Friday, August 28, 2015

Signs the Economy is Bad, August 28, 2015 edition

Welcome to another edition of "Signs the Economy is Bad" here at The Itinerant Librarian. This is the semi-regular (as in when I have time and/or feel like doing it) feature where I scour the Internet in search of the oh so subtle hints that the economy is bad. Sure, pundits may say things are getting better, but what do they know? And to show not all is bad, once in a while we look at how good the uber rich have it.  

Once again, been a while since we did one of these. Summer flew by, and the powers that be kept me busy at the library with various projects (some I could blog about in the other blog, others not so much). Meanwhile, the bad economy has continued on ahead, and a lot of things have been going on. So let's see how many we can cover in this post. As always, comments are welcome. Also, if you have any story tips, feel free to share; maybe I will include it in the next installment.

  • The United States is not exactly a healthy nation. A lot of people in the U.S. take a lot of prescription drugs for a lot of different conditions. Cost of these medications can be astronomical in some cases, even if you have health insurance. In fact, the concern over costs is on top of health concerns in the U.S. Story via Bizmology.
  • As I mentioned, my summer flew by. It does not mean I had it off. Some of us do work for a living year round unlike a lot of academic faculty who get time off (some voluntary, others not so much due to things like 9-month contracts, but if they expect sympathy from me, look elsewhere. I was here working on various things while they were sunning themselves someplace else). Anyhow, the fall semester has started, and students are coming in for their first fall semester as college students. However, a lot of students, especially low income students do not bother to show up when they are already admitted. Why is that? Some reasons include: "They’re stymied by tuition sticker shock, Kafkaesque paperwork requirements and a quiet, corrosive feeling that they don’t belong." For a place that is supposed to help students make something better out of themselves, higher education is often a very cold and unwelcoming place. Part of why I am happy working where I work now is because in my college, where we draw students of low income, we work had to cut down those obstacles. Story via AlterNet.
  • Meanwhile, in public schools across the U.S., the kids are getting back to school as well. What many parents who often whine about taxes and PTA fundraisers (because heaven forbid they vote to make sure schools are properly funded) fail to realize is the amount of money teachers spend on school supplies. These parents love to bitch and moan about the school supply list, or having to send in boxes of tissue that the classroom will share because of the horror that resources are pooled together and maybe a poor kid who can't afford a box of tissue will still get some to blow his nose as needed. However, what they forget is that despite the list, teachers often spend a lot of money, money out of their own pockets, to supplement the supplies they will need in their classrooms for their students. So maybe, just maybe, you whiners should shut the fuck  up, buy an extra box of pencils, pens, or tissue, and send it over for the classroom so your teacher does not have to spend money he or she likely does not have. You know, show a little compassion instead of bitching that some kid does not bring a box of tissue, and yours has to share. Consider yourself lucky your kid is not the one who can't afford the school supplies.  Story via AlterNet.
  • By the way, you know what else poor kids often do not have access to? The Internet. Yes, lack of Internet access is still a big issue for the poor. Now some of you privileged may say that 'net access is a luxury, and the poor should just do without and suck a lemon. Allow me to enlighten your ignorant, inconsiderate mind with the following: ". . .lack of Internet access is a serious barrier for many low-income families, and its consequences are very real: students who have broadband at home achieve higher graduation rates than those who do not; high speed Internet access is strongly associated with greater economic development for communities; and the Internet is a critical prerequisite for accessing a huge proportion of job applications. I spent the past year studying how these folks use public computing resources in Chicago, and I can tell you that having access at home, work, school, or a public center really changes what opportunities are available to you." Internet access is not some luxury; it is now an essential necessity for all. Story via Common Dreams.
  • In other news, did you know that odds may be good, if you live in a rural area, your local post office building is not even owned by the U.S. Postal Service? Yes, more outsourcing that is not exactly a good thing. And even worse, it may be owned by some absentee landlord that does not even maintain the building. Story via The Rural Blog.
  • And speaking of rural areas and outsourcing, for many years American manufacturers outsourced good jobs to China because they wanted to do things on the cheap, damn the workers. Well, you know the shit has hit the fan when China has decided to outsource its manufacturing because it found a place where labor is dirt cheap with minimal to no labor rights. What Third World hell hole are they sending labor too? Would you believe me if I told you the Chinese and other Asian manufacturers are outsourcing their manufacturing and setting up shops in Southern States of the U.S.? Don't just take my word for it. Go over to The Rural Blog and read the details. However, don't get too excited if you are in one of those states and hoping jobs will rush back in. According to the article, ". . . because the industries that are returning to the U.S. are heavily automated, they won't provide anywhere near the number of jobs that manufacturing facilities did in past decades. . . " .
  • This is a story I just found interesting, and it certainly qualifies as a sign of the bad economy. It will be of special interest if you are New York City resident. Bodegas are declining in Manhattan due to rising rents and the growth of chain stores. Story via The New York Times
  • In another sign in the economy is bad, a page has turned in the history of listening to music. For a certain demographic, the slogan of "8 CDs for a Penny" (or similar) holds dear memories. Well, those days are now officially over as Columbia House has filed for bankruptcy.  If you need to mourn, feel free to comment with your favorite memories of those days. Perhaps tell me about your favorite CD or album from those days. Story via NPR. 
  • Also via NPR, let's go abroad. In Spain, due to the bad economy and young people leaving for cities, whole rural villages are now for sale. If I had a few extra bucks, I think I would have an answer to leave the U.S. 
  • And in Colombia, legendary drug lord Pablo Escobar is now a tourist draw as you can visit various sites related to his site and career. You can even get souvenirs at gift shops. Story via GQ
  • And in the sign this week that let's us know the economy is really bad, and the U.S. is just fucked up, Sesame Street has now been gentrified. Yes, the children's neighborhood of working people that educated any and all in public television has sold out. It now belongs to privileged hipsters and those who can pay for premium cable, namely HBO. Talk about reflective of our times. Story via Salon

