Monday, October 30, 2017

Hidden in Plain Sight, by Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco

Criminologist Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, who teaches at George Mason University, wants to shed some light on the often overlooked problem of modern-day slavery.  In Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Milennium Dr. Mehlman-Orozco reveals the sometimes surprising extent to which slavery, in one form or another, exists in the United States.  She writes that "slavery is not a thing of the past and . . . there are more slaves today than at any other time in human history."

The first thing that comes to many people's mind when the subject of slavery or human trafficking comes up is sex slavery.  In fact, about half of Hidden in Plain Sight deals with various forms of sex trafficking.  One of the problems with examining sex trafficking is the fact that in many places prostitution is legal, and even in places where it's illegal, some sex workers choose the trade voluntarily.  Not only consumers but also law enforcement sometimes have distinguishing between  trafficked and voluntary sex workers.

But in many cases, it's very clear.  Women from impoverished circumstances, addicts, and, obviously, children, are in no position to consent to sex, yet they are subject to the sex industry in the U.S. and around the world.  Dr. Mehlman-Orozco evaluates the testimony of sex workers, accounts by consumers, and other sources such as law enforcement and traffickers to give an in-depth sense of the extent of the industry and the prevalence of trafficking.  Her accounts are heart-breaking.  The frank testimonials of the consumers are shocking.  The problem is widespread.  While I appreciated the details she goes into, at times I felt like she could have been more discreet.  Someone who is looking for illicit sex has, in a sense, a how-to guide here, including web sites to go to for seeking out sexual encounters.

Besides sex slavery, a wide variety of more conventional industries sometimes use trafficked labor.  Domestic servants, door-to-door sales teams, nail salon employees, cocoa harvesters and other agricultural workers, and others are sometimes held under the thumb of their employers.  The workers may have come from other countries or from a rough home life, having heard promises of education, money, citizenship, and other enticements.  Once the employers have control of the trafficked individuals, they restrict their movement, confiscate passports, control their access to money, and charge them for living expenses and transportation, using these means to keep them enslaved.

Hidden in Plain Sight is sobering, even shocking at times.  Most of all, though, Dr. Mehlman-Orozco demonstrates the pervasiveness of human trafficking.  In the sex trade, even the legal trade bolsters illegal sex trafficking.  And in other parts of the economy, "the use of slave labor has grown to such magnitude that consuming products of human trafficking is almost unavoidable."  Every time we eat chocolate, get dressed, or get our nails done, we may be supporting human trafficking.  Hidden in Plain Sight is an important source for awareness, as well as a resource for professionals and activists who want to help.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Fowl Language: The Struggle Is Real, by Brian Gordon

Brian Gordon is an experienced parent and say he is ready to "spread a little bit of wisdom I've gained through trial and error.  Mostly error."  Among his words of advice, he writes, "try the cathartic act of bitching about your children by drawing them as ducks."  That's exactly what he does in his Fowl Language Comics.  In his latest collection Fowl Language: The Struggle Is Real every parent will find the familiar experiences of parenthood.

Most of the comics are laugh-out-loud, read-to-your-spouse funny.  I saw my kids and my wife is many of Gordon's comics.  One caveat: many of the panels contain pretty bad language.  Rated R.  It's funny, but you don't want your kids to read it.  But that's what makes it funny.  He'll use the bad language and then scold his kids for the same: "'Poophead?!' Hey! We do not use that kind of language in this house!"

Pick up Fowl Language: The Struggle Is Real, or check out his comics on his web site.  If you're a parent, or if you have parents, you will crack up when you read these.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

This Is Texas, Y'all, by Misha Blaise

Like Misha Blaise, I wasn't born in Texas but I got here as fast as I could.  (I was 2.)  Blaise has become enamored enough with her adopted home state to write a children's book about Texas.  This Is Texas, Y'all: The Lone Star State from A to Z features some of the great things about Texas for every letter of the alphabet.

Any Texan will enjoy seeing their favorite things and places colorfully illustrated in This Is Texas, Y'all.  The Alamo, Dr Pepper, Big Tex, Hamilton Pool, Enchanted Rock, Selena, the Texas Two-Step.  I would also venture to say that any Texan will learn something about the Lone Star State.  I learned (or maybe I re-learned) that the first permanent civilian settlers in Texas, in what is now San Antonio, were from the Canary Islands.  I learned that the oldest skeleton found in the Western Hemisphere is Midland Minnie, discovered near Midland in 1953.  I learned about the "Queens of Cattle" who managed huge herds in South Texas long before the King Ranch was established.

At times it seems like Blaise bent over a little backwards to be inclusive.  Sure, some Texans celebrate Eid al-Fitr, and of course there are Buddhists and Hindus in Texas, but are these distinctive or historically and culturally significant?  Those groups are part of Texas as a modern metropolitan state, but they are not part of what made Texas Texas.  Juneteenth and Dia de los Muertos do, on the other hand, have distinctive Texan expression and significance.  Besides the Spanish, the Germans and Czechs were among the first settlers.  Clearly Texas is a multi-ethnic mishmash.

Blaise's illustrations are simple, colorful, and fun.  Texans who love their state will love This Is Texas, Y'all.  Non-Texans need to pick it up and get a clue as to why Texas is the greatest state in the union!

(Just one last question: Why is Lyle Lovett's song lyric in the K section?)

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, October 27, 2017

Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon

For many parents, their children are just like them, only smaller and younger.  But some kids fall "far from the tree," with differences from their parents that add challenge to the life of the parent.  In Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, psychiatrist Andrew Solomon looks a wide variety of children who are far from the tree of their parents and offers insight for all parents.

