Friday, June 11, 2021

Book Review: Antifa

Mark Bray, Antifa: the Anti-Fascist Handbook. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2017. ISBN: 9781612197036.
Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: history, politics, activism
Format: trade paperback
Source: Hutchins Library, Berea College

This book is a pretty good primer that goes over the history of anti-fascism, Antifa, to today. The history starts around the 1920s with the rise of Hitler and Mussolini then the author takes us through to the 20th century and into the 21st century where fascists have learned to rebrand themselves in order to be more palatable to the mainstream. A clear lesson for antifa is that they must remain vigilant.

The book has six chapters, and three of them are the historical timeline. I found that to be an issue. The historical narrative, as important as it is, is fairly dry reading. Much of the narrative boils to this group did this, that group did that, repeat. Much of it is also Europe-centric. We do get U.S. coverage, but it is pretty late in the narrative. At this point, the author is packing a lot of history in three chapters, so the narrative may also feel rushed; the author does acknowledge this rushed feeling in the introduction. 

For me, the most valuable part of the book was the second half. Chapter Four provides "Five Historical Lessons for Anti-Fascists." Chapter Five considers various issues fascists raise, such as "so much for the Tolerant Left!" and how to answer them. Chapter Five also provides a discussion of freedom of speech, and it is worth reading for that. 

The book also features two appendices. Appendix A features "Advice from the Anti-Fascists of the Past and Present to Those of the Future." The author asked his sources and those he interviewed for experience based advice for the next generation. Topics include organizing strategies, intelligence, security, and tactics. Appendix B is a list of select works to help readers learn more. The list focuses on North America and Europe, and it offers print and online resources. 

Overall, this is an interesting book at times, but the first part of the book is dry, slow, and a bit of a drag on what is a good book otherwise. For readers wanting to learn more or who have no idea what antifa is or means, this is a pretty solid introduction with some practical advice to take up the struggle in ways that work best for you. 

Given how prominent the term is in the media, I do recommend the book for public as well as academic libraries. The book overall is pretty accessible and most of it is an easy read. Compared to other works on the topic, it does not get bogged down in theory or jargon. This book tells you the history, gives you the lessons and advice, arms you with knowledge and arguments to handle fascists and their enablers, and even gives you a bit of sources to learn more. I'd say that is a lot of value packed in this little book. 

In the end, I liked it. And yes, I broke my moratorium on reading any books on politics, social issues, and activism to read this book, but it was well worth it.

3 out of 5 stars. 

* * * * * 

Additional reading notes: 
On how the book came together: 
"Yet, I do not make any claims toward this being a comprehensive or definitive history of anti-fascism in general nor of the development of national movements in particular. To the degree that it is a history t all, it is an impressionistic history that aims to concisely trace broad themes and developments through weaving together vignettes from seventeen different countries over more than a century. This more modest goal was necessitated not only by the relative lack of sources and scholarly works, but by the tight deadline. This book was researched and written over a relatively short period in order to make its contributions available as soon as possible amid the tumultuous climate of the early Trump era. Therefore, this book is an example of history, politics, and theory on the run" (xxi-xxii). 
What is at stake: 
"When we speak about fascism, we must not drift too far away from thinking about the people who collected the hair, the gold teeth, the shoes of those they exterminated. When we speak about anti-fascism, we must not forget that, for many, survival was the physical embodiment of anti-fascism" (37). 
How the Far Right rebrands to be more mainstream yet remains fascistic. By the way, we also see this in the current GOP Republican Party in the United States: 

"Far-right parties wielded an ethnic and linguistic interpretation of citizenship to marginalize immigrants and even second- or third-generation minorities. They warned of heightened crime (especially sexual assault), strains on social services, competition for jobs, and fundamentally a loss of national, racial, cultural, and religious identity" (78-79). 

This has been the GOP platform for decades. Trump simply embraced it and ran with it, appealing to the lowest fascistic racist instincts of many Americans. As Bray adds, 

"The alt-right did not create Trump, but Trump clearly valued its political potential enough to echo many of its talking points, and to lavish praise on its stars. . . " (111). 

A key lesson anti-fascists today need to heed: 

"Fascist revolutions have never succeeded. Fascists gained power legally" (129). 