Now, it has not been all bad. For the uber rich, as usual, things are going swell. Let's see what they have been up to:

  •  The war machine keeps finding ways to make money and profit off war. This time, you can meet 11 defense contractors making money from the drone wars. Story via AlterNet.
  • In Mississippi, things are bad, but they got their priorities straight. They also got hit by Hurricane Katrina. They made sure the important stuff got repaired right away. That is why the home of treasonous leader and slavery champion Jefferson Davis has been restored to its full glory while neighboring people still suffer in squalor from the aftermath a decade later. Because, priorities man. I mean, we are talking about a state that "happens to be the most poverty-stricken, most obese and least educated." But hey, you have to fix the important stuff. Story via Addicting Info
  • Good rich Republicans can support their party by buying ridiculous (well, ridiculous to us mere peons) souvenirs. Granted, Democrats do this too, but this week, Republicans take the cake. Jeb Bush has you covered in the political fundraising tshotshkes with his $75 guaca-bowle. Because what better way to get the Latino vote than to pander to stereotypes they all eat guacamole from expensive bowls. And the thing is, the cheap bastard did not even include a recipe. Story via The Week.  
  • Now after you make your guacamole at the end of the day, you want to sit and maybe do some blogging. You can place your guaca-bowle and your laptop on one of these very expensive desks. Me? My cinder blocks with an old wood panel on top work fine as a desk. Story via the Shoplet Blog
  • And finally, you may need a drink to go with that guacamole. So you figure you can go on over to Whole Foods and get some asparagus water. However, even you would be out of luck because as much as Whole Paycheck caters to every hipster desire, even they realize asparagus water is ridiculous, so they removed it from their inventory. Story via

Booknote: Insylum

Z. Rider, Insylum. Erwin, TN: Dark Ride Publishing, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-942234-06-7. (Link to publisher website. As of this time, no Worldcat record available).

Genre: horror fiction
Subgenre: could fall within splatterpunk, horror set in mental asylums, monsters, medical
Format: e-book galley
Source: Provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

I finally finished reading Z. Rider's novel Insylum. I took me a while because I did not find the book to be that engaging. I really wanted to like this; from the description, it sounded like a fun book, but it did not quite get there. For one, the initial "Bookend" scene (the story is framed by two "Bookend" chapters at the beginning and end of the book) in the mental ward sort of gives away the ending. You kind of already know what will happen to at least one of the characters going in. I feel the novel would have worked a bit better if the author had started the tale when the characters were standing in line to enter the asylum-themed horror attraction. Leave then the end "Bookend," and it could have worked better.

The premise of the novel is two longtime friends, Nate and AJ, decide to have one last night of fun before AJ ships out with the military to Afghanistan. There is already tension in the friendship; AJ has been having an affair with Nate's sister Delia, an affair that Nate does not approve of. The fact that AJ comes back from boot camp a bit of a macho jingoistic snob does not help neither, and it makes AJ not very likeable as a character. AJ becomes the guy you want the monsters to get first, the sooner, the better. You could get your wish as a reader since the rumors about the park may just be true, including the one how the last two people to enter on any given time never come back. Yes, Nate and AJ are the last two to enter that night.

Soon, the friends find themselves in a nightmare scenario, facing a series of horrifying scenes They find themselves wondering what is real versus a part of the show. They soon discover the horrors are very real. This all sounds great, but the book takes too long to set things up, and the pacing overall is very slow. Various segments seem repetitive, and after a while, you just want the ride to end. Now, the protagonists want the ride to end because they want to survive. Readers may want it to end because after a while the novel just goes on and on and on. However, there are some effective and horrifying scenes for the horror fan, such as the Cherry Bomb Babe scene and the scene where one of the protagonists is tormented by a very alluring nurse. But such thrills are far between, and most of the narrative does feel a bit tedious after a while.

The ending does leave readers with questions. Some questions are the unsettling kind you get from a horror tale, and this is an effect an author wants to achieve. Others are more the kind of questions folks often ask after watching a movie that was not good enough to get you to suspend disbelief, you know the kind, such as "where is the logic in that?" or "how does that make sense?" This is not something desirable for an author. Overall, I think this novel had a lot of potential, but it fell short. The plot dragged on a bit too long at times. The protagonists were not too likeable, and while you often want to root for the monsters in a horror work, often you want at least one person to survive. Finally, the author almost gave the ending away. In the end, I am a bit ambivalent if I would take a chance on another work by this author. We'll see. This one was just OK for me.

2 out of 5 stars.

* * * 

This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges:

Friday, August 21, 2015

Booknote: The Incredible Hulk, Volume 1

Jason Aaron,, The Incredible Hulk, Volume 1. New York: Marvel Comics, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-7851-3336-0.