A key distinction Solomon draws is between horizontal and vertical identity.  "Often . . . someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group.  This is a horizontal identity. . . . Many parents experience their child's horizontal identity as an affront.  A child's marked difference from the rest of the family demands knowledge, competence, and actions that a typical mother and father are unqualified to supply, at least initially. . . . Horizontal [identities] are often treated as flaws."

A large part of Far from the Tree discusses these horizontal conditions we typically view as disabilities, with chapters on deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, and multiple disabilities.  A chapter on prodigies seems a little out of place after those chapters, but, as he argues, parents of prodigies have similar challenges to parents of children with physical or psychological disabilities.  The next three chapters, on children conceived in rape, children who become criminals, and transgender children, seemed especially out of place in a book about children with disabilities, but they are nevertheless insightful.

Solomon writes that this book is about anecdotes, not statistics, and anecdotes he does provide.  Each chapter could be developed into a book, and sometimes felt like a book on its own, each in the range of 50-70 pages.  He interviewed a wide array of families for each chapter, and gives some background and introduction to the condition reviewed in each chapter.  The reader thus does not gain an encyclopedic knowledge about the disability, but does gain sympathy and understanding for each type of disability or difference. 

Many of the stories are very moving, and I appreciated the opportunity for such personal insight into these families' lives.  Solomon alludes to the common, often unspoken, interactions between parents of children with difference disabilities.  As they pass on the street, or perhaps in the lobby of the children's hospital or doctor's office, they think, "I could not handle that," each thankful that their own children do not have the other child's disability.  This is a truism for parents of children with a disability: you can never feel sorry for yourself because you will inevitably cross paths with another child who seems much worse off than your own.

Solomon does a wonderful job of capturing the feelings and experiences of these families.  A couple of these stood out to me (nearly making me bawl) as I could so relate.  One mom expresses what many parents feel.  When her severely disabled son died, she said, "Let me bury here the rage I feel to have been twice robbed: once of the child I wanted, and once of the son I loved."  Of her other child, similarly disabled, her husband said, "It absolutely blows my mind, the impact that a blind, retarded, nonverbal, nonambulatory person has had on people.  He has a way of opening and touching people that we can't come near."  (Anyone who knows my daughter will appreciate why I love that quote!)  Like most parents of children with disabilities, they would never have asked for their child's condition.  But would they trade their child in for a healthy one?  Not a chance.

I especially liked another parent's challenge for me.  "'You remember It Takes a Village?' John said.  'I'm trying to build a village, so there will always be second and third layers of people who are familiar with Alix.'"  This father bought a nearby house for his daughter's caretaker to live in.  I want to do the same for my daughter, surrounding her with friends, caretakers, family, educators, who know her and provide a community for her.  No matter the disability, this is a key.

Far from the Tree will give parents of children with disabilities and other differences the opportunity to see the worlds of other families.  You might identify with one or two particular chapters, and feel affirmed in your own experiences.  Even better, as you read about other families' struggles and joys, you will see the similarities with your own experiences.  I'm glad I read this book.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Republican Like Me, by Ken Stern

As contentious and divisive as the 2016 presidential election was, and as heated as even casual conversations about President Trump can be (for or against), you might begin to wonder if Republicans and Democrats can ever get along.  Ken Stern, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal (He was CEO of NPR--surely you don't get much more solidly liberal than that!), spent the year getting to know Republicans from around the country and--guess what?--found that they aren't as bad as CNN and the NY Times led him to believe!

The main thing to note about Ken Stern's book Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right is that it's fun to read.  Stern comes across as a likeable guy who enjoys other people and enjoys life.  Whether he's hunting pigs in south Texas, worshiping with a bunch of enthusiastic college students, exploring a coal town in Appalachia, or checking out a homeless outreach in New York, he writes with good humor and contagious enthusiasm.

In Republican Like Me, Stern demonstrates that by opening one's mind and having actual conversations with people from the other end of the political spectrum, one might find that one's political and ideological opposites might have some decent ideas.  Stern was pleasantly surprised by the activism and commitment to community he found among evangelicals.  He came to see the human costs of environmental policies.  He found that addressing poverty is not as simple as political dichotomies seem to imply.

Stern exemplifies not letting our assumptions destroy our relationships, and taking time to listen to opinions that we might not agree with.  He writes, "If this year has taught me anything, it is that not of us has a monopoly on the right ideas and none of us has a superior claim on values, commitment to our communities, and the desire to make our nation a better place."  As Stern says, we need to get over "our astonishing intolerance of the views of others, the certainty that our tribe is right and the other side is wrong."  Whether you lean left or right, that is a great reminder.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review process!

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

I enjoy books about the days of slavery.  The heart-wrenching stories of slaves under the whip are difficult to read, but make great fiction.  Colson Whitehead adds to this genre with his Pulitzer-prize-winning 2016 novel The Underground Railroad.  He tells the story of Cora, a young slave who escapes from a plantation, enjoys a breath of freedom and is captured again, but ends up at a farm colony of free and escaped slaves.

I kept getting a sense that this story has been told before.  No question that it has.  My memory and the breadth of my reading is limited, but I couldn't help but see the borrowing from Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, where Jacobs spent years hiding in an attic.  I have a feeling there is a lot more borrowing from slaves' accounts of their own experience.  Tribute?  Cribbing?  Fictionalizing history?  This is what writers of fiction do, of course, I was just surprised at the similarities.

Whitehead's book has a feature that sets it apart from other slave accounts and slavery fiction.  In The Underground Railroad, the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad that runs underground.  On rails.  In tunnels.  I didn't feel like this twist added to the story itself.  Other than the fact that Cora got on a train to go from place to place, rather than secretly traveling in a more conventional manner, the story was no different.  The underground trains added nothing.

