times. In conclusion, she doesn't think there was much happiness (“no more than a hep or so”) to be had in this all-day project, leading her to contemplate: “Maybe happiness doesn't come in bulk. Maybe it's sprinkled in.”

Chapter 11 – The Get Positive Experiment
The plan here is: “Although negativity is practically my native language, I am going to replace my negative thoughts with positive ones.” She looks up assorted positive affirmations on the web, and rejects most of them for the (to me) obvious reasons, but she expands on this:

They're mostly written by women who sit on mats, breathing, in front of tables covered with batiked cloth … I say “I just plain suck,” to myself several times a day. Replacing it with “My body is my vehicle in life; I chose to fill it with goodness” just isn't going to fly. … I narrowed down the affirmations to those that wouldn't require just plain lying to myself.
I hate to be negative (yeah, right) but this went about as well as one might expect … with the “Conclusion” being a very succinct “What the hell was I thinking?” and the equally predictable realization in “Qualitative Observation #5”: “Don't tell me that I said so, but when this positive self-talk doesn't work, I feel even more like a loser.”

Chapter 12 – The Get Over Here and Help Experiment
In the closing bits of the previous experiment, she notes of her son: “This is the behavior of someone suffering with electronics addiction.”, which sets up half of this … in that she talks to a number of experts in this field, and ends shipping her son off for a 10-week “wilderness program” out in Utah, where “He was probably, even now, desperately trying to get a signal.” This frees up some time for the actual experiment here, based on a Swedenborg quote about “the desire to be useful to others”. Her first two shots at this (giving platelets and offering to drive a couple that had broken down right in front of her house to where they needed to go), were met with lots of thanks, and she found that she was “enjoying the heck out of just intending to help”. She continues to go in to give platelets until she got tested as being low on iron (she doesn't report if she kept going back after that).

Most of this chapter, however, is about her volunteering at a geriatric home … in fact, the tales from there take up nearly a couple of dozen pages here. She starts from zero on this, working up a list of centers in her area, and cold-calling them to see about volunteer opportunities. One would think that this would be a much appreciated thing, with systems in place, but at some “it was worrisome how unfamiliar these ideas seemed” to the folks she spoke to. I'm afraid that if I were to pull out some amusing quotes from this part, it would sound like she was making fun of the old folks, but she obviously is working very hard to make a connection, and it's a process. Her most successful venture involved bringing one of her dogs with her … which was very popular with both sides, saying her dog ended up being “a rock star” … and she puts in the “Conclusion”:

… I'm going to continue to volunteer at the nursing home. I love the old people. Besides, my dogs practically drag me there.
… along with noting this experiment has given her “oodles of heps and several balous of happiness”. On a significantly less happy note, she follows up on her son's stint at the wilderness program, detailing that while searching for schools that were "electronics and computer free", she'd found “only two programs in the entire country” that qualified. She flew to Utah to pick him up from the summer program, and then deliver him to one of those two schools, in Virginia (where he'd be living “in another tent in the woods”). She is sufficiently hostile to these devices (and aware of Apple's early marketing) that she snarls:

These machines had stolen into our homes and schools under the deceptive cloak of the word educational … despite glaring evidence of decreasing test scores and educational outcomes … on the off chance that I am wrong, and there is an afterlife, I hope Steve Jobs's is not pleasant.
Chapter 13 – The Get Quiet Experiment
The last experiment in the book deals with meditation, which she says “is credited with lowering anxiety, rewiring the brain, and even producing bliss”, with the “Hypothesis” for this reading “Bliss could be good.”. As I mentioned way up top there, this whole cycle of experiments took place over a long time, and at this point her elder daughter is on her own, her younger daughter is a senior in college (Poundstone offers to be a “visual aid” for her presentation in an Abnormal Psychology class), and she's sending letters back and forth to her relegated-to-the-wilds son. The younger daughter had taken meditation classes at this place on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A., and she signs them up for a class together. As one might expect (given the various neuroses the author confesses during the rest of the book), this does not work smoothly for her, and when her daughter heads back to school, she's on her own with it. This chapter flips back and forth between meditation-related stories, various remembrances of parental foibles, complaints about L.A. stuff, and a couple of pages of ranting when she discovers how many other books on “happiness” got published before this came out. Surprisingly, given that the experiences with the meditation classes seem so counter-productive, Poundstone reports at various points feeling “more open to possibilities”, “uplifted”, “lighter and more alert”, plus “energetic and optimistic”, and while she admits that her “science may be screwed up here” being unable to prove a causal relationship, she insists she feels more creative and is able to “pour myself onto the stage” in her “silly, stupid stand-up comedy job”. Oh, and aside from that, on the suggestion of her son, she's at least considering doing a book about electronics addiction (won't that be a fun read?).

In the “Final Report” section, she sums up the years of investigation thusly:

Happiness is more complex than I had realized. Maybe the true answer to the secret of happiness is that it is a combination of things and they don't always happen all at once. If you're happy without interruption for days on end, you're likely daft.
I'm, frankly, shocked to find that I needed this mass of words to feel like I sufficiently represented The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness … I went into this review (which took 3 long stays at Starbucks to finish) thinking it would be half this length … go figure. As this is an “Early Reviewer” book, it's new (-ish, it took me three months after finishing reading it to triage time for writing the review), having just come out in May, and so should be readily available in actual book stores. However, the on-line behemoths presently have it at a significant discount (nearly half off of cover price), and the new/used guys have “good” copies that, with shipping, are running at about a quarter of cover, if you're particularly price sensitive.

This certainly is a revealing look at the author, and given the passage of time with her life and family, one feels that she's become quite familiar by the end of it. As mentioned, parts of this are quite “cringe worthy” (she mentions in the last chapter that she's “still paying off a day's Lamborghini rental”), but the muddle of sub-themes that work their way through it almost makes on feel like “having been there”. I don't necessarily feel that this would be an “all and sundry” recommendation, but if the above sounds good to you (and, honestly, despite the length of the review, I really only cherry picked enough to give you the broad strokes), there's a whole lot more to get from this.


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Friday, September 22nd, 2017
12:57 pm
"Oh, I'm just visiting. "
Fred Nadis' The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey was a dollar store pick-up …. hey, just look at that cover, who could resist, right? Honestly, I was somewhat hesitant on getting into this, as I've not read much science fiction in the past 40 years, and even when I was an avid sci-fi consumer (in high school I probably blew through 4-5 books a week), I only very rarely picked up one of the “pulps” that still existed at that time (although a few still are on the shelves of my library). I realize that I probably “missed out” on that channel, but somehow it never spoke to me, unlike some friends who are even now working in those niches. However, it turned out to be much more aligned to my more recent interests, being, on one level, a look at a very colorful corner of the publishing industry, and a very odd journey through some weird zones of “alternative” and out-there thought (as the dust-cover flaps tell us, Palmer helped ignite the UFO craze, convinced Americans of hidden worlds and government cover-ups, and championed the occult and paranormal … he molded our current conspiracy culture decades before the X-Files claimed that the truth was out there).

Ray Palmer is probably best known for his decade (1939-1949) of being the editor of Amazing Stories, and later the editor and publisher of Fate and Space World (among many other pulps). His work had become sufficiently iconic that in 1961, a predecessor to DC Comics created a character called The Atom, whose alter ego was named Ray Palmer as a tribute. His career lasted nearly 50 years, from the first “fanzine” he put out in 1930 until his death in 1977.

Born in Milwaukee, WI in 1910, Palmer's very early years were somewhat idyllic, even ending up in advertising for a local dairy as one of “Milwaukee's Healthiest Babies” at age two. This was all about to change, however, as:

At age seven, outside his family home in Milwaukee, Ray Palmer ran into the street past a row of parked cars; his foot got caught in the large spokes on the wheel of a passing milk truck and he was spun around on the pavement. … His spine was severely damaged, and several vertebrae were broken, nearly crushed. The medical ailments that were to plague him for the rest of his life had begun.
Two years later, at age nine, Palmer became “the first patient in the United States to receive a spinal column bone graft”. However, infection set in, causing him to double up from the pain, and the doctors were not willing to risk further damage by trying to get his spine straight, leading to his permanently hunchbacked condition.

From age nine to thirteen Palmer was mostly constrained in hospital beds, often in a frame that prevented him from moving. The local school system sent him cases of books, which he read voraciously, on a wide array of topics. Among these were early sci-fi classics by J. Verne, H.G. Wells, and E.R. Burroughs, which hooked him on the genre. He moved into the pulps, such as Amazing Stories and Weird Tales, and wrote his first story, a 16,000-word tale that his high school teacher read to his class (it was evidently quite good) … this was eventually published in 1930, when he was 20, in Science Wonder Stories.

In the 20's and 30's, the main way that fans of the genre communicated was in letter columns in the pulps, Palmer and another fan (from Chicago, who traveled to Milwaukee to meet with him), stated the “Science Correspondence Clubs” in 1928, which has been attributed as “the birth of organized fandom”. Out of this grew the first ever “fanzine”, The Comet, which premiered in 1930, and soon was renamed Cosmology. As this all was happening, more health issues came his way:

At age twenty, another infection set in on Palmer's spine, a form of tuberculosis called Pott's disease. The bone graft that had bridged several of his vertebrae was disintegrating, along with six vertebrae. In September 1930, he was sent to Muirdale Sanitorium, located seven miles outside of {Milwaukee}.
Palmer had pretty much been just sent there to die, but he again beat the odds: the doctors gave him six months to live, but over the next two years (possibly due to his self-created regimen of “healing visualization”), new bone formed where the old had dissolved, and he was released (although he had seen “hundreds” of other patients die while he ws there).

