Friday, December 10, 2010

Better for All the World by Harry Bruinius

Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity, by Harry Bruinius. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Bruinius is on the religion faculty at Hunter College, contributing writer to The Christian Science Monitor, and the founder of The Villiage Quill.

Better for All the World is a heart breaking narrative history of the persons involved in sucessfully promoting the eugenics movement in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While the notion of racial purity and eugenics is horrifying in itself, B’s superb research, presentation, writing and narrative leading allow the reader to know these people as people who sincerely cared about the nation and her people. In some ways reading this volume is like having to slow down next to a brutal and bloody crime scene, one desires to look away but the visceral shock of the scene locks the passer by into gaping horror.

There is a perennial question about the German citizens leading up to WWII, “How could they let this come to pass?”

They thought they were doing something good, making the state and its people better. The pattern had been set, right here, in the United States.

The horror remains today, though the terminology has changed, the ideology remains.

B’s title “Better for all the World” is taken from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in the court’s decision in Buck vs. Bell to allow the sterilization of Carrie Buck by Dr. John H. Bell of the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded on October 19, 1927. Justice Holmes’ words in context are:

“We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.... Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (p. 21) [emphasis mine]

B’s organized his work into four “books.” The first book is the Introduction, containing two chapters. B takes us into the office of Dr. John H. Bell as he is noting the clinical procedure he performed between 9:30 and 10:30 am on October 19th, 1927. The underlying question in B’s presentation of Carrie Buck’s history is the same as that for pre-WWII Germany, “How could they let this come to pass?”

From chapter 3 to 14 B introduces us to the main individuals who shaped the eugenics movement. For each of these people B gives the reader very good insight into who these individuals were based on their own letters, diaries, and scientific records.

While the eugenics movement is mostly unknown today, it was considered the height of scientific and national progress in the U.S. in the early 20th century. Advocates included U.S. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wildon, Franklin D. Roosevelt; leading court figures; presidential advisers; the women's suffrage movement,  Margaret Sanger--anyone who was anyone important and most of the country supported eugenics. County fairs across the nation in this so-called “positive eugenics movement” held “Fitter Family Contests” where the measure was their genealogical background.

And those who were judged “unfit” were institutionalized and, where possible, sterilized; in order to keep their “germ plasm” from infecting the wholesome heritage of America.

After introducing the reader to the the high moral ground which formed the basis for Dr. Bell’s sterilization of Carrie Buck, B takes us to the pioneers of the field.

The reader gets to know Sir Francis Galton,  Charles B. Davenport, Henry H. Goddard,  Harry Laughlin and many other well known and surprising individuals involved in the Progressive Movement in the United States and its related movement English Fabianism. B does an excellent job of showing the reader that these people were loving, caring, normal people with their own foibles and problems. Their progressive view of how the state should take charge of the details of human life (of others) binds them together.

Hitler and the National Socialists in Germany were so impressed with the American laws that they borrowed the eugenics law adopted in California its rationale and language for the Racial Hygene Law of Germany in 1933.

During the period of the eugenics movement in the United States over 65,000 people were forcibly sterilized. Germany in the same period also sterilized over 150,000 people by force.

In the aftermath of the Nuremberg Trials eugenics became an unpopular term, the very idea left a bad taste in the mouth of most of Europe and America. The very foundations and organizations organized for eugenics in America changed their names, and the name of their focus. Margaret Sanger’s The American Birth Control League, two goals of which were to track the genealogies of people and prevent “dysgenic” births. The American Birth Control League changed its name in 1942 to Planned Parenthood. According to 2005 CDC Data in the states reporting black babies were aborted in 35% of all abortions despite blacks being only 12% of the population of the US.

This bears emphasizing, data from the Census Bureau show that there are 288,400,000 people in the U.S, in 2005. 76% were white. That is 219,184,000 whites, and 304,602 abortions by whites. That’s 1 abortion for every 720 adult whites that year.

Data from the same year shows that 12% of the population was black. That is 34,608,000 blacks, and 209,991 abortions by blacks. That’s 1 abortion for every 165 black adults that year.

Blacks are being killed by abortion clinics, particularly Planned Parenthood, at a rate 300% higher than whites.

In 1973 The American Eugenics Society became the Society for the Study of Social Biology, “social biology” the new term for eugenics. The periodical Eugenics Quarterly became Social Biology in 1969. Many eugenics groups reorganized as studying the problem of “population control” under the philosopy of Malthus. Someone has to select who gets to die.

B’s volume is well worth the read so that all can know what Progressivism does at its most basic drives. Progressivism aims to make people better by the force of government.

In the words of Malcom Reynolds:
So now I'm asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything, I know this - they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They'll swing back to the belief that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin'. I aim to misbehave.” Serenity (2005)

Photographs courtesy of

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning by The Gardeners and Farmers of Centre Terre Vivante

Two thumbs way up.
Full title is
Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation by The Gardeners and Farmers of Centre Terre Vivante

A collection of personal recipes and traditional food preservation methods. The book is not only a collection of methods and techniques, but a book of traditional food lore.

The introductory pages discuss the need and utility of preserving the lore of food preservation; a distinction between traditional and modern methods; and the story of how this book came to be written.

Following an introduction on preservation, the cautions, and general ideas behind the methods; each chapter begins with a short description of the general method under consideration-along with cautions. The rest of each chapter consists of recipes and lore about specific foods preserved in the method under discussion.