I expected Whitehead to add something new and insightful to the body of work of slave fiction.  He did: the Underground Railroad is an actual train!  But that's it.  No point, no purpose, just novelty for the sake of novelty.  Without that, The Underground Railroad is a decent if unoriginal novel about the evils and tragedies of slavery in the American south.  The superfluous addition of the train diminishes the book.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Comics for a Strange World, by Reza Farazmand

Reza Farazmand, creator of Poorly Drawn Lines, is back with another collection of comics.  His comics strips for adults are full of attitude, snark, absurdity, and laughs.  With simple drawings and sparse text, Farazmand packs a lot of humor and truth in his comics.

Check out this book, or check out his comics online.  Laughs guaranteed.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Modern Masters, by Steve Huyton

If you enjoy modern residential architecture, you will love Steve Huyton's book Modern Masters: Contemporary Architecture from Around the World.  I love these houses.  They rate over the top on the "cool" factor, are very photogenic, and stretch the perception of what a home should look like.

Focusing on a handful of design firms from around the world, Huyton gives a paragraph or so of description before the displays of interior and exterior shots.  The predominant theme, as you might expect, is boxy and angular, concrete and glass.  Some of the houses are really fabulous looking. 

But this book leaves so many questions unanswered.

1. How much do these dwellings cost?  Well, if you have to ask, you can't afford it.  He doesn't discuss price at all, but I'm confident that the price per square foot is well above any house of traditional design.

2. Where do you put your stuff?  With all the open floor plans and floor-to-ceiling windows that take up whole walls, where are the closets?  I'm sure they are somewhere.  But you can't tell from these pictures.

3. Speaking of floor-to-ceiling windows, many of them have no evident window coverings.  How can anyone get some privacy in one of these houses?  What if you want to sleep in a little?

3.a.  And what about the utility bills? Ugh.

3.b.  And what about keeping those windows clean?  Double ugh.

4. Many of these houses have flat roofs.  Are they tar and gravel like my old elementary school or the local strip mall, which has to have that stinky mess reapplied frequently? 

Clearly, these are not houses for people who are concerned about their utility bills or the cost of upkeep and maintenance.  In some ways, the rich are just like you and me.  (They have to have a place to hang their clothes, even if it's not in these pictures.)  But in many ways, they are different.  After all, I'm certain that next time I buy or build a house, this won't be said about me: "The client requested a contemporary dwelling that would also showcase his car." 

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, October 20, 2017

When Grit Isn't Enough, by Linda F. Nathan

Dr. Linda Nathan, founding headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy high school, has seen her students, many of whom are minorities from poor households, come through her excellent high school with great dreams for college and career.  She would tell her incoming students that "all of you will continue on to either college or a career."  In When Grit Isn't Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-All Promise she tells her students' stories and expresses her frustrations with the presumptions and failures of the American system of higher education.

In spite of the movement toward increasing college accessibility and additional college funding, college remains out of grasp for many poorer American students.  She writes that "elite colleges and flagship colleges enroll more students from the top 1 percent of the income bracket than the bottom half of the income distribution."  Even when enrollment opens up to poor students and scholarships are offered, they often don't have the additional financial assistance, family knowledge and support, or freedom of lifestyle to complete a degree.  The book is full of tough, sad anecdotes of promising students who were not able to finish college for these reasons.

One of the attitudes that many educators hold toward student success, especially among minorities and poor students, is that student success depends on grit.  It's true that grit is a necessary ingredient for student success.  But Nathan argues that "the grit approach . . . has taken on an importance for out of proportion to the many other traits that may be just as critical for student development and success."  She says that "the benefits of grit and lockstep learning may have been overinterpreted, and traits such as curiosity and creativity given short shrift."

The implication of emphasizing grit is that if a student does not succeed, it's because he or she didn't display enough grit.  But, as Nathan points out, "if we ignore race, poverty, and social class we continue to create false promises for too many young people."  There are "political or social or socioeconomic systems that work against students."

While demographics often work for against a student's success, obviously, I'm reluctant to embrace Nathan's criticisms of grit, of highly disciplined and structured schools, and demanding course work.  These elements may not be sufficient to guarantee success, but I would argue that they are necessary.  I appreciate Nathan's emphasis on alternatives to college.  She provides examples of vocational high school programs in which students not only gain valuable skills but also have opportunities to work in actual jobs and internships which can not only make them employable but can direct them to college tracks where they can cultivate their passions and skills.

Nathan has some great insight into preparing kids for their post-high-school lives, whether that means college or something else.  College for all sounds great, but "we have not, as a nation, committed to the career part in the mantra 'college and career for all.'"  Without diminishing the value of college, Nathan calls for more attention to be paid to alternatives.  The future of our students, particularly those who come from poor households, depends on it.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Like many readers, my first exposure to Ted Chiang was through the movie The Arrival, which is based on "Story of Your Life."  This short story, along with seven others, are found in Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others.  As is the case with almost any collection of short stories, this collection is uneven.  I got the feeling that some of them were experimental pieces where he took a germ of an idea and tried to build a story around it but it never really sprouted into a complete work of fiction.  A few are strong stand-along pieces.

"Story of Your Life" was a bit of a let down after I saw the movie.  I know, I know, movies and stories are separate works and exist independently.  I saw the movie first, was disappointed, then read the story, and was even more disappointed.  Alas.  "Tower of Babylon" was a treat, as it sort of told the story of the biblical Tower of Babel.  "Understand" was an interesting attempt to explore the implications of artificially inducing tremendous mental powers on an individual.  "Liking What You See: A Documentary" is written as a series of interview responses about calliagnosia, a neurological treatment that blocks neural pathways by which we judge people's ugliness or beauty.  I enjoyed both the story-telling technique and the thoughtful reflection of this piece.