* * * * * 

This book qualifies for the following 2021 Reading Challenges: 

Friday, June 04, 2021

Book Review: The Mueller Report Illustrated

Robert S. Mueller, Washington Post Company,, The Mueller Report Illustrated: the Obstruction Investigation. New York: Scribner, 2019. ISBN: 978-1-9821-4927-7.
Genre: graphic novels and comics
Subgenre: U.S. history, U.S. politics, U.S. government documents
Format: trade paperback
Source: Berea branch of the Madison County (KY) Public Library

If you want to find out what the big deal about the Mueller Report (Wikipedia entry for quick reference) (link to the actual report, PDF) is but you do not want to read 400+ pages, this may be the next best thing. Mueller did find that yes, Russia did interfere in the 2016 elections in a "sweeping and systematic" way. It also found that neither Trump nor his campaign collaborated with Russia, at least directly. However, Mueller pretty much punted on the question of whether Trump tried to block the probe, or rather did he break the law in doing so. I will leave readers to decide on that question. 

In addition to the report's material Mueller exposed a seriously dysfunctional executive branch starting with an incompetent egotistical president obsessed with his ego and image. His underlings ranged from sycophants to not quite honest people getting caught in the corruption to those who could not take it anymore and resigned. The Washington Post, authors of this book used the report plus additional research such as Trump's own tweets on Twitter. Dialogue in the book is taken from the report itself and includes materials like text messages, notes, and interviews as well as public comments. A strength of this book is that, unlike other stories, no "artistic liberties" are taken. All material comes from the report. Even the excellent illustration work is based on press photographs. 

The result is a story that not only explains the report. It reveals a dramatic story that reads like a combination of soap opera and playground story.. I say playground story because Trump often behaves like a bratty child. Also, like in elementary school, it turns out that government functionaries often play a form of the old game "telephone." For instance, Trump wanted someone fired. Rather than do it himself, he tells a lackey to send a message to fire the person. If that lackey, for whatever reason does not want to convey the message, he calls a different lackey to do it. Oh, and if the other lackey decides not to do it, it turns out Trump would likely forget about it two days later or so. To call the situation a clusterfuck would be polite. 

At times, reading this is highly amusing. This is not meant to be a funny book, but the story gets so ridiculous at times you need to laugh. Then you remember this was a serious issue. You did have a United States President obstructing justice, and he pretty much got away with it (at least as of this post). Some of his lackeys were not so lucky. "Mueller would ultimately indict or convict 6 Trump associates for a wide variety of crimes-- through none were charged with conspiracy with Russia to interfere in the 2016 campaign" (186). 

Overall, this is a pretty good and compelling read. It is very accessible, and it is hard to put down once you start reading it. It is well documented; all sources are listed in the back of the book. The art is solid, and the realistic style based on photos enhances the work. I really liked this one. It was a lot better than I expected a "serious" comic to be. 

I definitely recommend this for public libraries as well as academic libraries with or without a graphic novels collection. It captures this part of  U.S. history very well. Best I can say is this book makes things clear and accessible for everyone. 

4 out of 5 stars. 

This book qualifies for the following 2021 Reading Challenges: 

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Media Notes: Roundup for May 2021



This is a somewhat random selection of the movies and series on DVD and/or online I watched during May 2021.

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):