Palmer quickly re-established himself in the sci-fi world, being one of the founders of The Time Traveler fanzine, and then editor and columnist for Science Fiction Digest, where he wrote “Spilling the Atoms” (as “RAP” - his initials), the column he hoped would “make the world science-fiction conscious”. As one might expect, the fanzine business was hardly something at which one might make a living, and Palmer had returned to the sheet metal company that he'd worked at before the years in the sanitarium, so the writing/editing/publishing efforts were done in his spare time. By 1934, the magazine had morphed to Fantasy Magazine. Around this time, one of his more established associates made a pitch for Palmer to become the editor for a new magazine by Shade from Philadelphia. The new title was scuttled, but the publishers still needed material for their “detective” lines, and Palmer was able to both write for them (often under a dozen pen names) and organize others' submissions. In 1938 Palmer quit the sheet metal company, The same contact that introduced him to Shade was visiting Ziff-Davis, which had acquired Amazing Stories, and was looking to supplant the 86-year-old former physics professor that had been its editor, who was “unlikely to move from New York City to Chicago even if invited” … the call was made to Palmer, and he was at 600 S. Dearborn the next day.

There is a great deal of material in the book about authors, stories, books, promotions, contests, trials & tribulations, long-term associates coming and going, and, frankly, it's all a bit of blur to me. Perhaps somebody more “into” this than me might have dove right in, but I'm going to leave it for you to pick up a copy for that. There are also cultural issues surrounding Palmer's move to Chicago – starting with the Capone era, and moving into WW2 – it was “interesting times”, for sure.

And this is where it sort of gets weird. In an editorial meeting, they were reading “crank letters” (which they got a lot of), having a laugh, and round-filing them. However, after one, Palmer pulled the crumpled pages out of the trash …

The six-page letter was from a Pennsylvania steelworker, Richard S. Shaver, who likely had serious mental problems and believed he had discovered the key to an ancient alphabet …
Shaver claimed this “language” was “definite proof of the Atlantean legend” (albeit on mighty flimsy evidence), and Palmer insisted they run the entire 6-page letter, much to the bafflement of his co-workers. This would end up being the start of many years of involvement with the wild theories of Shaver (perhaps due to “Shaver's strange world {having} imaginative flair and a curious logic” which appealed to Palmer).

Palmer requested some stories from Shaver, which he took, re-wrote and greatly expanded, with the addition of shifting focus from Atlantis to the Theosophical Society's vision of Lemuria. From 1945 to 1949 at least two dozen stories by Shaver were published in Amazing Stories, which would “convince so many to start looking in caves to search for abandoned technology”. It appears that Palmer's intent on promoting Shaver's writings was, in essence, to “blend science fiction with the occult”, featuring the concept of “racial memory”, which was central to the justification of the Shaver material. Palmer was clearly aware of how “out there” this material was, and in editorials was playing the carnival barker to create as much “buzz” (and magazine sales) as possible. Not only Shaver's writing, but pseudonymous pieces by himself (as A.R Steber) added to the controversy … and this all worked, as Ziff-Davis had to shift paper resources intended for another magazine to Amazing Stories, whose sales shot up to 180,000 copies.

Nadis brings in a lot of material to put this in context, from similar “weird” stories preceding and contemporary with Palmer's efforts, from the Greek myth of Orpheus, to medieval tales of psychopompic journeys, to H.P. Lovecraft, L. Ron Hubbard, and devotees of Urantia. While sci-fi “purists” bemoaned the shift in focus, others ate it up:

Some readers howled their outrage, but many others linked Shaver's ideas to favorite occultist notions of astral planes, of sightings of mysterious inhabitants inside Mount Shasta … and reports from the lost civilizations of Atlantis and Lemuria.
After the end of WW2, the tone of material wrapped around the Shaver material took on cold war paranoia, with Palmer posing the question: “What if the Shaver Mystery is VITALLY important to our national security?”. Eventually within sci-fi fandom the question of whether Palmer actually believed any of this or not was hotly debated … there's a report that he told a group of writers (including a young Harlan Ellison) that it was all to sell magazines, but his letters to Shaver were framed in “true believer” phraseology. In any case “as the Shaver Mystery waned, a new craze emerged every bit as beguiling. The flying saucer.”

In 1947, Palmer began to take long lunches outside the Ziff-Davis offices, along with another Z-D exec … it turns out that he had been working on a new publication, Fate, which debuted in 1948, and “became a centerpiece for the newly forming flying saucer subculture”. This wasn't quite as duplicitous as it might appear, as it came on the heels of Z-D announcing plans of moving their operations from Chicago to New York in 1950. Palmer and his partner formed Clark Publishing, and added Other Worlds Science Stories to Fate in 1949.

Nadis puts in a lot of early UFO “mystery” at this point, with stories, names, and other particulars too numerous to get into here … however it does dove-tail into another genre that apparently was pioneered by Palmer – that of “conspiracy theories”, as there always seemed to be government agents of various kinds showing up to make evidence disappear – including files at Palmer's office.

In addition to the break with Ziff-Davis, Palmer decided to return to Wisconsin with his family (at this point he had a wife and three small kids), but before the 1950 moving date to the 124-acre farm, he had yet another accident at their Evanston home. Once again, he had broken his back, which his wife attributed to a fall while working on plumbing, his version was more “mystical”, involving an attack by the malevolent forces from Shaver's universe. And, again, he had a miraculous recovery, involving visions, etc. He was, while able to walk, in fairly constant pain for the rest of his life.

While moving a publishing operation to a rural setting in these days of global connectivity is not so remarkable, it was a rather bold move in 1950, and Palmer converted parts of their “estate” to offices. Soon Shaver and his wife moved into the area, which provided almost a commune-like space for fans of “the mystery” to come up and visit both men. Of course, the 1950's were prime time for the UFO craze, with movies, books, and media appearances all across the cultural landscape. Palmer's Fate was well positioned for this trend. Unfortunately for Palmer, by 1952 his partners, who had previously been happy so sit on the sidelines and let Palmer do his thing, began to get more involved, putting forth a rule of thumb that “We don't have to believe it ourselves, but it must be capable of belief.”, which evidently drew a line outside of which was Shaver, as well as many of Palmer's ideas. In late 1953, Palmer sold his interest in the company, and began his own magazine, Mystic, which “jumped aboard the contactee movement”.

Palmer also found a new pet project, in the person of Orfeo Angelucci, whose “I Traveled in a Flying Saucer” was the main feature of the first issue of Mystic. Eventually Palmer, who had expanded into book publishing, put out a collection of Angelucci's pieces as The Secret of the Saucers. What's really bizarre (well, aside from the content of the book) is that a copy found its way to C.G. Jung, who:

… regarded Angelucci's narrative as a credible example of what he deemed the UFO encounter as visionary experience. Angelucci, in the psychiatrist's words, was “naïve, and – if appearances do not deceive us – serious and idealistic.” In his work the “individuation process … is plainly depicted.”
Nadis raises the question of where Angelucci lets off an Palmer begins, and these stories started out “interpreted”, by a long-term Palmer author Paul M. Vest, who got “as told to” credit on the stories … so what was so appealing to Jung had probably as much of Palmer and Vest in it as Angelucci.

However, the classic sci-fi pulp world was fading, falling “to competition from mass circulation paperbacks, comic books, and television.” and Palmer began shifting the focus of his publication to flying saucers in 1957, having “jettisoned the science fiction altogether” by 1959 … although he managed to keep some well known authors involved doing stories in the new genre. At the same time, Shaver got a new focus, having “discovered” messages in rocks: “he became certain that the rocks contained images and information”. In 1960 Shaver brought “an enormous stuffed folder … which contained ten years of Shaver's notes about the Elder World”, and in 1961 he started showing up with “stones along with cross-sections and photographs and to spin out his tale about the images encoded in them”.

Palmer decided to publish Shaver's writings with related materials in a loosely structured twelve-volume paperback series to be called the Hidden World that appeared from 1961 to 1964. It eventually grew to sixteen volumes. … Shaver's discoveries in stone were only one aspect of Hidden World, but this new source of information clearly obsessed Shaver, and it was an obsession to which Palmer slowly warmed.
I'm amazed to find that somebody has re-issued the whole series … so they're out there if you're interested. Palmer himself was “not seeing it”, but was willing to churn out the books … even as the material from Shaver got more and more wacky (“Attack of the Ape-Bats”, anyone?). It's easy to see Shaver's art as pareidolia run wild, and given that he moved beyond the actual stones and into paintings of what he saw in the stones, it's hard to give much of any credence to this (especially when it was expressions of the mythos of the “Shaver Mystery”).