Stories of Your Life and Others shows Chiang as a writer whose big ideas are not easily contained in a mere story.  Readers who enjoy a good story will ultimately be disappointed in Chiang's writing, but readers who don't care so much about minor details like plot and character development will delight in Chiang's ideas.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Trap Line, by Carl Hiaasen and Bill Montalbano

In Carl Hiaasen's early days of writing fiction, he partnered with Bill Montalbano to write three gritty crime novels.  The second, Trap Line, exposes the underbelly of life in Key West, where fishermen and drug runners take to the seas to make a living.  When Breeze Albury refuses to help some smugglers, they get their revenge by cutting his trap lines, ruining his business.  Trying to make up his losses, he ends up in league with local criminals, who lead him into a different sort of trap.  Running from the corrupt local law enforcement and hiding out from the criminal gangs, he plots his devious revenge.

Trap Line is a shadow of the more entertaining series of books he writes later on.  As in most of Hiaasen's books, everyday folks get mixed up with bumbling criminals, but Trap Line lacks most of the humor and absurdity of his later fiction.  Ultimately that means this is quite a bit less enjoyable.  There are no heroes here, only varying degrees of badness getting revenge on badness.

All that said, Hiaasen's colorful characterizations and sense of Florida culture, along with the interconnected plot lines, set him apart from typical crime writers.  Hiaasen fans might want to pick up Trap Line for some historical perspective on his work, but it will make them long for Skink and the fun of Hiaasen's later fiction.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Capital Gaines, by Chip Gaines

Chip Gaines and his lovely wife and partner Joanna have won the hearts of America with their hit TV show Fixer Upper.  Before they became an HGTV sensation, they dabbled in a variety of businesses.  Chip's new book, Capital Gaines: Smart Things I Learned Doing Stupid Stuff tells the story of his business successes (as well as a few failures) and spreads some of the wisdom of his ways.

If you've seen Fixer Upper, you've seen the teamwork between Chip and Joanna.  This is a theme throughout the book.  Even while they were dating, Joanna had his back and was there to help him out of a jam (or two or three).  He writes, "Jo and I have always believed that it is us against the world. . . . We know that in all the world there is this one singular human who will be on our team every time."  As they made business decisions and took huge risks, it was always a collaborative effort.  Of course, as he told an employee, "People are always asking us who's in charge, and the answer is, when Jo is gone, I'm the boss."

Another theme is taking risks and working hard.  Chip's career has been marked by big risks and lots of hard work.  He assures us that "if you do the hard work and never quit--and pick yourself up when things go sideways--good things will be waiting on the other side."  Speaking of having a winning mentality, he compares life and business to a tennis match.  You will lose some games and win others, but "with a winner mentality, there's a positive waiting for you no matter the outcome."  In the end, "winning and losing isn't an event; it's a mind-set."

Capital Gaines is full of inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs, especially if they are already admirers of the Gaineses.  While Fixer Upper took the Gaines's businesses to new heights, I have no doubt that they would have continued to be successful even without the exposure the show brought.  Chip and Joanna make a great team, a true partnership in life and business.  Capital Gaines captures the fun-loving, hard-working, slightly crazy Chip that we see on the TV show, while also passing along some memorable nuggets of wisdom for business and life.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Revival, edited by John Avant, Malcolm McDow, and Alvin Reid

During my last semester on campus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminar in Fort Worth, I attended a chapel service in which students lined up at the microphones confessing sin.  I thought it was rather strange, hearing these fellow students airing their dirty laundry in public, but that service deeply impacted many students and faculty.  I left campus shortly after, happy to leave the contentious atmosphere that had come to dominate with the firing of the president the year before, and never got the full story of this brief but intense time of revival.

Out of curiosity I picked up the 1996 book Revival! The Story of the Current Awakening in Brownwood, Ft. Worth, Wheaton, and Beyond.  Edited by John Avant, Southwestern professor Malcolm McDow, and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Alvin Reid, Revival! is primarily a compilation of journal entries and recollections of several people who were at the center of this revival movement. 

John Avant was pastor at Coggin Avenue Baptist Church in Brownwood, Texas, when a revival broke out, marked by confession, salvations, and intense worship and prayer.  Soon students from Howard Payne University in Brownwood began traveling to Southwestern Seminary, Wheaton, and dozens and dozens of other college and seminary campuses testifying about what God was doing in Texas.  In most cases, similar revivals broke out on those campuses and spread to other churches and schools as students carried the news onward.

Revival! gathers together Avant's journals, journals of some of the key students, and messages they gave at other schools.  As you might expect, there is a lot of crossover and repetition as the story is told from different perspectives.  Also included are reflective chapters from Southwestern professors Roy Fish and Dan Crawford, who offer insights on cultivating and maintaining revival.  Finally, Henry Blackaby, whose study Experiencing God provided the kindling for revival fire, contributes a closing chapter.

Movements like this are so unpredictable and spontaneous, but, as Avant and the authors point out, there are conditions that can lead to a revival movement.  I was encouraged by their stories and convicted of my need to walk more closely with God and confess my sin.  I still think the public confession of sin as described here and as I witnessed in chapel is questionable, yet it was the trigger for some life-changing experiences.  I would be curious to hear from some of these students two decades later, reflecting on the long-term impact this powerful but brief revival movement had on their lives.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Superman and the Miserable, Rotten, No Fun, Really Bad Day, by Dave Croatto, illustrated by Tom Richmond

Remember Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day?  The folks at Mad Magizine do, and have created a clever parody: Superman and the Miserable, Rotten, No Fun, Really Bad Day.  Superman is having a rough time.  Kids on the bus were comparing superheroes, and despite Superman's input, they still thought Batman or the Flash might be cooler.  Then when he had to leave to save the city from Doomsday, he left his lunch on the bus.  He was late to work, and got stuck covering the flower show instead of the president's visit.  And at the Justice League headquarters he had monitor duty while Batman and Wonder Woman were honored by the city.

