Featured New Release Of The Week: Of Bears And Ballots by Heather Lende

This week we’re looking at an intriguing look at rural small town American politics. This week, we’re looking at Of Bears and Ballots by Heather Lende.

This one got my attention mostly because I myself ran for rural small town City Council twice a decade ago – unsuccessfully both times – and so whenever I see an actual book come out about such experiences, I’m immediately interested. In this one, it turns out that this particular town has a couple of very big differences than my far-from-the-sea town did: 1) The jurisdiction here includes a cruise terminal and Glacier Point, a major cruise excursion destination. 2) While the town that I ran for Council in is the home of country singer Luke Bryan, San Fransisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, and American Idol Season 12 winner Phillip Phillips (and I have interesting experiences being in area crowds with both singers), Lende’s town – Haines, AK – happens to be the hometown of Parker Schnabel of Discovery Channel’s Gold Rush family of shows. And one of the controversies Lende spends a fair amount of time on in this book is her decision – along with other members of a split Council – to hire Parker’s aunt, Debra Schnabel, as the town’s Manager. It was a controversy big enough that it nearly led to her ouster less than one year into a three year term, and it apparently set the tone for the rest of her term and indeed for the narrative of this book.

Overall the book did exactly what I expected of it – it showed the realities of life on a small town City Council, the striking dichotomies of being “The Honorable Heather Lende” or “Ms. Lende” or such in meetings and “Heather” as soon as the gavel sounds to close the meeting. Of having disagreements about policy so stark that voters initiate a recall election against you… and then finding out people you thought were good friends, who go to church with you, shop at the store your husband runs, or other seemingly major small town connections… signed the damn petition that forced the recall to happen. I had a degree of that myself even in my unsuccessful runs, watching people as they walked into the singular voting precinct in my town (Lende’s had two, despite having roughly the same number of voters) as I waved campaign signs from across the street while talking to an area reporter. So while I was never recalled, I know well the… interesting… feelings Lende discusses quite well in the text.

In her calls for civility and her support for Robert’s Rules of Order as a mechanism for returning us back to a more civil era of politics and the Rule of Law, Lende actually manages to evoke a sense of President Andrew Shepherd as portrayed by Michael Douglas in The American President. Which their shared liberal politics helps to cement, to a degree. 😉

Ultimately, this was a very satisfying and fairly quick (for a nonfiction book) read, and it is very much recommended.

As always, the Goodreads/ Amazon review:
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#BookReview: Prisoners Of Geography by Tim Marshall

Interesting Concepts. Marshall presents an interesting case of geopolitics from a geographical perspective, and while quite a bit of it makes perfect sense, there are also times where he presents an idea as perfectly obvious… when it actually isn’t/ wasn’t. For example, he claims that once America gained access to the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century via the Oregon Territory, it was destined to become a great world power simply because it had direct access to both of the world’s great oceans. If it was so perfectly obvious, why did it take another century or so – for this barely century old nation at the time – to achieve such supremacy? But the cases Marshall does make, he makes many interesting points on that even I had never considered, and I consider myself a fairly learned and analytical person. He also does so with great humor, which makes what could have been a much drier, more academic treatise into a much more enjoyable read. So read this thing. It has some good ideas and you’ll be entertained. Just don’t believe every word it says, and keep a critical eye on all things at all times. Recommended.

This review of Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall was originally written on June 29, 2020.

Featured New Release of the Week: Feeding The People by Rebecca Earle

This week we’re looking at a remarkably well researched novel history. This week, we’re looking at Feeding the People by Rebecca Earle.

This is one of the more novel histories I’ve ever read, whose central point is looking at the Andean Potato as at least a sign, if not a driver at times, of world history through the last several centuries since it was brought to Europe and popularized there post-Columbus. Structurally, it divides its chapters between various ages – Enlightenment, Scientific, Globalization, etc – and examines how potatoes were playing a role in world history during those ages. And it makes some very interesting cases that I personally had never considered, but which largely make sense.

Truly the most remarkable thing about the book though is just how well documented it is – literally 42% of the edition I read was bibliography and index. Considering that more normal documentation rates for even books I generally consider to be well documented are closer to 25-30%, this is exceptional indeed.

For its completeness, its documentation, and yes, its novelty, this is absolutely a very much recommended book.

As always, the Goodreads/ Amazon review:
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#BookReview: The Vanishing Trial by Robert Katzberg

Solid Examination More Memoir Than Treatise. I was actually going to 4* this one until I went back and re-read the description, which did in fact hint at this being more memoir than treatise – which was my only real reason for docking the star. I had thought, reading it well after actually picking it up, that I was getting more treatise with just a smattering of memoir.

That noted, Katzberg does a remarkable job of showing the problems he notes as only an insider can, and sets the stage for further exploration – perhaps, as he so often notes, from someone more scholarly inclined – of the exact issues, their exact causes and histories, and maybe some examination of potential solutions, even including Katzberg’s own. Ultimately more Failure Is Not An Option (Gene Kranz’s remarkable memoir of his time as a Flight Director during the Apollo era) than Rise Of the Warrior Cop (Radley Balko’s complete record of policing in America and in particular its militarization of the last 50 years or so), this is truly a spectacular effort, well written with concise points, solid anecdotes, and an appropriate smattering of humor. Very much recommended.