The rest of this section deals with a somewhat tawdry tale (that resulted in the Shavers moving from Wisconsin to Arkansas in 1964) of Shaver's involvement “in the science fiction community's move toward the soft-core magazine and sleaze paperback industry boom of the 1950s and 1960s”, largely led by Palmer protégé William Hamling. It appears that Palmer and Shaver only had helped Hamling get his operations incorporated in Wisconsin (although they operated out of Evanston, IL), and had their names in some of the corporate roles – leading them to be targets of anti-porn crusaders.

Palmer's greatest failure was not finding an audience for his Martian Diary, which was initially going to be a fiction piece, but ended up as something of an autobiography. He originally conceived of it in 1963, but didn't announce it until 1970, when he made an offer of it in his magazines … “the response was underwhelming”. He claimed that he had taken his diary, and done to it what he did to so many others' writing, expanding and adding, etc. His initial intent was to make it a lavish hardcover to come out on his 60th birthday, but, bitter with the rejection, he shelved it until putting it out as part of The Secret World which paired it with Shaver's Ancient History In Stone, in 1975, the same year of Shaver's death.

In the 1960s he was publishing Search, Flying Saucers, and Ray Palmer's Forum, the latter being something of a newsletter that was 32 pages of reader letters and his editorials. As the years went on, her got more paranoid (although Nadis notes: “To be paranoid is not necessarily to be wrong; nevertheless, Rap began to see conspiracies everywhere” … “Rap” being the nickname dating back to his early days, based on his initials) and more political.

Scholars of conspiracy theory have noted that such theory takes particularly well among people dedicated to ideals of self-reliance and liberty. Palmer's political beliefs and interest in unorthodox thought made him a prime candidate.
It appears that most of his concerns were over “one worlders” who were working against freedom and American values, and “Palmer believed a secret government was already in power”. His support for Barry Goldwater, and then George Wallace “whom he believed would defend personal liberties” … predictably raised the hackles of the ever-more institutionalized left.

Nadis writes: “as he aged, Palmer became fixated on two issues: the origins of flying saucers and notions of heaven”, with the former primarily centered around “hollow Earth” or “hole in the poles” theories, and the latter seemingly influenced by an 1882 “automatic writing”-generated “bible” called Oahspe, which had been a factor in some of the materials he'd published decades previously. His interest in heaven was well timed, as he died (in Florida, visiting a daughter and a new-born grandson) in August 1977.

I found The Man From Mars quite an enjoyable read, even if parts of it (the early sci-fi) were frustratingly unfamiliar to me. Of course, having chunks of this set in Chicago is a draw, and I suspect I would have very much liked hanging out (and writing for?) Ray Palmer. Will you connect with this book? If you're into science fiction, publishing, the occult, and “conspiracies”, I suspect that's a definite “yes”. This is still in print, so might be found at brick-and-mortar sources, however, the online big boys at present have it at a whopping 69% off of cover price, which makes it pretty much a wash (given free shipping) with what's being offered by the new/used guys (including shipping), which is odd, as this has been out in the dollar store channel, which usually drives copies into the very cheap range. Anyway, it's a fun, fascinating, and informative read … about somebody I didn't know about beforehand.


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Tuesday, September 19th, 2017
4:19 pm
Not for the squeamish ...
OK, so this is yet another dollar store acquisition … and, frankly, I looked at this on a couple of shopping trips before it got into the cart, and it lingered quite a while in the to-be-read piles before making it into my shoulder bag. That caveat out of the way, Lt. Col. Mark Weber's Tell My Sons: A Father's Last Letters is quite the poignant read … as well as being one of those rare books whose title/subtitle combination pretty much lets you know what you need to about the book. Before getting into the content, there's a few things I want to hit up front here … first of all [spoiler alert!], the book is about the author losing his battle to cancer, etc., and this is an extended note to his sons (one who was 16 at the time of his death, and twins who were 11) … part of me thought this might be a bit “voyeuristic” – sort of like sneaking a look into somebody's diary – but, fortunately, it doesn't come across that way, although there is little “playing to a wider public” in it. Another interesting thing is that it has a (brief) Foreword by Robin Williams, who Weber had met on a USO tour (although it probably should be noted that this was penned a dozen years before the comic's suicide) … which reads like a longer version of the quotes assembled at the front of the book – and this is one of the few examples of a group of quotes like that adding something – there are a dozen from an impressive list of politicians, military men, other authors, etc., including Donald Rumsfeld and General Petraeus. The book initially came out from a small Edina, MN press (where Weber lived) on December 24, 2012, and what's amazing is that the book got picked up and (I'm assuming) rushed into print by Random House's Ballantine Books with a July 4, 2013 release date. One has to guess from the initial publication date that this was somewhat intended as a “Christmas present” for his family, but he managed to live to see the major publisher release, dying just over a week later.

Aside from a structure of chapters (which I'll get into in a bit), the book's in sections which are dated, from June 2010 through November 2012 (plus an Epilogue which is undated, but more specifically discussing his family) … he mentions in the Preface (addressing his kids) that he “started writing it long before any of you were born”, which, obviously, can't be the case chronologically, but he adds later “I started writing a journal, and I kept it brutally honest”, which does sound like the tenor of the book, so perhaps the intent had been there from an early age, and the execution only happening as he began grappling with the disease.

As far as the chapters' “themes”, they're based on lines pulled from Douglas MacArthur's “famous 1962 speech to the cadets of West Point” (Weber, in the Preface, claims to have committed the entire 2,000+ word address to memory, and recited it at “countless” events). I had a brief thought of typing up those here, but as the book is more of a journal than an organized set of reflections, the themes the quotes suggest for the chapters are not particularly substantive, but if you're interested, they can be found via the “look inside” feature on the book's Amazon page (the Contents listing coming after the Forward and Preface).

The Introduction starts with the assignment to command in Afghanistan of General David Petraeus, who was putting together a new team, and he wanted Weber to take on the role of Military Assistant to the incoming Afghan Minister of the Interior. Weber had previous served in Iraq, acting as a US assistant to General Babakir Zibari, the Iraqi chief of defense, in which posting he'd learned Kurdish and how to act like a local … and Petraeus wanted that same skill set. Weber's wife, Kristen, and the various generals in his chain of command had signed off on this, and:

The only remaining hurdle was self-imposed. Though already medically cleared to deploy, I wanted a more thorough look. Three years ago, I had been diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer, and this was no ordinary ulcer. Twice I had experienced a massive hemorrhage in my small intestine, and the first one nearly killed me.
He was writing this in June 2010, and he had been hospitalized in 2007 and 2009 and he didn't want to be in “some remote corner of Afghanistan” if there was likely to be another episode. The new doctor scheduled an endoscopy, and the results were bad, as it showed a fist-sized lesion in Weber's duodenum which was about 10x the size of the ulcer from the previous year, plus blood tests indicating that he was highly anemic, with iron scores that typically are in the 100-300 range coming in at 2. Weber still thought this was something that could be fixed fairly easily, but the doctor then sent him for a CT scan. This came back showing a mass that involved “the duodenum, pancreas, associated ducts, and the surrounding lymph nodes” and extended to about 75% of the liver, where there were 15 identifiable tumors. Needless to say, he wasn't going to be making that deployment.

Chapter 1 starts off with a description of the radical surgery that the team at the Mayo Clinic recommended … called the “Whipple-plus” procedure … which removes all of the affected tissue, and in Weber's case, about 60% of his liver as well. He offers up a bunch of military metaphors (including a spin on Patton's famous speech about making the other guy die for his country, the cancer in this case being the enemy force), and then gets into describing the difficult discussions with his family. This leads into a retrospective of his parents, grandparents, and his early years, including his entering into the military lifestyle via JROTC in freshman year of high school. He was a very good cadet, but a so-so student, and the counselors suggested that he wasn't “college material”, so joining the military was an easy choice, and he goes into some stories from his basic training.

Chapter 2 is dated August 2010 and begins with a long recall of his waking up in the hospital after the surgery thinking he's in a spaceship, due to the amount of equipment around him, and the painkillers he's on. He also develops some complications …

The fistula has allowed most of my abdominal cavity, from my ribs to my hip, to fill with bile and pancreatic fluids. … I look like a cut-open deer carcass … {the} entire wound has to heal from the inside out – no stitches … The muscle looks like ground hamburger, and it is bathed in a constant yellow ooze of digestive fluids that will require bandage changes every few hours or so – for the next fourteen weeks.
The rest of this is more military framing of his medical challenges, musings about fatherhood, reminiscences of how he was raised, bringing up specific events he shared with his boys (including a massive snow fort they built in November 2009 – when there was the 5th largest snowfall ever recorded in Minnesota – the fort being impressive enough to even make it on the local news), and a few more stories from the hospital (like when Kristen came with towels and soap to give him his first shower in nearly a month – on their 16th wedding anniversary), including his naming his wounds: “Buford was the open wound. Bullah was the drainage field inside my abdomen and the associated incision at my hip.”.

Chapter 3 is dated September-November 2010, which starts with his finally getting to leave the hospital. As anyone who's gone through major surgery would guess, his systems were all a mess, he'd lost about 20% of his body mass, he could barely sleep, his body temperature swung from sweating to freezing, digestion was an adventure along the entire cobbled-together alimentary tract, and the bandages filling his still-open wound “could never contain the volume of leaky digestive juices for more than an hour”. Because of the effects of the pain meds he was on (“stoned, constipated, thick-headed”) he opted to stop cold turkey, trading off functionality for having to deal with the pain.