The chapters cover: types of and uses of root cellars; drying foods; lactic fermentation; preservation in oil; salt (and salt brining); sugar; preserves; sweet-and-sour preserves; and the use of ethanol for food preservation.

The closing chapter is a chart about how to choose the best method for a particular food.

The book has nice illustrations and great layout. It is well supplemented with a thorough index to make any recipe immediately available.
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Home Book of Smoke Cooking: Meat, Fish & Game, Jack Sleight and Raymond Hull

I read 16th (1981) printing of the 1972 edition. Sleight and Hull break up their topic into manageable sections.

A general introduction to smoking, assembling the equipment, building smoke ovens, brining containers, making good brines and seasons, etc.

Chapters 4-7 focus on particular kinds of meats, poultry, wild game, fish and shellfish. Chapter 8 is an introduction to sausage making. Chapter 9 covers cheese, nuts, seeds, eggs, frog's legs, blueberries, and garlic bread. Chapter 10 discusses canning smoked foods. Chapter 11 discusses "Big-Scale Production" of smoked foods.

Filled with helpful diagrams and explanations, easy reading, and good instructions on where to get special ingredients or tools.

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Field Guide to Meat, Aliza Green

One thumb up.

Aliza Green's "Field Guide to Meat" has a subtitle. The subtitle is a very comprehensive claim.

The book is broken into general headings covering specific meats: beef, veal, pork lamb, poultry and game birds, game and other domesticated meats, sausage and cured meats.

Each of the sections starts with a description of the species of animal, the variety of the animal in the world, where the animal is grown for food in the world, and how it is generally cut.

Green includes a diagram for each animal with the various cuts labeled. Names of cuts and varieties are given in English, Spanish, Italian, and French.

After a general summary of the cuts of meat, Green devotes a small section to each cut, identification, buying, quality, preservation, and preparation.

There are 200 + color photos of meat cuts in the central part of the book. Most of these photos are referred to throughout the rest of the book.

The sections on beef, veal, pork and lamb are fairly comprehensive. The sections on poultry and game birds as well as game and other domesticated meats are much briefer in content on each animal. However, they cover many many more types of meat and foul.

This volume does not cover the topic of meat cutting, butchering, or seasoning/drying. It is a meat purchaser's guide, not a meat preparer's guide.

The final section on sausages is merely descriptive and historic. This volume does not teach how to prepare and cure meat or sausages.

All in all I believe the book tries to live up to the claim in the subtitle. Perhaps the word "prepare" should be replaced with "cook," since "preparation" also includes butchering and cutting--both topics which the book does not cover.

In general the recipes are helpful suggestions. But there are a great proportion of minimalist "roll it in flour and cook it" recipes.

I bought the book based on the description at Amazon. From that description I mistakenly thought the book could help me learn to butcher and make my own cuts of meat from various animals. I am not the target audience for this book.

This book is aimed at the supermarket/meat-market shopper who doesn't care about the butchering and just wants a nice cut to cook. It fits that purpose fairly well. The way the photos are arranged will make the book wear out fairly quickly. The book is well indexed and can instruct a novice in cooking meats he or she may have never experienced before.

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Basic Butchering of Livestock and Game, John Mettler

Two thumbs way up.

Mettler's guide is well organized, well written, and very helpfully illustrated. He begins with a chapter on "Tools, Equipment, and Methods" which lists and pictures various knives, saws, lifting equipment, and other kinds of equipment that the home butcher needs to make the work smooth. He outlines some general guidelines on best temperatures hanging/aging and meat preparation as well as advice on keeping the meat clean.

Then follow chapters on various kinds of meat: Ch. 2 Beef; 3 Hogs; 4 Veal; 5 Lamb; 6 Venison; 7 Poultry; 8 Rabbits and Small Game; 9 Less Popular Meats (like goats, horses, and bison).

Each of these chapters is very well illustrated both with respect to planning the cuts and making the cuts. Elayne Sears drew the illustrations, and the book is worth looking through just for her drawings alone.

Chapter 10 focuses on Meat Inspection. Ch. 11 covers Processing and Preserving; the causes and prevention of spoilage; how to freeze meat; dry cures and pickling; smoking meat; corned beef and tongue; sausage; and other preserved meats.

Chapter 12 consists of 37 recipes for items from short ribs to Pheasant Piccata.

There is a good glossary, a chart of weights and measures, and a very good index (by Eileen M. Clawson).

This book was edited by Dianne Cutillo. The art was directed by Cynthia N. McFarland, and the book design is by Jennifer Jepson Smith.

The book was revised and updated in 2003 by Martin Marchello.

The author, John J Mettler passed away in 2001. He was a veterinarian in upstate New York for more that 30 years.

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Deerskins Into Buckskins by Matt Richards

Two thumbs up.

Matt Richards makes it possible for everyone who has the gumption to make beautiful buckskins with time, effort, and no money spent.

The key is the subtitle: "How to Tan with Natural Materials." "Natural" means that they can be found in nature.

After three introductory sections [ "What exactly is buckskin?"; "A bit of history;" and "Why buckskin?"] Richards leads the reader gently through understanding skin, tanning, skinning, obtaining hides, storage and tools.

The gem of this book is called "The Basic Method" which is about 50 pages of well illustrated and well ordered methodical instruction. This section doesn't go into options, but presents the reader with what Richards says is an almost foolproof way to get a decent buckskin every time with natural [free] materials.