  • Reservoir Dogs (1992. Crime. Drama. Thriller.). Plot description: "When a simple jewelry heist goes horribly wrong, the surviving criminals begin to suspect that one of them is a police informant." This is an early Quentin Tarantino film, considered his break out hit. The film, like his other films, starts at one point near the end, then goes back and forth with flashbacks to reveal the stories of each character. The heist is important, but this is really about the men and their stories and how they come together. It does start a bit slow, but over time it picks up the pace and starts getting interesting. Having said that, this is not the great film many Tarantino fans make it out to be. It's good, but it is not great. As I said, it does start pretty slow for one. It does have some entertaining moments, and it is violent in parts. For Tarantino's start, this was decent, but if you seen his later movies you see how he gets better over time. For me, this is one of those films I heard so much about I felt I needed to watch, and I am glad that I did. Now I can say I got that done. So it was OK, I'd say 2 out of 5 stars. Via TubiTv. Watched 5/28.
  • Lady Vengeance (2005. Crime. Drama. Thriller. South Korean film. Also known as Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). Plot description: "After being wrongfully imprisoned for thirteen years and having her child taken away from her, a woman seeks revenge through increasingly brutal means." The story starts going a bit back and forth between her time in prison and right as she gets out and preparing to execute the plan she has been plotting. She becomes a model prisoner, generous to others in the prison even, but we soon learn this also helps her future plans. When she is out of prison, she calls on those she helped on the inside to assist her and cashes in favors. This is all revealed slowly and gradually. The film may seem a bit slow, but this reflects the time and patience Geum-ja puts in to get her revenge. Soon what we get is a slow building story that at times can be very emotional and moving. There are two versions of this film: a color version, and the fade to black and white, which starts in color then gradually becomes black and white. Tubi had the fade to black and white, and this version does add to the depth and emotion of the story. Not easy to review this film without revealing key plot points but I will say this is a rewarding film that has moving moments, a bit of dark humor here or there, and it looks very good visually. The choice of music adds to the film as well. It is a film you need to watch closely to get all the details, but it is well worth it. If you enjoy revenge stories, this is one for the list. 4 out of 5 stars. Watched 5/29. 
  • King Solomon's Mines (1985. Action. Adventure. Comedy).  Plot description: "Fortune hunter Allan Quatermain teams up with a resourceful woman to help her find her missing father lost in the wilds of 1900s Africa while being pursued by hostile tribes and a rival German explorer." The very loose adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's novel starring Richard Chamberlain as Quatermain and Sharon Stone, early in her career, as Miss Huston. I remember watching this film in younger days; it was around the time Indiana Jones films were getting popular, so I am sure this was Cannon Group's way of cashing in on that. It's Golan-Globus production, so you can count on it being fun. Overall, it is a light and silly at times movie, but it does have a nice blend of action and fun. I still liked it after all this time, a good easy popcorn film. Also the main musical theme remains one of my favorite epic pieces of music even today. Just don't go looking for a faithful adaptation of the book; this is not it. It is a fun, campy adventure film with some humor and a touch of romance. I'd give 3.5 out of 5 stars. Found it online randomly. Watched 5/30.
  • Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1987. Action. Adventure.Comedy). Plot description: "Allan Quatermain once again teams up with Jesse Huston where the discovery of a mysterious old gold piece sends Quatermain looking for his long-lost brother, missing in the wilds of Africa after seeking a lost white race." This sequel was filmed at the same time as King Solomon's Mines, but due to the first film not doing as well in theaters it went to VHS for the most part. This one I barely remembered, but when I found it I decided to take a chance on it. Again, it is a Cannon Film and Golan-Globus, so you know there will be some fun at least. Their 1980s productions were often fun.  Well, unfortunately this was not as fun as it could have been. The action was very light, and the plot takes a turn for the ridiculous in the last act of the film when they actually get to the lost city. The movie just drags down at that point, losing any pace or momentum. Not even appearances by James Earl Jones, as the warrior and friend of Quatermain Umslopogaas, and Cassandra Peterson, as an evil queen in the lost city, could save this. It feels like it could have had potential, but in the end I can see why this went straight to VHS. It is just not as good nor as entertaining as the first film. Chamberlain and Stone do retain a bit of their charm from the first film, but this one just lacked substance. Enjoy the first one. Watch this one if you feel a need for completion, otherwise skip it. It is cheesy as any other B-movie but not the good kind. 1.5 out of 5 stars. Via TubiTv. Watched 5/30.

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.

This month I binge watched a lot of old television shows. The highlights were episodes of Midsomer Murders and episodes of Barney Miller.