But then on November 2, 2010, a CT scan revealed the remaining cancer had rapidly progressed and was now inoperable. The treatment options were essentially nonexistent.
His oncologist gave him four or five months to live. He was moved from Mayo to the Piper Cancer Institute, and he started to plan for his funeral. However, at Piper they ran him through a new bank of tests and found out that he didn't actually have pancreatic cancer, but something called GIST – a gastrointestinal stromal tumor, which, while without a cure, at least had treatments available. The rest of the chapter has Weber recalling parts of his early family life, challenges in grade school, some dumb things he did as a kid that he then parallels with some experiences early in his military career, writing of nearly cutting off his leg as a teen with a big pro power saw, then his many successes in ROTC before failing out of Ranger School, and finally a long-ish contemplation of how failure reflects on leadership, leading up to his getting two prestigious awards (one given to just 13 out of 37,000 eligible officers) back-to-back.

Chapter 4 is dated January 2011, and starts with his daily oral chemo for GIST – which seemed to be working well. This part is primarily about his relationship with Kristen, along with all the biographical info the kids might want to eventually know, from how they met, the chaos of their early relationship (including the wedding, when the bridesmaids got into a serious car crash on the way in their dresses, and how he had to be on a plane back to the army the next morning), how the military lifestyle took a lot of adjustments for both of them, craziness on transfers (where they opted to drive cross-country to make some additional money, and on one trip her falling asleep at the wheel and wrecking their truck), their fertility problems, a brief separation, and his leaving the army so they could be close to her dad as he dealt with his own cancer issues up in Minnesota.

Chapter 5 is dated March-September 2011, this one starts with his post-surgery decision to go back to work (despite being “medically retired” with a generous pension) with the Minnesota National Guard. Weber felt he needed the structure, and he was able to work on key projects like developing a program for suicide prevention among soldiers. Unfortunately, he was having more health issues, with sepsis caused by bile backing up into the liver and then leaking into the body … they ended up doing a catheter and bag drainage system in his abdomen. Another CT scan also showed the cancer growing, requiring him to double the chemo dose. This is also when the idea of the book began … he'd been doing a journal on-line for 22 years, and this evidently is what was used to pull Tell My Sons together. This chapter also has a long reminiscence about when he was teaching, and the events that made him walk away from that, and another long story about his assignment in Saudi Arabia, and his later unexpected posting, right after making the rank of Captain, to a logistics position typically given to more senior offices.

Chapter 6 is dated October-December 2011 and he reports to his medical team that he's experiencing pain at a “9” when he'd previously rarely rated it more than a “5” … they tried to drain some abscess but weren't getting anything other than blood, and a few days later Weber took a knife and decided to work on himself: “That abscess burst open like something out of a scene from Alien.” He had one opinion about it, but that was being rejected by his doctor, yet:

The abscess scene above played out four more times over the next three months. My flesh would always heal; the intestinal tissue would not; the bile would collect in the muscular wall and start digesting the newly healed flesh; and within a few days of searing and unbelievable pain, it would burst.
The medical descriptions are followed by a section where he talks of his religious upbringing, and how his concepts of this had changed over the years. This dovetails into a longish look at his time in Saudi Arabia, with his encounters with western-leaning Saudis who had to duck the Mutawwa, the religious control group that did everything from blacken out exposed skin in magazines to have people beheaded. He goes into very interesting detail of some conversations regarding religion here. This eventually leads into a very long look at his time in Iraq (more than 10% of the book), which is fascinating, given his position within the structure of the Iraqi military … one quote he offers here is from his Iraqi counterparts: “Can't you make the coalition understand why we can't do it that way?”.

Chapter 7 is dated January 2012, starting with him in the hospital on Christmas Eve: “What was once only a bile leak now involved mashed food escaping from my intestine. The hole was getting bigger.”, and his increasing frustration with the medical staff's adherence to “protocol” rather than the specifics of his case. If you think that some of the stuff I've blockquoted here is gross, you're probably going to want to skip chunks of this chapter, as the “ick factor” starts getting pretty heavy in the discussions of his declining health. However, his career reminiscences here are great, with tales involving persons as high up the military food chain as the the Secretary of Defense, and the heads of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This then moves into a wry look at some of the absurdities that he encountered in Iraq, which segues (via Catch-22 references) to a story about trying to manage his bandages while attempting to get to one of his sons' swim meet (including a scene in a Target bathroom that really needs a cinematic realization). This then moves into a bit about one of the boys being in choir, and doing a special solo called “Tell My Father” … with much tears ensuing.

Chapter 7 is a collection of bits from different times, starting in November 2010, and ending up in November 2012 (a month before the book came out from the original small publisher). In mid-2012 he was still working, but in May, it was discovered that the big tumor on the remaining part of his liver had doubled in size, and he went into a new, more aggressive chemo, which made it impossible to work. By July he was taking a chemo trial that had been developed for kidney cancer, and being feted by the military in a ceremony on August 16. The November note, evidently closing out the initial publication, was directed to his sons.

There is an Epilogue following, which I'm guessing got pulled together for the Random House edition, and it is Weber specifically discussing the effects of his illness on his family members … along with addressing the question: “what is it like to die in slow motion?”.

Tell My Sons is not a “happy” read, but it is inspirational, and a very interesting look into the life of a wunderkind in American's military. As mentioned, I found this at the dollar store, but it is still in print, so could possibly be obtained through your favorite brick-and-mortar book vendor. The on-line big boys have it at a bit off of cover price, but there are copies to be had from the new/used guys for about five bucks (including shipping). If you have an interest in cancer, the military, or strength in the face of adversity, you might very well get a lot out of this.


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Monday, September 18th, 2017
2:46 pm
Hint: not the government ...
Another dollar store pick-up … I almost passed on this one because of the funky cover until I saw the familiar name, Michelle Malkin, as author. Despite the rather descriptive subtitle of Who Built That: Awe-Inspiring Stories of American Tinkerpreneurs, I was rather expecting (hoping for?) something more political than what the book delivers, but that's more “my bad” than any failing of the author's (or, more realistically, it's a matter of dollar store dynamics – a $28.00 book for a buck that looks interesting gets tossed into the shopping cart without too much detailed analysis!).

Needless to say, the intent of this book is a big “F.U.” to the despicable Obama regime, and their pandering to the collectivist left. She cites numerous quotes by both B.O. and Biden, denigrating the entrepreneurial and business-owning population, and insisting that anything of worth was done, in essence, by the government (oh, and when I say cite, it's not used lightly – Malkin has about 60 pages of reference notes following up the roughly 250 pages of text!). Needless to say, what I was hoping for when I picked up the book was a enraged rant against the socialist scum, but instead this is an engaging look at ten products and their inventors/developers who created industries that are, in many cases, necessities of the modern world. She also, I take it (in that Googling the term only gets links talking about the book), coined the portmanteau “tinkerpreneur”, which she describes as:

These under-appreciated inventors and innovators of mundane things changed the world by successfully commercializing their ideas and creating products, companies, jobs, and untold opportunities that endure today.
The book is oddly broken up into four parts, the division being something I think could have been dispensed with. The first two, “Engineers of Prosperity” and “The Miracle of the Mundane” are pretty clear, but then the third “BFFs: Dynamic Duos of American Business” seems to be a different sort of characterization (partnerships that worked?), and the last chapter being in its own, fourth, part “Past, Present, Future”, at just 24 pages, might as well been an “afterword”. But, nobody asked me … although if I were an editor on this project, I would have made a serious pitch to have dropped that structure. That being said, it hardly is to the detriment to the content of the book, whose chapters are free-standing looks at specific topics.

Where much of the book deals with inventors/products that are several generations old, it begins with a living “tinkerpreneur”, Tony Maglica, the head of the Maglite company that makes top-quality flashlights. Since Maglite neither invented nor is necessarily synonymous with its products, Malkin spends a lot of this chapter “romanticizing” its founder's story … which is, admittedly, pretty much the iconic “American Dream” tale of a the child of penniless immigrants (coming from Croatia between the world wars in this case) rising up by wits and determination. He holds over 200 patents related to flashlights, and had been on the verge of introducing a revolutionary new type of incandescent bulb when the Obama regime instituted it's Soviet-style top-down dictate banning the U.S. manufacturing of this traditional sort of bulb (and Maglite has been devoted to being as close to using 100% U.S. made parts as possible). Maglica is quoted saying: “Government doesn't innovate. People like me do. Government doesn't create jobs. We do.” and Malkin points out that the bulb ban not only lost thousands of manufacturing jobs, but created an environmental issue with the mercury involved in the “selected” CFL bulb type.