After this section Richards goes into other options of methods, resources, and techniques.

The work includes a reference section, a section on making primitive natural tools, hide glue, rawhide and sewing patterns.

Richards closes with a listing of resources cited in the book and where the reader can find them.
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Monday, November 29, 2010

Progressivism, the Great Depression and the New Deal: 1901-1941

Progressivism, the Great Depression, and the New Deal
Two thumbs way down.

Brothers Christopher Collier and James Lincon Colier eliminate everything from their presentation of the Progressive Movement which would cast any bad light upon the movement. Any reference to Eugenics from Theodore Roosevelt to FDR is expunged. The mass sterilization of "unfit" Americans is left out of their record.

The Racism of the Progressive movement is not recorded in the Coliers' small volume. And, indeed, most of the descendants of Progressivism in today's Liberal movement try to hide this heritage which still forms the basis of their classist division of American politics.

Further, the Colliers fail to discuss how FDR's programs, from the CCC to the Blue Eagle in the National Recovery Act had terrorized the citizens of the United States contrary to the limits placed on the Federal Government by the Constitution.

The authors fail to discuss the fact that Progressivists were at the root of the Prohibitionist movement and the source of gangster movements during prohibition.

FDR's threat to pack the Supreme Court with pro-Statist judges is left undisclosed.

Also, the authors failed to include the fact that the Communist Party was at the root of the movement to unionize labor through the end of the 19th Century and throughout the 20th Century in the period they discuss.

This volume was designed for instructing Jr and Sr. Highschool students in the benefits of the Progressive movement of the early 20th Century. 

Repeated throughout the volume is the Marxist ideology that the source of good for the common citizen had to be Big Government and that in America the "wealth was not being fairly shared." (P. 17 and throughout)

Instead they present a negative picture of Capitalism and "laissez-faire" policy. The individual citizen, his or her own desires, personal trade and property do not matter to these authors.

What they do present is a fictional recreation of a world that did not exist, where Progressivism actually cares for the individual (despite massive data to the contrary), and where Progressivism helped the country out of the Depression (despite the economic facts of history). The authors' negligence in discussing Social Darwinism leaves this reader to conclude that they yearn for the Marxist and racist eugenic and economic policies of the early 20th Century.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Corrections

by Jonathan Franzen

Thumbs down, down, down.

This was one of those books I wish I had never read.  I made myself carry on, but several times since then, I've wished I hadn't.  I kept hoping for a meaningful resolution.  It didn't come.

On the bright side, there were entertaining moments.  The characters are very well drawn and very creative.  An example of this is one character who has the habit of scratching his scalp and smelling his fingertips.  Eeeewww!  But very vividly portrayed.

Unfortunately, Mr. Franzen takes this same talent to portray every twisted familial relationship imaginable.  The characters are all unstable in their own ways.  The family around whom the plot revolves is totally messed up.

Several of the characters enjoy a variety of deviant behaviors that are then described with this same flair for detail and memorable portrayal.  And that is my fundamental complaint with this book.  I am now stuck with these unseemly images in my head.  I feel like I accidentally viewed something extremely naughty.  I feel kind of violated.  Yuck.

OK, for anyone who still wants to know more about the book, I suppose I ought to give brief plot summary.  I think one is supposed to when one is reviewing a book.

Franzen takes readers along the lives of the Lambert family.  The book is divided into sections, each section highlighting the history and evolution (devolution) of one member of the family, while still spinning the thread of the contemporary story line.  The main story line is linear, but within each section, spun within the narrative, we hear each character's story.

Alfred, the father, is suffering from MS and early Alzheimer's.  The mom, Enid, wants one more family Christmas at home.  She really, really wants it.

The two brother and sister each have their own issues in dealing with what they see as their mother's somewhat obsessive desire for a family Christmas and with their father's impending demise.

Franzen drags his readers through the muck of each person's life and shows how they come to some sort of "correction" in their attitude.  Unfortunately, the corrections are often more of the same.  Selfishness and denial, submission within unhealthy relationships.  And yet somehow, we're supposed to think it is all better.  Or maybe we are not.  Perhaps that is the point.  Perhaps we are supposed to come to peace with the fact that everyone is screwy and as long as we feel OK with it, then it's OK.

I got the impression we are supposed to see the Lambert family as survivors, heroes.  But I saw only a train wreck.  I feel like I should add another indexed tab for this one called deviant behavior.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Tortilla Flat

by John Steinbeck

Thumbs up, I think.

I seem to be giving alot of partial or mostly or kind of thumbs up lately.  Some books are just not cut and dried, good or bad.

Tortilla Flat is a paisano community on the hills above Monterey, California.  Steinbeck spends several paragraphs describing what this means.  In summary, the paisanos are of mixed blood, early Spanish immigrants and Native Americans.  They inhabited the American Southwest prior to the later waves of immigrants from Northern and Western European traditions.  The paisanos live on the fringe of development and participate in modern society according to their own rules.

When Danny comes home to Tortilla Flat after his service in World War I, he finds he has inherited two homes from his grandfather.  He is a wealthy man.

The story tells how Danny opens his homes to his friends and they enjoy the good life.  They wake up when they want, they philosophize on sunny mornings on the front porch, they eat the charity food The Pirate brings each day.  They drink wine from glass jars.  And they take care of their own.  Sort of.

