Friday, March 05, 2021

Booknote: Bag Man

Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz, Bag Man: the Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-up & Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House. New York: Crown, 2020. ISBN: 9780593136683.
Genre: U.S. history
Subgenre: politics, crime, corruption
Format: hardcover
Source: Berea branch of the Madison County (KY) Public Library
When I picked this book up, I knew little about Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon's vice president. I knew that Nixon was a serious political animal and a big asshole. I had no idea that Agnew was just as big if not a bigger corrupt asshole than Nixon. A friend of mine who lived during Nixon's time recalls knowing that Agnew resigned but not knowing at the time exactly why. They recalled it was something or other about taxes. Like them, most if not all Americans never knew the full truth until years later. Agnew managed to become an asterisk in history books. He was the VP who resigned in disgrace, but no one really knows why. This book fixes that ad reveals in full the extent of Agnew's crimes and the deal that allowed him to resign without time in prison. I also picked up this book because Rachel Maddow is one of the authors, and I did like her previous book Drift (link to my review).

The book is organized as follows: 

  • Prologue
  • 16 chapters
  • Epilogue
  • Acknowledgements, A Note on Sources, and Notes

A big reason this book is possible is that a lot of material was available for researchers. Nixon was notorious for having the White House wiretapped. Others kept notes and even audio diaries. A lot of documents were preserved, some in attics to hide them from an FBI that was more interested in helping Agnew than in the truth. Maddow and Yarvitz went through a lot of that material with close attention. They also interviewed men involved in the story including the Baltimore prosecutors, Agnew's defense attorney, and others. As the authors write, 

"Bag Man is the product of hours of sit-down interviews with many of those involved in the Agnew case, historical research conducted at archives and libraries across the country, and original reporting" (267). 

The result is this book that reveals in detail Agnew's greed, evil, and malfeasance. 

This is not just a political book. This is a seriously good and engaging narrative. The book reads like a good true crime tale with drama, intrigue, tension, and corruption. We know the story ends with Agnew's resignation, but the drama is in exactly how we get there. This book also reads like a great political thriller, and all of it is true. This is a book that in the right hands could make a good political drama film. 

As I mentioned, the narrative is good and engaging. The story takes us from Agnew's rise to vice president under Nixon to Agnew's fall from grace and his sort of attempts to remake himself after leaving D.C. We also get the story of the prosecutors and federal agents putting the case together under pressure. The Watergate scandal was blowing up at the time, and the prosecutors after Agnew knew that it was very likely that Nixon would be impeached and removed. It was imperative to remove Agnew from the line of succession to avoid on crook being replaced by a bigger thief. That drama and tension make for a great story. 

Another reason to read this book especially now is that Agnew's story has parallel lessons for today, especially after the U.S. survived the disastrous Trump presidency. If you think Trump's, and the GOP's, tactics of bullying, blustering, attacking the press, etc. were bad and never seen before, well hang on because Spiro Agnew basically wrote the book on that sort of behavior. If I did not know better, I might have said Trump copied Agnew's playbook, but I highly doubt Trump read this book (or any other book for that matter). Still, the lessons are there for those willing to study and learn. The authors write, 

"Ultimately, Agnew failed to save himself. But he left a scorched-earth battle plan for any corrupt officeholder that followed:

Attack the investigation as a witch hunt.

Obstruct it behind the scenes.

Attack individual investigators in personal terms.

Attack the credibility of the Justice Department itself. 

Attack the media informing Americans about the case. 

Punch back. Hard. Until either you are broken or the system is" (244-245). 

Other politicians between then and now  used pages of this playbook, but Trump really scorched the earth much as Agnew attempted to do. Both men also had strong and loud political bases, including large segments of Republican women. This story not only reveals what really happened back then. It also sheds light on our current times, and it shows how vulnerable the U.S. is to bullying corrupt populists. Sadly it also reinforces that in the U.S. it really is "and justice for some." Those in higher positions of power and/or wealth have little to worry about things like jail time. Though Agnew went on to other deals and schemes, he ended up a broken man. Trump will likely go on to other schemes and grifts, but his luster is certainly faded. He is becoming damaged goods. Unlike Agnew, he does not have a deal to spare him jail time, well, at least not as of this blog post. We'll have to wait and see. 