The next look is at the air-conditioning industry, and the figures of Willis Carrier and Irvine Lyle who pioneered it. The two were young engineers at the Buffalo Forge Company (which made assorted industrial machinery), and met by chance on a streetcar coming in to work one day. The spring and summer of 1902 were extremely hot and humid, and a printing company was having problems with the paper on multi-color jobs reacting to the humidity by shrinking, expanding, and warping, wreaking havoc on registrations between impressions. The consulting engineer at the printer contacted Lyle for assistance, and he passed the project along to Carrier, who was making a name for himself in Buffalo's heating, drying, and blower systems. Carrier was the first to break down the issue into key sub-sections, and work back up from the constituent systems into an integrated approach. He and Lyle worked out efficient ways to make this work, and Lyle moved into high gear getting the word out on the new system. Carrier's 1906 patent is still amazing, as it uses the counter-intuitive approach of using water in a fog-like mist to dehumidify the air – with the temperature of the water going into the mist being the controlling factor. The technology was soon being used for quality control in tobacco, preventing rust in razor blades, and, in 1925, gave what was no doubt the biggest boost to the movie industry – air-conditioned theaters. The same systems soon were applied to hospitals, drug manufacturers, and offices … with eventual home use enabling the development of vast swaths of America that had previously been unfriendly to large population centers.

Perhaps a less “common use” product is in the next chapter … the metal cables that replaced fiber ropes in many settings – notably here in bridges, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the great achievement of the Roebling family. John Roebling immigrated from Germany in 1831, and (after finding himself unsuited for farming) was inspired to come up with an alternative for the hemp rope that frequently broke under stress. He had read, back in his homeland, about attempts at making “rope” out of iron, and began to experiment with ways of making that a reality. In 1842 he was awarded a patent for a machine that would do this. His product, however, was nearly killed off in its infancy … by, of course, corrupt government … in this case, makers of hemp rope conspired with authorities to sabotage a major demonstration of the new cabling – filing through the metal to insure it would fail. Fortunately, he found a sympathetic ear in the specific commission, and was allowed a second test, which showed the clear superiority of his metal rope. On the strength of this demonstration, Roebling won a contract for replacing the Pittsburgh aqueduct in 1845, the success of which led to his developing the Monongahela bridge. Moving to Trenton, NJ, he and his sons built a manufacturing center that produced cables and wire for a wide array of projects, which even included the stabilizing wires used by the Wright brothers, the control cables on the Spirit of St. Louis, and the cabling used in the construction of the Panama Canal.

Roebling's company increasingly became a family operation, with his son Washington (following service in the Civil War) and daughter-in-law Emily, being key figures in its projects. And projects came (although often still being opposed by other factions), such as the Covington-Cincinnati bridge, the railroad bridge at Niagra Falls, and, of course, their crowning achievement, the Brooklyn Bridge. John Roebling suffered an injury early in the construction, and died some time later, leaving Washington and Emily to complete the bridge … Malkin waxes poetic with:

The pilgrim, the soldier, and the female trailblazer bound themselves to greatness by their shared steel will, endless thirst for self-improvement, and veneration of American ideals.
The first of the “mundane” products is something about as basic as it gets … toilet paper. Malkin does an homage to Leonard E. Read's famed “I, Pencil” essay, in framing this “I, Toilet Paper” (eliciting a snickering review by the leftist Washington Post), and doing the chapter as a first-person look at the “family story” of this essential paper product. This starts out with some historical examples, which are hard put to not drift into the scatological, including materials used for the purpose before its invention, including the venerable Sears & Roebucks catalog that was parodied as “Rears & Sorebutts”, and notes:

Dependence on bathroom reading for bathroom wiping was once so common that The Old Farmer's Almanac came pierced with a hole for easy hanging in outhouses and water closets.
Much of what's here is a tale of the growth of the paper milling and printing industries, from the first mill established near Philadelphia in 1690, through the printing necessities of the revolution, from newspapers to bank notes to pamphlets. Remarkably, some of the mills started back then are still producing paper today, such as Crane, which was founding in 1770. Other familiar names are the Kimberly & Clark company, which ended up seeding many more mills in Wisconsin's Fox River valley, including Hoberg (originators of “Charmin”), and Northern (as in “Quilted Northern”). The last part of the chapter looks at the Scott family, which, over several generations, developed that familiar brand of paper products (which was bought by Kimberly-Clark in 1995). The author has this product decree in closing:

I, lowly toilet paper, am the lofty result of faith in freedom, not the product of a bureaucrat's mandate. Innovation can't be manufactured by force or decree. It's the outcome of constant self-improvement and entrepreneurial synergies.
The next chapter deals with the bottle cap (the metal crimped-on kind) … one of those things that one rarely thinks about having been engineered, however, to get to William Painter's “crown cap” a lot of other methods had been attempted, especially with the growing popularity of carbonated beverages.

The genius of Painter's success could be summarized in a single directive: Invent something “which everybody needs, better and more cheaply provided than ever before”. Competition in the manufacture of the best and cheapest necessities was fierce in the Age of Progress. The quest for the perfect bottle closure was crowded. Winning the war of the bottle tops would be Painter's crowning glory.
Malkin notes that before Painter came along there had been some 1500 patents approved for bottle stoppers, “… contraptions made of cork, glass, wire, ceramic, loops, gaskets, thread finishes, levers, and bails, or some chunky combination thereof”, all of which were intended to be reusable. Painter himself had patented a number of different systems, but kept trying to make the costs lower … for instance, while his “Triumph” stopper sold for $3.50/144, his “bottle seal” went for a mere $0.24/144 … but his 1892 patents for the crown cap (and related equipment – including the ubiquitous “bottle opener”) was revolutionary in that it was a disposable item.

One of the challenges in getting his new system utilized was that the bottles the caps were going on needed to be redesigned, with a recessed area where the cap could be crimped. To illustrate the value of the type of seal enabled by the crown cap, “Painter convinced a Baltimore brewer to send a cargo of crown-capped beer to South America and bring it back”, the bottles were then opened at a party for the press, who enthusiastically reported on the undiminished quality of the brew, despite its long journey (the PR guy in me loves this story).

One of Painter's sales/marketing team was a young man by the name of King Camp Gillette … which provides a pretty good clue as to what the next topic is here … and it was the disposability model of the crown cap that led to the invention of the disposable razor. One morning in 1895, Gillette was starting to shave, when he realized his razor was so dull that it was going to be have to be sent out to be sharpened – it was then that the idea of the “safety razor” was born, with the patent (after a great deal of problem-solving on how to make and sharpen a thin sheet of steel) being issued in 1904. The famed Gillette Blue Blade (“double-edged, rust-proof, oxidized, and dipped in a signature blue lacquer”) debuted in 1932, unfortunately, Gillette died some months before.

Last in the “mundane” section is the story of Charles E. Hires, of root beer fame. Like other soft drink inventors in the late 1800s, Hires was in the pharmacy business, and before he got around to marketing his “root beer”, he had another success with “fullers clay”, the telling of which takes up more of the chapter than the beverage story does. He'd been “perfecting and publicizing the root beer concoction he had been blending at his pharmacy since 1870”, and a childhood friend (who was a local newspaper publisher and a fan of the beverage) encouraged Hires to start advertising it, and set up a deal where his paper would carry ads for Hires' root beer, and not charge Hires until he was making a sustainable profit. Fortunately for both of them, the product took off, and soon there was advertising in all media for the beverage. It reached national attention at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and has been a fixture among soft drinks ever since.

The next part of the book is “Dynamic Duos”, but only offers two examples (neither being Batman & Robin). The first of these deals with the glass industry, and the figures of Edward Libbey and Michael Owens (whose names live on in the Libbey glassware company, and Owens-Corning). Malkin dives into a lot of history, looking back 3,000 years. This makes various stops, but spends a number of pages talking of Tiberius' Rome, where, the perceived threat of a product demonstrated for the Emperor, vitrum flexile – a flexible glass, resulted in the execution of its inventor. The author draws the obvious similarities to how governments tend to react to innovation:

This murderous dictator and his central planners cared more about protecting workers in the existing copper, silver, and gold industries than in pioneering anything new. They simply could not imagine how many more jobs, industries, and riches might result from pursuing the untried and untested. Competition and creativity were public menaces. Violent suppression, stasis, and government coercion were cures.
While glass making technologies were for a long time tightly held knowledge (Malkin writes: “For centuries, glassblowers were sworn to secrecy. The masters of fire and sand guarded their recipe books like highly classified nuclear codes.”), when governments got involved things turned ugly. The author reports that the Great Council of Venice around 1275 sought to make glass making “a tightly run government monopoly”, and rounded up all the glassmakers to an island (that she compares to Gitmo), and destroyed all high-temperature furnaces in Venice (on the pretext of “fire safety”, and if that didn't work, I'm sure they would have come up with “for the children”). This arrangement lasted for three centuries until France's Louis XIV broke the monopoly in 1684! One of the taxes that spurred the American revolution was that imposed on glassmaking … so this has been a government money-grab essentially for ever.

Anyway … Michael Owens was a child worker in a glass factory, and taught himself the ways of the masters he was assisting. He ended up being a key figure in the union. Edward D. Libbey also started early, as a “chore boy” in a glass factory's offices – with a significant difference that his father was a bookkeeper in the organization. Libbey was well schooled and rose up the ranks, traveling to Europe to learn the history and technology of glass manufacturing. The two found themselves on the opposite sides of conflict, with Owens being a key catalyst of a strike called on the company that Libbey was by that time running.