In the end Danny is disenchanted with this subdued lifestyle.  He engages in three weeks of dissipation, followed by a time of despondence.  The communal structure between Danny and his friends winds to a halt after Tortilla Flat comes together for a memorable night of festivities in Danny's honor.

Danny and his friends do exactly what they want at all times.  They are the protagonists. The reader cannot help but love them, in spite of their laziness, drunkenness, violence, thievery, prostitution and fornication/adultery.

Tortilla Flat was quite obviously written prior to our current age of political correctness.  The paisano community is portrayed in what we today would call a negative light.  But somehow, Steinbeck draws empathy from the reader toward such characters.  I think the book reaches a bit of Rousseauvian romanticism in me.

There are many life lessons that a reader can ponder while reading this book.  It might be useful for an ethics discussion with a upper highschool aged child.  The book is rife with fodder for such an evaluation.  Because of some of the vices touched upon, a parent should read the book first.

Monday, October 11, 2010


by Gary Paulsen

One Thumb Up and One Thumb Down.

Paulsen is a great story teller and this book is no exception.  But this book left me with a hollow feeling in my heart.

I've heard periodically since moving to this area about this book and the controversy associated with it throughout the years.  I've heard from several local people that the books is somewhat autobiographical, with the fictional town of Twin Falls being a pseudonym for Paulsen's hometown of Thief River Falls, MN.  Many of the characters and incidents, apparently, have basis in real people and happenings in Thief River Falls in the days during which Paulsen grew up.  The character telling the story lived through many things that Paulsen lived through.  Paulsen faced a libel suit over this book; after going all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, he was exonerated.  But apparently it almost spelled an early end his writing career because he was so disheartened by the accusation.  How can a writer write about things he or she has no experience with, after all?

The story is told by a thirteen year year old boy whose parents are violent drunks.  He tells of his friendship with a mild mannered drunk, a local police officer, and his time at two different foster homes, his first girlfriend and his early jobs.  The story ends abruptly after a crushing loss in the boys life.

Again, excellent story telling.  But very sad.

The Whitechapel Conspiracy

by Anne Perry

Mostly Thumbs Up.

Scottish author, Ann Perry writes mysteries set in Victorian times.  I've not read enough of her titles to speak with any real authority, but this book was much different than any of hers I've read previously.  The Whitechapel Conspiracy, was an interesting book to read on the heels of Glenn Beck's The Overton Window

Instead of the Sherlock Holmes type mystery that leads a reader along the quest for the culprit of the the crime and the method used by the criminal to commit the crime, this book, as is apparent in the title, is the unraveling of a huge, convoluted, societal and political conspiracy.  The book takes place in London in the troubled years of the latter half of 19th century.  The industrial areas of London are filled with poverty ridden, worked-to-the-bone poor.  The royal family is seen as irrelevant; the prince is a prodigious spender.  In the poorer sections of London, several people groups (Jews, Irish, Catholics) have become marginalized and are suspected of causing all the ills facing the city.  Revolutions have risen around Europe and revolution fever is surging through certain segments of the London populace.

Bow Street police superintendent, Thomas Pitt, and his household are drawn into what appears to be a conspiracy to hide evidence in a murder trial.  The deeper they dig, the more sinister the plot appears.  Eventually Pitt's wife, servant and her suitor, and his distant aunt put all their various skills to work to solve the crime, and save the city and even the British Monarchy.

The reason I rated the book as only "mostly" thumbs up is that there are parts at which the reading is tedious.  The plot gets bogged down a bit in the history of the various political and societal situations in London at the time.  I also dislike historical fiction that mixes fact with fiction so thoroughly that it is hard for a reader to determine what parts are fiction and what parts are not.  Sometimes historical fiction spurs me on the further research, but this time it just made me feel hopelessly uninformed.  I wouldn't know where to start my research.

The Old Curiosity Shop

by Charles Dickens

Mostly Thumbs Down

I used to read primarily classic literature.  It was my way of trying to constantly increase my cultural literacy.  Most classic titles have become classics because they are rich in some quantifiable factor: memorable characters, historical commentary, well-crafted interpersonal scenarios, ethical or social dilemmas, or simply great story telling.  The really great stories combine several of these factors.  There are a few, however, that become classics for some more vague, perhaps unquantifiable reason.

I will put The Old Curiosity Shop into this category.  Dickens does give readers a cast of very colorful, memorable characters.  He also presents a variety of ethical and social situations, many not good.  But in general, the story seems to drag.  And drag.  And drag.  I did finally feel a pull by the plot in about the final 120 pages or so of the 530 page book.  But for the entire first portion of the book I really had to force myself to pick it  up each time.  It just wasn't that interesting.

And it was sad in wearying kind of way.  I found myself repulsed by the behavior of so many of the characters.  I know there are evil people in the world, but thankfully, God has spared me contact with evil such as Dickens give Mr. Quilp and a few of the others in the book.  When I sit to read, I want to be refreshed, not worn down.

There were, however characters of great virtue.  There were many witty paragraphs that gave astute insight into human nature.  There were touching scenes of caring.  I find myself intrigued by Dickens' ability to use the English language.  And I was taught several words with which I was previously unfamiliar.

Monday, September 27, 2010


by Tess Gerritsen

One Thumb Up, One Thumb Down.