Genre: graphic novels and comics
Subgenre: superheroes
Format: trade paperback
Source: My local public library

This volume collects issues 1-7 of the series as written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by Marc Silvestri. Hulk is one of those comics that has gone all over the place for me. If I recall, the last Hulk comic I read was Planet Hulk, which I did enjoy (link to my review of that). This comic is much later after that story, and if you have not followed the series, you may miss a detail or two or wonder why something is the way it is. It's best to accept this one as it is.

Bruce Banner finally gets his wish: to be separated and rid of the Hulk. Hulk makes a deal, with a devil one might say, and succeeds where Banner could not. They go their separate ways: Hulk find peace underground with the Moloids. Banner, however, goes mad and wants Hulk back. In an isolated island, he basically goes all Dr. Moreau trying to transform himself into Hulk again. Eventually, Hulk and Banner head for a confrontation.

The story is good initially as it is revealed, in gradual fashion, how the two are separated. However, Banner's madness and new experiments just seem a throwback to Dr. Moreau and other mad scientists. It does feel a bit cliched. After a while, Banner seems cartoonish. Yes, I am aware this is a comic, but Banner loses his humanity. I can appreciate that, but then the writer turns him into a cartoon of the mad scientist. We can't really take him seriously. In contrast, Hulk does show some good character development, and we see potential for depth.

The art by Silvestri and others is great. Hulk's savage look with a beard is not just primal. It adds depth; it even gives him a small touch of having gained some small hard won amount of wisdom. The giant is dignified. The rest of the art is colorful with great use of detail. The art overall is a good reason to pick up this volume.

I liked it, but I did not really like it overall. At times, it just seemed too close a rip on a classic. But it does have some good action, and it sets up the next installment, which I may seek mostly out of curiosity. In the end, it is a fairly light and easy read.

3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Booknote: The Radical King

Martin Luther King, Jr., The Radical King, edited and with introduction by Cornel West. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-8070-1282-6.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: speeches, writings, biographical, politics, race studies, history, African American studies
Format: hardback
Source: Borrowed from Berea branch of Madison County Public Library

This book is a collection of speeches and writings by Martin Luther King, Jr. that highlight more of his radical and social justice thoughts and stances. Yes, he worked hard for African American civil rights, but he fought for so much more, against war and poverty as well, and he was very outspoken about American imperialism. These are aspects of his life and work that many have forgotten, yet they remain very relevant.

In a time when it seems a black man in the U.S. is killed by police as a regular occurrence,, often for no other reason than the color of his skin, reading this book is not easy. The riots in Baltimore, which were happening around the time I was reading the book, remind us that racism and oppression of minorities are very much present and with us today in the United States. King preached nonviolence, but he also acknowledged that:

". . . the riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America's failed to hear? It's failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of justice and freedom have not been met. It has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, humanity, and equality, and it is still true. It is still true that these things are being ignored" (239). 

That was from his speech "The Other America," which he delivered in 1968; it was a speech he gave to a  union composed largely of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and others of color. It gives me a bit of a chill or thrill knowing Puerto Ricans heard his words. But more than that, and here is why at times reading Dr. King now is so hard, is that today it may be a case of willful deafness. It's not that America can't hear the plight of its poor and oppressed. It's that America actively chooses not to hear it, chooses to ignore it, and inflict violence on its minorities. In that context, violent response to violence is the unheard finally saying it is enough, you will hear us; we are calling you out on your abuses and sins. In reading this book, were Dr. King alive today, he'd probably (I'd like to think) still follow the path of nonviolence, but it would be hard for many to believe with so many violently opposed. In so many ways, Jim Crow never left. King's words remain so true and relevant, and they speak a truth that is not easy nor cuddly, and they are certainly not words conservatives can co-opt, for such words indict them and their exploitative oppression of others. And others includes many for King cared not just for his people, but for all people-- Black, Latino, white, poor, so on.

The book is arranged in four thematic parts. The themes are:

  • Radical love
  • Prophetic vision: global analysis and local praxis
  • The revolution of nonviolent resistance: against empire and white supremacy
  • Overcoming the tyranny of poverty and hatred 
Each part includes a selection of his speeches and writings reflecting the theme. There is a "classic" or two, such as "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which is pretty much mandatory reading in the few schools that may teach something of civil rights in U.S. history, and "The Other America," which is often quoted, but I get the impression very few people have read the whole thing. "The Other America" is a powerful piece when you read all of it. If all you know of Dr. King is his "I have a dream" speech, you are seriously missing out on what Dr. King really had to say and all he fought for. This book aims to remedy that. If you read it from start to end, you will get a sense of how Dr. King's thinking evolved from his early days to become a social justice fighter for all, even when some of his allies left him or rebuked him for, in essence, what they saw as going off topic. If you read his words, you see that topics like poverty, war, imperialism, oppression, so on are not really off topic. They are all part of a larger picture he saw and wanted us to see in order to make things right.