Overall this is a solid work of research and history combined with a great narrative that you just have to keep reading. I stayed up way late to finish this one, and I do not do that for just any book. If you are interested in U.S. history and politics, and perhaps also understand the current times in the U.S. a bit better, you need to pick this book up now. This was excellent, and I am happy to recommend it to anyone. 

5 out of 5 stars.

* * * * * 

Additional reading notes: 

Agnew's story defined: 

"Agnew's is a tale of a thoroughly corrupt occupant of the White House whose crimes are discovered by his own Justice Department and who then clings to high office by using the power and prerogative of that same office to save himself" (18). 

Another legacy of Agnew: 

"The vice presidency of Spiro T. Agnew marked the birth of the bruising, know-nothing confrontational conservatism that has been eating the lunch of seemly, Kiwanis Club Republicanism ever since" (27). 

A trait Agnew and Trump had in common was their passion for golfing: 

"Spiro Agnew managed to turn his 'goodwill world tour' into a taxpayer-funded taste test of the world's finest fairways-- and all with the news cameras rolling. While Richard Nixon watched, in horror, back home" (135-136). 

This book qualifies for the following 2021 Reading Challenge: 

Monday, March 01, 2021

Media Notes: Roundup for February 2021


This is a somewhat random selection of the movies and series on DVD and/or online I watched during February 2021. For this month it feels like I did not watch a whole lot or new to me. Last two weeks we had ice storms and extreme snow, so you would think being stuck at home would make for more media watching but the constant anxiety about that is not always conducive to that (plus I did have to work from home on those days).

Movies and films (links to for basic information unless noted otherwise). Some of these I watched via or other online source. The DVDs come from the public library (unless noted otherwise). In addition, I will try to add other trivia notes, such as when a film is based on a book adding the information about the book (at least the WorldCat record if available):

  • Doom (2005. Horror. Science Fiction. Action. Video game adaptation). Brief description: "Space Marines are sent to investigate strange events at a research facility on Mars but find themselves at the mercy of genetically enhanced killing machines." Library had the "unrated" version. The opening before the credits notes this film includes material not in the original theater release. To be honest, did not seem that much different than first I saw it. There are some extras, but I do not think they were that big a deal. Overall, this is a decent action film with a bit of sinister conspiracy element and horror. If you like films and games like Resident Evil, you will likely enjoy this too as it has similar appeal factors. You get just enough story to keep it interesting but in the end it's a good action popcorn kind of flick. I liked it, so giving it 3 out of 5 stars. DVD from Berea branch, Madison County (KY) Public Library. Watched 2/6.
  • Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World (2003. Action. Adventure. Drama. Literary adaptation). Plot description: "During the Napoleonic Wars, a brash British captain pushes his ship and crew to their limits in pursuit of a formidable French war vessel around South America." While I had heard of the film, I had never seen it until now. A reason I picked it up was that someone on Twitter apparently spoke ill of the film, and Russell Crowe happened to be online and defended the film. So I got curious and decided to finally watch it. Aside from some small historical facts they took liberties with, and some small goofs in anachronism that most people may likely not notice (I had to double check some details myself to verify a thing or two), this was a very good period drama film with a nice blend of adventure and tension. The cinematography was great, really makes you feel like you are there in the oceans. Crowe as always had a great performance. If you are looking for one of those action movies where a lot of stuff goes boom and with some hot bimbos, this is not that film. But if you want a serious drama in a historical period that looks good and draws you in, this is a very good film then. I found it interesting and engaging, and I would recommend others give it a chance if they have not seen it. It is a pity that sequels are unlikely. The movie as I understand did well critically but did not generate the giant profits Hollywood would want to approve a sequel. I could have seen this as a series, especially given there is a whole series of books. It is a film for mature folks and people willing to enjoy a well crafted film that takes its time. I'd say 4.5 out 5 stars. Via DVD from Berea branch, Madison County (KY) Public Library. Watched 2/11.
    • The film is based on Master and Commander, a book of the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian. This novel is the first in what went on to become a series of 20 novels. The film draws from this and other films in the series, mainly from the book The Far Side of the World. The film was so good I am curious about to books, so I am adding at least the first book of the series to my TBR list to give it a try. 
  • The Brooklyn Banker (2016. Crime. Drama. Mobsters). Description: "A banker with a talent for memorizing numbers is recruited by a mobster looking to get ahead." Santo, the banker, gets embroiled with a mobster when the mobster wants some dubious cashier checks cashed. This happens because his father in law talks to the mobster about him, and thus the reluctant involvement. Santo also happens to have a very good gift at handling and remembering numbers. From there, things escalate as Santo has to deal with the mobster, his father in law, his pregnant wife and daughters, oh, and his uncle the local street wise parish priest. Soon things get complicated when Santo's bank is visited by a Secret Service agent investigating financial crimes. The movie has a good drama, but it is quite on the slow side though. The movie is tense, but it is mainly because we follow Santo who is pretty much tense throughout the film once things get going. He is not that good at hiding his emotions; his acting is not that great either. His family may be oblivious on the home, but we certainly know. An irritating detail is that Santo's father had some involvement in the mob when he was alive, and everyone who knows the truth dances over the detail, so like Santo, we really have no certainty one way or the other. It would be nice if someone, even that priest, would speak plainly for once. Then again, Santo does not help himself either showing off his talent in small ways here or there. If he'd only know when to shut the fuck up, he might avoid some trouble here and there. So you got all these forces colliding, but they do so in a seriously slow film that just seems to drag on, until the last five minutes or so of the film when the truth comes out, and does so in a pretty sudden way. For that ending, I am not sure if this slow film was really worth sitting through. The story had potential, but the writing, plotting, and execution just bogged the whole thing down. I'd give 1 1/2 out of 5 stars at most. Via TubiTv. Watched 2/13.