In a last ditch effort to save his company from union saboteurs, Libbey relocated {it} to Toledo, Ohio, and officially incorporated the Libbey Glass Company in 1892.
As is often the case with manufacturing moves, many of the employees were unable to follow, so Libbey began to advertise for workers. Professionally, Owens had become a glass blower at age 15, and thirteen years later he was still a glass blower, and wanted more. Despite their previous conflicts, Libbey hired Owens, who, within three months, had replaced the plant supervisor, and started to fire incompetent and lazy workers, moving up rapidly in the organization. Another labor dispute (with a different manufacturer) moved the two into a partnership, where their company managed to pick up the business that the strike at the other plant was destroying. The talents of the two men were the right strengths at the right time, and they developed innovation after innovation, completely changing the way glass was made.

I'm going to have to sort of skim the next chapter, as I've read so much over the years about Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, that it's hard to separate that background from what Malkin's presenting here. Of course, she brings a particular spin to it: “Private capital, individual initiative, personal integrity, and an abiding respect for intellectual property rights cemented the alliance between Westinghouse and Tesla.”. While Westinghouse is mainly remembered as a “captain of industry”, he was also a prolific inventor and an entrepreneur with numerous companies based on his innovations. When Tesla broke away from Edison (after having been very shabbily treated, Malkin has a very interesting background portion on this) over the conflict between Edison's direct current (DC) power and Tesla's alternating current (AC) system, he came to the attention of Westinghouse, who had himself been doing research on AC power. Again, the details on this are quite interesting … as Westinghouse's (or his researchers') work on this get less attention than the flashy Tesla's.

The 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago won the “battle of the currents”, with the Westinghouse/Tesla AC system lighting the fair – the first time most people had ever encountered electric light. The growth of the electrical power grid is, of course, something that seems inevitable these days, but it had a start with a test plant in Telluride, CO (based on a gold prospector's pitch), and then scaled up to a regional model with the remarkable power plant built at Niagara Falls. Malkin has a couple of interesting bits here, first, quoting Tesla on Westinghouse as “the only man on this globe who could take my alternating-current system under the circumstances then existing and win the battle against prejudice and money power”, and then noting on the reciprocal relation: “Instead of working to exploit and crush Tesla, as Edison had attempted to do, Westinghouse threw his entire corporate weight behind the scientific visionary.”. It turned out that Edison had one more dagger to thrust into Tesla, unfortunately, despite the fact that Marconi's radio was based on work that Tesla had developed, Edison threw his support behind the Italian, who got the credit (and Nobel Prize) for the invention.

The last section is on artificial limbs, and other prosthetics, from Civil War technologies to the cutting edge work being done by a bunch of different companies, individuals, and groups. It's one short chapter, which covers a lot of ground, so I'm just going to leave that description. The book's Conclusion deals with intellectual property law, patents, etc., which starts out with the U.S. Constitution's first article, runs through Thomas Jefferson (who was the first patent examiner), into some of Abraham Lincoln's own patents, and to the current perversions of these systems by, among other things, the so-called American Invents Act, the AIA, which Malkin says is a special-interest boondoggle that enriches corporate lawyers, Big Business, and federal bureaucrats at the expense of independent inventors and fledgling innovators the American patent system was created to protect and encourage”.

While I would have liked Who Built That to have been a more in-your-face broadside against the leftist corruption of American greatness, it certainly is an interesting read, with little nuggets of calling out the collectivist enemies of our culture. If you have an interest in American innovation, industry, and history (and a libertarian bent), you should find plenty in here to enjoy. As noted up top, I got a copy of the hardcover at the dollar store, but it looks to still be in print, so you should be able to get a copy via your local brick-and-mortar store, and otherwise the on-line big boys presently have it at 42% off of cover, and the paperback edition at about 2/3rds of that … while their new/used guys have “very good” copies available for under five bucks (with shipping). This may not be the anti-socialist screed that I was hoping for, but it's still a quality read, and worth checking out!


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Tuesday, September 12th, 2017
11:41 pm
Godzilla likes the title ...
Some times I'm amazed at what I find at the dollar store, and this was one of the treats. Robin Shulman's Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York (yeah, quite the sub-title), is a fascinating book, at once a travelogue (if within one large city), a series of history lessons, a look at a spectrum of food/beverage industries, and an overview of current (well, those active up to 2012 when the book came out) purveyors of these products (and how they're making them) in New York.

The author grew up in rural Canada, but moved to New York at age 16. She was an English major at Columbia, studied Journalism at U.C. Berkeley. Her journalism credentials are impressive, having been a reporter for the Washington Post, New York Times, L.A. Times, and San Franciso Chronicle, among others, and those skill sets are certainly on display here, with a combination of deep historic research and probing, wide-ranging interviews. Oddly, her main news beat was the Middle East, and she was off reporting on “war, terrorism, and destruction” for a decade, before returning in 2005, when she saw a city transformed from a “wilderness of human neglect” … so much so that she felt “unmoored in the place I had called home” … which led her to “literally plant roots” by working in a neighborhood garden. However:

Soon I realized I was more fascinated by the stories of the other gardeners than I was patient with the solitary labor of coaxing life from soil.
As she heard more of these stories in her neighborhood, the idea of this book began to come together, she had a lot of questions about how the the modern city, which was now exhibiting glimmers of an “urban back-to-the-land trend”, had gotten here, what were the antecedents, legacies, and remainders of food in our country's biggest city, that were somehow informing a new blossoming in the past few decades. She notes that she gathered material for this from 2005 through 2009, and did most of the intensive work in 2010-11, with the book debuting in 2012, and the paperback (which is still in print) coming out a year later.

I'm somewhat frustrated in writing this, as the book is dense with both very attractive prose and amazing factoids that I'd love to pass along. Frankly, in the Introduction alone, I've had to talk myself out of blockquoting a good half-dozen paragraphs, because the material is so good. And this just ramps up in the seven chapters (I was going to list them, but you can pretty much figure them out from the subtitle, and they'll be evident as I get to them), each of which could easily be a free-standing look on that particular topic … in terms of structure (there is very little cross-pollination between the subjects, although I recall some occasional name-checking here and there), and length, averaging around 40 pages or so each. As much as I enjoyed the book, I was surprised to find only one of my little bookmarks in it (and that for something I wanted to research further), but this is due to the depth of the information here, I'd be looking at pages and pages of quotes to get “the good bits”, and neither you nor I, nor the author/publisher really wants that, so I'm going to be improvising and cherry-picking in the following, trying to give you some sense of each of the topics/chapters.

The first subject here is honey. Beekeeping has become “a thing” in many cities, Chicago among them (I've been familiar with the Bike-a-Bee group here, and shot a video of them doing a presentation a few years back). An unappreciated factor in urban honey is that whatever is destroying bees generally, doesn't seem to be in the cities, and bees tend to thrive in this environment. Another is the concept of “terroir”, a French term most commonly related to wine, but in the context of urban beekeeping, the honey from a hive on one end of a park may end up markedly different from that on the other end.

As one might expect (and this is a recurring theme here), large government bureaucracies are typically more interested in oppressively regulating (or outright banning, as New York City did from 1999 to 2010) activities that seem out of the ordinary, which certainly includes “a ball of 30,000 bees flying through the air making a noise like a buzz saw”, that will try to make their home in “one of many tree-like structures such as a traffic light or a street sign”, which is the result of a hive dividing and half “swarming”, and something that needs to be dealt with by the beekeepers. This chapter has, perhaps, the least historical material here … focusing instead on a half-dozen or so individuals involved in the honey business. I found this bit especially charming:

      Much of city beekeeping is vertical work. Up a narrow stairway in the dingy darkness, carrying tools to hives on a roof in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Down six flights of stairs from rooftop hives on a different building on Second Avenue, balancing heavy, oozing frames of honey.
One thing that surprised me here was from an interview with a “bee expert at the American Museum of Natural History”, who noted that there were “more than 240 kinds of wild bees recorded in New York City”, so there's a lot of company for the Apis mellifera honeybees! Aside from the challenges presented by the government, sometimes hostile neighbors, and the complicated geography of the city, there are often mysteries to be solved … such as the red bees/honey that started to show up in hives in the in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn. The effected beekeepers tried researching this as some sort of disease or mutation, but eventually (after having the honey tested and finding it contained Red Dye No. 40), discovered that the bees had found a local maraschino cherry factory and were opting for the easy sugar syrup there over foraging for more natural sources. It turns out that this is not unusual behavior, with stories of candy and gum factories providing the raw materials for rainbow-hued honey, or not-quite-organic spearmint flavored honey.

