THE MILLI VANILLI CONDITION: Faking it, without much consequence, in the 21st century – #bookreview

 

 

The Milli Vanilli Condition

Essays on Culture in the New Millennium

Eduardo Espina

Arté Publico – paperback

 

“When we see Justin Bieber, we do not see a person. We see a haircut,” says Uruguayan poet and writer Eduardo Espina in this insightful and entertaining collection of 13 essays that delve into various aspects of pretending, faking, plagiarizing and even committing serial falsification of events, credentials or objects.

“The same [haircut] thing happens when we come across photographs of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, two of the best paid and most famous soccer players in the world. Or the unmistakable image of North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, whose haircut completely characterizes the isolated nation and its ideology, at least regarding its male population.”

With the right haircut, Espina contends, you can fake inclusion in, or affiliation with, a certain trend or movement in society and even get others to follow you.

The Milli Vanilli Condition gets its title from the infamous German pop duo that won a 1990 Grammy for “Best New Artist” and had it taken away a few months later after investigative reporter Charles Alan “Chuck” Phillips uncovered that the two singers merely had lip-synched their song. Other vocalists had recorded the lead tracks.

Eduardo Espina, author of numerous other books, now lives in College Station, Texas. With help from the book’s English translator, Travis Sorenson, Espina brings a refreshing South American and particularly Uruguayan perspective to his observations of modern-day life in the United States and elsewhere and the apparently fading consequences for pretending to be someone or something you are not.

Si Dunn

 

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Twelve American Wars: Nine of Them Avoidable – Eugene G. Windchy’s new book is a true “must read” – #bookreview

Twelve American Wars: Nine of Them Avoidable

Eugene G. Windchy

(iUniverse – paperback, Kindle)

You may not agree with every opinion, conclusion or finding expressed in this book, but it is a remarkable work that definitely should be read and given thoughtful consideration.

Twelve American Wars: Nine of Them Avoidable offers eye-opening looks at how the United States has blundered, pushed itself or gotten itself dragged into a dozen different wars between the late 1700s and today and how three-fourths of those wars could have been avoided.

Eugene G. Windchy is a superb researcher, and his well-known book Tonkin Gulf has long had special meaning for me. I spent nearly a year in the South China Sea and Tonkin Gulf aboard a destroyer, starting three days after the still-controversial Tonkin Gulf incidents in 1964. I was amazed at what Windchy was able to dig up about those “attacks” and what they ultimately helped trigger: massive expansion of the Vietnam War. Much of what he reported jibed strongly with what I knew and had experienced, but I was forbidden, for many years, to discuss my involvement because of secrecy restrictions.

Windchy’s new book quickly digs beneath the short, glossy, generally laudatory paragraphs we have read in American history textbooks. Indeed, you may be both amazed and distressed when you ponder his descriptions of how and why a dozen significant wars involving the United States actually got started and how at least nine of the wars realistically could have been avoided.

Si Dunn

Lunch with Buddha – An entertaining, engrossing, thought-provoking American road-trip novel – #bookreview

Lunch with Buddha
Roland Merullo
(PFP/Ajar, Kindle, paperback)

To be honest, I was not really aware of Roland Merullo until his publisher contacted me offering a review copy of an enticingly titled new novel, Lunch with Buddha.

I could blame my “Who?” reaction on my intense focus toward reviewing technology books over the past two years. And I could blame it on empirical evidence that it’s really tough to sell works of fiction these days.

Indeed, several writers of novels and short story collections have told me they don’t get much publicity help from their publishers. Some also have declared they were taking up self-publishing so they could (a) get their books into print (or its digital equivalent), (b) keep more of their paltry earnings, and (c) try their hand at book promotion. Furthermore, I have data — very hard data — showing that virtually no one on Planet Earth has yet read my novel, Erwin’s Law, nor my experimental novella, Jump.

Thus, bottom line, I have not been paying very close attention to the world of fiction lately.

Immediately, I was impressed  (and jarred) to learn that (1) Roland Merullo’s seventh novel, Breakfast with Buddha, is now in its 14th printing; (2) Lunch with Buddha, published late last year, is his eleventh novel and already in its second printing; AND (3) Lunch with Buddha’s completion and publication was funded, at least in part, with significant Kickstarter contributions from Merullo fans.