  • America's Dumbest Criminals (1996-2000. Reality. Humor. Crime).  See my June 2020 wrap up for commentary on this. Continued this month with the fourth and final season of the series.  
  • Space: 1999 (1975-1977. Science Fiction. Adventure). Started watching this in January 2021, and watched a bit more in February 2021. Picking up with Season 1, Episode 6, watched that and episodes 7 and 8.
  • Midsomer Murders (1997 to present, still going. Mystery. Crime. Detective. British series). I commented on this series in the July 2020 roundup.  Via TubiTv, which has up to Season 20. 
    • Season 6, Episode 4: "A Tale of Two Hamlets." Plot description: "At his family home in Upper Warden, arrogant actor Larry Smith is killed, when a summer house he walks in to as part of a promotion for the sequel to his hit film, The House of Satan, is suddenly destroyed in an explosion. " As in other episodes, soon things get complicated with blackmail, affairs, and other secrets surfacing. Larry Smith is your usual arrogant somewhat obnoxious actor you made his fame in some TV show, but he also was a local son. Still, he was the kind of guy you'd want to see dead in these kind of mysteries. Fact his own family seems cold about him clues you in as well. Meanwhile, the two hamlets, Upper and Lower Warden have had a sort of rivalry for centuries and they are still holding grudges, the Upper Warden where the nobility lives and the rundown Lower Warden where the poor locals and leftover hippies and socialist live, descendants of the ones who burned castles in the Upper Warden. This mystery was a bit slower but still interesting. 
    • Season 6, Episode 5: "Birds of Prey." Plot description: "While Troy assists an attractive wildlife liaison officer with an investigation into the illegal sale of protected bird eggs, Barnaby travels to Midsomer Magna to investigate the sudden death of a man, who apparently drowned himself." Soon Barnaby and Troy find their cases cross with each other, and that the drowning may be a murder connected to a scam. The plot thickens as three people die overall, and our detectives rush to solve the case. A bit of a complex case, but it was interesting. This is the last episode for the 6th season. 
    • Season 7, Episode 1: "The Green Man." Plot description: "Barnaby and Troy tackle two separate cases as Troy prepares to leave Midsomer after his promotion to DI." We begin season 7, and Troy leaves Midsomer as he gets promoted to Detective Inspector (DI). But before he leaves he has one more case to solve. Barnaby works to solve a decades old case while Troy works on a case involving a "hobo" and some rowdy teens. When the teens, who had been harassing the old man start dying, the man is a suspect, but soon Troy finds out the case may not be as obvious. Overall, Troy does well in his last case with Barnaby. 
    • Season 7, Episode 2: "Bad Tidings." Plot description: "Barnaby's new Sergeant arrives on the day after the murder of a local shrew occurs, and he is immediately put to work." Scene starts with a Spanish themed party hosted by a local residents association of Midsomer Mallow (in this series, basically most of the towns in Midsomer County are Midsomer this or that), where a couple has an argument, about money, she leaves in a huff, ends up murdered. The new sergeant is a transfer from the London Metropolitan Police, a city man, not too thrilled about his new assignment. Meanwhile, in typical small town fashion, the members of said association pretty much hate each other for various reasons, but are any of those reasons enough to kill? Meanwhile, Cully sets up a reunion of some close friends and her after 10 years, despite her father warning her people do change in time. Soon turns out the friends did indeed change, and they have quite the secret Cully was not aware of. Soon other murders happen and a blackmail plot is revealed that threatens the secret. They really put the new sergeant to work, and it was quite a small town mystery. 
    • Season 7, Episode 3: "The Fisher King." Plot description: "Long-suppressed family secrets, stolen ancient artifacts, and a thirty year old death at a Celtic burial site result in a series of murders in present day Midsomer." The episode features a book author on local Celtic myths, some snobbish academic arguing, and real estate deal in addition to murder and apparently an illegitimate son, and another illegitimate child. That one guy got around. Reputation in academia can be everything, as I have observed working in academia, and it plays a big part in this story. 
    • Season 7, Episode 4: "Sins of Commission." Plot description: "When Midsomer hosts its 12th Annual Literary Festival, an author is found with his neck broken. More writers will die before the winner of the competition is announced." Turns out the world of publishing and writers can be cutthroat as we find out the publisher of a best selling author is actually struggling, there may be blackmail due to an author and an editor being gay (and at least one of them not out), and then that best selling author is killed. This mystery is a bit on the slow side, but if you like stories from the world of books, you may appreciate this one a bit. The killer turns out to be quite the character by the way. 
    • Season 7, Episode 5: "The Maid in Splendour." Plot description: "DCI Tom Barnaby and DS Dan Scott investigate the shotgun murder of Jamie Cruikshank, a barman at the Maid in Splendour, a pub in the village of Midsomer Worthy." Conflict in the bar happens as the old owner retires, leaves the business to his son and wife, but cannot quite let go. In addition some shady rich property developers are looking to buy up local properties from some of the locals, something said locals do not appreciate. However things get complicated into a mess of obsession and jealousy. Once that is revealed, the tension in the drama goes up, leading to the solution of the case. 
    • Season 7, Episode 6: "The Straw Woman." Plot description: "When the curate of the local church in Midsomer Parva is burned alive in the effigy of the straw woman, DCI Tom Barnaby and DS Dan Scott find themselves investigating what must be a murder." Soon the vicar is murdered as well, and the plot thickens in a town that opposes the straw woman town tradition (ironically displaying the ignorance and prejudice a local teacher is trying to teach the children against). To make matters worse, turns out the two priests were gay, which prominent members of the community being "traditional" Christians seriously opposed. So all that rises the tension as our detectives try to find out who killed them. The episode does make use of some creepy music here and there to add to an atmosphere of a possible witch or evil presence. There is nothing witchy, just someone stirring up the locals and their old superstitions in a little village that in many ways still acts like it is the 1600s. I thought it was a bit hokey how Barnaby figures out the real culprit, a line from a song, but still works. In the end, as I said, nothing witchy. In this case, just some good old jealousy. 