The book is edited and introduced by Dr. Cornel West. In the introduction, he argues that so many do not know the radical King. He highlights examples of King's more radical views, imagining how King's broader and radical views would have been better known had he lived longer to continue his work. I have been fortunate to be able to learn more about the radical King (reading this book, reading and seeking out more works by him and about him, my work at Berea College, and my journey on the civil rights tour). More folks need to know him now.  I'll tell you who did know Dr. King really well then, aside from his family and those closest to him: the FBI and the U.S. Government who labeled him "the most dangerous man in America" (x). You earn that label for speaking truth and making the powerful and the oppressor very uncomfortable, by calling them out and demanding for them to make things right and deliver on the true promise of America. For King, as West writes,

"The litmus test for realizing King's dream was neither a black face in the White House nor a black presence on Wall Street. Rather, the fulfillment of his dream was for all poor and working people to live lives of decency and dignity" (xi). 

We are a very long way from that dream, and we seem to be getting further away from it these days.

West also introduces each thematic part with a short commentary that puts the writings in context. Each essay or speech includes a small introductory note so we know when it took place and get a sense of what was going on at the time. The book also features notes and an index.

I liked the book. The book could be a bit exhausting to read at times. I also did jump a bit in reading it for some selections are more interesting that others. Some works are more intense than others. Also, keep in mind that Dr. King was a minister, so he does employ much religious imagery, and he comes to his work from a Christian view. Though he strives to be inclusive, there are some moments when the Christian privilege can come across a bit too strong, especially for heathens like me or folks from other faiths. I tended to favor his works geared to more general audiences, but your mileage may vary. In the end, it is also fascinating to see how well read he was and how be brings those readings into his thinking.

3 out of 5 stars.

* * * *

Additional reading notes:

MLK quoting Gandhi and nonviolence:

"Now, it's possible to resist evil; this is your first responsibility, never adjust to evil, resist it. But if you can resist it without resorting to violence or to hate, you can stand up against it and still love the individuals that carry on the evil system that you are resisting" (28-29). 

What makes a religion that is spiritually dying in the words of MLK. This is as relevant today as it was when Dr. King wrote it in 1958. I admit that for me this is another reason I am a heathen. Very few organized religions fit the following statement:

"It has been my conviction ever since reading Rauschenbusch that any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried" (40). 

The theologian MLK mentions above wrote Christianity and the Social Crisis. On a side note, it is interesting to me how well-read King was as he mentions and discusses writers and thinkers whose work he read and pondered in his road to nonviolence.

King on nonviolence resistance with love. Here he quotes Booker T. Washington:

"Booker T. Washington was right. 'Let no man pull you so low so as to make you hate him" (52-53). 

Then again, that idea is not just for the nonviolent. Even Michael Corleone knew the significance of not hating your enemies:

"Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment." --From the film The Godfather, Part III.

It's just something to ponder. King naturally wraps his nonviolent resistance in a Christian blanket; it's where he is coming from. But whereas King sees Gandhi as one of Jesus' "other sheep" (which I find a little pretentious), reality may well be that decency and morality are not Christianity's exclusive franchise. Although King does have his ecumenical moments of acknowledging other faith paths or those with no faith. That is a big deal considering how many Christians today think it's their way or else. Yet King then falls back into, in essence, they've got to believe in something. Why? Why can it just not be because they are decent people? Here are King's words that prompted this line of thought for me:

"It is true that there are devout believers in nonviolence who find it difficult to believe in a personal God. But even these persons believe in the existence of some creative force that works for universal wholeness. Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power and infinite love, there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole" (53).

I think a large swatch of atheists would say not believing in a personal god is not difficult at all. And they are fine, decent people.

* * * * 

This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges:

Friday, August 14, 2015

Booknote: Buttermilk and Bible Burgers

Fred William Sauceman, Buttermilk and Bible Burgers: More Stories from the Kitchens of Appalachia. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2014. ISBN: 9780881464795. 

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: food, travel, regional
Format: paperback
Source: my workplace library (Hutchins Library, Berea College)

This book is a collection of short stories and vignettes about food and cooks from the Appalachian region. The book is organized into three parts: people, products, and places. Each vignette runs from two to four pages long, and you get to meet a diverse range of folks and see a variety of places. For restaurants and establishments, address and contact information are included so you can plan a road trip. The book also features local recipes.

The book is a nice combination of foodie book and regional travelogue. It is an easy to browse book; read it cover to cover or pick and choose what to read. Passages are complemented with some nice color photography. I really liked this one. As a transplant to Appalachia, I got to learn a bit more about the area, its food, and the people who make it.

4 out of 5 stars.

This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges:

Booknote: October Faction, Volume 1

Steve Niles and Damien Worm, October Faction, Volume 1. San Diego, CA: IDW, 2015. ISBN: 9781631402517.

Genre: graphic novels and comics
Subgenre: horror (light), Gothic, monster hunting
Format: e-book galley
Source: Provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

From the book's description:

"The October Faction details the adventures of retired monster-hunter Frederick Allan and his family... which include a thrill-killer, a witch, and a warlock. Because sometimes crazy is the glue that binds a family together."
Frederick Allan faces the problem that many men who have been a long time in a line of work that is under the radar and sort of shady often faces. He wants to retire in peace and spend some quality time with the family. The thing is his kids want to enter the family business, something that he is not too thrilled about, but in the end he finds himself teaching them the ropes. That retirement is going to have to wait.  

This was a good story, but it is not terribly memorable. The mysteries start right away as someone from the past is stalking Frederick. The stalker gets to his children, and Frederick now has to get involved and come out of retirement. There is a good amount of thrill and action, and some mystery in figuring out who is stalking Frederick and why. However, dysfunctional as the family can be, they do rally together. Though the description suggests that the family may be a bit eccentric, say like the Addams Family, that is not really the case. They are not really crazy; they may be unique given what they do, but crazy is not really accurate as a description for this family. Now, as for the things that go bump in the night, crazy can vary. The volume is a fairly quick read with not much depth. 