Intriguingly, Roland Merullo turned down a six-figure advance from a major publishing house and chose a small, independent publisher to bring out his new book.

So he must be good, right?

He’s better than good, actually. Roland Merullo is one of the best, most entertaining writers I’ve encountered in a long time. Seldom am I hooked by a book’s first few paragraphs. But, in Lunch with Buddha, Merullo blends verbal calmness, clarity, wit and depth to create an engaging, absorbing story that flows smoothly from darkly humorous opening to meaningful end.

His new tale is a road-trip novel that covers an odd, yet very American, route: from Seattle to North Dakota, in a borrowed, battered pickup truck nicknamed “Uma.”

Otto Ringling, a New York editor of culinary books and recent widower, is taking the journey with reluctance, while searching for peace of mind and new meanings for his suddenly altered life.

His traveling companion on the drive is his sister’s former guru, “His Holiness” Volya Rinpoche, a Siberian “semi-Buddhist” who now is the sister’s husband and father of their young daughter, Shelsa. Volya still has many questions and misconceptions about life in these not-so-United States. But he also has an infectious spirit, an unshakable spirituality, and plenty of confidence that all will be well and work out in the end.

Otto, meanwhile, is just trying to get a renewed grip on existence. “One of the side effects of losing a spouse–at least for me–had been a peculiar inability to perform the most mundane tasks,” he says in the book, adding:

“Making plane and hotel reservations, shopping for food, setting out the trash on time–these duties, which ordinarily I would have completed with a practiced ease, now seemed as daunting as the learning of a Chinese dialect. I let things slide. For the first time in family history, bills were paid late. The dry cleaners had to call three times to remind me to pick up my shirts. My children could be harsh with me about these failings, but I took their casual criticisms like a battered old fighter takes punches. I would stand. I was determined to stand. I was determined to stay sane, and love them, and help them envision a new life after our old one had been ripped to pieces.”

While Otto and Volya drive across Washington state, Idaho, Montana, and into North Dakota, Otto’s sister, Cecelia, her young daughter Shelsa, and Otto’s children Anthony (20) and Natasha (22), are all riding Amtrak, taking a separate route. They’ve been to Whidbey Island, off the coast of Washington state, to witness Otto scattering his wife’s ashes. Now they are heading for Dickinson, North Dakota, where Celia and Volya live — in Otto’s view — “on the far side of some line that marked the boundary of ordinary American reality.”

Along the way, Otto and Volya have several humorous–and sometimes troubling–encounters with contemporary American culture and values. Otto, for example, tries to explain to Volya the meanings of some strange signs they see along the highway, such as “REPTILE ZOO AND EXPRESSO” and “EAT BIG FOOD.”

Otto and Volya also have debates over religion and spirituality as the widower seeks understandable meanings he can attach to life, death, and whatever lies beyond our mystery-shrouded finality. For example:

 “What is the goal?” I asked, trying to slip away from it. “What’s the whole point? Enlightenment? Eternal life? What?”

He patted me on the shoulder for the millionth time, and said, “You purify. You go and go. Life cuts you and you try and try and try and pretty soon–”

“You become beautiful.”

“Yes. Good.”

“But toward what are we going and going? What does the beauty look like?”

He shrugged almost helplessly, and for a moment I was gripped hard by the hand of doubt. He seemed only an ordinary man then, and I wanted more than that from him, more than cryptic answers and shrugs. A small inner voice suggested he’d been fooling us all these years, playing a role, maybe even working a scam.

“I can show you,” he said. “I can’t tell you.”

“All right. Please show me, then. I’m having a crisis of faith. I’m a little bit lost.”

He nodded sympathetically. “We find you,” he said. “Don’t worry too much….”

Lunch with Buddha has the same key characters as Roland Merullo’s best-selling Breakfast with Buddha. And a third book, aptly titled Dinner with Buddha, is said to be in the works.