    • Season 7, Episode 7: "Ghosts of Christmas Past." Plot description: "Exactly nine years after Ferdy Villers killed himself, his entire family reunites for Christmas unaware that someone is out for revenge." This is the last episode of season 7. Not quite a merry Christmas at the house nine years later. An elderly aunt dies, in what turns out to be murder as she was pushed down the stairs. Ferdy by the way is the subject no one talks about, but his death may have significance after all this time. Add to it family, despite trying to erase him, feel guilty over not helping him more (at least one or two of them do). Ferdy by the way was a magician, it was his dream to be a professional despite the opposition of his family who wanted him to get a "real" job. And someone is out to avenge that suicide, and the detectives figure it out in part with the help of a young boy who is an aspiring magician. I liked the magic elements on this one, making for a good mystery puzzle. 
    • Season 8, Episode 1: "Things That Go Bump in the Night." Plot description: "Undertaker Patrick Pennyman is found dead with his wrists slashed and suspicion turns towards a spiritualist church." Apparently the good undertaker was quite the miser, lousy boss to his very few part time workers, and even cheated mourners, say switching a fancy coffin paid for with a cheap one right before cremations. There were a few people who hated him, maybe wanted him dead. To complicate things, there are suspicions about how authentic or not the church's medium is, and if there is a connection to the undertaker. Despite the supernatural tone at times, this was a very down to earth case of murder and passion. 
    • Season 8, Episode 2: "Dead in the Water." Plot description: "During a regatta, the body of Rowing Club chairman Guy Sweetman is found bludgeoned and drowned. Bachelor Sweetman was prolifically promiscuous and jealousy would seem to be the motive." There are plenty of suspects from jilted boyfriends to angry husbands with cheating wives. But is it really an angry man killing Sweetman, or was he killed for another reason? Could be jealousy motive may easily mask the real reason. By the way, another episode here of "detectives conveniently break into homes with no warrant" and nothing really happens. Seriously, how they get away with it never ceases to amaze me. In the end, well, money and passion always good reasons for murder. 
  • In the Heat of the Night: Give Me Your Life (1994. Crime. Drama. Mystery. Television series). This is a two-part episode from season 7 of the series that Tubi brought in as a movie. Plot description: "In this special 'In The Heat of the Night' movie event, Bill Gillespie (Carroll O'Connor), Chief Hampton Forbes (Carl Weathers) and the Sparta police investigate allegations of child abuse in a mysterious religious cult run by a charismatic leader (special guest star Peter Fonda), which leads to a tense -- and possibly deadly -- stand-off." Early on, the clues are there the cult is not the beneficent church it wants people to believe, and when evidence begins to surface of child abuse, including sexual abuse, tensions rise as the church leader gets himself a very good lawyer as the police try to save the children. Eventually things lead to the stand-off. Peter Fonda does a pretty good performance as the charismatic and very creepy cult leader. Overall a good episode in the series. 
  • Barney Miller (situation comedy, police. 1975-1982). Watching some of these via Crackle, which has the first and last seasons. Also, there are some additional episodes on YouTube. This is a nice, light comedy that is well written, the actors do good work and their timing is great, and overall the performances are good, and the series has a nice humane element. This is the kind of show that they just do not make anymore. Anyhow, having a great time enjoying it this month. 
    • Side note: This is a 70s show mostly, so it is interesting to see how things have changed over time. The humor overall is still fairly universal, but it helps if you get some of the historical references of the time. 
    • Side note: Also, in episode 9 of the first season , a detail that caught my eye was the transvestite man (or rather the man in drag). Anyhow, point is he gets arrested for being outside taking a walk in his dress because it was an "unclassified misdemeanor," something having to do with not trying to conceal your identity. It becomes a bit of a joke as some of the detectives initially do not realize the "woman" is a man, Today this would likely not be a big deal, but apparently back then it was. Things have changed. 
    • On another side note, Crackle is terrible in terms of interface and usability when compared to Tubi Tv. The screen frame does not always fit fully. The ads, which I do not mind since it is a free service, are extremely repetitive (honestly, how many times can they play the same diabetic medicine ad?) and way too long when compared to other services. As I said, the user interface is not terribly user friendly either. So I used it mainly this month to watch Barney Miller, but once done with that I am not likely to go back to it much. It is too much of a hassle. They may need to see how Tubi does it and learn from that. 
    • Another interesting to me detail. In Season 4, Episode 18, "Wojo's Problem," one of the suspects is confined to a wheelchair and having accessibility issues and naturally complains. I got curious, and the ADA Act was not passed until 1990 (under H.W. Bush). Caught my eye because buildings being accessible is something by now we may take for granted, but back then it was often rare if non-existent. 
  • N.Y.P.D. Mounted (1991. Comedy. Drama. Crime. Series Pilot).  Plot description: "A New York City cop becomes partners with a rodeo cowboy from Montana on the city's Mounted Division." This was a series pilot, but CBS at the time never picked up the series. Dennis Franz is the city cop, and he plays a role he can play well, which is the jaded veteran police officer. Him and the cowboy transfer, who was a cop in Montana (did rodeo on the side) become the odd couple that creates a lot of the comedy.This series may have had potential as a semi-decent cop drama with some light comedic elements maybe. Instead they were playing the comedy elements way too much, and not even very competent comedy. The result to be honest can be a bit painful to watch at times. The two wiseguy wannabes trying to peddle an illegal tiger are just poor acting and even worse comedy. They are supposed to be amusing, but not even close. The cowboy cop making eyes at the lieutenant is even more awkward, especially given his recent divorce back in Montana (you'd think the guy would take a break); basically, they are trying to force a love interest that does not really work. As I said, the odd cop couple angle could have had potential as in other cop dramas, but they just wasted it on poor attempts at slapstick comedy. No wonder the series was never picked up. This was just pretty bad. Via TubiTV. Watched 5/28. 