The next chapter deals with what most folks would recognize as “urban farming” – vegetables from city lots – and focuses on one Harlem grower (and former numbers runner – before that business got eliminated by government lotteries), Willie Morgan, who harvests a wide range of produce from “skinny, shady strips of land between tenements all over Harlem”. You might think that Harlem was an odd place to be growing food, but:

… For hundreds of years, Harlem was a farming village. Lenape Native Americans cultivated the fertile terrain spreading from an inlet off what is now 125th Street, near Willie Morgan's garden. …

      The first Dutch farmers found the land they called Nieuw Haarlem easy to farm, as it had already been cleared … The rich dark earth yielded more than the soil of lower Manhattan, and … helped make New Netherland self-sufficient.
      As time passed, the great families of the settlement planted vegetable fields, fruit orchards,
{etc.} … Their names are familiar to us now mostly through street names: the Delanceys, Beekmans, Bleeckers, and Hamiltons.
This then tracks the eventual urbanization of that part of Manhattan, through various waves of development and decline, and how food memories survived over the decades, yet had a profound change with the Black migration north following the Civil War. In Willie Morgan's case, he got into urban farming as a promo ploy for the gambling business:

Early on, he understood the importance of marketing to women. Many of his first customers were mothers playing the numbers to put food on the table. A bit of fresh, free produce could certainly make the difference when such woman decided where to gamble.
Of course, as New York declined in the 70's, more and more vacant lots opened up in places like Harlem, and the city started to rent lots to gardeners for a buck a year, figuring that a cultivated lot was a lot better than a wasteland with the detritus of the drug trade. With the upturn in the early 2000's, the city started to sell off the lots to developers, and this disrupted much of the local gardening. However, many organized, and brought a suit against the city, which resulted in many garden lots being protected, and others being offered alternate spaces.

Meat is the subject of chapter 3. It's somewhat difficult to picture Manhattan as the home of pastures and piggeries, but run the clock back to the late 1600's, and you find not only the native meat sources (“buffalo, raccoon, beaver, wild rabbit, turkey, and deer” … Coney Island got its name from the rabbits), but cows, sheep, and swine brought over by the boatload from Holland. As the city grew, and industrialization spread, you also have the grim specter of urban meat processing right out of Upton Sinclair's look at Chicago's meat packing industry, The Jungle, albeit with the noted variation of specialized kosher factories to service the expanding Jewish population. As late as 1929 it was noted that “the stench of slaughterhouses filled the air a few hundred feet from Times Square”, and while much of the meat business was shuttered or moved (to the Bronx and beyond) by the 60's, there were still hold-outs such as the Fourteenth Street meat market, which had a dedicated elevated line bringing in stock as late as 1980, and that the New York Times reported “the sidewalks run with rivulets of greasy blood” … due to a single real estate investor buying up much of the area, this market was able to survive until his death in 1999 – a remarkably recent date to imagine this sort of business happening in the heart of New York.

Of course, few people around these days ever had the experience of this sort of meat processing, as post-WW2 marketing brought the factory butchering/packaging operations that deposit styrofoam-cradled and hygienically plastic-wrapped cuts of meat into most of the grocery stores. It wasn't until 1970, however, that this was able to be sold in New York, as the unions refused to handle it. Now, lest you think this chapter is all history lesson, it switches back and forth between these fascinating looks back to a narrative of “the conquering hero of hipstavore Brooklyn”, Tom Mylan, whose “The Meat Hook” combines small-town butcher shop intimacy (with both the butcher and the butchered), with trendy classes in the disassembly of recently deceased critters. Like many things in this book, much of what he sells is raised locally, with craft-inspired uniqueness.

The next discussion covers sugar – which, frankly somewhat surprised me, but it's one of those things whose history in many ways parallels the growth of the city. The Dutch West India Company was set up in 1620 to trade in sugar, tobacco, spices, salt, and other goods, and a few years later they founded the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam at the lower tip of Manhattan, later ceded to the British, who, of course, renamed the island and surrounding areas New York. Shulman suggests: “Sugar was the industry that elevated old New York, helping transform it into a cosmopolitan, powerful financial center in the 1700s.”. Like the previous chapter, this bounces back and forth between history and a local figure (Jose Torres) who stands in for all Puerto Rico, and the culture from the islands that is such a presence in New York. Here, the history goes way back … sugar cane apparently originated in New Guinea as far back as 8,000 years ago, and eventually made its way to India, where a general in Alexander The Great's army wrote of it in 327 bce, and it expanded with the Arabs around the Mediterranean. Christopher Columbus (who had at one time been a sugar buyer) brought it to the Americas, where it thrived in the Caribbean, and eventually in large parts of South America.

Growing, harvesting, and processing cane was a key driver of the early slave trade, and the many forms that sugar took, including rum, were significant engines for the growth of New York, although, obviously, the growing and harvesting were not done there, “by 1770 the city supported seventeen rum distilleries”. Numerous forms of sugar, recipes for sugar and molasses, and rum drinks are noted here, as well as individuals and organizations involved in its trade (interesting, there were a lot of pirates based out of New York), and those involved in developing new forms of refining. It was the sugar interests who made sure the U.S. obtained Puerto Rico in the war with Spain, and within days of our Navy taking the island, industry representatives arrived to organize production. For fifty or so years, sugar cane was the cash crop there, and the workers, no longer slaves, per se, were institutionally locked into the industry. The life of these folks is illustrated with Torres' story, and the diaspora to New York when the cane industry began to fade in the 1950s.

The story of beer in New York is largely more recent, and that chapter looks primarily at a few craft brewers in various boroughs of the city, and the history. As is the case with most of these subjects, New York was at the one point the center of brewing in the U.S., with roots that went back to the very early Dutch presence. Germans eventually followed, and many traditional European brewing styles became established. This was eventually problematic during the World Wars, and prohibition certainly didn't help. Nearly as frustrating as that governmental intrusion are the off-putting “arcane regulations and overlapping bureaucracies” that current-day brewers have to deal with, and (I'm hoping this isn't going to be “a spoiler” for anybody) the two featured beer entrepreneurs end up ditching NYC to move out to Portland, OR.

This chapter looks at the evolution of the beer biz in the U.S., how it thrived and then faded in New York (the last industrial brewer closed there in 1976), how styles changed over time, how marketing changed (Lite, anyone?) the industry, and how assorted cultural shifts re-shaped the brewing world. I found a lot of the historical bits of how different European traditions expressed themselves in bars/restaurants as new immigrant groups swept in (Germans made up 1/3 of NYC's population in 1875, for instance), including the brewery-owned locations (there are still numerous Schlitz-branded buildings around Chicago from this era) of the Rupperts company, among others. An interesting note about this sort of establishment: “Beer came with a free lunch – Bismarck herring with onions, vinegar, and Tabasco, sandwiches of fresh-cut bologna full of garlic and cloves, highly seasoned wursts and limburger, mustard, and horseradish.”

I guess herring makes an adequate segue to the next chapter, dealing with fish. It's hard, even today, to disassociate New York from its maritime roots (given the docks all around Manhattan), but local fish is not something that immediately comes to mind (oddly, when contemplating this, Snakefinger's 1980 tune I Come From an Island does, with its lyric Fish, that's all we get to eat here, fish … It is our national dish.). The chapter starts with a 12-year-old girl working crab traps in the surf off of Coney Island, right by a sign warning against eating anything from those waters, which are polluted with a nasty mix of toxic chemicals. However, if you're poor, and want to get something to eat, it's a tempting resource. I was surprised to read here just how productive they can be … a community organization polled “two hundred Greenpoint and Williamsburg {neighborhoods in Brooklyn} anglers and found that they caught an average of fifty-seven fish a week each: blue crabs, eels, bluefish, and striped bass”, with their family members averaging eating nearly 10 of these each per week, against the recommendations that women and children never eat any, and men only once a month or so … that's a lot of seafood, as well as a whole lot of risk (I can remember as a small child in NYC catching crayfish using a can-and-string contraption up in Harlem Meer, the lake at the north-east corner of Central Park … an activity she mentions … so I have some experience with this, but I never even considered eating what we caught!).

It really is pretty horrific what's been done to the waters around (and within) Manhattan since the mid-1800s, when it was reasonably clean. The Industrial Revolution began the downward trend, and it still continues with raw sewage being dumped into Newton Creek (which had become notoriously noxious as early as 1881), between Brooklyn and Queens, along with a long list of toxins (the author devotes a paragraph), as an example that's detailed here. This list contrasts one of fish available in the New York waters back in 1679 … including foot long oysters, once a signature food of the city. This chapter somewhat rambles, as it goes from fisher to fisher, from crab trapping teens to chartered fishing boats, and pretty much all points between, discussing the people, the catch, and even the ways they prepare the food. The ecological dangers are certainly chastening, but there evidently are a lot of people choosing today's meal over the possibilities of PCBs, mercury, and even radioactive waste eventually ruining their health.

The final chapter looks at wine, and at one point Shulman pretty much defines the theme of the chapter as: “New York City wine-making has not been about quality wine, but about expressing tradition”. This topic probably has the least historical material in the book, a few paragraphs giving the broad strokes of wine (of all sorts) in various cultures, a few quotes about the native grapes found by the Dutch locally (deemed no good for wine), and how the European wine grapes kept failing (due to a vulnerability to an indigenous parasite), leading to the development of hybrids. It's primarily focused on immigrants and their wine cultures, specifically the Jews and the Italians, here personified by stories from two modern New Yorkers, Yatif Jiji, a college professor who grew up in a Jewish community in Iraq, and Sal Meglio, whose family had imported California grapes into NYC for generations. An interesting data point here is that both of these cultures “took advantage of a Prohibition loophole … the law did not prohibit all alcohol consumption – but allowed people to make limited amounts of wine to drink at home”, a loophole that, as one might expect, got abused quite a bit during the time the 18th Amendment was being enforced.