Fortunately, Lunch is written so it can be picked up and immediately enjoyed by those who have not previously read Breakfast. Indeed, Lunch with Buddha will make many readers go back and devour Breakfast, then eagerly anticipate Dinner–and check out some of Roland Merullo’s other works of fiction and nonfiction while waiting for the next serving.

Geoffrey Chaucer and Jack Kerouac are the two names that  pop most quickly to mind when the debate topic is “classic road-trip novels.”  I move that we now add Roland Merullo to that short, but esteemed, list.

Si Dunn

Five Dark Riders – A novel rich with history, intrigue, action & romance – #fiction #bookreview

Five Dark Riders
Bill Sloan
(Zipp City Press, paperback, Kindle)

Bill Sloan is an acclaimed historian and veteran newspaper journalist previously nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He also is one of America’s best writers of World War II Pacific-theater combat narratives. (His latest, Undefeated: America’s Heroic Fight for Bataan and Corregidor, was published in April.)

With Five Dark Riders, his new “fact-based novel,” Sloan demonstrates that he can write engrossing, entertaining historical thrillers, as well.

Drawing upon President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s real-life 1936 trip to Dallas, Texas, Sloan has concocted an absorbing tale built around American domestic political intrigue, international espionage and an unfolding assassination plot.

In Sloan’s novel, Nazi agents have infiltrated a rural area of Texas where German immigrants first arrived in the 19th century, and pro-German culture and sympathies remain strong as Adolph Hitler continues to gain power. The agents’ goal is to assassinate FDR in Dallas, so Vice President John Nance Garner, an avowed isolationist, will take over the White House and keep the United States from going to war with Germany.

The only people who can stop the plot are two South Texans who don’t seem to stand much of a chance: Adam Wagner, a mildly disabled World War I combat veteran who now tends to his father’s sheep and goat farm in South Texas, and Elena Velasco, the beautiful and Anglo-distrusting daughter of an Hispanic family that operates a drugstore in a small Texas town.

Adam and Elena decipher the plot while trying to figure out who killed Elena’s cousin, Julio, who Adam had known since Julio was a baby. The local sheriff, an Anglo of German descent, has done little to investigate the young Mexican’s death, and now he has been duped by a close friend who secretly is at the center of the assassination plot. The sheriff has come to believe Adam may be Julio’s killer and may be involved in other crimes, as well. In reality, one of the Nazi agents killed Julio, and Adam and Elena have figured out how and why.

No one in authority, however, will listen to, nor believe, Adam and Elena and relay what they have discovered to the Secret Service. So, in desperation and with very few resources, the two South Texans begin a journey to Dallas to try to stop the plot themselves.

It’s a dangerous gamble. The Nazis want them dead. And the Secret Service has become aware that there may be some kind of plot against FDR and is trying to maintain very tight security in Texas. Meanwhile, the president’s protectors also are having trouble keeping track of the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who keeps slipping away from them. And now they have been alerted to the movements of a suspicious, dangerous couple – Adam and Elena – who seem to keep trying to get close to the president, most likely to harm him.

It’s an excellent setup for a thrill-ride finish that’s full of history, intrigue, action, and romance.

Si Dunn

Mitt Romney, Secret Keynesian? Read Paul Krugman’s ‘End This Depression Now!’ – #bookreview #in #economics #politics

End This Depression Now!
Paul Krugman
(Norton, hardback, list price $24.95; Kindle edition, list price $24.95)

If you’d like to watch some ultra-right conservatives break out in hives, do a St. Vitus Dance or just spontaneously combust, ask them to read End This Depression Now! by Paul Krugman.

Most of them won’t read it, of course. They will cast it aside or maybe even set it on fire. Their hearts and minds are firmly set in ideology and rhetoric concrete. No matter what Krugman says or writes, they will remain firmly convinced he is a spawn of the Devil or, at the very least, some kind of Communist-Socialist-Liberal-Radical Raider of the Lost Tax Cut.

Actually, Paul Krugman is one of America’s smartest economic smart guys, and he has some very good ideas about how to help America pick itself up–and stay standing–after getting knocked down, hard, and robbed of its wallet by the Great Recession and depression that followed.

