seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy

Books

Thoughts on books and book reviews

Horror-putz

I really don't like David Horowitz. He seems to be the kind of person that truly fits the word scum. Of course, I don't know him. All I really know about him is that he likes to claim to have been a big leftie which supposely gives him some kind of authority to criticize the left now that he calls himself a conservative.

His latest book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, is published by Regnery - the least credible large publishing house with which I am familiar. They are responsible for the Swiftboat book against Kerry and Malkin's defense of Japanese Internment, among other great works of modern fascist/totalitarian apologism.

At any rate, I think Jon Stewart interviewed him and pointed out that although Horowitz claims to attack both right and left in the book, it only features 3 conservative academics - or something like that.

Bah. I've already wasted enough time on this bozo - the reason I brought it up was because I love this saucy quote from Mark Levine's response to Horowitz which comes from MoJo. He was one of the dangerous academics.

But my ego quickly returned down to earth when, during a debate we had a few weeks ago on Mother Jones Radio, he admitted, without a hint of embarrassment, that he hadn't actually read any of my books or academic articles, but only perused my website and perhaps a Mother Jones article or two. Indeed, he didn't even know the intern who actually did the "research" on me for his book.

That's right, the author of a book that purports to uncover the intellectual and/or political corruption of American higher education—Horowitz can't make up his mind about which kind of corruption it's suffering from—doesn't think he has to read the work of the very professors that he claims constitute a threat to the moral fabric of our society. No wonder he did a full week on Hannity and Colmes to celebrate the publication of his expose; he's Fox's dream public intellectual. And no wonder he considers so many professors a threat; they actually do their own work.

Lamb

I am free to read fiction! I kicked off my summer with Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christs' Childhood Pal. Christopher Moore. Genius.

Joshua appears to be Jesus' childhood name.

"A nest of vipers," Joshua shouted. The wheat was so tall I couldn't see where he was calling from.

"A pox on your family," I replied.

"No, there's a nest of vipers over here. Really."

"Oh, I thought you were taunting me. Sorry, a pox off your family."

"Come, see."

...

"Joshua, get away from there."

"They won't hurt me. It says so in Isaiah."

"Just in case they haven't read the Prophets..."

Da Vinci Code

I haven't read the Da Vinci Code - probably won't. But I'm familiar with it. At this point who isn't? I'm just tired of dealing with this book at my bookstore. Having people approach you, the bookstore employee who reads 1 book a week when your week is comparatively socially busy, and recommend this book because it is the best book ever. This generally comes from someone who then asks what the second book they ever read should be.

That was cold. I suppose it is better than those folks who solely read the Left Behind series. There, I said something nice about Dan Brown.

This NorthstateScience dude uses the Da Vinci Code's backlash among Christians to make some great points regarding ignorant Intelligent Design V Evolution claims.

This Shea dude wrote a book with some other guy about how the Da Vinci Code is dangerous because people read it and assume that parts of it are true despite the fact that it is fiction.

Further, Shea thinks the historical inaccuracies need to be addressed – good for him; he’s found areas of disagreement and should offer a response. When evolutionary biologists confront the biological inaccuracies of Wells, Dembski or Johnson, what happens? They’re accused of being “dogmatic Darwinists”. Is Shea, therefore, to be considered a “dogmatic Christian”?

At any rate, this is really fun short read and well worth it.

New Book

I just read a review of an interesting book: 50 American Revolutions You're Not Supposed to Know by Mickey Z. Apparently it appeals to those familiar with Zinn's A People's History of the United States. I'll be keeping an eye out for that in the bookstore.

<em>Bureaucracy</em> by James Wilson

I just read half of James Q. Wilson's Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It. It was for a class and though I don't have time now, I think I will most likely go back and finish it.

My very quick review of it would be that this should be strongly suggested (or the closest thing to required that anarchists are allowed to advocate) reading for anyone who is frustrated with the government. Libertarians and anarchists especially. But also everyone else. Even if you hate it, you'll see the word so often you'll never forget how to spell bureaucracy.

Wilson examines every study of bureaucracy ever and draws some lessons. He examines the ways in which the structure of the organization is important, in what ways the will of the leader is important, when strong agreements on tasks are important and why some organizations are good at one task but cannot do anything else well.

The Ford Motor Company should not have made the Edsel, but if the government had owned Ford it would still be making Edsels.

I had never heard of the Edsel, so I consulted wikipedia

The Edsel was a make of automobile manufactured by the Ford Motor Company during the 1958, 1959 and 1960 model years. The car brand is best known as the most spectacular failure in the history of the United States automobile industry.

Without getting too deep into it, government is the way it is because it is government. Government bureaucracy cannot be reformed by treating it like a business because we demand accountability from the government - in more ways than from private businesses. Additionally, government agencies are accountable to more groups than any business is. These are a few of the constraints on government agencies.