This review of The Vanishing Trial by Robert Katzberg was originally written on June 22, 2020.

#BookReview: Someone Else’s Secret by Julia Spiro

Slow. Then Wow. This debut book is very much a slow burn. A recent college graduate circa 2009 becomes the nanny for a Martha’s Vineyard family, only to realize that there is much going on behind the scenes. One of her two charges, a 14yo girl, is coming of age at the same time and realizing that things are not always as they seem. Then, right around the 2/3 mark, The Event happens. Beyond saying that it ties into #MeToo, which is general enough to note a wide range within a given type of event, I’ll say no more about The Event itself. But both women experienced it, and the back quarter (ish) of the book flashes forward a decade to how it has shaped both of them. To the #MeToo era itself, though this is never directly mentioned in the text by that name. And it is here the book ends, with some of the heaviest punches outside of The Event itself. But who knows, maybe, for me, that was due to my own life and how I know all too well how trauma can shape a life, and thus identified remarkably well with a now early 20s and mid 30s female despite being a late 30s (ugh) male myself. Truly a remarkable debut, and I’m very much looking forward to more from Ms. Spiro. Very much recommended.

This review of Someone Else’s Secret by Julia Spiro was originally written on June 22, 2020.

#BookReview: A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik

Interesting Discussion. Let’s get two things straight up front: 1) I believe this author – a Canadian-American – uses “Liberal” where far more commonly for most of his points most Americans would use “Libertarian”. He uses the Canadian understanding of the term (and, indeed, most of the world outside of the US, at least according to my own understanding), which may be problematic for US audiences. 2) The 5* rating here is not because I actually agree with his points – largely, I do not, which I’ll get to momentarily – but because for the style of book that it is – a discussion of political philosophy, ostensibly as a father writing to his daughter – I really can find no fault here beyond “I strongly disagree with what the author says here”, and I do my best to not drop stars over such disagreements absent some more concrete issue.

On the actual arguments in question, again, I believe he is arguing more for (mostly) what an American audience would more readily understand as “libertarianism” – Rule of Law, equality of opportunity no matter one’s demographics, and a strong commitment to the freedom of speech. Yes, he goes off on leftist/ progressive tangents such as gun control and universal healthcare at times, but the author does a pretty solid job of always coming back to the central thesis, and showing how both the “left” and “right” in most countries (but particularly the US) both hate what he calls “liberalism” and why both camps are wrong. I could probably write a book concurring in conclusion but dissenting in approach myself, particularly over Gopnik’s obsession with John Stuart Mill and On Liberty – a book I myself read just a couple of years ago and found useful to the overall conversation, but ultimately problematic.

Still, as with Mills’ book – a conjoining the author will likely appreciate – this text serves as a solid look at a particular way of thinking and is thus worthy of consideration. Recommended.

This review of A Thousand Small Sanities by Adam Gopnik was originally written on June 20, 2020.

#BookReview: Ghost Writer by Pandora Pine

Pleasurable Writing. In this continuing saga of Private Investigator Jude Byrne and Witch/ Medium Copeland Forbes’ lives together, we get some of the more hilarious scenes of this spinoff series (and arguably even the entire connected universe) and ever more harrowing threats. And seriously, the truly hilarious scene is one of the more explicit scenes, involving a particular toy used to great effect both comedically and sexually. The investigation this time is excellent, and the threat a very sad reminder of America’s not-so-distant past. At this point in the series, I can’t recommend starting the series here – but I can say without hesitation that if you begin with Haunted Souls #1 you will enjoy the progression when you get here. Very much recommended.

This review of Ghost Writer by Pandora Pine was originally written on July 19, 2020.

#BookReview: Prison By Any Other Name by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law

Eye Opening Yet Flawed. From a standard sociological talking point side, this book is eye opening yet also perfectly in-line (almost within perfect lock-step, in fact) with current sociological understanding – or at least my own understanding of current sociological understanding. (And this, from a guy that *long ago* presented at a sociological conference as a college freshman – just to establish that I do in fact have a *modicum* of academic understanding here. 😉 ) In the forward, Michelle Alexander shows that despite the years, her own blinders and biases are still perfectly in place – but also sets the overall tone for the book. In short, this does for government controls outside the actual mass incarceration system what Alexander’s The New Jim Crow did for the mass incarceration system and what Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop did for the actual history of police militarization and brutality in the US. Indeed, ultimately this is a book that belongs in the same libraries and conversations as those two magnum opuses as a definitive text on the issue that every single person in America needs to read. Yes, it is *that* powerful, even for someone who has read both of the aforementioned books, who has been an activist for quite some time, and know knows more about these issues than many, perhaps most, people currently talking about them in media (either professional or social).

Its critical flaws are similar to Alexanders’ own: it has a near laser focus on race as the root cause. Where this book gains the extra star above Alexander’s book is that key word “near”. Schenwar and Law do a commendable job of listing other leading causes of these issues – chiefly, being poor no matter the color of your skin – even while most often listing race as the most common cause. At that point, I’m more willing to call six of one/ half a dozen of the other, it is so well balanced here.