I am an unabashed fan of Krugman, winner of a well-deserved Nobel Prize in economics. He makes clear and steady good sense in his New York Times columns, and he makes damned good sense throughout his new book.

“In the Great Depression,” he writes, “leaders had an excuse: nobody really understood what was happening or how to fix it. Today’s leaders don’t have that excuse. We have both the knowledge and the tools to end this suffering.”

We do, indeed, as he demonstrates convincingly in his book. But we also have seemingly intractable political polarization at the very time when our leaders should be gathered in the middle, rapidly hammering out compromises, and actually doing something to help the nation, not just their financial backers and parties.

Krugman lays out many solid strategies, most of them built around growth, not European-style fiscal austerity, particularly in a time of lingering high unemployment, stagnant or falling wages, and tepid consumer spending. And he looks toward the November election with at least a token effort to appear independent and bipartisan. He has, in fact, strongly criticized economic mistakes made by both sides.

If Obama wins, Krugman writes, “obviously it makes it easiest to imagine America doing what it takes to restore full employment. In effect, the Obama administration would get an opportunity at a do-over, taking strong steps it failed to take in 2009. Since Obama is unlikely to have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, taking these strong steps would require making use of reconciliation, the procedure that Democrats used to pass health care reform and that Bush used to pass both of his tax cuts. So be it. If nervous advisors warn about the political fallout, Obama should remember the hard-learned lesson of his first term: the best economic strategy from a political point of view is the one that delivers tangible progress.”

On the other hand: “A Romney victory would naturally create a very different situation; if Romney adhered to Republican orthodoxy, he would of course reject any action along the lines I’ve advocated.”

But that’s not all. In Krugman’s view: “It’s not clear, however, whether Romney believes any of the things he is currently saying. His two chief economic advisors, Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw and Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard, are committed Republicans but also quite Keynesian in their views about macroeconomics. Indeed, early in the crisis, Mankiw argued for a sharp rise in the Fed’s inflation target, a proposal that was and is anathema to most of his party. His proposal caused the predictable uproar, and he went silent on the issue. But we can at least hope Romney’s inner circle holds views that are much more realistic than anything the candidate says in his speeches, and that once in office he would rip off his mask, revealing his true pragmatic/Keynesian nature.”

To which Krugman adds: “I know, I know, hoping that a politician is in fact a complete fraud who doesn’t believe any of the things he claims to believe is no way to run a great nation. And it’s certainly not reason to vote for that politician!”

The upcoming election is still just a distracting sideshow to what America needs now. We need jobs, spending, revenue, investments in education, and re-training for the long-term unemployed. And, yes, we need for a lot of Krugman-style clear-thinking and common sense to miraculously infect the brains of our economic and political leaders.

Get, read, and heed this book.

Si Dunn

Privacy and Big Data – #bookreview #nonfiction

Privacy and Big Data
By Terence Craig and Mary E. Ludloff
(O’Reilly Media, $19.99, paperback; $16.99, Kindle)

Worried about the safety of your personal data?

That genie, unfortunately is long out of the bottle—and very likely spread all over the planet now.

In Privacy and Big Data, authors Terence Craig and Mary E. Ludloff provide an eye-opening examination of “how the digital footprints we leave in our daily lives can be easily mashed up and, through expertise and technology, deliver startling accurate pictures of our behavior as well as increasingly accurate predictions of our future actions.”

Those digital pictures of who we are, who we vote for, what we buy and where we go can be worth a great deal of money and/or power to those who collect them. Indeed, they constitute “big data” and can be worth much more than gold, Craig and Ludloff contend.

“Far more is known today about us as individuals than ever before. How organizations, businesses, and government agencies use this information to track and predict our behavior is becoming one of the fundamental issues of the 21st century,” they state.

Privacy and Big Data is not a lengthy book, just 106 pages. Yet it packs plenty of punch in the form of useful, unsettling and sometimes surprising information, as well as thought-provoking examples, discussions and questions. The two writers – “executives from a growing startup in the big data and analytics industry” – draw upon extensive experience “deal[ing] with the issues of privacy every day as we support industries like financial services, retail, health care, and social media.”

Their well-written work is organized into five chapters and an appendix. Each chapter, meanwhile, has its own bibliography with links to additional materials and information.

Chapter 1, “The Perfect Storm,” looks at what has happened to privacy in the digital age and how we got to this point, starting with ARPANET (the “(Advanced Research Projects Agency Network”) in 1969, which later gave rise to the Internet. In the authors’ view: “There is a perfect storm brewing; a storm fueled by innovations that have altered how we talk and communicate with each other. Who could have predicted 20 years ago that the Internet would have an all-encompassing effect on our lives? Outside of sleeping, we are connected to the Web 24/7, using our laptops, phones, or iPads to check our email, read our favorite blogs, look for restaurants and jobs, read our friends’ Facebook walls, buy books, transfer money, get directions, tweet and foursquare our locations, and organize protests against dictatorships from anywhere in the world. Welcome to the digital age.”

Chapter 2, “The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age,” focuses on “what privacy encompasses, how our privacy norms have been shaped in the U.S. and abroad, the tension between privacy and other freedoms (or lack thereof), and how, for those of us who fully participate in all the digital age has to offer, it may very well be the end of privacy as we know it.”

Chapter 3, “The Regulators,” explores how the world has many geographical boundaries, from national borders down to city limits and even smaller demarcations, including individual agencies, departments and committees. Businesses large and small also operate within specific structural boundaries. Yet the Internet, the authors point out, recognizes no such limits. they examine “how…countries regulate the collection, use, and protection of their citizen’s personal information,” amid countless competing governmental and business agendas.

In Chapter 4, “The Players,” the authors warn: “Wherever you go, whatever you do, anywhere in this world, some ‘thing’ is tracking you. Your laptop, and other personal devices, like an iPad, Smartphone, or Blackberry, all play a role, and contribute to building a very detailed dossier of your likes, concerns, preferred airlines, favorite vacation spots, how much money you spend, political affiliations, who you’re friends with, the magazines you subscribe to, the make and model of the car you drive, the kinds of foods you buy, the list goes on.” The writers identify four broad categories of data grabbers and note that “while the[se] players are playing, consumer privacy continues to erode.” They discuss some specific things you can do to try to reduce your exposure. But, they caution, “What happens on the Internet stays on the Internet forever.”

Finally, in Chapter 5, “Making Sense of It All,” the authors pose several challenging questions and offer their views on possible answers. The questions include: “In the digital world we now inhabit, is privacy outmoded or even possible? Should we just get over it and move on? Should we embrace transparency and its many benefits and disadvantages? And if we do, or have it forced upon us, can we expect the same from our governments, our corporations, and powerful individuals? Will they be held to the same standard? If not, since information is power, what will our world look like?”

Two writers seldom agree on everything, and that is true in this book. In their Appendix titled “Afterword,” Craig and Ludloff state that they have tried to present a wide range of views on important questions, yet sometimes differ in their personal views regarding privacy and big data. They offer brief summaries of where they came from and how their viewpoints have been shaped by life events.

In a world where computers, phones, cars, cameras and many other household, work and public devices gather, store and disseminate data about us, this book can help readers think harder about what information — and freedoms — we may be giving up, willingly and unwittingly, in the name of convenience and connectivity.

Si Dunn

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Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story – #football #biography #bookreview

Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story
By Jim Dent
(Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99 hardback; $12.99 Kindle)

In my one and only fall semester as a student at the University of Texas at Austin, I went to a couple of football games and watched Freddie Steinmark play safety for the Longhorns. I sat high up in the cheap seats and gazed down upon players who appeared to be about two inches tall. Football has long been a big deal in the Lone Star State.

Steinmark was good, very good, and he had a great reputation for hustling, hitting and knocking down opponents’ passes.

However, several other members of the Longhorns team also were getting good press. And the Horns were striving to recapture a national title. So, like many other fans, I didn’t focus much on one player.  I was more into watching the overall X’s and O’s and trying, mentally, to help drive the pigskin down the field.

Unknown to us all, tragedy would strike down Freddie Steinmark in just a few weeks. And, over the next two years and beyond, he would become a nationwide symbol of personal courage and inspiration.