What is really interesting, is how this ties into a different book from which I am reading excerpts - dealing with the ways in which information technology is moving us into the post-bureaucratic age and what that means.

Oprah 180s

So Oprah reversed her Frey position and accused Frey of betraying millions of readers. Somehow I doubt that while "grilling" the book's publisher, did she indict a business more interested in capitalizing on the memior business than in providing accurate books. This is a followup to my previous story about frey.

Shel Silverstein

Do a google search on Shel Silverstein (poet extraordinaire) and you'll find the top hit is a short biography targeted toward teachers. It notes that he began his career with "an adult magazine." It was Playboy

Playboy's January issue features "The Magical World of Shel Silverstein." I knew that Shel wrote pieces for Playboy but was not aware of the frequency. It is a really interesting story.

If you have never heard of Shel or were not aware of his adult writings, stop reading this, and read "Hamlet as Told on the Street." Then come back here and finish my post!

I first discovered Shel's non-kid writings in Playboy so it is rather fitting that I learned more about him from the same magazine. Shel had gained some fame from his cartoons in Stars and Stripes but was looking for work when he met Hugh Hefner and a very young Playboy magazine.

From then on, he and Hef were friends and he became a frequent contributor to the mag. Apparently he was a traveling cartoonist - on Playboy's budget. When not traveling, he would settle in the Chicago Mansion for months at a time.

Shel was heavily involved in the music scene - something I hadn't realized. Amazon offers several albums. This is the man who wrote "A Boy Named Sue" which Johnny Cash turned into a smash in San Quentin. Apparently he wrote a bunch of songs with Kris Kristofferson when Kris wasn't busy killing vampires with Wesley Snipes (or leading a massive truck convoy across the country for that matter).

I think I'm going to have to start collecting this guy's works. Interested? Check out this compilation of his adult works.

James Frey

So James Frey wrote A Million Little Pieces which was a popular memoir even before Oprah picked it for her book club (instantly selling millions of copies) but the Smoking Gun investigated some of its claims and found them to be false. James Frey claimed the Smoking Gun report only refuted minor parts of his book and authors have a right to exaggerate or fabricate sections of memiors.

He went on Larry King's show (transcript here) and Oprah called in to back him up. Friday morning, MPR Midmorning ran a show (listen here) discussing memiors in general and Frey in particular.

Possibly the most interesting part of the interview:

King: And also there's a story around that you offered this around to a lot of publishers as fiction and it was turned down and then you changed it. Is that true?

FREY: We initially shopped the book as a novel and it was turned down by a lot of publishers as a novel or as a non-fiction book. When Nan Talese purchased the book, I'm not sure if they knew what they were going to publish it as. We talked about what to publish it as. And they thought the best thing to do was publish it as a memoir.

KING: Why did you shop it as a novel if it wasn't?

FREY: I think of the book as working in sort of a tradition -- a long tradition of what American writers have done in the past, people like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Kerouac and Charles Bukowski.

KING: But they all said fiction.

FREY: Yes, they did. And at the time of their books being published, the genre of memoir didn't exist. I mean, the genre of memoir is one that's very new and the boundaries of it had not been established yet.

KING: But you will agree, if you went into a bookstore and it said memoirs, you would think non-fiction?

FREY: Yes. I mean, it's a classification of non-fiction. Some people think it's creative non-fiction. It's generally recognized that the writer of a memoir is retailing a subjective story. That it's one person's event. I mean, I still stand by the essential truths of the book.

This whole situation has done nothing but boost the sales of Frey (number two on Amazon right now behind recently proclaimed new Oprah book Night by Wiesel - another memoir plagued by accusations of dishonesty). However, I have enjoyed reading what the folks at the freakonomics blog have had to say about it.

At first, they defended the book against the Smoking Gun allegations. Then they read the Smoking Gun report and saw Frey on King. Upshot: good book but should have been published as fiction.

Next, they jumped into Frey's fray with a quick investigation of their own suggesting parts of the sequel My Friend Leonard may be manufactured. Basically, he claims his lover committed suicide but the data suggests his description of her is off the mark. Some reader comments suggest Frey's description is plausible but not probable.

As other bloggers have jumped into the discussion, the freakonomics fellows highlight a blogger who analyzed some of the claimed dates in the memior which do not line up with the sporting events described within them. At all.

Finally, they point out a hilarious piece in the Onion and an oped written by a Daily Show writer.

This has all raised some interesting questions - some of which were covered by the Midmorning show on MPR. One caller had the concern that Frey's irresponsibility may have ruined memiors - people will now not trust them. Many responses to this.

People should not blindly read anything! Read everything with a healthy distrust.

Memory is not accurate. Memory is subjective. Memory is not a recording of what happened. If you are surprised by this, talk to Psych folks.