Television and other series (basic show information links via Wikipedia unless noted otherwise). Some of these come in DVD from the public library. Others may be via YouTube, which, as noted before, I keep finding all sorts of other old shows in it, often full episodes:

  • America's Dumbest Criminals (1996-2000. Reality. Humor. Crime).  See my June 2020 wrap up for commentary on this. I continued this month watching more of the third season and finished watching the third season. As I noted previously, a new season, and they have a new intro, and David Butler has a new co-host in Debbie Alan (Beaumont Bacon co-hosted during the second season). Also this season the show is filmed in studio with a live audience.  The stories range from outright stupid to amusing, good for a chuckle here or there. They also add bits of trivia like dumb laws still in the books. Via TubiTv.
  • Space: 1999 (1975-1977. Science Fiction. Adventure). I started watching this last month where I commented on it. I continue watching the first season this month, managed to watch episodes 3 and 4 of the first season. Via TubiTv.


Friday, February 26, 2021

Booknote: Kilo

Toby Muse, Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels--From the Jungles to the Streets. New York: William Morrow, 2020. ISBN: 978062905291.
Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: economic, politics, Latin America, Colombia, crime, drug trade
Format: hardcover
Source: Berea branch of the Madison County (KY) Public Library
Toby Muse takes us on the journey of a kilo of cocaine from the coca fields of Colombia to the smuggling of cocaine out of Colombia. Along the way, he meets and talks to all sorts of people from coca farmers to dealers and assassins to law enforcement and drug lords. It is a fascinating journey that looks at not only the drug trade but also how that trade drives corruption and violence in Colombia. To make matters worse, the U.S. War on Drugs does little to help given that the United States is the largest consumer of cocaine, its biggest customer. Wherever cocaine goes, money, flash, and power follow for some, but after the initial boom soon misery, violence, and destruction follow for most everyone else anywhere near the cocaine trade. 
Muse pays attention to detail, and he also weaves an interesting and engaging narrative. Very often the writing is lyrical, poetic, and rich in imagery, specially when describing the countryside. At times you feel like you are there. The narrative is well paced, and it draws you in. It is just a very interesting read. In addition to being entertaining, we learn about Colombia, its people, its politics, and geography. We go from farms to poor slums to night clubs. He also shows how cocaine not only affects Colombia but also affects neighbors like Venezuela and countries further away like Mexico. Cocaine is adaptable, and its traders and drug lords are highly ingenious, challenging those wanting to stop the trade. In that cat and mouse game we get a lot of the story's drama. We also get insight on the politics and history of the region as well as U.S. relations with the region. Muse packs a lot to learn in this book, and he does so in an engaging and interesting way. It is a very well written book. 