Friday, May 28, 2021

Book Review: Wizard of Lies (audiobook edition)

Diana B. Henriques, The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust. Old Saybrook, CT: Tantor Audio, 2011.
Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: business, crime, economics, finance, con men
Format: streaming audiobook
Source: Hoopla Digital via Madison County (KY) Public Library  
Award note: The book was long listed for the 2011 Best Business Books from the Financial Times and McKinsey Book of the Year Awards. (Link to full list. I may need to look over this list for other reading ideas and books to add to the TBR list)

If memory serves me right, I picked up this book because it was mentioned in some documentary I watched about Bernie Madoff, probably an episode of the CNBC show American Greed.  Given that this can be a bit dense book at times because of all the details of Madoff's crimes and schemes, I think for me it was better to listen to it than reading it. By the way, the narrator for this book is a woman, which for me is the first time to listen to a female narrator in an audiobook. That is a small detail but it caught my attention this time. The pacing of the narration started out a bit fast but it soon settled into a good pace.
The book opens with a prison visit to Madoff, so the story begins at the end,  and we will work backwards. The book ends back with Madoff in prison. The author describes the journey to the prison. Madoff is in a medium-security prison, not horribly harsh but it is not "Club Fed" either. For me, reading the book confirmed a theory I have heard about Madoff, that Madoff's big crime was he swindled and stole from the wealthy and from seemingly smart people, in addition to all the "little people" he stole from as well. If it had just been "little people" he may have gotten lighter time. His interview with the author is the first interview he granted after arrest and imprisonment. He had remained silent before this time. 
In chapter 2, we start getting the history of Madoff, how he started and rose. Even early on Madoff took chances, did somewhat shady deals, and even screwed over members of his own family who worked for him. 
To be honest, as I stated, this may be a book that is better to listen to than to read in text. A lot of the book is basically outlining in some detail the various schemes and scams that Madoff and his firm ran. He certainly was creative in finding ways to scam people and make more money, fooling a lot of so-called experts and intelligent people along the way. He was also a good marketer, making himself seem as a secure place to invest in during risky times like the tech crash in 2000. By the way, there were articles that at some point highlighted how Madoff's successes could not really be duplicated by others, yet people kept on giving him money. Even when there were warning signs, they often went unheeded by those who could do something. So yes, Madoff was a dangerous crook, but he did not do it by himself. Madoff's schemes were enabled in large part by Wall Street and its greed. He also helped to shape the greedy market we know now, plus a lot of people were more than willing to follow him into what became a precipice. 
The book also describes the fall as well. For a while, Madoff, being Jewish, meant that people's prejudices about Jews were triggered when Madoff's scam was revealed. However, the crimes went way beyond any Jewishness as Madoff pretty much scammed people and institutions in the U.S. and around the world. He did start exploiting his good reputation in Jewish communities close to him, but he eventually exercised that initial goodwill and influence from anywhere he could. 
The real impact was among the small investors and other obscure victims who lost it all except for maybe the house they owned and any money left in their pockets. The rule of do not put your eggs in one basket was widely ignored here. Overall, Madoff's scam wiped out large and small investors, including small ones who did not see themselves as "investors," i.e. had their retirement through their jobs in hedge funds and such. The small destitute people left by Madoff were the ones mostly forgotten. To be honest, reason Madoff was so condemned was that he ripped off rich people, people who still had plenty left by the way while those who lost it all never got any help from the government (who failed to regulate folks like Madoff) or anyone else. 
Here are some other highlights from the book I found interesting: 
  •  Ronald Reagan's appetite for deregulation would mess up the SEC in its ability to enforce regulations and police stock markets, financial institutions, etc. This also enabled Madoff to get his Ponzi going. 
  • More amazing is Madoff and his business were about to sink then something new came along to prop him up for a while longer: hedge funds, which he milked for all he could. How he survived suspicions about his scam, audits, and even a complaint here or there is amazing. He had that "feel for the market" along with some serious charm to keep people calm long enough. Eventually, the house of cards would fall. 
  • People who were victims griped when the trustees in charge of sorting out Madoff's scheme and returning any remaining money could not pay back fast enough, but a big issue that most of them were not aware, or did not care, is that Madoff and his company kept seriously antiquated records in paper and even microfilm. This meant processing the information would go extremely slow. A computer network had to be created to speed up the process. 
  • Victim statements to court, some of which the author presents, are very moving and jarring at times. Compared to those, the statement Madoff made in court seems fairly useless, a token statement mostly given all the damage and lives he ruined, stealing ruthlessly and without remorse as one of the prosecutors stated in trial. 
  • Madoff in the process also destroyed his family, who many believed was as guilty as he was (and they may have been to varying degrees but no evidence found). One of his sons took his own life unable to bear this burden. As for their assets, federal marshals liquidated at auction all they could from the fanciest boats and real estate to the most mundane personal belongings. This process further symbolizes the family fall. When the narrative gets to the point, and the author gives details of the remaining mundane belongings getting auctioned (by now the big fancy things had been auctioned off), it is just a sad and pathetic note with a touch of tragedy given that victims, if lucky, might get back pennies on a dollar.
 In the end, the book also reminds us of lessons people need to take from this that they often ignore. For one, never put your eggs in one basket nor put your faith in one man or firm to manage money or other important things. Two, if it seems too damn good to be true, it probably is. This is more so if it is way too good and never goes down despite other investments and economic items going down. The author interviews Madoff in prison and between that and her research we get this very good book that shows us how Madoff worked his scheme without regard of who got hurt, and a lot of people did get hurt, including his own family. This is one worth a read if you want to understand his crimes, his times including the 2008 economic downturn, and all the signs along the way that were either ignored or that people who should have known better were either too incompetent or chose not to see. In the end it is a story of greed, arrogance, hubris, and neglect in seeing the signs available. I really liked this one, and if you are interested in the topic, this is a book I'd recommend. 