Even if you don't know Alexander, you will get a kick out of poor Superman's misadventures.  Dave Croatto's writing, with illustrations by Tom Richmond, captures Superman's misery.  Even superheroes don't always have things go their way.  As his Ma reminds him, "some days are like that," even in the Fortress of Solitude.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Comic Book Story of Video Games, by Jonathan Hennessey and Jack Mcgowan

For most of us, particularly those born in the 1960s or later, video games have always been, and likely still are, a part of our lives.  I remember days spent at the arcade, the thrill of getting our very own Atari 2600, and the countless hours spent on successive generations of games through the years.  Jonathan Hennessey and Jack McGowan have lived that history as well, and now tell it in their The Comic Book Story of Video Games.

With classic comic book art and a deep sense of history and context, Hennessey and McGowan take us back to the earliest days of the computer.  Of course the history of computers is intricately entwined with the history of video games.  The bulk of the book focuses on the earlier days of computing and video games, highlighting some of the individual pioneers.  It continues all the way through current home systems and mobile phone games.
Don't let the comic book format fool you.  This is serious history.  I enjoyed the historical tidbits, quotes from the key players, and the nods to games themselves.  Not only do they give the data for the release of important games and systems, future games make cameo appearances, as if they are waiting in the wings for the technology to allow for their creation.
The Comic Book Story of Video Games has an engaging narrative, informative content, and terrific art.  If this is a subject that interests you at all, you will enjoy this book.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Kompromat, by Stanley Johnson

The first rule of political satire is that it should be funny.  (See Christopher Buckley for an example.)  Stanley Johnson's Kompromat purports to be political satire, but, other than a comic scene that sets the main events of the story in motion, it's not very funny.  Set in the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Kompromat covers the surprising passage of Brexit and the just as surprising election of a flamboyant billionaire to the White House.

The major players are so thinly disguised that it makes me wonder why he even bothers disguising them.  President Trump, Hillary Clinton, Putin, and others appear just about like real life.  I don't know enough about the players in the Brexit campaign to know how closely they resemble their real-life counterparts, but I suspect they are pretty close.  Others characters are fictionalized, of course.

Here's the one thing that makes Kompromat mildly funny.  On a trip to see a rare tiger near the border of Russia and Chine, Putin, a.k.a. Popov, "accidentally" shoots candidate Donald Trump, a.k.a. Ron Craig, in the rear with a tranquilizer dart.  This leads to speculation, real and imagined, about a subcutaneous listening device.  Throughout the book, the CIA, the Russians, and the Chinese all end up with a live feed from devices planted on Craig's body.

So Johnson is providing a context for Russian collusion in the U.S. election as well as Brexit.  It's an anti-Trump fantasy.  Clinton gets a little ribbing, too, as it's clear the FBI let her off the hook after reviewing her e-mail handing.  Mostly, though, Johnson imagines a world in which Putin is pulling strings and having his way with other countries' internal politics.

Kompromat is a less a satire than an alternative political history.  It's not very funny, but has some elements of the absurd.  It dragged, especially in the middle.  Maybe part of the problem is that the actual events of 2016 were so full of unprecedented absurdity that any attempt to make it even more absurd falls flat.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Sacrifice, by Robert Whitlow

Robert Whitlow writes some entertaining legal fiction with a spiritual twist.  In The Sacrifice, Whitlow's second book, Scott Ellis, a young attorney in a small southern town, gets hired to defend a 16-year-old white skinhead accused of shooting at some black Christians during a baptismal service.  No one was killed, but an eye-witness places him at the scene and he faces years in prison.

Ellis, under the guidance of his mentor at the firm, struggles to find the truth and provide the best defense for his client, who, of course, maintains his innocence.  Meanwhile, Ellis volunteers for the mock trial team at the local high school and reconnects with his high school sweetheart who (conveniently) is in the middle of a divorce.

Whitlow writes a good legal thriller, but The Sacrifice has two elements not seen in secular legal fiction.  Ellis meets some pastors and visits some church services and is challenged to take his nominal childhood faith to a deeper level.  In addition, through the Hmong janitor at the high school, we see the spiritual warfare that is going on at the school.  Some of the plot elements are a little heavy-handed and contrived, as you expect from the genre, but Whitlow makes it work.

I enjoy a book like this, that can be enjoyed on one level as an entertaining read, with suspense, timely social messages, and a bit of romance.  But on a deeper level, Whitlow challenges me both to pursue a deeper spiritual life and to be aware of the spiritual things going on around me, unseen. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

It only took a few pages for Neal Stephenson to become one of my favorite sci-fi authors a while back.  Many pages later (he writes some rather long books), he hasn't disappointed me yet.  In his latest, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., he has collaborated with Nicole Galland, who has written some of her own historical fiction and who previously contributed to Stephenson's Mongoliad series (OK, maybe Mongoliad was a bit of a disappointment). 

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. opens with journal entries from Melisande Stokes, a linguist who taught at Harvard in the 21st century until she was recruited by D.O.D.O., the Department of Diachronic Operations.  Her task was to help with the translation of documents from a wide range of time periods and locations, with the purpose of tracing the decline of magic, but now she is stranded in nineteenth-century England.  As we learn, magic was used actively throughout human history until the mid-19th century, when it completely ceased.