Overall, this is going to be one of the best books I've read this year. It is interesting and informative. Muse spent 15 years reporting in Colombia, and he brings that knowledge to this book along with stories of those involved in the cocaine trade as the kilo moves along. This is a book I definitely recommend to anyone interested in the topic. 

5 out of 5 stars. 

* * * * * 

Additional reading notes: 

Much of rural Colombia is abandoned by the government: 

"That the state needed pressure from violent insurgents just to provide services shows how abandoned parts of rural Colombia have been" (2). 

I was reading this book in the week of January 6, 2021 when the right wing conservative nutjobs rioted and stormed the U.S. Capitol in their feeble attempt to overturn the U.S. presidential election. The United States was lucky this was mostly a disorganized mob. Insurgents and guerrillas in Latin America are actually organized and had specific ideologies often seeking to help the people (well, at least until they then became narco soldiers. Cocaine does corrupt even the virtuous). Point is in places like Colombia insurgents rebel to demand things like basic human services. Americans in the U.S. throw hissy fits because they disliked the result of a fair democratic election and could not care less who they hurt in the process. Doing something like rising to demand basic human services is not something on Americans' radar. Big difference. 

The effect of the Spanish conquest in the region, and this is more than just Colombia: 

"The Spanish invasion: genocide, mass rape, slavery, bloody baptisms, entire civilizations destroyed, ancestral dreams snuffed out. Annihilations so complete entire civilizations were erased, with no survivors left to remember them. The Spanish conquest of the Americas, history's greatest atrocity. So grotesque, so obscene it damned the continent. Five hundred years later, the curse lives on and dooms these countries to corruption, bloodshed, stagnation. The past is never dead in the these lands" (14-15). 

On Colombia's rural people: 

"Everyone here is self-sufficient, able to vet, mechanic, doctor, cook, electrician or farmhand as the moment demands. A lifetime of abandon by the government has made Colombia's rural people a resilient breed" (26). 

As usual, U.S. aid in places like Colombia aids the violent and the corrupt: 

"Known as the 'false positives,' the scandal broke in 2008. The Colombian army-- backed with US aid-- was slaughtering thousands of civilians and dressing them up as rebels in return for bonuses, promotions, holiday days. It was the logic of a civil war that was judged solely on body counts" (27). 

I went ahead and looked that story up. You can find an entry of the "False Positives" Scandal on Wikipedia. There was even a United Nations investigation (PDF document) on this matter. 

The early boom stage of coca: 

"Once a few farmers start planting coca, the price of food goes up as it has to be brought from outside. That pushes more farmers into growing coca. Soon, all the farmers in town are growing coca. Coca's takeover is complete. This is every coca town's golden age-- when they revel in the money. And the killings have yet to begin" (52). 

Then the prostitutes come, and eventually the money attracts guerrillas and drug lords and the boom becomes a bust of misery and violence for the locals. 

More on the U.S. clandestine involvement in Colombia: 

"Colombia was the test run for the United States' latest experiment: to hire private mercenaries to carry out actions in war zones. This policy would be greatly expanded in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it started here, fumigating poor farmers' fields" (70).

That was part of President Bill Clinton's Plan Colombia

The reason the labs that turn coca paste into cocaine are not going anywhere any time soon if ever: 

"Weekly, the police launch operations to dismantle these labs, seizing cocaine and blowing up the structures. All it takes is another $50,000 and seven days of construction and you've got another lab ready to produce the cocaine. The demand isn't going anywhere, so neither are the labs" (96-97). 

And where is the biggest demand for cocaine? In the good old U.S. of A. 

After the jungle and narco militias but before it leaves Colombia or enters local markets, the kilo goes into urban areas. As in the jungles, the urban narcos do create a lot of jobs, even with the violence: 

"Ahead is the world of the urban narcos, those experts in getting the cocaine out of the country and the dollars in. The kilos enter into a vast ecosystem of cocaine. Drug lords, accountants, cartel soldiers, killers for hire, lawyers, witches, lovers, and pimps all work together feeding off each other in a world funded by cocaine" (97). 