4 out of 5 stars. 

Book qualifies for the following 2021 Reading Challenges: 

Book Review: Who Killed Harlan Parker?

John Caudill, Who Killed Harlan Parker? Louisville, KY: Hidden Letter Publishing, 2018. ISBN: 9780578606798. 
(Link to GoodReads record as no WorldCat record available at this time).
Genre: mystery, humor
Subgenre: Kentuckiana
Format: e-book galley
Source: Provided by author in exchange for honest review via BookTasters. 

I recently finished reading this, and I have to say this was a fun book to read. It has a nice blend of mystery, some satire, and humor along with attention to Kentuckiana details. I had a good time reading this. 

Harlan Parker is Summerville's premier attorney. He is also the biggest lying, cheating, philandering, unethical, and most immoral attorney in Summerville. There is no legal and not so legal maneuver he won't do, and he leaves a trail of angry husbands whose wives he has slept with. So when Harlan goes missing, and eventually we find out he is murdered, Detective Wilt and his partner Detective Andrews pretty much have most if not all of the town as suspects. Most everyone has been screwed over by Harlan somehow, or they know someone screwed over by Harlan. This goes from members of Harlan's own law firm to clients and former clients to rival lawyers and their clients. Plenty of people would love to see Harlan dead.

The author establishes the setting well. If you've lived in Kentucky for a while, you will recognize a lot about towns like Summerville. The author also develops the characters well. Often we meet a character, say Detective Wilt, then the author takes us back in time to see how the character develops and comes up. I found some of those flashbacks segments interesting. 
The author takes us from Harlan's disappearance to the investigation to the eventual trial for Harlan's murder. Along the way, we meet the key suspects and see their motivations. In some cases, we need to be honest: some suspects are just as bad if not worse than Harlan. Harlan is not the only corrupt one in town. Others are engaged in their own crimes, rackets, and corruption. Harlan is not likeable nor sympathetic, but neither are some of the people in town. For us readers, part of the fun is figuring out which of those rogues did it. 
In addition, the author uses a bit of satire and humor along the way. Some of the elements of the town's life and characters may seem a bit ridiculous, yet if you live in Kentucky, or perhaps in a similar town, you'll recognize a lot of things you might identify with or even relate to. That is a strength of this book. Some of the characters could be your neighbors. 
Overall, this is a fun and entertaining mystery. Once I picked it up, I had to keep going, and it kept my attention to the end. I laughed once or twice while reading the book too. This is a book I will recommend to others gladly. I think this can be a good selection for public libraries, especially in Kentucky, but this overall a good book for anyone who likes their mystery with a bit of humor. I am glad to have read it, and I think others will enjoy it as well. 
5 out of 5 stars.  