James Frey is not half as responsible as the book publishers which will publish any bit of rubbish they think will turn a profit. Frey, wrote a book which he tried to publish as fiction and was finally able to publish as a memior. Ultimately, publishing houses should be concerned with reputations. Those that are will actually fact-check non-fiction books. If anything, the book publishing industry has more problems than any individual author.

That being said, I still have not read this book and should not accuse it of being rubbish. From everything I have heard - it is a fantastic book which apparently actually describes what is like to abuse drugs. This is something wildly outside my experience, so I'll leave off here.

World is Flat - Friedman

Some comments on The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman - which I meant to comment upon 6 months ago when I read it. These are rather unconnected and undeveloped but I still find 'em interesting.

Walmart is genius. Say this around liberals and you'll get a stony stare or lectures about low salaries, nonexistent health care and mandatory overtime. This is only 90% of the story. Walmart enthusiasts would instead talk about its supply chain. Thomas Friedman tackles this aspect (to his credit, he does not ignore the problematic aspects of Walmart).

Walmart actually employs meteorologists. These folks watch for things like hurricanes. When hurricanes approach, Walmart's supply chain increases the inventory of things like beer and entertainment items which do not require electricity. Not only is this innovative, their control of the supply chain is impressive. Supply chains make and break companies - economies even. Walmart's success is impressive - but not built solely on the backs of their screwed-over floor employees.

Another interesting point that Friedman makes (an obvious point that I suspect many of us neglected to make) is how modern telecommunications have totally changed government functions - including diplomacy. Reaching foreign diplomats does not require hours to track them down via secretaries. Instead, Secretary of State Rice (who I can no longer think of without hearing Steve Earle's Condi Condi song in my head) has her own phone from which she can instantly reach other heads of state. This has larger changes than most appreciate.

When former Secretary of State Powell needed the text from a specific Security Council resolution, he first asked an aide to get it for him, then realized he could find himself more quickly using Google. In a better world, this would allow more productivity from public servants. Well, in this world, it actually does make them more productive. In this world, more than in the better world, it likely allows the public "servants" more time to work the room for the corporate donors which finance the two party system. So we end up losing out as citizens for the most part - but its nice to know what possibilities are there.

Friedman has a better read on the pulse of people than most. He still makes a lot of mistakes (mistakes are far easier to make than accurate observations).

The world's poor do not resent the rich anywhere nearly as much as the left-wing parties in the developed world imagine. What they resent is not having any pathway to get rich and to join the flat world and cross that line into the middle class...

I think Friedman nearly nails it. People need hope. However, people also need realistic expectations with hope. The world cannot (and does not need to) support 7 billion rich folks. Friedman is an embracer - he loves technological innovation. We need a saner approach to progress than mindlessly adopting new ideas/products without questioning the full cost.

The last thing I wanted to touch on was Friedman's commentary on terrorism. He writes about this subject frequently and I often disagree with his assessment. In the case of this book, I have to salute MN homeboy Thomas.

The humiliation is the key. It has always been my view that terrorism is not spawned by the poverty of money. It is spawned by the poverty of dignity. Humiliation is the most underestimated force in international relations and in human relations. It is when people or nations are humiliated that they really lash out and engage in extreme violence.

Many conservative commentators have come out recently debunking the "liberal myth" that poverty creates terrorism. Naturally, the conservative commentators are lashing out against straw man arguments (naturally for commentators more so than for conservatives). The argument of liberals (and myself in this instance) is that poverty contributes to terrorism. Not just the poverty of individuals, but the poverty of certain societies. At any rate, Friedman puts it better by putting it in terms of hope. Societies with hope spawn considerably fewer terrorists than those without hope. It is a correlation - probably not even a strong one.

At any rate, the question of terrorism is not an easy one to solve. Blaming it on "bad people" will do nothing to reduce it. What will reduce it is creating open societies in which people can make a difference in their lives. Where people have hope. Where people have control over their own lives.

More Moore - Lust Lizard

I've been waiting 4 long months to read a fiction book. While I've certainly been reading many books - which I hope to quickly review in a different post - none have been quite as much fun as a Christopher Moore novel. Finally, after finishing my last final, I picked up The Lust Lizard of Melancholoy Cove. Sooo good! This is Moore's 4th book and introduces many of the characters which reappear in The Stupidest Angel which is one of the funniest books I've ever read.

Lust Lizard does not disappoint. Couple of quotes to help you understand just how funny this dude is.

The position of hardware clerk in Pine Cove was highly coveted by the town's retired male population, for nowhere else could a man posture well past his prime, pontificate, and gneerally indulge in the arrogant self-important chest-pounding of an alpha male without having a woman intercede to remind him that he was patently full of shit.

and

Winter near the shore is cold ... Surfers don their wetsuits against the chill of storm waves and white sharks adjust their diets to include shrink-wrapped dude-snacks on fiberglass crackers.

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