On a side note, it is interesting, to me at least, that many involved in the narco trade are very superstitious and reliance on witches and similar is pretty strong. This going along with the strong Catholicism of Latin America. 

The Assassin's Prayer, said in front of the Virgin Mary: 
"If there are eyes, don't let them see me
If there are hands, don't let them grab me
If there are feet, don't let them catch up to me
Don't let me be surprised from behind
Don't let my death be violent, 
Don't let my blood spill, 
You who see all, 
Know well my sins, 
But also, you know my faith
Don't abandon me. . . Amen"  (136).
In a way, drug lords really run Colombia: 

"Men like Alex are the shadow power in Colombia, the leaders of an alternate society that runs parallel to the legal one. They are some of the wealthiest men on the continent and wield the power of life and death over all around them. For all the riches, it's a precarious life. Authorities and rivals are always around the corner, waiting to send Alex to prison or to the grave" (171). 

The dirty secret of the drug war in Latin America: 

"The dirty secret of the drug war in Latin America is how many drug lords start off as police and soldiers. Fighting cocaine, they're exposed to her, seduced by her. It's the perfect training for future traffickers-- they see how the business works up close, learning the chinks in the security forces' armor" (176). 

In the end, the government never really loses (even if they are not really in control overall), as Alex the drug lord explains: 

"'The authorities never lose. When you think about it, we're the suckers. They work with us and they get rich. And if we go down, then they take the credit for our capture and then they make deals with any trafficker who will replace us' says Alex, with a laugh that says the joke is not funny" (180). 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Deck Review: The Good Tarot

Colette Baron-Reid, with Jena DellaGrottaglia (artist), The Good Tarot. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2017. ISBN: 9781401949501. (link to publisher)
Genre: cartomancy cards
Subgenre: Tarot
Format: 78 cards deck with small companion book
Source: I own this one. 

This is the Tarot deck I was using in December 2020. I wanted a deck with a bit of winter vibe. Naturally, you can use this deck year round, but I found it works well for the winter season, and I may keep using it as a midwinter deck down the road. In addition, given the horrible clusterfuck that was 2020, I wanted to end that horrible year using a more positive deck. Darker decks do not meant negative deck, but I wanted something lighter with an uplifting note, and The Good Tarot works well for that.  
Let's start with the companion book, which is arranged as follows: 
  • Author's note.
  • How it works.A bit on how the deck works and how to work with it. 
  • The 22 Trumps. The Major Arcana cards. We get a basic "The Cards" introduction which goes over basic Tarot deck structure and outlines some of the differences from more "traditional" Tarot. We then get all the trumps. Each card page gets a small photo of the card, card name, and number, a keyword, and a small affirmation/interpretation. 
  • The Four Elemental Suits. The Minor Arcana. Suits are identified by elements: Air (swords), Fire (wands), Water (cups), and Earth (pentacles). For each card, we get a small photo of the card, card name, some keywords, and a small affirmation/interpretation. All numbered cards are numbered with Arabic numbers, including the Major Arcana.
  • Readings. This is a small series of sample card pulls with interpretation. This section also discusses a bit how to do readings with this deck. 
  • Things to think about. Author's final thoughts and some insights on how she developed the deck. 

King of Fire (King of Wands) card.

Overall, the guidebook is a nice and compact basic book. Text is relatively minimal, but it gives you enough to get started. Card meanings are designed to reinforce the idea of serving your highest good; serving your highest good is a common theme in the author's works, and it is a theme that resonates with me. The emphasis is to help deck users find empowerment and solutions, to help users find guidance from the negative to growth. As she writes: 

"My intention is to help you see that in all aspects of life, you can find solutions and positive lessons. To predict suffering without offering a solution for easing that pain is, to me, a grave disservice and, well not at all what I believe I should be doing" (96). 

That second sentence  resonates with me, and when I read for others, if I see suffering or a negative I try to also provide a solution or some advice to ease the suffering or find a path of healing. Still, the book's content on the positive is uplifting and emphasizes healing and learning. It's not that it downplays the negative. It's more about figuring out how to move to light. On a negative, content as I mentioned is minimal, but still you get starting points. I'd add this book and deck may be good for journaling and reflection. 