The art is nice and dark, which is suitable for the volume and story. At times, they do overdo it on the darkness a bit. As a reader, if you make your art so dark that features lose definition, that is a minus for me. Still, this is a pretty good volume to look through, and I did like that sort of Gothic look and feel the volume has. It is the first volume, which means the start of the series. So I may or not look up the next one. For libraries with graphic novel collections, I would see this as an optional title. 

In the end, I liked it, so I am giving it 3 out of 5 stars. 
This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges: 


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Booknote: Arms and the Dudes

Guy Lawson, Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015. ISBN: 9781451667592. 

Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: politics, military, current affairs, arms trade
Format: e-book galley
Source: Provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

"Greed was the dark truth at the heart of the arms-dealing world" (200).

I have to say this is an excellent book on many levels. How Diveroli and his stoner friends managed to become arms dealers and get multi-million dollars defense contracts is amazing in the combination of genius, sheer luck, and stupidity. How the U.S. Army and the Pentagon enabled this in their pursuit of getting the cheapest weapons possible in the quickest way possible just exposes the shoddy workings of the military. If you needed more proof that the G.W. Bush administration ran the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the most incompetent and corrupt way possible, often at the expense of troops and local soldiers, this book is it. We get a blend of greed, blind luck, corruption, incompetence, overreach, abuse of power, and more in a true story that reads like a piece of thrilling fiction. I would not be surprised if this book gets made into a movie soon (turns out there is a movie coming out soon).

As I mentioned, the book reads like a novel. It has a fast pace, and the many intrigues and plots draw you in. I found it hard to put this book down. The book gives you a good insight of how the world of arms dealers works. It also give you insights into the outright hypocrisy of governments like the United States that often condemn shady arms trading while engaging in shady arms trading. It could be seen as funny the way one U.S. government agency bypasses the law to arm the Afghan army while another branch of that same government is trying to enforce that same law. It could be funny were it not for the corruption, greed, and both the ruining of lives and putting lives and risk parts. In the end, Diveroli and his pals paid for their bravado and naiveté. Thus they became scapegoats for the U.S. government because the government did not appreciate the press exposing the government's corrupt dealings. And then it was over. 

Readers who have enjoyed works like Pileggi's Wiseguys (the basis for the movie Good Fellas) or the book Charlie Wilson's War (also basis for a film) will probably enjoy this tale as well. If you are interested in how the Pentagon and the U.S. government conduct wars abroad, this is a book for you as well. Also for appeal factors, I would add Rachel Maddow's Drift, which is about American military power. Overall, Arms and the Dudes is a book I highly recommend. 

Giving it 5 out of 5 stars. 

* * * * * 

Additional reading notes:  

The U.S. needed to bolster Afghan forces: 

"In desperation, the United States decided it needed to provide greater strategic support to the Afghanistan military and police--and it needed to do so quickly" (17).

It needed to do it quickly and cheaply. In addition, the U.S. had to work with the fact that armed forces over there use Soviet-style weapons like the AK-47. However, the U.S. was more than happy to supply the locals with the cheapest stuff possible. After all, we are not talking American troops here.

Questions that The New York Times article (mentioned in the book) brought up, and the book goes on to answer:  

"How could three so obviously unqualified kids be trusted with such a massive defense contract? How had they fooled so many people for so long? Was the contract typical of the way the world's lone superpower was fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? What did the debacle say about America's ability to triumph in the war on terror?" (18). 

However, though the dudes were the scapegoats, the U.S. and the Pentagon must bear most of the blame given they are the ones running things: 

"I discovered that during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the government of the United States had turned itself into the biggest gunrunning organization on the planet, with virtually no oversight from Congress, law enforcement, or the press. As the Pentagon desperately tried to stand up new armies in Kabul and Baghdad, paying private contractors billions to acquire a vast array of weapons from formerly Communist Bloc countries, it had made little attempt to vet its business partners and turned a blind eye to rampant fraud--sometimes with murderous consequences" (21).

Naturally this goes back to Bush and the Republican ideology that privatizing everything is a good thing. Turns out it is not; yet still many Americans buy into the idea: 

"To fight simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush Administration has decided to outsource virtually every facet of America's military operations, from building and staffing Army bases to hiring mercenaries to provide private security for diplomats abroad. The Bush administration's heavy reliance on private contractors was part of a broader ideological struggle to bring the efficiencies of private enterprise to government" (33). 

That worked out real well in this story. Everyone who could got in on the action, and the Americans just allowed it for the sake of getting things done quickly and cheaply, even if things did not turn out to be quick nor cheap: 

"An Iraqi who'd previously worked as a used-car salesman while exiled in Poland for decades was put in charge, given a budget of $600 million to spend by the end of the year, and let loose to enrich his cronies through no bid contracts for shoddy, overpriced arms that often weren't even delivered" (35). 

And what was delivered, in Iraq at least, was indeed shoddy:

"The benighted Iraqis got ancient Serbian AK-47s, Polish tanks that didn't start, and the cheapest, nastiest surplus ammo that private contractors like AEY could find in dank bunkers in Eastern Europe" (40).

And what training did the dudes have? Well, they could read contracts really, really well. How did they acquire this skill?

"'Reading the Talmud as Orthodox Jewish kids had prepared us for this kind of work,' Packouz recalled" (51). 

So in the end, how bad was the corruption? 

"According to later investigations, as much as 30 percent of the $50 billion spend on defense contracts in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2011 involved corruption" (165). 

In the end, the U.S. pretty much would be losing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and much of it, besides lack of focus, was just tripping itself between circumventing its own laws and trying to enforce those same laws. And even the U.S. press failed to see the real picture. The press was obsessed with getting a sensational headline. Chivers is the NYT writer who broke the story, and as you can see, he missed the real story: 

"Chivers focused on making the government look incompetent, instead of realizing that the government had made a calculated decision to get the cheapest possible ammo to the Afghans as quickly as possible" (208). 

The result was that the U.S. government rushed to shift blame, bury any evidence it could, and pretend they were ignorant. In the end, 

"The greatest peril to Afghanistan security forces wasn't AEY, as the government claimed. It was the US government itself" (217). 

And thus the dudes, one time favored contractors, became scapegoats. The mess was exposed by the NYT, and someone had to pay. 

* * * * * 

The book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges: 

Booknote: Predator Omnibus, Volume 1

Mark Verheiden,, Predator Omnibus, Volume 1. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Comics, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-59307-732-7.

Genre: graphic novels and comics
Subgenre: science fiction, action.
Format: Trade paperback
Source: I own this one. Bought copy at Half Price Books.

This is the first of a series of compilations of Dark Horse Predator comics and graphic novels from the late 1980s and early 1990s. The first of these comics came out shortly after the original Predator film. In fact, the comics at the time did so well that concepts from the first comics were integrated into later films. This particular volume includes seven stories. One of them is Cold War, which I have read. The rest of the stories were new for me.

I really enjoyed this collection. It does catch the essence of the first film. The first stories, Concrete Jungle and Cold War, draw on the first film, providing a follow-up to that film. However, the stories soon move in other directions as we get a glimpse at how the interstellar hunters have been visiting Earth throughout the centuries. Most stories are written by Mark Verheiden, but the collection does feature other contributors who add their own mark to the tales. The stories are entertaining and filled with action. The art, reflective of the time, is colorful and varied. Another interesting element is the time period of the tales, many set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time when the Soviet Union existed. For some readers like me, it is neat to see the many pop culture references upon reading the comic today. The comic is very much a glimpse of those times.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one. Liked it enough I will seek out other volumes. Fans of the films will likely enjoy them as well. The volumes do make a good public library selection.

4 out of 5 stars.

This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges:

Friday, August 07, 2015

Booknote: Robert Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy

Robert Lazaro, Robert Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy. San Diego, CA: IDW, 2015. ISBN: 9781631403613. 

Genre: comics and graphic novels
Subgenre: science fiction, literary adaptations
Format: E-book galley
Source: Provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

From the book's description:

"Just outside our galaxy the atrocities of slavery thrive, and young Thorby is just another orphaned boy sold at auction. But when he crosses paths with a mysterious crippled beggar, his destiny is forever changed." 

This is a graphic novel adaptation of the classic Robert A. Heinlein novel. This is one of his juvenile pieces. It is a coming of age story. I have not read the novel, but when I saw this available, I figured I would take a chance.

Thorby is bought at a slave auction by a beggar who can barely afford him. In fact, the only reason the beggar is able to buy him is because the price on him is way low and no one else wanted to buy him. However, it turns out this beggar is more than what he seems, and soon Thorby is involved in quite an adventure and a quest to fight against slavery.

This is a good read. I think it may be a good read for reluctant readers, and if you prefer to read graphic novels over the full novel, this may be a good choice as well. The story was good and engaging. As we learn more about the beggar, the story gets deeper and grows in complexity. There were a couple of small details here or there about the free traders I was not all sure about (I wonder if it is a bit of losing some detail when you take a novel and compress it into a shorter graphic novel, but that is a side thought), but I was able to follow the story well overall.  The art was very good and went well with the tale. It is a good, solid science fiction story, and a nice adaptation on a classic.

For libraries with collections of graphic novels, especially public libraries, this is a good choice. It is one I would consider getting for our library, so I would say academic libraries could choose it as well if they collect graphic novels. It is a juvenile selection, so good for your teen readers. Also, a library collects other graphic novel adaptations of classic literature, it should get this one as well. 

I really liked this one, so I am giving it 4 out of 5 stars.

This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges:

Booknote: Best Sex Writing of the Year, Volume 1

Jon Pressick, ed., Best Sex Writing of the Year, Volume 1: On Consent, BDSM, Porn, Race, Sex Work, and More. Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press, 2015. ISBN: 9781627780865.

