Sunday, October 24, 2010

Seeing the glass "Half Empty"

Half EmptyHalf Empty by David Rakoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rakoff's laugh out loud observations of the peculiarities of life is well worth delving into its pages.  Whether he is highlighting the banality of Rent or cutting through the agony of facing terminal illness, he will push you to see the full range of human experience through humor and tragedy.

View all my reviews

Monday, October 11, 2010

California Crack-Up

 California CrackupCalifornia Crackup by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

California Crackup offers an excellent analysis of the dysfunction that plagues California's system of governance. This insightful read on the perils of the Golden State presents the best explanation I have read on how our state governance got to be so bogged down and unresponsive to the challenges we face.  What I appreciated most about the book is that the authors do not simply offer a gloom and doom assessment, but instead, they move beyond finger-pointing to provide some concrete changes that could greatly improve how we do things. 

A must read for residents living within its borders.  This book is on my required reading list for engaged citizens.  For more specific information about the authors' diagnosis of our troubles and what we can do about it, check out their website at:

Below is a segment from KQED's This Week:

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Hot Time in the Old Town....not so hot

Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore RooseveltHot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward P. Kohn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I originally picked up Hot Time in the Old Town after hearing an interview with the author on NPR's Fresh Air.  As someone who is interested in our history, particularly those moments that resonate with our present times, I found the book to be uneven (hence the three star rating). 

Far and away, the best parts of this book are those that take the reader into the dark and dank tenements and illustrate in rich detail the cramp and stifling conditions.  Kohn draws upon contemporary reports from the time period such as those written by Jacob Riis to bring into vivid detail how the rising temperatures left poor immigrants vulnerable to the ravages of extreme heat.  His description of the conditions in the city and the impact of the heat wave on its residents is fascinating.

When he ventures from the streets and tenements into the terrain of city and national politics, the book begins to lose its luster.  The reader is certainly provided with rich background on Theodore Roosevelt and his political career.  However, when Kohn attempts to link the events surrounding the heat wave to "the making of Theodore Roosevelt" he is on shaky ground.  Certainly, the reader sees in Roosevelt's response to the heat wave his distaste of concentrations of power and a compassion for those less fortunate, but his claim that this event was instrumental in establishing his political standing is not well supported.

Readers who enjoyed the historical novels of Caleb Carr (The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness) will find the account of city life and the struggles of the working poor interesting context.  If however, readers enter the text looking for explanations for Theodore Roosevelt's rise to national prominence will find themselves on a lost search.

Here is a clip of Jon Stewart's interview with Edward Kohn author of Hot Time in the Old Town:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Edward Kohn
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hellhound on His Trail...

Hellhound On His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin Hellhound On His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin by Hampton Sides

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hellhound On His Trail reads like a psychological thriller and uncovers new material on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the international hunt for his assassin, James Earl Ray.  Tracing the stalking of the MLK, first by the FBI under Hoover and later by James Earl Ray, Hampton Sides provides a richly woven historical narrative of the events leading up the assassination. For those interested in history of the period as well as a gripping read, this is the book for you.

You can watch the fascinating PBS documentary, Roads to Memphis, based, in part, on Hampton Side's book.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Get ready for an adventurous romp through Merry Old England...

Defender of the Realm Defender of the Realm by Corey Holst

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I must admit that I do not usually read historical fiction set in the medieval period.   However, reading Corey Holst's Defender of the Realm made me rethink my reading preference.  My interest in history initially pulled me in.  However, as the story unfolded, I found so much more... 

The novel mixes adventure, action, and even humor in just the right combination.  The rich detail and compelling narrative drew me in and didn't let me go.   In the process, I was treated to an adventurous trip that took me through the struggles of daily life to the heroic battles of the period; through castles, and fields and towns.  Highly recommended for readers looking for an engaging story and richly-drawn characters.

View all my reviews >>

Sunday, March 28, 2010

As the disco ball turns...

Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture by Alice Echols

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alice Echols's new book, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, sifts through the dust bins of "the platforms, polyester and plastic vibe of it all" to answer her key question: "What was it about this much-maligned music that made it such hot stuff?" 

What started as an underground phenomenon reached mainstream notoriety with the film Saturday Night Fever and its ubiquitous soundtrack. As it dominated the airwaves, disco faced a vicious backlash best known for the "Disco Sucks" rantings.

Echols book easily fits within the ranks of other notable scholarly works that sift through the dust bins filled with platform shoes, polyester and glitter, to find the gems. In so doing, her book helps to resurrect the 1970s disco scene as a subject worthy of our consideration.

Historian Jon Wiener interviewed Alice Echols on his 4 O'clock radio show on KPFK.  You can click on the link to his website and download the podcast.

The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the 70s in San Francisco The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the 70s in San Francisco by Joshua Gamson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joshua Gamson's The Fabulous Sylvester:  The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco makes a good companion piece.  Gamson's book invites the reader to view the broader perspective of gender politics and music.  Through the eyes of one performer, the reader bears witness to someone who lived his life out loud.  Sylvester embodied "a respect for the uniting freedom of fabulousness, for the power of audacity over conformity."  (p. 270)

Just a sample of Sylvester's mighty realness:

The luscious sounds of Gamble and Huff, creators of the "Sound of Philly":

Dimitri from Paris presents "Get Down With The Philly Sound" from BBE Music on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

In America, is crazy "a preexisting condition?"

Below is a piece I first published on my (Not) Idle Chatter blog (August 22, 2009), during the Summer of Crazy (1967 had its Summer of Love...since then we have descended a few notches).  The post references a couple of interesting reads that I thought followers of the Reading Corner might appreciate.  I have posted it here for my fellow bibliophiles.  


A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Right Wing furor over the health care debate. In that post, I tried to place the hysteria into a historical context. See "When the Going Gets Tough...".

For a more detailed and eloquent analysis of this same phenomenon, please read Rick Perlstein's Washington Post editorial "In America, Crazy Is a Preexisting Condition: Birthers, Town Hall Hecklers and the Return of Right-Wing Rage" that appeared on August 16, 2009. In his piece, he points out that commentators tend to view the so-called "Astroturf protests" as either "genuine grass roots" activism or an evil conspiracy "staged for You Tube." In fact, Perlstein argues they are both:

If you don't understand that any moment of genuine political change always produces both, you can't understand America, where the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy, and where elites exploit the crazy for their own narrow interests.

Perlstein provides ample evidence for the presence of reaction and counter-reaction in periods of reform in the United States. Everything, from FDR and Truman's social safety net of the New Deal, to Kennedy's efforts to limit nuclear proliferation, to the Civil Rights movement and the legislative correctives that came about as a result, has been linked to Soviet style takeovers and the creeping spector of Communism.

It also bears mentioning here that Reagan's infamous 1961 recording warning about socializing medicine was directed at the legislative moves toward Medicare, a now hugely popular program, even among critics of health care reform (the "Keep government out of my Medicare" crowd).

Those interested in the emergence of the Right in the aftermath of the 1960's are encouraged to check out -- Rick Perlstein's book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of an American Consensus (2001) and Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New Right (2002). These authors distinguish the old Right, primarily concerned with economic and market-based interests with the New Right, a broad-based constituency that melded the economic interests of business with social issues such as abortion, women's rights, etc. Both analyze how through grassroots efforts, conservatives built a movement that captured the imagination of the predominantly white, suburban middle class in the wake of Goldwater's resounding defeat in 1964. Progressives and liberals alike would do well to take these historical lessons into account.

Yes, these are truly strange times in which we live. As we have seen in recent weeks, there is no shortage of fear-mongering. However, as Perlstein and McGirr point out, it is not advisable to underestimate the power of irrational, scare tactics to win the hearts and minds of the American populace. If health care reform is to become a reality, we need not sit idly by and wait for the Right to implode under the weight of its own illogic. If we are serious about creating change that we can all believe in, we need to make our voices heard.

Monday, February 22, 2010

If you've ever wondered....where does the money go?

Where Does the Money Go?: Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis Where Does the Money Go?: Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis by Scott Bittle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the book for you.  We often hear how our overspending ways will lead to our demise.  In the partisan bickering that bogs down our political system, it is difficult to figure out the extent of the real threat.  Just how bad is it?

Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson make it very clear -- it's really bad.  They move beyond the hyperbole and finger pointing to highlight the sources of our fiscal crisis and how it threatens our future.  Writing in an accessible style, the authors dispel myths about the largest categories of federal spending (spoiler alert: no, it is not welfare or defense) and show exactly why and how we're headed for trouble.  Bittle and Johnson illustrate in painful detail how push is going to come to shove once the Baby Boomers hit retirement and draw upon Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Here are six things, Bittle and Johnson think every American should know about the federal debt dilemma:
The Budget Debate: Parking-lot Version:

1. For thirty-one out of the last thirty-five years, the country has spent more on government programs and services than it has collected in taxes.

2. Every year the government comes up short, it borrows money to cover the difference. We've now built up a very big debt —roughly $9 trillion, and yes, that is trillion with a t.

3. The country will have humongous additional expenses over the next couple of decades as the baby boomers begin to retire and need more medical care.

4. There is no realistic way government can lower taxes (or even keep them at current levels), spend money on everything people want the government to do (at least according to the polls), and still end up with a balanced budget.

5. If we keep on going the way we're going, the debt will get bigger and begin to endanger the U.S. Economy and our own personal finances and plans. And the government won't have enough money to pay for Social Security and Medicare for the boomers and still do what most of us expect government to do.

6. A substantial portion of the country's debt is held in foreign countries. Right now, these foreign investors consider U.S. Government bonds one of the safest places in the world to put their money, but they could decide at some point that Europe or China or some other place is a better bet. This would be the global equivalent of a store clerk seizing your credit card and cutting it up.

Comeback America Comeback America by David Walker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Walker's book, Comeback America, is a good companion piece to Bittle and Johnson's work. Walker served as the seventh Comptroller General of the United States and was the CEO of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) from 1998 to 2008. Though non-repentant Keynesians (like myself) may try to eschew the book as just another vitriolic partisan rant. Please be assured it is not. Instead, Walker lays out compelling evidence that shows how our huge national debt will limit our ability to tackle the challenges ahead -- providing health care for an increasingly aging population, quality education and future opportunities for our children. Writing in a clear and accessible style, Walker makes a strong case for our need to wake up and muster the courage needed to secure our economic future.

Despite the sobering conclusions presented, these books are not doomsday tales.  They provide an exploration of what we can change course before it is too late.  In this regard, the authors not only help us to understand our current fate, but they also point to some promising directions into a better, more secure future.  I would put both of these books on the list of the recommended readings list for all Americans.

Related links of interest:
  • Click on this link to see the Bill Moyers interview with the authors:  The Debt Dilemma.  (The interview begins a couple of minutes into the video segment).
  • For more information on the federal budget check out the website for the Public Agenda, "a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to strengthen our democracy's capacity to take on tough issues" 
  • For more information on David Walker's Comeback America.
  • Click on this link to see a 30 minute segment of I.O.U.S.A. -- a non-partisan documentary that explains the national debt.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Thelonious American Original

"The piano ain't got no wrong notes!
-- Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin Kelley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thelonious Monk:  The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley is a meticulously researched and engaging read that seeks to put the record straight without any chaser.  Popular mythology about Monk tends to cast him as untrained, childlike and eccentric.  Drawing upon a wealth of family documents, Kelley masterfully weaves a story that counters these myths and captures Monk's genius and his humanity with compassion and profound appreciation.

As an educator, I found myself drawn to the parts of the story that brought the people and local institutions that nourished Monk's musical creativity into vivid clarity.  Very early on, Monk demonstrated a keen interest and talent in music, especially the piano.  Growing up in Harlem during the early part of the twentieth century, his talents were nurtured thanks in part to his participation in an after school boys and girls club.  At this youth center, Thelonious was able to begin his musical education and develop his piano playing.  His mother, raising three children by herself, also provided a pivotal role in the young musician's life -- acquiring a piano at home and lessons to further hone his creativity.  Later on, as an adult, his wife Nellie provided a solid foundation of love and support -- emotional, financial and business.  

However, to highlight the people who nurtured Monk's musicality is not to detract in any way from his sheer genius.   Kelley makes clear that for many years Monk did not receive the accolades he richly deserved.  His style of playing discordant notes formed the basis of what would become BeBop, popularized by two other jazz greats -- Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. While their names are most often associated with the emergence of BeBop, Monk's compositional mastery was foundational to this new form of jazz.

While the book follows the twists and turns of the history of jazz, it is much more than your usual musical biography.  Kelley's book stands as a tribute to Monk's humanity.  Even as a budding jazz musician, he took an active role in caring for his children, while Nellie worked outside the home to provide financial support for the family.   He pursued his profound sense of social justice by supporting civil rights organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) among others.  He courageously struggled with manic-depression, made even more acute due to alcohol and drug usage.  Clearly, there was more to the man that his mind-blowing musical virtuosity.

Reading Kelley's book deepened my appreciation for Monk and his contributions to modern jazz, the Civil Rights movement and social justice, in general.  Highly recommended for those interested in the history of jazz and the development of a true American original.

See comments by the author, Robin Kelley, on Thelonious Monk:

To see the original in action, check out this video clip of Monk performing one of his classics, Blue Monk:

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"It's the end, the end of the Seventies"...or is it?

The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics by Bruce J. Schulman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's the end, the end of the Century"
-- The Ramones

The Seventies is often dismissed as an era of leisure suits, bad hair, disco music and cheesy TV shows.  Yet, historian Bruce J. Schulman argues that these images fail to capture the era's real significance.

 Schulman gives the Seventies its due as a time period worthy of scholarly consideration.  According to popular characterizations of the 1970s, it represents nothing more than the "in-between" decade nestled between the radical 1960s and the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s.  The author dispels this misconception, arguing that: 
The Seventies transformed American economic and cultural life as much as, if not more than, the revolutions in manners and morals of the 1920s and 1960s.  The decade reshaped the political landscape more dramatically than the 1930s.  In race relations, religion, family life, politics and popular culture, the 1970s marked the most significant watershed of modern U.S. history, the beginning of our own time. (p. xii)
 Throughout the book, Schulman skillfully weaves together a wealth of evidence into a highly engaging analysis of the key political, cultural and economic shifts in the American landscape during this critical period of our history.  During the 1970s, the center of political and economic power shifted from the industries of the Northeast to the Sunbelt (the southern and western regions of the United States).  And, our nation has never been the same since.

As Schulman highlights, these changes brought about a "thoroughgoing southernization of American life."  Religion, especially personal expression of faith, have become commonplace in our politics and public life.  Country music, NASCAR and "a kind of wide-open libertarian boosterism" have become mainstays in our national culture.   The roots of what has come to be called the "New Right," and more recently the so-called "Teabag Movement" can be traced to the tumult of the 1970s. 

Schulman concludes:  "The long, gaudy, depressing Seventies reinvented America.  We live in their shadows." (p. 257)  For those seeking a better understanding of this transformation and the shadow it casts on us today, The Seventies is highly recommended. 

View all my reviews >>