Hanged Man-12 card.
Let's move on to the deck. Jena DellaGrottaglia's art is beautiful with an ethereal quality. Some card
names have been changed to soften things a bit. For example, Death becomes Transformation and the Devil becomes Temptation. Those names are within "traditional" meanings, but some Tarot practitioners may feel changes like this may soften things too much. It works for me, but as the saying goes, your mileage may vary. The rich imagery in the art does offer much for intuitive readers. If you read within Rider Waite Smith (RWS) system, there is enough for you, but this is not really an RWS deck. It is colorful in a soft way. Minor Arcana colors match their elements in a subtle way. Earth cards may be a bit more brown or green for example. By the way, on this deck, Strength is 8 and Justice is 11. 

I enjoyed using this deck. For me, at times it had a bit of a learning curve due to its strong positive element. If you are a serious pessimist, or a reader more into the dark side, this deck may not be for you, and that is OK. If you do want a more positive and lighter deck, and one without "scary" elements, this may be a deck for you. For me, the learning curve was in learning to see more the positive paths, remind myself not to dwell in negatives so often. Yes, bad things do happen, but often the lesson, the healing come in how we deal with those bad things. If you need a bit of a pick me up or a bit of a lift from doldrums or sadness, this may be a deck for you. 

The cards measure about 5 inches by 3 1/2 inches; this makes them larger than most standard Tarot decks. The deck is closer to oracle deck size. The card stock feels thick and good, flexible, and it has a bit of a glossy coating. If you riffle shuffle, this may not be an easy deck to shuffle. Though can use these cards to read for others, I think the real strength of this deck is for self readings and meditation work. These cards are good for a daily pull for personal reflection. In that regard, larger cards work well so you can better view and appreciate the details. 

Overall, I really like this deck, and I am happy to have it in my collection. For me, this is a deck to use when I need an uplifting message and/or a bit more optimistic outlook. I may keep using it mainly in winter, but I may give it a try during the year. If you've enjoyed Baron-Reid's oracle decks, you may likely enjoy this one. It does have a bit of an oracle deck feel to it. 

4 out of 5 hats.

Top Graphic Novels and Comics Read in 2020

This is my list of my top comics and/or graphic novels I read during 2020. List is based on titles I read that I rated 4 or 5 stars. Links go to the reviews of the titles so you can check them out. 


Ripley's Believe It Or Not! (Zenescope series)




Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Booknote: JSA Liberty Files: The Whistling Skull

B. Clay Moore and Tony Harris, JSA Liberty Files: The Whistling Skull. New York: DC Comics, 2013. ISBN: 9781401242510.
Genre: graphic novels and comics
Subgenre: superheroes, adventure, mystery, secret agents
Format: trade paperback
Source: I own this one

Initially I was not sure what to make of this. The cover art and description made me curious, plus Half Price Books had it on clearance when I got it, so I took a chance. 

The Whistling Skull is a hero and secret agent who works for the organization Skeleton. He has the ability to draw on memories of his predecessors to solve problems and accomplish his missions. Knuckles is his assistant. 

One of the mysteries he has to solve is the disappearance of his predecessor, who was working out in Japan. However, that case has to wait because first he needs to solve the mystery of townsfolk disappearances in  remote Swiss village during World War II. Is there a connection to a traveling caravan of freak performers? Is it something more sinister? 

The story starts in the midst of the action. The story then flashes back to show glimpses of Skull and Knuckles as children giving us a look at their early days and hinting at how the current Skull is connected to his predecessor. The story then moves to Switzerland where the main story takes place and Japan where the previous Skull disappeared. After the first issue in this collection, the story's pacing settles in, and we get a pretty good story. The story combines action with a mystery to solve. The Whistling Skull is more detective and secret agent, and this is a good character. The art is very good. It combines a bit of darkness and macabre with good color. 

Overall this was an entertaining and fun read. It's different than the usual super powered hero tales, and I liked that. If you like comics like The Shadow you might like this one. The story stands on its own, but there is an opening for further adventures. The volume also includes an appendix of character files presented as top secret memos, a nice touch. I really like this one and would recommend it.

 4 out of 5 stars. 

 This book qualifies for the following 2021 Reading Challenges: