Thursday, December 8, 2016

Democracy for Hire (Dennis W. Johnson)

Democracy for Hire: A History of American Political Consulting is a candid look into the world of consulting in political campaigns.  Dennis W. Johnson’s work details the rise of political consultants, pollsters, and campaign operatives, and how political campaigns and politicians have been transformed because of their impact.  The author provides tremendous insight into all of the facets of a campaign that many of us claim to hate: negative commercials, direct mail, and campaign calling.  He also discusses how campaigns have utilized more and more of our consumer data to help craft advertising and approaches geared toward demographics, neighborhoods, and even preferred Pandora stations.

When I was through, I felt like I needed to take a shower simply from learning more about the inside working of politics at a level that will make many stomachs turn and simply leave many others exasperated with the political process.  However, politics in this country is big business; over $6 billion (with a B) was spent on the 2012 elections and a higher amount is likely to have been spent on this most recent election once all is said and done.  There are third world and tropical countries with lower gross domestic products than our electioneering process.  Johnson argues that business is continuing to boom for campaigns and politicians, fueled in large part by money pouring in from mega-wealthy interests that will wage issue-oriented campaigns or set up organizations that are for or against candidates.

After trying to wash the stench of political consultancy off, I looked for glimmers of reform and hoped that Johnson could come up with some salient suggestions on how to bring some sanity to the spending.  The author advises caution and vigilance on our part to avoid falling into the "faux news trap" (his words, as opposed to the more viral “fake news” term that’s trending now) and wishing we would see through the noise to select the best possible candidates.  Those are good places to start, but they won’t change the reality that elections are becoming ever less substantive and
ever more divisive, and consultants are making a boatload in the process through their roles in shaping that reality.


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Dogs of Babel (Carolyn Parkhurst)

Many people with pets have often wondered what happens inside their little brains.  What are they thinking?  What do they do when we’re not around?  What do they wish they could tell us if they could form words?  Carolyn Parkhurst plays around with that scenario in The Dogs of Babel in a believable, often heartbreaking, way.

One day, Paul gets a tragic call about his wife, Lexi.  She has fallen out of a tree in their yard and died.  The only witness was their dog, Lorelei, so Paul in his grief goes about trying to teach the canine to speak.  As readers, we know that Paul is most likely going down a rabbit hole and will have no success, but we’re still rooting for him all the way.  This, however, is only the secondary storyline; Parkhurst takes us back and forth between the present and past, from the very beginning of Lexi and Paul’s relationship to the time right before the day Lexi died.  Doing that makes it very clear that things were not always what they seemed to be on the surface.

This is one of those books that I need to give the dreaded half rating to  It wasn’t quite good enough to be a 4, but not average enough for a 3.  I found myself loving The Dogs of Babel at the beginning, but parts toward the end dragged.  All in all though, this is a unique story that befits Paul and Lexi’s unique marriage.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Kingdom of Their Own (Joshua Partlow)

Joshua Partlow’s A Kingdom of Their Own recaps the Karzai family’s grip on power in Afghanistan in the years following the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001.  American leadership placed their hopes for Afghanistan’s democratic success on Hamid Karzai, and Partlow tracks the complicated relationship between Hamid and the United States, as well as Hamid and his own family over the time of his leadership in Afghanistan.

Kingdom goes through great lengths to retell the story of American involvement in Afghanistan after the installation of Hamid as leader. American commitment included military support and financial resources, as well as business interests that "helped" to rebuild Afghanistan after years of destruction brought upon it by war, Soviet control in the 80’s, and Taliban control in the late 90’s.  Those business interests involved a few of Hamid’s brothers, who relocated back to Afghanistan after living in the United States for a time to help in the rebuilding process, as well as others who lined their own pockets for financial and political gain.  Partlow asserts that the United States was fighting not just insurgent terrorists but wayward and unethical Afghans and then began to fight with the Karzai administration over how to manage the various conflicts in Afghanistan.  In time, the Karzai-US relationship deteriorated to the point where the Americans were essentially persona non grata.

Partlow briefly touches on Afghanistan’s complicated tribal history to help preface the geopolitical environment in the country, adding additional meat to a thorough entrĂ©e of discussion on the billions of dollars spent propping up Hamid and (by proxy) his brothers during a bit more than a decade.  All in all, A Kingdom of Their Own  is a technical, at times wonky, book.  Nonetheless, Partlow’s well-researched work provides a critical and needed perspective on the War on Terror’s lesser known front and how both sides made many mistakes along the way.