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Some additional reading notes: 
A description of Harlan Parker: 

"Parker is not only the wealthiest lawyer in town, he's the most despised. Hall of the businessmen in Summerville and most lawyers in the area have a story over the past twenty plus years about how Parker's swindled them out of a case or client. The chatter will be neither flattering nor sympathetic" (8). 

I found interesting the local chain reaction as Parker's firm is disbanded due to him being gone. Despicable as he was, Harlan Parker was also an economic driver in the town: 

"Within a couple of months, the firm will disband, and they will have to move out of the nicest office space on the downtown square into far more modest surroundings. The firm's cash cows will scatter to the wind, including lucrative small businesses and well-heeled criminal clients Parker has represented on healthy retainers for years" (9). 

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This book qualifies for the following 2021 Reading Challenges: 

Friday, May 21, 2021

Some Books I Would Gladly Toss Into the Ocean (TTT prompt)

I came across this prompt via Books, Movies, Reviews! Oh My! blog. While I do give negative reviews now and then to a book that just does not hack it, books that anger me or give me the feeling I need to toss them out, burn them, etc. tend to be rare. To be honest, I had to think back a bit and look through my book lists to remind myself of some of the "worst" reading hits I've had. The original prompt asks for ten books. I probably had five I could think of right away, and the rest I had to look up and remind myself how bad they were. If I reviewed the book, I am linking to the review. I will add some comments on what I may recall about a book, etc. 
  • Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow. To this day, this is the top book in any list of books I think should be burned and erased from collective memory. I was forced to read this in library school for one of my reader's advisory classes; we used it for a lesson on running book clubs. I remember a good number of my classmates hated it as well. I think the teacher picked it because it was trending at the time. It takes a lot for a book to piss me off, and this one did it. 
  • Jose Saramago, Ensayo sobre la ceguera. English title would be On Blindness. I read this in part for a reading challenge and in part because Saramago is a Nobel Literature Prize winner. All I can say is this is another book that should not be inflicted on anyone, and it honestly makes me wonder just what the hell they were thinking. Link to my review on GoodReads
  • Michelle Garza and Melissa Larson, Mayan Blue. This was just plain bad. 
  • Jen Mann, People I Want to Punch in the Throat. This was bad and mediocre. 
  • Harry Fisch, with Karen Moline, The New Naked. A sex education book for adults you are better off skipping. There are good reputable better books out there on the topic. 
  • Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code. I tried reading this in Spanish translation, mainly because that is the edition the library had at the time. It was awful hack writing, and I do not think reading it in English would have made a difference. However, Brown is one of those writers who knows what buttons to push to get people to read his books, in this case things like conspiracies, an evil Catholic Church, a lot of esoteric pap, and cheap thrills. Good for him on making a fortune, but I could not care less. 
  • Loosing my espanish. One of the first books I reviewed on a blog, and it was bad. I remember it because I got some anonymous troll leave a comment on it to whine about the bad review; probably some lackey of the author or publicist. It was bad then in 2004 when I read it, and seeing my review again it is still bad, and I see the reason I have mostly removed it from my memory. 
  • Timothy Gangwer, From Both Sides of the Desk. I read this back in 1995 or so when I was still a high school teacher. Link to my short review on GoodReads.
  • Next two books are what I often call "franchise" books, i.e. part of some property or series. In this case, one from Warhammer 40,000 and the other from the Horus Heresy. Franchise books, such as these as well as Star Wars, Star Trek, etc., can be very much hit or miss. When you find a good one, it is a good day. When you find one that is dreck, you honestly wonder why you bother. For the most part, I enjoy Warhammer 40,000 and Horus Heresy books, but once in a while I come across a bad one. Here are two of the bad ones, but still I do not let them deter me from reading more in the series: 
    • The Blood Angels Omnibus. This is part of the Warhammer 40,000 series. I was a bit generous on the review of the this one, since some of the material was OK but the rest not so much. Still, not a book I kept and if it falls into the ocean I would not shed a tear. 
    • A Thousand Sons. This is the 12th book in the Horus Heresy series. In a series that has some very good novels, such as the first three in the series, this one was a miss. I would drop it into the ocean, but again, if it accidentally fell in, I would not dive in to get it back,