When Steinmark moved to Austin in 1967, he was fiercely determined to play football for the University of Texas Longhorns. He was fresh out of high school in Wheat Ridge, Colo., and he weighed just 150 pounds. Many observers and coaches initially considered him too small for big-time college football.

But, as author Jim Dent points out in his well-written and poignant new sports biography, Courage Beyond the Game, Steinmark’s small stature had not stopped him from being a standout in every major high school sport. Off the field, he had been an academic leader, as well.

At UT-Austin, his determination and drive quickly convinced many that he might succeed after all, both in the difficult field of chemical engineering and as a player for one of America’s top gridiron teams.

Steinmark was “the golden boy from the moment he walked onto the campus,” writes Dent, whose five previous books include a New York Times best-seller, The Junction Boys.

Dent quotes one of Steinmark’s teammates, wide receiver Cotton Spreyer, as stating: “No one was better than Freddie. He could run like a deer and he was quick.”

Darrell Royal, UT’s head football coach at the time, once praised Steinmark by calling him “as focused a young man as I’ve ever seen in my life.”

But a dark time soon — too soon — was coming, and Dent’s book smoothly moves beyond the traditional paeans of sports biography. It becomes a cautionary tale about placing too much trust and faith in the power of physical toughness.

Dent notes: “In the 1960s, a code existed that said players worth their salt did not complain about pain. You were expected to play through the bleeding, bumps, and bruises even if they did not subside in a reasonable time. Each afternoon, Darrell Royal and his assistants walked through the training room for the purpose of counting heads and identifying the players they considered ‘malingerers.’”

Steinmark had arrived at UT with a physical-toughness reputation that stretched back to early childhood. “In the midget leagues,” Dent reports, “he played an entire quarter with a broken arm. In high school, he played three quarters over two games with a broken leg. As a senior, he decided against seeking medical attention when he broke his right hand.”

The ethos of toughness was well embedded in Freddie Steinmark’s personality and values.

In his first season, Steinmark became a starting safety on UT’s freshman team. By the next fall, he was the Longhorns’ pass defense captain and co-leading the Southwest Conference in pass interceptions. He continued making top grades in his classes, and he continued dating his high school sweetheart, who now was attending UT, as well. 

He was “golden,” indeed. Prominent sportswriters now were labeling him one of America’s best and brightest football players.

His world suddenly spun a different way his junior year, while the 1969 Longhorns fought to regain college football’s top national ranking. He developed a pain that grew to feel “like a hot poker had been stuck into his left thighbone just above the knee.” Steinmark now limped in workouts and games but did his best to hide it. He also refused to tell his trainers and coaches for fear he would be pulled as a starter.

 Dent details how Steinmark continued the excruciating ruse all season until “the Game of the Century,” UT versus Arkansas, in Fayetteville, with President Nixon in the stands and the national championship on the line. The game also celebrated the 100th anniversary of college football.

In the great game’s last quarter, the worsening pain finally left Steinmark unable to cover pass receivers. Coach Darrell Royal sent in a substitute, and Texas held on to win 15-14.

 What happened next to Freddie Steinmark is movingly described in Jim Dent’s bittersweet and engaging book. Bone cancer — osteogenic sarcoma — was dicovered, and it took the young man’s leg but not his spirit. For the next year and a half, Freddie Steinmark was able to bounce around full of life on crutches, becoming Dent says, both an inspiration to other cancer patients and “a national symbol of courage” in the game of life.

Mack Brown, the Texas Longhorns’ current head coach, was a high school football player the last year Steinmark played. He watched “the Game of the Century” and the scrappy junior safety on TV. He never met the junior safety, but he hasn’t forgotten that Steinmark had his leg amputated, then showed up on the UT sidelines just three weeks later, on crutches, to watch Texas play Notre Dame in the Coton Bowl.

“In recognition of that courage,” Brown states in the foreword to Dent’s book, “to this day we have the players touch a picture of Freddie with the Longhorn salute before they go down the ramp to the field. Armed with the pride of the All-Americans, and in honor of the courage of Freddie, we ask them to go out and play as hard as they can.”

Si Dunn