Thursday, November 3, 2016

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (Robert Matzen)

Robert Matzen’s Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe is a detailed account of the beloved actor's military service in the Army Air Corps during World War II.  Stewart was drafted and chose to serve, pitching his developing love of flying to serve his country as part of “The Greatest Generation” of numerous military veterans who sacrificed time and their lives in various war theatres around the world.

Stewart is a favorite actor in this household, with It’s a Wonderful Life one of the films that endears us to him.  Our appreciation of Stewart and his down-to-earth demeanor led me to want to review this book.  Matzen did not disappoint, going into great detail to highlight not just Stewart’s service in the military but bringing attention to several stories on the Allied front as they served under him in England and on several bombing missions over Europe.  Sprinkled in were accounts from the German front, specifically highlighting a German Luftwaffe General’s story as the war unfolded.

Mission captures Stewart’s guarded, quiet, personality at its core and how World War II changed him and so many other men who fought in it.  He was pained by the battles and the loss of men under his watch, bearing those scars for the duration of his life.  Mission spends little of its pages devoted to Stewart’s years after World War II but does a great job of capturing the essence of Stewart and how he treated those under his command with the same respect and decency that would have made Mr. Smith proud in Washington.


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Interestings (Meg Wolitzer)

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is one of those books that get very differing opinions.  Some readers say that the characters are unlikeable so they don’t really care what happens to them very much.  It seems that you either become emotionally invested in these characters or you don’t -- there’s not much of an in-between.  I found The Interestings enthralling for about 90% of it, and then the unrealistic ending really let me down.

The Interestings are a group of friends who meet every summer at the Spirit-in-the-Woods camp.  It is here where they are free to be themselves, and when camp ends, it is understood that they are friends for life.  Readers see Jules, Ash, Ethan, Jonah, and the others grow up, get married, become successful (or not), and have children, and since they’ve “known” them since they were teenagers, it’s not difficult to root them on.  Wolitzer really spends the time developing each one of them, which is why a few events toward the end seemed like quite the cop-out to me.

However, the last few pages aren’t the be-all and end-all of The Interestings.  The best kind of realistic fiction novels are when readers can see themselves mirrored in the characters, and that’s precisely what tends to happen here.


Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Murderous History of Bible Translations (Harry Freedman)

The Murderous History of Bible Translations by Harry Freedman is a concise, entertaining, and informative look at the history of Bible translations over time.  It covers both the butchering of language in translation and of those who dared translate the Bible in the past.  Freedman's work is a very solid read that highlights the ebb and flow of controversies that have arisen in translating the best-selling book of all time.

The author covers the chronological spectrum of Bible translations, starting before the time of Christ with what is now the Old Testament, continuing through the early era of Christianity, and then the subsequent violence that gradually arose as scholars tried to translate the Bible for the masses against the wishes of those who thought they knew better.  Bible burning became a noted pastime and "tradition" of sorts among those who either tried to suppress increased access to the book, or simply had an axe to grind against how a particular version was translated.

In addition, Freedman talks about lesser known translations and how they came about as a result of some form of discrimination or in a couple of cases, as a way for a particular culture to gain a better understanding...while leaving others confused as a result!

The combination of historical background, controversy, and the introduction of individuals that are rarely heard about makes for an informative story about humanity's struggle with and against the Bible.  If you have a background in history, religion, or sociology, this book is definitely for you.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Ethics in the Real World (Peter Singer)

Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter is a collection of opinion columns and short essays written by Peter Singer, a professor at Princeton University.  The book bridges a wide array of topics, fusing the classical realm of philosophy and logic with the modern perspective, where philosophy acts to advocate for values and takes positions on social, political, and economic issues.

Singer brings wide-ranging and not always politically mainstream thoughts to issues that range from romance to sport, money to animal rights.  His thoughts can be challenging to more conservative points of view, and they are expressed in more of a structured opinion-editorial way as opposed to a research-intensive method.  Some footnotes and reference bullets are incorporated at points when the author cites another writer's work.

Ethics in the Real World is a relatively quick read given the wide range of topics that are covered; every essay is less than six pages in length.  You may not agree with what is articulated and you may find offense at some of Singer's points, but credit should certainly be given at the wide scope of topics and depth of thought that he has taken.