Abby DiMatteo is in the first year of her surgical residency.  But some things at the hospital are beginning to seem, at best unusual, and at worst downright frightening.  Dr. DiMatteo follows her conscience and solves the mystery at great peril to her future career and her personal safety.

Ms Gerritsen writes a great story.  The characters are realistic and enjoyable.  The plot is compelling.  The suspense is just right.  Ms. Gerritsen avoids explicit descriptions of the s*xual situations.

Although some of the medical descriptions are of a somewhat technical nature, Ms. Gerritsen smoothly pulls everything together so that her readers are able to understand the implications of the various details she later needs to use. Some detail of a seemingly unrelated episode will reappear later in the book where it has implications.  But because the author has given the details and descriptions earlier on, the action does not have to slow down during the important parts. The book was remarkably well done in that regard. 

The story line deals with serious lapses in medical ethics.  It made me uneasy to think of people putting their lives into the hands of someone who may manipulate the health of another for their own personal ends.  Although the story was a good read, it is one of those books that is realistic enough and whose premise is repulsive enough to me that it left me with an unsettled feeling that was hard to shake.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Overton Window

By Glenn Beck

Qualified Thumbs Up.

The much (self-touted by author) Overton Window, turned out to be a quick read.  It was somewhat entertaining, sometimes suspenseful, mostly well-crafted and purposefully educational.

Mr. Beck has crafted a decent story.  His interesting and diverse characters are well developed and mostly consistent.  There are a few characters who tend to lecture the reader, but this too, is consistent with how Mr. Beck has drawn their personalities.

Because of this "classroom lecture" type quality, however, the story line drags at parts.  The actual suspense and drama part of what Mr. Beck has called a thriller is not a very big part of the story.  The book was reviewed by one of the greats of the political thriller genre, Vince Flynn, as "one of the best thrillers I've read in years."  Poor Mr. Flynn.  I suppose he can't read his own books with the same pleasure we get from them.  If this review by Mr. Flynn would lead you to think The Overton Window might be a similar kind of read to one of Mr. Flynn's books, there is little comparison between this book and those of the Mr. Flynn.  Mr. Beck's purpose, however, encompasses a somewhat broader scope.

I appreciated the fact that Mr. Beck, in his characterizations does not stick to any one variety of those personalities one might label as conservative or liberal or power hungry or extremist or whatever pigeon hole within which one might be unflatteringly viewed.  Each of his characters is unique and multifaceted, as are real people.

The book is well documented and readers are encouraged to do their homework on each of a multitude of issues to which Mr. Beck alludes in his story.

One of Mr. Beck's stated goals is to give a reader tools with which to react to the glut of information we encounter daily; tools to take responsibility for analyzing information that comes our way.  He seems to strongly want readers to avoid the accusation of being led as sheep.  In the afterword,  Mr. Beck gives specific suggestions for following through on this research.  In the story itself the author includes examples of mistakes made by those who don't check their facts.

So although I don't think The Overton Window is a great thriller, it is a good thriller.  But more importantly, it can be used as a launching off point to explore and learn about many subjects in the news these days.  And readers are given some tools to begin that exploration process.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bridget's Beret

by Tom Lichtenheld

Thumbs Up.

Bridget is an artist.  But she has lost her beret and along with it, her inspiration and, she things, her abilities.  When the younger girls coax her to help with the sign for her lemonade stand, Bridget is newly inspired and regains her confidence.

The part I found most fun was Bridget's interpretations of classic works of art in her lemonade stand advertisements.  The author includes a section in the back on famous works of art.

1001 label

A word of explanation here, I reviewed awhile back 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up.  I purchased the book for my family after seeing it in the library.   I encouraged the kids to choose several from within that book for their summer reading.  Some did, some did not.  

When I get a chance, I will review any we've had from those suggested titles.  I'll label it with the additional "1001" label.

The Three Robbers

by Tomi Ungerer

Thumbs up.  Mostly.

This basic color and silhouette style illustrations appeal to even the youngest children.  The prose is also quiet simple, with a lilt of rhythm that makes it fun to read.

The story shows, perhaps, the redemptive quality of love and goodness.  But might also appear to support the mentality of taking from the rich and giving to the poor.

The plot has some cute turns but the story ends somewhat abruptly.  I always find myself turning the final page expecting that bit more closure.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Out of the Ruins

by Sally S. Wright

Thumbs up.

In this fourth book of the Ben Reese series,  we travel with our hero, Ben Reese, to Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia.  Ms Wright gives detailed descriptions that bring to life the island's scenery and architectural history.  She gives us another cast of interesting characters.  And she spins a good tale.

Although equally satisfying, this story seems a bit different to her previous books, but I'm not sure I can quantify the difference.  Ben is ready to begin to love again and that puts a different spin on things.  (And I must say that I'm not pleased with his choice or girls; see my last Ben Reese review.)  But the author continues to keep things clean which pleases me.

The story is also a bit slower paced than previous books.  Ms Wright perhaps spends more time in this book on historical setting and less on character action and interaction. 

Most interesting of all, however, is her use of a cliffhanger ending.

And yes, I've already requested the next one.

The Joy of Geocaching: How to Find Health, Happiness and Creative Energy Through a Worldwide Treasure Hunt

by Paul and Dana Gillin

Thumbs Up.