But arguably the biggest flaw of the book is that even while constantly preaching about the perils of government control systems, it still manages to advocate for *more*… government control systems, simply targeting other people. Even as it preaches community and alternatives to police, prison, and the various systems described in the book, it still ultimately demands ever more government programs rather than the true community Schenwar and Law claim to want. Rather than praising Anarchy and demanding a complete overthrow of the very government systems that cause the very problems they so accurately describe, they ultimately choose to love Big Brother even while asking him to be a little bit nicer.

And just as this ending is the ultimate tragedy of Orwell’s 1984, so too it is the ultimate tragedy of this otherwise stupendous polemic. Recommended.

This review of Prison By Any Other Name by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law was originally written on June 16, 2020.

#BookReview: Undeniably Yours by Brittany Cournoyer

Slow Burn Yet Ultimately Satisfying. This is a friends to lovers book where *everyone* can see these two guys belong together… except one of them. The deep friendship is apparent from the first words of the book, and Cournoyer does a particularly good job of establishing that up front – to the level that at times it feels like this book should be deep into a series with these two characters as recurring secondary characters, rather than an apparent standalone. Ultimately it hits all the notes fans of MM romance will expect, with a fair amount of drama and fun thrown in. Very well done, and very much recommended.

This review of Undeniably Yours by Brittany Cournoyer was originally written on June 16, 2020.

Featured New Release of the Week: Modesty by Hafsa Lodi

This week we’re looking at a seemingly comprehensive look at modern Muslim fashion. This week we’re looking at Modesty by Hafsa Lodi.

I grew up in a fairly conservative Christian tradition, the Southern Baptist Church. While my church was a *bit* more moderate in dress – women were allowed to wear pants, though it was frowned upon by the senior citizen crowd, for example – I was in a region (exurban Atlanta) where knowing people who attended more conservative churches with more stringent dress codes wasn’t uncommon. On church beach trips or pool parties, for example, one piece swimsuits for females were a common requirement. Even in that era, men and boys were expected to at minimum wear pants and close toed shoes along with some appropriate top (could be just a tshirt, as long as the torso was covered, though men generally wore at minimum polo shirts to services, and often dress shirts and ties). Hell, for much of my life my dad has been a deacon (church elder, basically) in the church my parents and brothers (and their families) still attend to this day. I actually remember one infamous example where our preacher was preaching at a church in a neighboring County in August. This being Georgia, let’s just say you don’t exactly want to wear pants in Georgia, and this was a Revival service to boot – a week long (ish) event of nightly church services, seen as a way to be extra pious and encourage more people to come to church. So it wasn’t exactly like this was a Sunday morning service (the “most holy” services in at least that brand of Christianity, where standards and protocols tend to be the most stringent). My parents were insisting I wear pants. I was insisting I wear shorts because it was so hot. At this point I was in my early teens or so, young enough that I couldn’t yet drive, old enough that I could make my desires known and fight for them. I actually don’t remember how that situation turned out – I don’t remember if we made the service that night or what I wore, though there is a faint thought that I did in fact wear pants and we did in fact make it to service.

The point being, while I’ve never actively considered how hard it may be to find trendy clothes that fit the modest standards of such groups, I have been a part of a culture that at least expects it, if not outright demands it/ forces it. So I get a version of where Lodi is coming from here, even while never experiencing her exact situation.

Which ultimately leads to the one criticism I have of this book.

Lodi does an *amazing* job of documenting Generation M, the Muslim Millenial Female, and its desires for trendy yet traditional (ish) fashion. She truly does a remarkable job of showing the history of both uncovering a century ago or so and recovering over the last 50 years or so, including the various debates and schools of thought on each. For a treatise specifically on these issues, this book is seemingly damn near perfect and for that alone it was utterly fascinating – as despite having watched a few episodes of America’s Next Top Model or Project Runway, I’m not exactly knowledgeable of that world at all really.

But the most glaring weakness of the book, the one that leaves it at just “amazing” rather than elevating it closer to “transcendental”, turns out to be that very laser focus on Muslim issues specifically. Sure, she starts and ends with an example of her childhood Mormon friend, and Christians and Jews (and specifically Mormons, whose Christianity is doubted in at least some circles) are mentioned sporadically and even no-faith reasons are mentioned even less, but are in fact mentioned. But they are almost always more as an aside and are never considered in any real kind of depth. What this book really needed was maybe just a single chapter each where Lodi stepped away from the Muslim angle and actually – if briefly – explored the same histories. thought processes, and modern issues of those specific groups. Particularly from the non-faith, skin care/ sun avoidance angle, it could have been a truly remarkable addition to the text here.

But again, even with that omission, this is truly an excellent book and particularly for those remotely interested in fashion generally or modest fashion in particular – and especially if you’re an Instagram addict with those proclivities – you’ll want to pick up this book immediately. Very much recommended.

As always, the Goodreads/ Amazon review:
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