D.O.D.O. developed a way to isolate the historical stream so that a witch could perform magic within an enclosed space called an ODEC (Ontic Decoherence Cavity).  The witch can send someone back in time, where they can manipulate events and then find a contemporary witch to send them back where they came from.  D.O.D.O. used this technique to shape history in subtle ways, sometimes with unexpected results, such as the military headquarters known as the Trapezoid suddenly being renamed (and reshaped) as the Pentagon.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O is all about time travel, magic, and--bureaucracy.  As D.O.D.O. grows in scope and effectiveness, Stephenson and Galland tell the story via journal entries, inter-office memos, reports, letters, e-mail chains, and other means.  Part of the fun of the book is seeing D.O.D.O. become a full-fledged department under military command, with personnel issues, funding requests, and office politics.  Example: a memo about ISO 9000 compliance, and the use of the word "witch" as "a violation of our Diversity Policy."  (FYI, the Policy on Official Jargon and Acronym Coinage has determined that MUON is the preferred title, for Multiple-Universe Operations Navigator.)

In one hilarious chain of events, a thirteenth century warrior comes to modern times.  He is particularly impressed by Wal-Mart.  He gets himself sent back to Viking days, where he composes, in the style of Norse epic verse, "The Lay of Walmart."  It goes on for several pages; here's a sample:
South face the glass gates; the fat fool
Northward led me, shouldering them aside
Greeting a guard, vested in blue,
Scarcely strength to stand had that old ogre.
. . . .
From there, to the west, lies all the food in the world.
North, a cornucopia of clothing, all colors.
Doubling back south, white witches
Doling out drugs, physicians philtres.
As Stephenson's readers know, he weaves complex plots, and while there may seem to be random diversions from the story, he and Galland bring it all together.  Of course when anyone, including the military, start messing with time travel, something is going to get botched up.  And when you recruit individuals who have magical powers, you have to anticipate that some of them may want more power for themselves. . . .

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is great fun to read and, I suspect, will be fun to read again and again. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Stay in the City, by Mark R. Gornik and Maria Liu Wong

As Mark R. Gornik and Maria Liu Wong point out, "the twenty-first century is an age of urban Christianity. . . . Specialized terms like 'urban ministry' no longer fit a world where Christian presence and ministry are simply urban by default."  In Stay in the City: How Christian Faith Is Flourishing in an Urban World, Gornik and Wong tell stories of city-based ministry, giving hope for the growth and vitality of Christianity in our urban centers and across the globe.

Gornik and Wong, who train Christian leaders at the City Seminary of New York, see reason for their hope.  They see ministries that have "stayed in the city and responded to God, enacting and proclaiming the Gospel."  In churches in New York and other cities, they see that "instead of a place where faith struggles and dies, the twenty-first-century city is where the church comes to grow and thrive." 

They give a lot of attention to immigrant churches.  In cities like New York, with large pockets of immigrants, many large churches and active ministries draw on specific immigrant populations.  The authors even suggest that just as, in the middle of the twentieth century, the children of Swedish and Norwegian immigrants in the Midwest spurred a national movement for the gospel, perhaps "Nigerians, Latinos, Koreans, and others from around the world" will lead "whole new movements . . . to shape generations to come, across ethnic and cultural lines."

My only issue with the book is the implication in the title and throughout the book that Christians are not staying in the city, and the further implication that ministry in the city is somehow a higher calling than ministry elsewhere.  Through the latter half of the twentieth century it was certainly true that Christians were leaving city centers.  The growth of the suburbs led many urban churches to abandon the neighborhoods where they had been rooted.  But the opposite is frequently the case today, as young adults choose to live in urban centers and immigrant groups establish their own communities in the city. 

Cities have their problems, of course, but, as Gornik and Wong point out, they have huge cultural, economic, and practical benefits.  They say the "vocation of urban Christians" is "a calling to be present with and open to God in the local context, attending to what is in front of us with all of our senses."  Yet this is true for every Christian everywhere.  Their focus is on city dwellers, but what about Christians in rural towns that are seeing declining populations and dying churches?  The principle of presence and of "find[ing] our vocation in the place we believe God wants us to serve" applies no matter where we are, urban, suburban, or rural.

Gornik and Wong's strong point is the many stories, however brief, of exciting Christian work being done in New York and other cities.  Wherever Christians live, they will be inspired to look around their communities, develop relationships, and take some risks as they seek to love and serve God and his children.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Hidden Rules of Race, by Andrea Flynn, Susan R. Holmberg, Dorian T. Warren, and Felicia J. Wong

According to the authors of The Hidden Rules of Race: Barriers to an Inclusive Economy, there are explicit and implicit rules in the United States that prevent and limit black Americans' participation in the U.S. economy.  Andrea Flynn, Susan R. Holmberg, Dorian T. Warren, and Felicia J. Wong, scholars at The Roosevelt Institute, collaborated on The Hidden Rules of Race

They write, "we will show how neoliberalism is a belief system and economic theory that was both fueled by and reinforces structural racism and racial rules."  The American free market economy and ostensibly race-neutral economic and social policies have been, in many cases designed to disfavor black Americans.  When they demonstrate the historical and legislative grounds for this claim, their argument is strong and irrefutable.  Real estate lending practices, the educational system, racial hiring practices all contribute to the prevention of black citizens' economic stability and advancement.

When they get into the more "hidden" rules, their arguments are not as strong, but they should be considered.  These are policies that are race-neutral, but have a disproportionately adverse impact on blacks.  One example is the real estate market.  Strict laws prevent racial exclusion from certain neighborhoods, but, as humans are wont to do, many people seek out neighborhoods inhabited by others of their own race.  The authors write, "Middle-class neighborhoods of color have lower home values and price appreciation . . . ."  Many factors impact housing prices, including, primarily, the market--supply and demand.  But the ripple effect on school quality, retail availability, employment opportunities, municipal parks and other services, all goes back to property values, adversely impacting black residents.