The Gillins have included sections on preparation, searching, use of specialized technology, and the more social aspects of geocaching.  Each section has several chapters interspersed with interesting stories, some told by another geocacher and some related by the authors.  I really enjoyed the vicarious thrill imparted through some of these anecdotes.

The book also includes three appendices with additional information and resources, and a nice index.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders

by William R. Drennen

Thumbs up.

University of Wisconsin Baraboo/Sauk County professor emeritus, William Drennen traces the story of Frank Lloyd Wright.  After a brief introduction, he backs up to family histories, tracing those of Wright's parents and grandparents.

Drennen shows the strange and unusual relationship under which Wright, the most favored son, lived with his frighteningly possessive mother.  He tells of the religious and philosophical meld of Unitarian/Universalist and Transcendental/Emersonian philosophies deeply held in Wright's familial background.

Wright's father was an artistic and self-indulgent sort with apparently no financial management skills or common sense.  His family often lacked basic necessities while whims were indulged.

Drennen tells of Wright's early design successes.

We are told of his love for his first wife, Kitty, and their family, and how his entire design scheme at that time was an extension of that love, and an expression of family unity.  His idea of a prairie house included specific mechanisms designed intentionally to center around a happy family experience.

And then he went wacko.  Drennan spends some time spelling out the connection between Wright's religious/philosophical background and his seemingly sudden shift in world view.  If a person's religion is not based upon a specific Scripture, what is there to hold one firm?

After designing a house for a Mr. Edwin Cheney, Wright continued to spend increasing amounts of time with Cheney's wife, Mamah.

Mamah was an early feminist.  She and her husband Edwin had two children, but she did not see it as particularly her job to raise them.  Her primary fulfillment as a woman was to free herself from traditional female roles which she thought of as chains.  In order to be emotionally honest, she had to do only, exactly what she wanted to do at all times.

After a couple of years during which Wright seems to have been unsure of which path he wanted to follow, he threw in his lot with Mamah.  Wright seems to have become convinced of this superiority of emotional honesty and the virtue of living according to one's true desires.

Wright built Mamah the ultimate prairie house. Taliesin, outside of Spring Green, WI, has been described as the culmination of all Wright's design ideas;  the sum of what he had been trying to portray with his prairie style.

And then suddenly it was all gone.  Mamah was dead, along with six others, and the living quarters of Taliesin burned down at the hand of a madman.  Although the murderer was known right away, there has been much speculation surrounding the incident and many questions the answers to which no one will never know.

 Wright continued to work after this time, but his designs, according to Drennen, were of a much different sort.  Less beauty, less life.  And much fewer in number.  The tragic events seemed also to have spelled the end of Wright's genius.

Wright rebuilt Taliesin, the living quarters burned once again at a later time.  He rebuilt again.  Although Wright built on the same sites and even using the remaining structures each time, both rebuilds were less great than the original.

Death in a Prairie House is well told.  Drennen includes a thorough bibliography.  He tells readers when he is guessing, and what others have asserted and surmised regarding Wright's life, his personality, and the circumstances of the Taliesin murders.

I have lived in Madison, WI, and also in Oak Park, IL, both stomping grounds of Wright.  Many of the places mentioned were familiar.   I was glad to know more about this 20th century great.

The book made we want to learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright and his designs, and also about transcendentalism and universalism and how they affected 20th century worldviews.

While reading this book, I was often reminded of a theory a good friend once proposed.  She said that all masters or geniuses (as in those who are "way above normal" great at what they do) are a little bit crazy.  If true, Frank Lloyd Wright is no exception.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Teashop Girls

by Laura Schaefer

One thumb up; one thumb down.

The story starts out as thirteen--almost fourteen--year old Annie is standing on her head in the closet of her Grandmother, Louisa's teashop, the Steeping Leaf.  She is calming her nerves in anticipation of some coming stress the reader is not yet privy to.  All of a sudden, she is knocked over by the cutest boy in the world who is carrying a large box into the closet.

So starts the story.  As the story unfolds, Annie finds out that the Steeping Leaf is not a profitable business and Louisa may have to sell it.  But Annie, who loves the shop, calls in reinforcements, the Teashop girls.  Annie and her two best friends spent their girlhoods in the shop and Louisa encouraged them start a tea lovers club called the Teashop Girls.  The three girls now must fight for the very life of the Steeping Leaf.

There are several very nice touches the author includes that make the book appealing.  Each chapter beginning is decorated with a pen and ink wash of something one might find in a teashop: a cup and saucer, a teapot, or some delicacy such as a luscious looking layer cake.  The pages are interspersed with reproductions of old ads promoting the benefits and joys of tea and recipes for teashop specialties.  The author fills the story with little historical anecdotes of tea, tea drinkers and unusual tea facts.  Of course she includes instructions for making a perfect pot of tea.

The characters are quirky.  The plot is sweet.  Annie and her friends deal with typical early teen issues such as crushes, too many outside activities, misunderstandings, frustration with parents and family, etc. 

But with many things going for it, the story somehow falls flat.  I really wanted to like this story.  It was one of several books I read while on vacation.  I thought that maybe I just couldn't concentrate through all the excitement of vacation.  But when I mentioned to my daughter, who had also read it, that it wasn't really grabbing me, she agreed, saying that it was kind of boring.

The one character I didn't care for was the grandmother, Louisa.  Her late husband was a UW Madison botany professor.  He had specialized in the history and uses of Eastern herbs or some such thing.  Louisa was a practitioner of yoga and other Eastern philosophical stuff. She cured her customers problems with a combination of Eastern philosophy and herbal remedies.  Annie also, idolizing her grandmother as she did, was well versed in yoga and its philosophies.  It all was a little surreal, I guess.

That said, the story was set in Madison, WI.  I attended college there.  So I do realize this character is not far-fetched.  In fact, I probably could list several people of the same age demographic upon whom Louisa's character may have been based.  All the same it isn't the kind of character I want my daughters to emulate or admire.

If you can stick with it, however, the book is worth reading just for all the fun stuff.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Conspiracy 365 series

by Gabrielle Lord

Thumbs up.

These books are great quick reads.  They are definitely what I'd call candy reading.  Certainly they will not change your life or challenge any of your life's foundations.

However, they are wonderful for easy, lazy suspense.

The premise is that Callum Ormond gets a warning from some guy who looks like a homeless lunatic.  He must either hide away for one year or expect constant danger and trials.

This warning comes on the afternoon of New Year's Eve and by the time Callum's finished watching the midnight fireworks that night, the troubles have already begun.

The books are named after the months of the year, January, February, etc, with twelve planned.  Each is nonstop thrills and danger as Callum, with the help of his best friend tries to unravel the mystery involved in his father's recent sudden death, and thereby stop the danger.   Although the books race right along, the characters are developed enough that they are somewhat endearing.

The books are currently in publication with each title released on the first of the month coinciding with its title.  So the next one, October, will be released on October 1.

My teen aged son likes them; I think my middle school daughter would like them.  I think an advanced elementary aged child would enjoy them.  The vocabulary is not too challenging.  The stories are clean, so that is a big plus. The suspense is very intense, however, and at times a bit gruesome. 

Reading these books reminds me of a kind of funny thing that happened to us after we first had a computer with a DVD player.  We were new to the entire watching movies at home thing, having previously not even had TV.  Our local library was just starting to invest in DVDs, so the selection was somewhat limited.  But Wal-Mart had these great bins of really cheap DVDs of old classics.   So we stocked up on a few now and then.

One of the selections we got was an old John Wayne western.    We were watching it one night and kept waiting for the movie to get over.  But every time we thought it might end, it started another round of adventure.  We finally figured out that it was a serial.  Each time there was a resolution, it was the end of an episode.  We had been watching and watching and had inadvertently watched about six of these things.  We were, truth be told, kind of sick of the whole buisiness.

I think I'd feel a bit the same way if I read these books all at once.   Lots of excitement, lots of adrenaline; things slow down a bit; is it going to work out?  Not on your life, just when a reader thinks a solution might be within reach, there is a tremendous cliffhanger with absolutely no rescue possible and the story ends.

So yes, read them for a fun thrill.  But don't read them all at once.  Make yourself wait a few weeks in between.  Besides, if you read them all right away, you'll end up waiting for the last few to come out.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

by Jaqueline Kelly

Thumbs Up.

In 1899, Fentress, Texas, Calpurnia Tate is the only girl of the seven Tate children.  The weather is hot and dry.  And things are changing.  In this amusing and heartwarming tale, Jaqueline Kelly shows what it might have been like for a female coming of age at that time.

Calpurnia learns from her grandfather the secrets of the natural world and the new and exciting (and forbidden) theories of Charles Darwin.  She dreams of being a scientist.  She struggles with the fear of not being allowed to pursue such a dream on account of her gender.

Calpurnia must, however, learn to cook and do needlework.  Although brilliant with regard to her studies with Granddaddy, she is an abysmal failure at these homemaking skills.  The author works in several amusing situations highlighting Calpurnia's struggles in this area.

The spirited Calpurnia also learns to accept her oldest, dearest brother's interest in girls other than his only sister.  But she learns this only after an episode of embarrassing and painful interference on her part.

Besides all the life lessons Calpurnia deals with, the overarching conflict in the book is the wait she and Grandfather must endure after having submitted to the Smithsonian for analysis, what they think is an entirely new species of hairy vetch.

Each chapter begins with a quote from Darwin's Origins of Species.  The author then applies the quote, instead of to the natural world, to things going on in Calpurnia's life. 

Although the book follows a Darwinistic theme, it does not preach evolutionary theory.  But it does introduce a few of Darwin's ideas and places the theory of evolution within the context of the lives of ordinary people at the turn of that century.

The book would make an interesting tie-in for a home school family in a unit on evolution, botany, the history of science, or the women's movement.  Although I think boys might appreciate some of the lighthearted moments, the most likely audience is middle school girls.

It was a fun and witty book.  The characters are lifelike and colorful.  The plot is engaging.  It is an entirely enjoyable book from first-time author Jaqueline Kelly.  It is a Caldecott honor recipient.

And as an aside, when reading up on the author I was quite amazed to find that Ms Kelly was first a physician, second a lawyer, and finally, a children's author.  Such accomplishments in anyone would amaze me, but this woman does not appear to be very old.  I am always somewhat awed when I read about people who can accomplish so much in one lifetime!  My hat is off to Ms Kelly, and I hope she has more stories to pull from her proverbial hat.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bella at Midnight

by Diane Stanley

Thumbs up.

Ms Stanley is a natural story teller.  In this medieval tale she lets the characters tell the story, each in his or her own chapters, intertwining it all in a captivating yarn.

Maud reaches her sister's bedside in time to find the newborn Isabel a wet nurse.  Isabel's mother does not recover; but the child is safe for now, out of the reach of her cold-hearted father.

Young Alice grieves for her father who has been lost at sea.  When news of this tragedy comes to Alice, her sister Marianne, and their mother, they lose all they have. They must find their way in the world as paupers.

The peasant woman, Beatrice, served as wet nurse for Prince Julian, but he's had to return to the castle.  God sends little Isabel to fill the hole he left behind.  Thankfully the young lad still comes to visit. Julian and Isabel grow up as best friends, guided and shaped by Beatrice and her family.

Behind all these story lines is the long lasting war between Morinmoor and Brutanna, a short lived truce, and a prophecy of the Worthy Night who God will send to bring a more lasting peace between these two lands. 

Ms. Stanley's characters live.  Her setting is well drawn and historically consistent. 

Underlying themes include fidelity, honesty, and contentment. Her characters must come to terms with the idea of true happiness as opposed to high social standing.  She shows some characters embracing good choices and growing and thriving; and others who choose to hang on to grief, pride, and bitterness and therefore continue in unhappiness.

I also appreciate that Ms Stanley did not portray the religiosity of the medieval characters in a patronizing way.  The characters the readers come to most love and admire are the ones who show what is probably a historically accurate faith in God and respect for the Church.  This is not a primary theme, but it comes through in little ways throughout the story.

The book would make a great read aloud for a wide number of ages and would appeal to both boys and girls.  For independent reading, I think an advanced third grader could easily read it.  I think it would appeal to girls more than boys for independent reading.  Because of the medieval setting, some words and topics might need explanation.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Courage and Consequence

by Karl Rove

Thumbs up.

In this memoir by Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff for President George W. Bush, Karl Rove tells his side of what he calls in the book, the many "Myths of Rove."  Starting with his life as a youth and continuing through his days as President of College Republicans; his days as founder and director of Rove+, a direct mail consulting and later public affairs firm; his years working for George W. Bush during Bush's gubernatorial campaign and governorship in Texas; and finally his years in the center of world events, serving President Bush in the White House, Rove shares his story.

The story Rove tells is sometimes exhilarating and inspiring; frequently maddening and frustrating; and even periodically heartbreaking.  I really ran the gamut of emotions while struggling to get through the book.  There were times the emotionally laden material was too much to read in a constant dose, as in Rove's recounting of the events of 9/11 and the days following that horrendous event.  There were times I was so mad at our press or political players that I didn't want to continue the book.

For the most part Rove tells his story well, but there are times I got bogged down in the details.  For much of the book, I was engaged and drawn, but there were a few places during which Rove's lists of various hypocrisies or transgressions by his political opponents became simply lists to wade through.

The book is very well documented, encouraging any cynical or doubting readers to check up on his facts.  I was unfamiliar with the citation style Rove chose.  He does not number his citations, but each end note has a page number and a segment of quoted text, followed by the bibliographical information.  Once I got used to this style, I think I preferred it to the more traditional style.  I was able to concentrate on the text without the distraction of constant end notes; and then later when I chose to read through his citations, the partial quote allowed me to contextualize the information at that time.

Another bonus is the very comprehensive index.  I've already used it to recheck a few things I couldn't remember clearly.

I was left with several primary impressions from the book.  Firstly, Rove very much admired and respected the man for whom he worked.  Rove makes an excellent case explaining why history will include President George W. Bush as one of America's great leaders.

Secondly, Rove loves the political game.  This opinion comes through loudly throughout the book, but I remain a little skeptical of the nobility of this attitude. Let me rephrase that.  I think statesmanship is a noble calling.  I think the academic study of politics and political systems is a noble endeavor.  And I think the ability to articulate for the general public the ideas gleaned from such study is a noble undertaking.  But the game, the political give and take and grab and throw and whatever verbs one chooses to put with American politics today is neither noble nor dignified.  But Rove almost convinces me of its worthiness.

And finally, Rove loves his country.  In one of the end chapters of the book, Rove describes meeting with the Krisstoff family.  Dr Bill and Mrs Christine Krisstoff lost a son, Nathan, a Marine First Lieutenant, to an IED in Iraq;  they saw another son, Austin, follow in his brother's footsteps to fight for his country in the US Marine Corps.  And Dr. Krisstoff, an orthopedic surgeon, at 61, was begging to serve his country by treating the wounded as a Navy doctor.  With the help of the Bush Administration, Dr. Krisstoff was allowed to join the Navy and finally was able to treat wounded Marines on the front lines as part of the Forward Resuscitative Surgical System.   Rove explains how getting to know this family clarified for him the greatness of the American people.
I came to understand, more powerfully and clearly than ever before, what the president meant when he said that in these visits with the loved ones of the fallen "the comforter becomes comforted by the spirit and pride of these families."  And like so many others who have met people like the Krisstoff family over the years, I marveled at how our nation produces people like Nathan, Austin, Bill, and Christine.  To see bravery, sacrifice, and love of country in such personal terms leaves a mark on your soul.  It also deepened, in ways I could never imagine, my love for our country and for Americans who rise in times of consequence and challenge.  As long as this nation produces people like the Krisstoff family America will remain not only the greatest nation on the planet, but the most noble in history's long sweep.