Want to buy it? You can get it from the publisher here (which also has links to buy as e-book if preferred). 
Want to borrow it? Find it in your local library via WorldCat.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: LGBTQIA, Gender Studies, essay, relationships, sexual politics
Format: trade paperback
Source: Provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

"We all still censor ourselves when we talk about sex--a bad habit we need to break" (20), --Epiphora, "What Should We Call Sex Toys?", from the book Best Sex Writing of the Year, Volume 1

This is a nonfiction collection of essays and other pieces on various topics somehow related to sex. What makes this a great read and a solid collection is the diversity of topics presented. Some of the topics included are:

  • consent and disability
  • sex work, in various forms
  • sex toys
  • sex education
  • BDSM and sobriety
The book opens with a foreword by porn actress and activist Belle Knox that serves to put the book in context.  She reminds us of our fascination with sex, but just as people are fascinated they also have a complex reactions to sex ranging from curiosity, acceptance, and enjoyment to suppression and repression. Sex can be a polarizing topic. It is also something that has a myriad of expressions and forms. Way I see it, sex can be this fantastic voyage into a land of many experiences, forms, shapes, and expressions, and even a taboo or two. As Knox writes,

"It's easy to forget that outside of our own, seemingly normal sex lives, the world has thousands of different stories and experiences to share with we may not otherwise have imagined" (ix). 

The book provides a small but very good sampling of those different stories and experiences we may have not even considered. I also believe after reading it the book may provide validation and reassurance to some regarding their experiences and feelings.

After the foreword, editor Jon Pressick writes an introduction where he tells a bit about the state of sex writing and media. Sex is not as hidden as it used to be, and yes, the Internet's expansion has had a role in that. This book reflects that. The selections come from books and magazines, and they also come from various online sources. This is how Pressick describes it:

"Sure, magazines and books are still tremendous sources of content about the wild world of sex. But more and more, those blogs, information sites, daily digests and much more are becoming the must reads. Which is why the writers and curators of online content figure so significantly in this collection" (xiii-xiv). 

Both as librarian and reader, I know that to be true. When it comes to sex, erotica, some porn even, I read and acquire some books, magazines, and media. I also read and follow regularly various blogs and sites, many of them via my RSS feed reader, to stay informed and entertained. And these days you can find a lot from educational material to porn and erotica for every niche to essays and personal pieces. As a librarian, one of my skills is evaluating and curating content. I can certainly appreciate the hard work Pressick must have done in selecting the pieces for this volume given so many choices. He has done an excellent job selecting great nonfiction on sex with pieces that are timely, informative, moving at times, and accessible. If you have not done much reading of nonfiction sex writing, or you have not read it at all, this book is a great introduction to the genre.

It is a very accessible book, and that is strength. Some other nonfiction books on sex I've felt that you already have to be "in the know," be part of the club, clique, collective, whatever you wish to call it. Not here. Whether you are a beginner satisfying your curiosity or an advanced reader checking out what is the best on the topic, there is something here for you. There are 29 essays of varying length addressing a broad range of topics and issues. You can certainly read the book cover to cover, but you can also browse and pick and choose what to read and in what order to read it.

You will also find a range of emotions in the readings. Some pieces are light, even humorous. One or two may upset you, and some may even move you, maybe even make you shed a tear or two. That's because the writers here are exposing deep parts of their souls; they are very often opening themselves, making themselves vulnerable so that we may learn from their experiences, so that we may open our minds to many possibilities and experiences. Often it is so we may see life as it is, the reality behind the fantasy. These are all brave writers, and I am grateful they have chosen to share their worlds and experiences. Many of them are explorers who go out to the edge then return to tell us about it. In some instances, maybe you feel like you are doing a little exploring as well. As Pressick writes in his introduction, and this is something I agree with, "after reading these works, maybe you'll open a few doors of your own" (xv).

Overall, this is an excellent book. Most anthologies vary in quality with some pieces better than others. Here I can safely say the majority of selections are great, and you can't really go wrong here. There really is something for every reader. Though I got this copy for review, I would say this is one I would have been happy to get for my collection. I will probably reread parts of it here and there.

I do recommend it for libraries, both public and academic. It can be a risque book, so for public libraries you will have to assess how open minded or not your community is. For academic libraries, especially if you have strong women and gender studies programs and/or health and sexual education programs, this is one you should have. I'd certainly consider it for my library.

I am definitely recommending and talking about it with others. I noticed this is volume one. I certainly hope there will be a volume two, three, so on.

5 out of 5 stars.

* * * * * 

Let me take a moment and highlight some of the selections. There are many choices I could have made here, but I am choosing a few to keep this part of the post brief. Plus, I do want you to read the book and find your own favorites:

  • Fiona Helmsley's "Captain Save-A-Ho" is a good opening piece. It is both moving and humorous. You may smile, but it will be bittersweet. 
  • Ember Swift frankly discusses a topic many women and couples often try to hide or avoid in "Pregger Libido." It is a short, concise piece that can serve as a conversation starter for many folks out there. 
  • For me, Joan Price's "Sharing Body Heat" was one of the most moving pieces in this anthology. As someone who has been married for many years, it spoke to me. Also, it reminded me of my father's pain when my mother, the love of his life, passed. This was the essay that made me hold back a tear. 
  • Rachel Kramer Bussel's piece, "Kinky, Sober, and Free; BDSM in Recovery" is a must read, whether BDSM is your interest or not. She provides an honest and revealing look at the BDSM world. It is not always pretty and glamorous, given the presence of drugs and alcohol in many places where it may well be taken for granted. But in the end, you can (and probably should) navigate and enjoy this world sober and safe. After all, safe is part of "safe, sane, and consensual." 
  • Finally, I cannot wrap up without mentioning Lynn Comella's account of the failures of sex education in Nevada high schools. If this does not outrage you, you are either one of those willfully repressed and ignorant people part of the problem or just plain blind. The author highlights high school students' own stories, often filled with a sense of betrayal because educators and parents failed them and neglected to give them the essential health and sexuality information they needed. This is a solid piece of reporting folks in other school districts ought to read. 

* * * * * 

This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges:

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Booknote: Plucked

Rebecca M. Herzig, Plucked: a History of Hair Removal. New York: New York University Press, 2015. ISBN: 9781479840823. 

Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: microhistories, academic studies
Format: e-book galley
Source: Provided by publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

As a reader of microhistories, I enjoy books that cover one subject really well. I had high expectations for this book, but I was disappointed. The main problem as a reader is that this is just an academic treatise, and at times it is also very repetitive. Yes, I get it: Native Americans remove their body hair; this was seen as making them less than human to whites, or seen as odd, or any other prejudice. The author could have covered the topic and moved on instead of dragging it on and on and on for pages on end. I think the editor probably did not trim this book enough. By the fifth or so reference to yet another source about Native Americans and hair removal, I was just bored.

The sad thing is the book had potential. There is even some relevance today given that the U.S. has used forced hair removal of prisoners in places like Guantanamo. So, a "history of hair removal in the United States from the colonial era to the present" (12) sounded like an interesting idea. The book covers hair removal, usually voluntary or compulsory. However, "this study does not address the involuntary loss of hair associated with toxic exposures, alopecia, trichotillomania, cancer treatments, or male pattern baldness" (17). The book looks at various treatments and ways to remove hair; the part on chemicals and "patent" remedies was actually somewhat interesting. It just got bogged down in the scholarship, and it reads more like a dry academic paper than actual narrative.

In the end, I just see some academic libraries buying this, maybe for their gender studies programs (the book has much to say on women and depilatory practices, patriarchy, so on) or maybe some advanced history seminar here or there. I am not purchasing for my library unless I get a request. Overall, I did not really like this one.

One of out 5 stars.

Booknote: Justice, Inc.

Michael Uslan, Justice, Inc. Mt. Laurel, NJ; Dynamite Entertainment, 2015. ISBN: 9781606906620.

Genre: graphic novels and comics
Subgenre: pulp heroes
Format: e-book galley
Source: Provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

This comic is a crossover title of pulp-era superheroes: The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Avenger. These characters were first introduced in the pulp magazines of Street and Smith. 75 years later they get to team up to save the world. Michael Uslan, the author, is also the author of The Shadow/Green Hornet: Dark Nights (link to my review).

I've been a fan of The Shadow comics for a while, so I was interested in this title right away. Though I am not as familiar with the other two heroes, I can say that I definitely enjoyed this book. You don't need to be very familiar with the characters, but if you are it does help in understanding some of the references in the comic. Still, I feel encouraged to seek out Doc Savage and The Avenger comics down the road. I had heard of Doc Savage but have not gotten to reading his comics. The Avenger is new to me. I am curious to read more, and for me, wanting to read more is always a pleasant takeaway from any book I read.

In this adventure, a passenger jetliner from our time gets caught in what turns out to be a wormhole. The plane reappears in 1939 New York City. It briefly lands at the airport, and Doc Savage gets it back on the air before authorities seize it. However, it turns out this event is part of a larger scheme by the Voodoo Master and his allies where the master seeks world domination by controlling time with a device. Our trio of heroes have to stop them.

As in previous Uslan works, this story has depth, action, and it keeps the pulp adventure feel. As readers, we are drawn deeper into the tale as the plot moves forward. In addition, we get the historical element; this tale features a few brief appearances by historical figures such as Howard Hughes and J. Edgar Hoover. That historical element adds a nice layer to the overall story. The story itself has a pretty good pace, and it should appeal to fans of pulps.

The volume collects the complete Justice, Inc. series by Michael Uslan. It also features covers for the comic issues by Alex Ross; this is another reason to get this book. Additionally, the volume includes a series of endnotes to explain the historical details Uslan integrates into the story, which I am sure trivia fans and history buffs will enjoy (I know I did). Finally, we get a covers gallery to round out the volume.

I really, really liked this one, and I would highly recommend it. I'd even add it to my personal collection. I'd say it is a good choice for libraries. It is a good entertaining fun tale that draws you in.

I am giving it 5 out of 5 stars. 

This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges:

Monday, August 03, 2015

Booknote: Transformers: Drift

Shane McCarthy, Transformers; Drift- Empire of Stone. San Diego, CA: IDW, 2015. ISBN: 9781631402692.

Genre: graphic novels and comics
Subgenre: robots, heroes, adventure
Format: e-book galley
Source: Provided by publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Drift left the Autobots in disgrace. Before becoming an Autobot, he was a Decepticon. Now, this hero with a checkered past is on a solo mission to help the helpless and defeat rogue Decepticons. Then Ratchet shows up to try to take Drift home. However, they become entangled with a band of rogue Decepticons seeking to resurrect a stone army, which they intend to use to enslave the galaxy.

Though this is part of a series, you get enough information that you can read this on its own. It has a fast pace, and it has plenty of action. It is a quick and entertaining read. I really liked it for both a good story and nice art. Fans who follow the Transformers comics will likely want to read this one. It is a good selection for public libraries, especially if they already collect other Transformers titles.

I am giving it 4 out of 5 stars.

This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges: