So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
David Sedaris is a master of short biographical memoirs that are funny, insightful, and poignant, sometime all at the same time. This volume collects a group of his essays mostly about the members his large Raleigh, NC family. I enjoy reading his insights into life as revealed by his interactions with others.
"Us and Them" is about moving next to a family that is raising their family without television.
In "The Ship Shape" David describes his family's version of the North Carolina custom of having or renting a house at the coast.
"Full House" describes David's first sleep over when he was in the sixth grade.
David gets hit in the mouth with a rock thrown by one of the most popular boys in his class in "Consider the Stars." This leads to a confrontation between his father and the parents of the other boy.
David's relationship with his rich great aunt is the topic of "Monie Changes Everything."
Asking for Spare Change at the NC State Fair is the topic of "The Change in Me."
In "Hejira" David tells the story of when his dad kicked him out of the house when he was 22 because he is gay.
"Slumus Lordicus" is about the time his parents' get rich plan of buying and renting out apartments.
In "The Girl Next Door" David makes friends with the nine year old girl next door with disastrous consequences until his mother saves him.
"Blood Work" tells of an unusual but lucrative experience David had while working in New York City cleaning apartments.
In the next story David tells of seeing "The End of the Affair" with his partner Hugh.
"Repeat After Me" describes David's visit to his sister Lisa and her talking parrot Henry.
On a visit to Amsterdam David asks the cab driver about his Christmas celebration and learns about the "Six to Eight Black Men" who accompany Dutch St. Nick.
David's brother Paul, who runs a floor sanding service in Raleigh, is the topic of "Rooster at the Hitchin' Post."
Hugh and David visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam in "Possession."
Most poignant was "Put A Lid On It" describing his visit to his sister Tiffany who lived in Boston. Their lives are obviously worlds apart and the distance is painful to watch unfold.
A "Can of Worms" found in Texas that survived the space shuttle explosion is the dinner table topic of an evening in Los Angeles.
In "Chicken in the Henhouse" David helps a young boy at a hotel, and then has second thoughts about how his gesture might be misinterpreted.
David and Hugh get into an argument over a rubber hand during a dinner conversation with friends in "Who's the Chef."
Paul becomes the first of David's siblings to have a child in "Baby Einstein."
A burglar gets stuck in a chimney and dies in "Nuit of the Living Dead."

The Voyeurs

The Voyeurs by Gabrielle Bell
This book was my first encounter with the cartoonist Gabrielle Bell and it took me a while to get into the structure and content. Most of the book is a chronological series of dated sketches from Bell's graphic journal covering the four years from 2007 to 2010. The book opens with a 13 panel cartoon called "The Voyeurs" from which the book derives it's name. In it Bell finds five of her friends on the roof of her apartment building watching a couple make love in an apartment across the way. I get a sense that she thinks of the readers as Voyeurs into her life through the reading of her journals.

Getting thrown into the middle of a person's life as revealed through their journals can be a bit disorienting at first and it took me a while to warm up to the format, the story, and the author. Once I got involved in her life, though, I found it a good read with lots of detail that the dialog and the sketches bring to life.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg

Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg by Kate Evans
Red Rosa follows the life of Rosa Luxemburg from her birth in Zamość Poland in 1871 to her execution in Berlin in 1919. Born with a congenital dislocation of the hip, Rosa's left leg was shorter than her right and she walked with a limp and used a special shoe with a lift. After she was born her family moved to Warsaw where, at the age of 15, she became involved with the Socialist Proletariat Party and helped organize a general strike. When four of the Proletariat Party leaders were put to death and the party was disbanded, she fled to Switzerland where she attended the University of Zurich. Her doctoral dissertation, "The Industrial Development of Poland," was published when she was 27. It is in Zurich that she meets and falls in love with Leo Jogiches who helps her organize Polish Socialist activities.

Wanting to be in Germany where the leading Socialist thinkers are, Rosa marries the son of an old friend Gustav Lubeck to get German citizenship and moves to Berlin in 1897. They never lived together and they formally divorced five years later. She became a leftist member of the Social Democratic Party and a founding member of The Spartacus League. Through these groups she promoted equal rights for women, an internationalist perspective, and opposition to the First World War. She tried to rally the workers to a general strike when war was declared saying "If they think we are going to lift the weapons of murder against our French and other brethren, then we shall shout: 'We will not do it!'". During the war the Spartacus League wrote illegal, anti-war pamphlets signed "Spartacus" (after the slave-liberating gladiator who opposed the Romans) and Rosa was imprisoned for two and a half years, as was her lover Karl Liebknecht. At the end of the war she and Liebknecht were freed from prison and they resurrected the Spartacus League, pushing for a Free Socialist Republic. Both were shot by right-wing paramilitary militia working for the government.

That is the framework that Kate Evans uses through her drawings to breathe life into the story of Rosa Luxemburg. She uses a recently made available letters written by Rosa and other works of scholarship to create a detailed account of her life. Filled with lovely black and white drawings, we find a Rosa Luxemburg that author Stephen Eric Bronner called in 1987 A Revolutionary for Our Times. I found her economic arguments written at the end of the 19th century, and very deftly explained by Kate Evans, very forward thinking and with extreme relevance to our 21st century predicament. Kate Evans' six pages of Rosa explaining Capitalism to her family at the dining room table is excellent. The book closes with 33 pages of notes for people who want to know more about particular events in the book. There is also an Afterword that brings the reader up to date on the historiography of thinking about Rosa Luxemburg and her influence. An excellent introduction to a radical and highly insightful scholar.

Thursday, March 08, 2018


Munch by Steffen Kverneland
Munch is a graphic novel biography of Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter born on December 12, 1863 and died 80 years later on January 23, 1944. Most known for his painting of The Scream, his works cover a wide range of portraiture and group settings and are drawn from his own life experiences. He painted what he felt rather than realistically portraying what he saw. Many of his paintings are recreated in the text or used as source material for the author's own drawings.

The author wants Munch and the other characters in the book to speak their own words so all their spoken words are authentic quotes from letters, diaries, and notes. To make the book more interesting to read the author and his friend Lars Fiske introduce the book and appear occasionally explaining the methodology of the work or some of the background material, mostly as drawings but with some photographs taken at sites used in Munch's paintings. This mix makes for an enjoyable read that also provides an in-depth view of the artist, his family and friends, and the the society in which they worked.

I can highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the artist and his work. The translation from Norwegian by Francesca M. Nichols reads very well. It has made me interested in reading other volumes in the Art Masters Series put out by Self Made Hero Press.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
I have been a David Sedaris fan for a long time. He grew up in Raleigh and writes humorous sketches on life, often based on his experiences here in the City of Oaks. When I moved to Raleigh in 1979, he was the waiter at the coffee shop I frequented before going to work each morning. Most days it was David, DD (a woman who worked in a dairy lab at the land grant university across the street), and me. This was before he was a writer. He considered himself a performance artist at the time and would stage strange performances with his friend Avi for a small but confused audience of friends. I am glad he took up writing as he is much better at it than performance art.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames was written in 2008 around the time David was living in France and gave up smoking. There is a large 83 page Smoking Section at the end of the book where he recounts his experiences with smoking and ends with his three month trip to Japan to give up smoking "cold turkey." This book seems to be more introspective than his earlier works and includes many stories about his relationship with his partner Hugh Hamrick. His mixture of humorous observations on life, mixed with his own foibles, make for both funny and tender reading moments that are unique.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O'Neil
Weapons of Math Destruction looks at the fields of Analytics and Big Data in a non-technical manner to provide a basic overview of how statistical models are built and used to predict behavior and improve efficiency. The focus is on showing how well-designed analytical models are built, and how to distinguish them from those that have destructive, but profitable, outcomes. It is an insider's look at the science and practice of Big Data for the benefit of those outside the field. As such, it is a good introductory text to the issues involved. Broad in its sweep, this book looks at Big Data applications in education, criminal justice, the workplace, and politics. It points out how, while promising fairness and efficiency, the uses of Big Data can often punish the poor while rewarding the upper class.
Any book with the word Math in the title can be expected to have formulas full of symbols, or at least graphs, spreadsheets or data. But this book has none of these and can safely be read by the math averse population.
What you can expect to come away with is a sense of how pervasive Big Data have become, how its use may effect your daily life and those who are hurt by it, and how to develop an understanding of ways to determine which uses of Big Data increase inequality and threaten Democracy.
What I felt was its weakest point was when the author talks about solutions. O'Neil sees this as a young field and that the problems pointed out in the book will be seen as the early days before the practitioners learned to bring fairness and accountability to the field. Suggested improvements in the book include teaching ethics to the researchers in the field, and developing a Hippocratic Oath for Big Data similar to the one used in Medicine. However, I think the book itself is a good start towards developing an informed public able to understand the fair and unfair uses of Analytics with a goal towards developing a regulatory structure that allows individuals to see how their data is being used, and to provide the feedback mechanisms to help users actively participate in their profiling.
While this is an overview written for a general audience, and is relatively free of footnotes, there is a 34 page section of Notes at the end of the book showing the sources used for the information discussed throughout the pages of the text. I came away from reading this book with a much better understanding of the impact of Big Data and the analytical tools used to work with it. Much of what I see online has been modified to fit a profile of me created by my past online choices that have put me in a statistical bucket or silo and limits what I see and hear. This reminds me of the parable of the frog in the well. The frog lived in a well where there was all he needed to live and a small patch of blue sky visible at the opening of the well. One day, a turtle came by and told him about the vast sea. The frog replies 'The sea? Hah! It's paradise in here. Nothing can be better than this well." With the Moral being that ignorant people know nothing aside from their own small world. Cathy O'Neil is the turtle offering this book as a way of showing us frogs caught up in our silos of information about the vast Ocean of Big Data that is out there if we can learn to see outside our small computer screen view.
Big Data for the Masses

Thursday, March 01, 2018

The Galley Slave's Ring

The Galley Slave's Ring : Or, The Family of Lebrenn : A Tale of the French Revolution of 1848, by Eugene Sue
The Galley Slave's Ring is the final volume of a 19 volume series of novels written by Eugène Sue called The Mysteries of the People; or History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages that was written between 1849-1857. The author, once called "the king of the popular novel," created this series to depict the struggle between the ruling and the ruled classes in French history. One family, the descendants of a Gallic chief named Joel, represent the oppressed, and the descendants of a Frankish chief Neroweg, typifies the oppressors. Down through the ages the successive struggles between oppressors and oppressed are depicted in a series of stories told by the descendants Of Joel that culminate in the European Revolutions of 1848.

Considered at one time classics of Marxist/Socialist thought, these books are mostly forgotten today, and the English-language editions published at the beginning of the 20th Century have only become available again recently through large-scale digitization projects of Public Domain books. Daniel DeLeon, leader of the Socialist Labor Party of America and translator of this series into English, wrote in his Preface to The Gold Sickle that it was owning class influence that kept English translations of this series from being available for over 50 years. A 2004 article entitled "Eugène Sue : Champion of the Oppressed" in The People, written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the English translations, said the following about the series:

"It is by far the best work ever written for giving the working class reader an intimate picture of society as it evolved in France from the days of Gaul, before the Roman conquest, to the middle of the 19th century. It is especially valuable for the picture that it provides of the various phases of feudal society, and the growth of infant capitalism within the feudal womb."

While Sue's anti-Catholic works The Wandering Jew and The Mysteries of Paris are still known, this Socialist series of 19 novels has been out of print for over 100 years. Here is a listing of them:

The Mysteries of the People; or History of a Proletarian Family Across the Age series
1. The Gold Sickle or Hena, the Virgin of the Isle of Sen: A Tale of Druid Gaul
2. The Brass Bell; or, The Chariot of Death: A Tale of Caesar's Gallic Invasion
3. The Iron Collar; Or, Faustina and Syomara: A Tale of Slavery Under the Romans
4. The Silver Cross; or, The Carpenter of Nazareth: A Tale of Jerusalem
5. The Casque's Lark; or, Victoria, The Mother Of The Camps: A Tale Of The Frankish Invasion Of Gaul
6. The Poniard's Hilt; or, Karadeucq and Ronan: A Tale of Bagauders and Vagres
7. The Branding Needle; or, The Monastery of Charolles: A Tale of the First Communal Charter
8. The Abbatial Crosier; or, Bonaik and Septimine: A Tale of a Medieval Abbess
9. The Carlovingian Coins; or, The Daughters of Charlemagne: A Tale of the Ninth Century
10. The Iron Arrow Head; or, The Buckler Maiden: A Tale of the Northman Invasion
11. The Infant's Skull; or, The End of the World: A Tale of the Millennium
12. The Pilgrim's Shell; or, Fergan the Quarryman: A Tale from the Feudal Times
13. The Iron Pincers; or, Mylio and Karvel: A Tale of the Albigensian Crusades
14. The Iron Trevet; or, Jocelyn the Champion: A Tale of the Jacquerie
15. The Executioner's Knife; or, Joan of Arc: A Tale of the Inquisition
16. The Pocket Bible; or, Christian the Printer: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (2 volumes)
17. The Blacksmith's Hammer; or, The Peasant Code: A Tale of the Grand Monarch
18:1. The Sword of Honor; or, The Foundation of the French Republic: A Tale of the French Revolution
18:2. The Sword of Honor: Part II - The Bourgeois Revolution: A Tale of the French Revolution
19. The Galley Slave's Ring; or, The Family of Lebrenn: A Tale of the French Revolution of 1848

Having already enjoyed Sue's The Wandering Jew, I looked forward to starting a work which united my interest in serial novels, historic fiction, and Class Warfare. Fortunately, the whole series is now available free to anyone who has Kindle or epub software on their reading device.

With this story, The Galley Slave's Ring; or, The Family of Lebrenn, closes the series of the nineteen historic novels comprised in Eugene Sue's monumental work The Mysteries of the People; or, History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages.
They who have read the preceding eighteen stories will agree that from the moment they began the first volume of the series, The Gold Sickle; or, Hena the Virgin of the Isle of Sen, down to the eighteenth, The Sword of Honor; or, The Foundation of the French Republic, they enjoyed a matchless promenade as they followed Sue through the Ages of History, from the time of the invasion of Gaul by Julius Caesar, shortly before Christ, down to the great epoch marked by the French Revolution. Nor will their expectations concerning this closing story be disappointed.
The Galley Slave's Ring; or, The Family of Lebrenn is staged on the Age that witnessed the downfall of Louis Philippe--the last of the Bourbon line--and the aspirations that raised the Second Republic. While several of the figures are historic, in this story historic characters step forth less pronouncedly than historic principles. In this story are found the Principles, the old and the newest, that have since occupied the stage of man's history, and the clash of which, down to our own days, occupies man's attention.
Inestimable as the previous stories are to the understanding of the Age of the present story, the present story, enlivened with the vein of romance, is inestimable to the understanding of our own Age.
Milford, Conn., February, 1911.

The Galley Slave's Ring begins in Paris on Rue Saint-Denis on February 23, 1848 during the constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe, and ends in December, 1851 during the French Second Republic headed by Louis-Napoleon. It is the story of Marik Lebrenn and his family who run a cloth and clothing shop and live upstairs. He and his wife are about 50 years old, and they have an adult son and daughter that help in the shop. Although he is a bourgeois shop keeper, his values and ethics are aligned with the working class of his ancestors. The book begins with Lebrenn preparing to take part in the "February Revolution" that ended the reign of Louis-Philippe. It was one of the many uprisings of The Peoples' Spring that spread across Europe in 1848.

At the same time he is helping his shy neighbor George Duchene, a laborer who takes care of his aging grandfather, to become engaged to his daughter Jeanike. Jeanike loves George but has caught the eye of Count Gonthram of Ploernel, who is descended from the Neroweg Franks whose family has oppressed Marik's family for centuries. The Count, not knowing the history of their two families, hopes to win over Marik with a large order of uniforms for his garrison so he can seduce his daughter Jeanike. Their dialog is one of the high points of the book as the Count plays on his wealth and class, and Marik, armed with his knowledge of the history of the two families, counters with the socialist values that have become so prominent in Europe in this time. The Count realizes he has met his match, and both go back to planning for their roles in the impending revolution.

They meet again on the barricade at Rue Saint-Denis on opposite sides of the battle, where the workers led by Lebrenn hold off the troops. At the end of the battle, Lebrenn hides the wounded Count in his house and arranges for his safe transport home, possibly saving his life. The battle ended the constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe, and marks the beginning of the Second Republic. However through a strange twist of fate, Marik finds himself accused, found guilty and sentenced to the life of a galley slave, while the Count becomes an officer in the army of the Republic.

Eugene Sue himself suffered a reversal similar to Marik's. After the French Revolution of 1848, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly in April 1850, only to be exiled the following year to Sardinia for his protest of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte's coup d'état of 1851. It is in Sardinia that Sue writes the 19 volumes of The Mysteries of the People.

As the last volume of the series, Eugene Sue uses this story to recap the history of the family that has been told in the previous 18 volumes and to point out the moral strength of the socialist working class. His goal in portraying the struggles of the working class is to show that set backs like the Second Empire should not cause people to give up hope, but to realize that the long history of progress has often been accompanied by losses that seemed hopeless at the time. At the end of the book, after showing his family the stories of his ancestors going back over 1,000 years, Marik tells them "What does it matter, my children, whether we actually witness or not the dawn, if we have the certainty that the sun of that beautiful day is bound eventually to shine over a regenerated world!" He goes on to say "Whatever appearances may be, whatever the present depression, revolutionary thought is at this very hour germinating under the soil. It is spreading and gaining in depth through a thousand underground rootlets. Sooner or later, its sudden and last irresistible explosion will be heard. Upon the ruins of the old social system a new social order will be established. There can be no doubt whatever, my children, regarding that great and crowning event. Progress is the law of humanity -- for society as well as for the individual. Our plebeian narratives furnish the irrefutable proof."

Prior to reading Sue's "Mysteries of the People" which ends in 1851 with the beginning of France's Second Empire, I had read Emile Zola's 20 Rougon-Macquart novels which are a panoramic account of the Second Empire. They are the story of a family between the years 1851 and 1871 who descend from the two family lines of the Rougons and Macquarts. The two series are wonderfully complimentary to each other and I recommend them to anyone looking for 40 or so novels to read that reveal the history of France.