This latter factor is another element here, with the development of Kosher wines that were permitted, and were marketed by Rabbis of sometimes dubious provenance, eventually leading to still-familiar brand names like Manischewitz. Most of the chapter, though, deals with the family/neighborhood wine-making of previous decades … where nearly every housing unit had barrels of home-make wine sitting in the basements … and how this tradition faded as people began to move long distances from their families. The author also notes a number of modern commercial vintners who operate in New York (such as the Red Hook winery in Brooklyn), but the tale here more centers on figures such as Jiji and his huge (if somewhat unintentionally begun) grapevine that grows up the back of his townhouse on the Upper East Side, which can produce as much as a dozen cases of wine in a good year.

As you might have surmised by the length of this review, I found Eat The City quite engaging, and I've barely skimmed the surface of the information packed into it here. If you have interests in agriculture, cuisine, urban history, or the growth of the Green city, you will find a lot of fascinating material in this. As noted up top, I found this hardcover at the dollar store, but it's relatively recent (only five years old as of this writing), and still in print, and has since been joined by a paperback edition. The on-line big boys presently have both of these at more than 60% off of cover price, making them quite affordable (if you can't find a copy at the dollar store), and what they have the paperback going for is even less than what the new/used guys are offering when shipping's figured in. Needless to say, I really liked this one … and would highly recommend it to anybody with similar interests!


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Friday, July 14th, 2017
3:17 pm
The man of noble mind ...
Yeah, I had thought when I finally broke down and got Amazon's Prime service I'd not have to worry about ever nudging order totals toward a minimum number (which is one thing that Dover Thrift Editions are wonderful for), but ever since they've instituted the “add on” listings (which, unfortunately, includes our turtle's favorite food), I'm finding myself once again looking for a way to get an order up a couple of bucks without getting into a full-fledged additional book/garment/doohickey. Of course, the other thing that the D.T.E. books are great for is plugging holes in my education … and that's what's going on here with Confucius' The Analects (what, you read this in school?).

Of course, one of the challenges in trying to review ancient philosophical treatises is that they're hardly formatted with modern sensibilities in mind … not to mention that they're ancient and philosophy. Aside from those factors, this is laid out oddly … each “Chapter” (in the 20 “Books” that are organized in 10 2-Book “Volumes”) runs from 1 to 30 lines, and none taking up more than a single page, with my guess as to the average length being 6 lines (in blocks of text, not set up as “poetry” and/or bullet-points).

Confucius lived from 551 to 479 bce, which puts him well in front of the Big 2 monotheisms (although a few generations after Siddhartha Gautama and a generation or so after Lao-Tzu). There is an odd chronology up front here, which starts with the “semi-mythical first rulers”, Emperor Yao (c 2356 bce), and Emperor Shun (c 2255 bce), probably because Confucius refers to them with some frequency. Then a few historical dynasties, followed by some ancestors and immediate predecessors in Confucius' line. The main portion of this follows through his life, including the various positions he held, the periods he was in exile, and significant losses (his wife, his son, key disciples). The last two entries on the list are his own death, and the life data on Mencius, a century later.

There is also a list of 36 disciples, with some descriptive material … and in most cases at least two names. Obviously, over the centuries the details from Confucius' time have had plenty of opportunity to get hazy, re-interpreted, and subjected to linguistic shifts, so it's not terribly surprising that these names have gotten slippery, but it's confusing throughout this with the name in a particular “Book” appearing one way, and there having to be notation to “clarify” which person (both of the disciples, and various other characters – rulers, etc. – who weave in and out of this) is which … heck, even Confucius himself gets a half dozen other names that seem to be particular forms of address from assorted other speakers. Personally, I would have preferred it had all the players been relegated to “common English forms” of their Chinese names (like Confucius for K’ung-fu-tzu) rather than the “how do you pronounce that?” permutations with linguistic notation that I can't find in the Windows Character Map.

The Analects are set up thematically, with each of the 20 “Books” having a general subject under which the (what I take to be much-later-collected) assorted materials are organized. Some of these are “Concerning Fundamental Principles”, “Concerning the Sage in His Daily Life”, “Concerning Ancient Worthies”, and several that are less specific, such as “Chiefly on the Maintenance and Principles and Character”. Very little here is actually by Confucius, but is set up in blocks of “The Master said:” or bits about his activities … so it is all at second hand, at least.

I was disappointed that I only had a couple of my little bookmarks in this to point to the “good parts” to pass along here … so I'm going to be flipping through and looking for excerpts that seem like good examples of the whole. One of the most telling usages of Confucius is the idea of the Superior Man, who conducts his life appropriately, be this the ruler, or the commoner. There are several points where he is being asked about some seeming luxury (when he was serving at court), and he'd respond to the questioning disciple that there were forms to be followed, and without a robe of office, or a carriage, he'd not be doing the right thing in his activities. Confucius is quite hard on various leaders who he believes were taking rank and privilege that were unearned or not properly bestowed (especially in cases where power had been wrested – violently or otherwise – from the previously established ruler … in these cases he'd have nothing to do with the non-virtuous states).

One might ask, “what is the use of studying 2,500-year-old philosophy?”, well, as I've discovered in other books, the general tenor of the massive modern Chinese government is quite in line with Confucian thought … and the sort of expected relations between rulers and the ruled, states and their neighbors, and functionaries on all levels of bureaucracies as set out by Confucius is very much a template that can be used to gauge what is happening in and with China, as well as giving a guide as to what to expect from the Chinese (I'm certain that the C.I.A. has a number of scholars who know this stuff backwards and forwards on hand to put this sort of perspective into play).

Again, I'm having to snag most of these on the fly, so I'm not going to be telling you much of a “story arc” with broad strokes here … just trying to give you some sense of the book (oh, and the notation accompanying them here is my own extraction of the volume, book, and chapter numbering … and I'm avoiding ones with funky typography, so nearly all of the ones mentioning his disciples, etc., were skipped in the following).

V-I, B-I, C-III:
The Master said: “Artful speech and an ingratiating demeanour rarely accompany virtue.”

V-I, B-II, C-I:
The Master said: “He who governs by his moral excellence may be compared to the pole-star, which abides in its place, while all the stars bow towards it.”

V-II, B-IV, C-XIV:
The Master said: “One should not be concerned at lack of position, but should be concerned about what will fit him to occupy it. One should not be concerned at being unknown, but should seek to be worthy of being known.”

V-V, B-IX, C-XVI:
Once when the Master was standing by a stream he observed: “All is transient, like this! Unceasing day and night!”

V-VII, B-XIII, C-VI:
The Master said: “If a ruler is himself upright, his people will do their duty without orders; but if he himself be not upright, although he may order they will not obey.”

V-VII, B-XIII, C-XIX:
Once when Fan Ch’ih asked about virtue, the Master said: “In private life be courteous, in handling public business be serious, with all men be conscientious. Even though you go among barbarians, you may not relinquish these virtues.”

V-VII, B-XIV, C-IV:
The Master said: “When law and order prevail in the land, a man may be bold in speech and bold in action; but when the land lacks law and order, though he may take bold action, he should lay restraint on his speech.”

V-VII, B-XIV, C-VII:
“There may perhaps be men of the higher type who fail in virtue, but there has never been one of the lower type who possessed virtue.”

V-VII, B-XIV, C-XI:
The Master said: “To be poor and not complain is difficult; to be rich and not arrogant is easy.”

V-VII, B-XIV, C-XXXII:
The Master said: “A wise man is not distressed that people do not know him; he is distressed at his own lack of ability.”

V-VIII, B-XVI, C-IX:
Confucius said: “Those who have innate wisdom take highest rank. Those who acquire it by study rank next. Those who learn despite natural limitations come next. But those who are of limited ability and yet will not learn – these form the lowest class of men.”

V-IX, B-XVII, C-III:
The Master said: “It is only the very wisest and the very stupidest who never change.”

V-X, B-XX, C-III:
1. The Master said: “He who does not know the divine law cannot become a noble man. 2. He who does not know the laws of right conduct cannot form his character. 3. He who does not know the force of words, cannot know men.”
One other thing … as is the case frequently with the Dover Thrift Editions, this is a reprint of a much older book, specifically an edition put out in Scotland in 1910. I went looking for an on-line version to pass along to you, and was surprised to see that the “Volume/Book/Chapter” organization here seems to have disappeared in more recent presentations. Needless to say, I don't have the experience with Chinese texts to be able to figure out if the “chapter” breaks here are as notably separate in the original materials, but from what I saw poking around on the Web, these seem to have gone out of favor, being replaced with simple paragraph breaks (although I think the format here does do a better job of separating individual “stories”, which might tend to blur into a somewhat less coherent – not that this is particularly coherent – narrative).

Anyway, The Analects, being the classic that it is, can no doubt be found pretty much anyplace they have philosophical books … and the Dover Thrift Edition has a whopping $3.50 cover price, so if you want something more tangible than that link above, cost shouldn't be much of a factor. To be honest, I can't say that I really enjoyed reading this, but it was quite interesting, especially as projected to current global politics. Hey, it's cheap, it's a short read (under 130 pages), and it will make you sound smarter than you were going in … what's not to like?


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