Some of their strongest arguments address the criminal justice system.  Statistics clearly show the imbalance of convictions, length of sentences, and traffic stops and arrests.  Again, there is a ripple effect.  The disproportionate number of black men and women in the criminal justice system impacts family structure, employability, and involvement in the political process.  While they are right in much of their analysis, there was a glaring omission.  I don't think the tremendous rates of black-on-black crime can be explained by racist policing and convictions, no matter how subtle it might be.  The amount of gun violence in black neighborhoods is astounding.  I can't imagine a race-based explanation for young black men killing other young black men on the streets. 

Another glaring omission is the issue of family structure.  They write, "As of 2014, 67 percent of black children were born into single-parent households, compared to 25 percent of white children, 42 percent of Hispanic children, and 53 percent of Native American children."  Clearly this is an issue for all races, but much more so for black families.  It's a problem because single-parent households are much more susceptible to poverty and other social problems.  It may be indelicate to say so, but no one is forcing women to get pregnant outside of marriage.  Obviously, if a large number of black men are in prison, they won't be home to raise a family.  But I don't think we should brush over the personal choices behind the high rate of single parenthood in the black community and the long-term effect on the children and on family poverty.

One solution to this issue, the authors suggest, is more access to family planning.  This really astounds me.  They write, unironically, "We must work to see abortion--and family planning--as part of a broader context of 'empowering women, creating healthier families, and promoting sustainable communities.'"  I don't understand how these authors can write about the hidden rules of race and abortion and not note the racist, eugenicist origins of the modern abortion movement.  Perhaps they haven't noticed that Planned Parenthood likes to place their offices in areas with large black and Hispanic populations. Call me crazy, but I don't believe that the best solution for reducing child poverty in the black community is killing babies before they are born.

When it comes to solutions, the authors offer both affirmative action policies, as well as race-neutral policies that favor blacks.  I strongly oppose the former.  I believe affirmative is action is no less racist than any other form of segregation.  Whether talking about school admission, hiring, or putting together a football team, race should not be a factor.  But there are plenty of race-neutral policies that can improve schools, neighborhoods, and opportunities for black Americans.  We can improve municipal services in low-income neighborhoods, encourage economic development in cities and neighborhoods with concentrations of minorities, and offer students in failing schools the opportunity to transfer schools, among other things.

The Hidden Rules of Race is written from a decidedly political liberal and progressive point of view.  However, I wonder what they would think of race-neutral policies that benefit black people but that are more traditionally conservative.  For example, charter schools have, in many communities, provided a great alternative for students in failing public schools.  What about finding those successful schools, embracing school choice (dare we say vouchers?), and giving poor, minority kids a better shot at a good education.  Another issue is generational wealth.  Many poor families rely solely on Social Security for retirement.  But when a Social Security recipient dies, benefits cease.  What about privatizing Social Security so that it builds inheritable assets?  I have a feeling the authors of The Hidden Rules of Race would reject conservative proposals like these.  But if they truly want to improve the lot of blacks and the poor in the U.S., all policies need to be on the table.

The Hidden Rules of Race definitely has an agenda, but they provide a lot of great information and some practical solutions.  Across the political spectrum, we need to be willing to admit that our nation has a history of racist policies and take action to correct them.  While I think we should avoid replacing racist policies with different racist policies, it makes sense to develop race-neutral policies that may benefit black people and poor people.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

If You Give a Man a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff

Parodies of children's books are fun, even more so when the author of a children's book parodies her own book!  Laura Numeroff is famous for If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and the whole series of similarly titled books.  Her newest, If You Give a Man a Cookie, is for Mom and Dad.  It's a little bit sexist, playing on the stereotypes of the man who worries about losing his hair, leaves messes around the house, falls asleep watching TV, and generally takes his wife for granted.

But stereotypes get to be stereotypes because they contain a grain of truth, and I'll go ahead and acknowledge that Numeroff's stereotypes have the ring of truth!  If you've enjoyed her previous books with your kids, read this one with the man or woman in your life and enjoy a good laugh!

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Saturday, October 7, 2017

ABC for Me: ABC Baby Signs, by Christiane Engel

When we had our first child, my wife started him on baby sign language.  I will never forget the day I came home from work and he signed "Daddy" when I walked in the door!  Our experience with signing really paid off when our third child came along and turned out to be non-verbal.  She is 15 today and we still use a lot of sign language with her.

Whether your baby is hearing or deaf, verbal or non-verbal, sign language is a wonderful early language tool.  Christiane Engel's ABC Baby Signs introduces useful, everyday signs to use with your baby or toddler.  The vocabulary is limited, in that it is an ABC book.  She teaches 26 common signs, arranged A to Z, plus a few more at the end.  It's a cute presentation, though.  Each page has a little rhyming verse for the sign, a picture to put the sign in context, and a more traditional drawing of a demonstration of the sign.

If you and your baby master these signs, not only with your communication improve, but you will be spurred to learn even more useful signs.  This will be a useful, colorful, and entertaining addition to your child's library.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, October 6, 2017

The List, by Robert Whitlow

Attorney Robert Whitlow's debut novel The List is sure to draw comparisons to John Grisham.  Whitlow's protagonist, Renny Jacobson, is a young attorney busy billing hours in an unsatisfying law career.  When his wealthy but stingy father dies, he dreams of living an independently wealthy life off his inheritance.  The inheritance turns out to be less than, and much more than, Renny bargained for.

In the mid-19th century, a group of aristocratic southerners, including Renny's ancestor, figured a way to hide assets away and protect their families' wealth in the face of the coming war.  Now, generations later, Renny learns he will take his father's place on The List.  Upon his introduction to the group, he quickly learns that The List isn't only about family wealth, but that it is surrounded by power and mystery.

Whitlow tells an suspenseful story, but more than the story of The List this is a story of Renny's pilgrimage as a Christian.  He is surrounded by Christians who pray for him and who teach him to pray.  Whitlow portrays the power of spiritual warfare as Renny has dreams that guide him and as he learns the power of trusting God--and the consequences of not doing so.  Renny's experiences with spiritual warfare are outside of my experience, and, I suspect most Christians would say the same.  But what Whitlow describes is certainly believable, based on stories I have read and heard from other Christians.

Whitlow writes believable, likable characters, if a little unoriginal, but the story is fun.  I enjoyed Renny's experience of moving toward belief, and the budding romance with another descendant of The List group.  He gives a good reminder that prayer matters and that God listens.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a former trader turned philosopher (a too-limited description. . . .), came to wide renown with his book The Black Swan, the second book in his Incerto series.  Fortune magazine called his first book, Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Rule of Chance in Life and in the Markets, one of the 75 "smartest books of all time."  It's full of thought-provoking and provocative reflections on the market.  It certainly challenges conventional thinking about the market.

While Taleb doesn't completely disregard the skills required for profitable investing, he does argue that much of what we call success in the market is attributable to luck.  All of our back-testing, portfolio analyzing, and fund manager evaluation is full of biases and mistaken methodologies that give us skewed results.  Often, people we think are successful in the market are "acute successful randomness fools" who have benefited from randomness.

Even as an investor, Taleb doesn't read the Wall Street Journal.  He prefers poetry.  He does keep the financial TV channels on, but with the sound down.  He says the commentators look so ridiculous when he can't hear them that it reminds him they have nothing productive to say.  Taleb draws from a large array of philosophical and mathematical sources.  He speaks of his aversion to outlines when writings, as well as limitations on the length of pieces he writes.  This leads to a somewhat rambling narrative that could have been cleaned up and organized.  But too much editing would deter from the beauty and pleasure of reading Fooled By Randomness

If you're looking for a guidebook for investing, keep looking.  If you're looking for a confirmation to your suspicion that success in the markets requires a great deal of luck, you may have found it here.  Whatever the case, Fooled By Randomness is guaranteed to give you a lot to think about.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Three More Jack Reacher Novellas, by Lee Child

If you're a fan of Lee Child's character Jack Reacher, you won't want to miss the stories in Three More Jack Reacher Novellas, a 2017 audiobook release.  If you don't know Jack Reacher, this collection would serve as a nice introduction.  Two of the main 3 novellas, "Too Much Time" and "Not a Drill" portray Reacher as we usually see him, as a drifter with nowhere to go and plenty of time to get there.  He frequently manages to get into the middle of something big when he's just minding his own business.  The third longer story, "Small Wars," features Reacher in M.P. mode.  I like the fact that his brother plays a significant role in this story.  He's mentioned in many of the Reacher books, but he's not a character in many.

The rest of the stories, shorter pieces, have similar themes, of course, but some range outside of the typical Reacher story.  A couple are told from another person's perspective; it's interesting to see Reacher as a secondary character.  I especially enjoyed two Christmas-themed stories, which show Reacher's softer, selfless side.  I enjoyed all these stories, even the ones that broke from the Lee Child mold.

(It should be noted that this audio collection, released at the same time as Child's book No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Short Stories, contains the same stories as No Middle Name, minus three that appear on Three Jack Reacher Novellas, a 2014 audio release.)

Monday, October 2, 2017

Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites, by Tucker Carlson

I have recently become a fan of Tucker Carlson.  His interviews on Fox News are contentious and often hilarious.  Carlson was a print journalist, but got into TV as co-host of CNN's "The Spin Room" in 2000, then on "Crossfire."  During his tenure at CNN, he wrote Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News, which is as funny and insightful as Carlson himself.

Carlson's politics are on the right, and his positions on TV has consistently been so.  If you've ever seen him do an interview, that much is clear.  But Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites does not spend much time on issues.  His concern is experiences and personalities.  The business itself is weird.  He says "I became a talk show host in about twelve hours."  Of course, as he learned, it takes much, much less than that to stop being a talk show host!

Weirder than the business itself is the people.  With politicians, he learned that sanity is often only skin deep.  With TV networks, he learned that ratings are the only barometer of a show's success.  With show guests, he learned that there are plenty of people willing to drop everything to be a guest on a TV interview show, but that the quality of the guests is sometimes in inverse proportion to their availability.

Whatever your political inclinations, you will enjoy Carlson's insights and insider stories.  He's had a front row seat and a backstage pass to political events and personalities of the last couple of decades.  As much as I continue to enjoy his segments on Fox News, I hope he has another book or two up his sleeve.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Maria and Me, by Miguel Gallardo

Maria is on vacation with her dad.  Unlike most kids who come away from vacation with a photo album, Maria, whose father Miguel Gallardo is an artist, gets a graphic novel!  Maria and Me: A Father, a Daughter (and Autism) not only tells the story of Maria's vacation in the Canary Islands with her father, but it also tells the story of children living with autism.

Like many individuals with autism, Maria loves her routines.  She recites the names of people she knows.  Her dad draws pictograms to help her with daily tasks.  She enjoys focused, repetitive activities, especially pouring sand through her fingers.  Sometimes she self-stims.
An ongoing issue is the reactions of strangers to Maria and her behaviors.  Sometimes people just stare, sometimes they are downright rude.  Gallardo handles it with grace, but he notices.
Parents of children with autism will relate to many of the Gallardos's experiences in Maria and Me.  Maria's behaviors and tendencies will be familiar to many families.  Hopefully Gallardo's audience will extend beyond those already familiar with autism.  Maria and Me can be very educational for those unfamiliar with the disorder, giving them a personalized context which will help them recognize autism in other children so that they can respond with understanding and compassion, but, more importantly, with friendship and acceptance.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

I like Gallardo's simple but insightful description of autism: