Saturday, December 30, 2006

Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer

Author: Maureen Ogle
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc.
ISBN: 0-15-101012-9

In the 1830s, few Americans had ever heard of, let alone tasted, beer. At that time, rum and whiskey were the favorite beverages of the American drinking public, with English ale running a distant third. Over the next half-century, however, thousands of enterprising German immigrants transformed American tastes so that, by 1880, beer had decisively supplanted all other liquors as the American national beverage. Ambitious Brew is an engaging account of that transformation.

The fashioning of an industry required the development of numerous technological and commercial innovations. Starting out as small operators that supplied local saloons, early brewers had to devise ways to ensure consistent quality in every batch of beer they made. Upon solving that problem, brewers who expanded their operations had to resolve issues related to the preservation, distribution and packaging of their products. They had to extend the shelf life of beer so that it would be consumable when it arrived at distant destinations. This was accomplished by experimenting with recipes and by using refrigerated railroad cars for shipping. Moreover, reliable transportation and sales networks had to be cultivated. And, to protect their reputations and prevent saloon keepers from diluting their brews, or replacing them with lower quality swill, brewers began shipping large quantities of their beer in labeled bottles rather than kegs. Thus, as the brewing industry expanded, secondary industries grew alongside it.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a growing temperance movement threatened to dismantle the empires of such brewing giants as Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Schlitz and others. The brewers, aware that taxes on their products accounted for more than one-third of the American government’s revenues, paid little attention to their critics. Their security was shattered in 1913, when Congress ratified the Sixteenth Amendment that established the income tax as a major source of revenue. This amendment, in conjunction with the cumulative successes of the temperance movement over the previous several decades, made conditions favorable for the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the production, sale and consumption of all alcoholic beverages in the United States. In January 1919, Prohibition became the law of the land.

Prohibition (enacted in 1919) was in effect from 1920 until 1933. During that time, some brewers kept their businesses alive by producing soft drinks and “near” (non-alcoholic) beer. Others diversified their companies and produced a variety of goods. Needless to say, most brewers did not survive. Those who did discovered that American culture had changed dramatically in a short fourteen year span. The American public had developed a taste for Coca Cola rather than beer. An entire generation had grown up without ever tasting beer. Thus, in the post-Prohibition era, brewers had to cultivate new images and new markets for their products. These struggles continue to this day, as American liquor consumption is still lower than it was before Prohibition.

The period from the 1930s through the 1960s was a time of consolidation. Many small and medium sized breweries went out of business or were bought out by larger companies. In the latter decades of the twentieth century, this trend toward increased centralization was countered by the home brewing movement and the microbrewing industry. Currently, even though Anheuser-Busch and Miller dominate American brewing (these two companies sell over 50% of all beer consumed in the USA), small and regional brewers are making a comeback. In the early twenty-first century, large and small brewers are learning from each other and rejuvenating the brewing industry. In Ogle’s opinion, an exciting future is open for business to the next generation of innovative brewers.

Carefully researched, filled to the brim with technical information and populated with colorful personalities, Ambitious Brew provides a unique lens through which to examine American culture. Ambitious Brew is more than a story about the indelible imprint German immigrants made on their adopted land. And it is more than a tale of how American consumers prompted those immigrants to adapt traditional products for new palates. Indeed, at its heart, Ambitious Brew is the fascinating story of how distinct cultural features have blended to enrich the fabric of a vibrant society. It is a story that needed to be told, and Ogle has told it very well. Beer aficionados and readers interested in popular culture and history will enjoy Ambitious Brew.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Darwin Conspiracy

Author: John Darnton
Publisher: Anchor Books
ISBN: 1-4000-3483-3

Emerging from a self-imposed exile in the Galapagos Islands, biologist Hugh Kellem scours British libraries in search of a research project that will reveal something new about the life and work of his hero, Charles Darwin. His goal is to establish his credentials as a significant Darwin scholar. Elizabeth Dulcimer, rumored to be one of Darwin’s descendants, is pursuing a similar project for personal, as well as professional, reasons. As Hugh and Elizabeth become better acquainted, and eventually fall in love, they decide to work together on their parallel projects. Hugh and Elizabeth’s story, which is completely fictional, provides the outer frame of this tripartite narrative.

The second storyline is an account of Darwin’s five-year voyage aboard the Beagle. As this narrative unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Darwin and some of his shipmates conspired to hide significant facts about certain events that transpired during the voyage. Revelation of these facts would cast a long shadow over Darwin’s subsequent life, work and reputation. Of course, this narrative slowly builds throughout the book and the precise nature of the conspiracy does not become clear until very late in the story. This storyline is a well-composed blend of fact and fiction. Darnton adroitly builds his fictional episodes upon solid historical foundations. Thus, he provides riveting, vivid glimpses of life aboard an early nineteenth century ship and encounters between English explorer/conquerors and indigenous peoples of South America and the Pacific Islands.

The third storyline is revealed through the diaries of Darwin’s daughter, Elizabeth. These diaries have lain undiscovered for just over a century when Hugh and his companion find them hidden amongst packets of discarded letters and documents in a musty archive. Elizabeth, who was quite young when she realized that her father was hiding an important secret, records her quest to uncover the truth in a set of diaries that she keeps intermittently over a number of years. When she uncovers the secret as her father lies near death, she notes it dutifully. As the book closes, Elizabeth Dulcimer and Hugh Kellem prepare to reveal the details of the Darwin Conspiracy to an unsuspecting public.

The historical Darwin actually did have a daughter named Elizabeth, but very little is known about her. Thus, she is the perfect character to provide Darnton’s view into Victorian culture and family life. These passages, similar to those that recount the Beagle’s adventures, offer an intriguing mix of fact and fiction.

Since this is a work of fiction, tidy coincidences are allowed and even expected. Thus, the reader is not surprised to learn that the young scholar, Elizabeth Dulcimer, is Elizabeth Darwin’s great-granddaughter. Additionally, the correspondences between the family conflicts that drove Hugh to exile and those of the Darwin family are obvious. Still, Darnton has constructed a captivating mystery around a well-known historical figure. He has provided intriguing accounts of what life may have been like aboard the Beagle, and of how life may have been in the Darwin household. This fictional work is grounded firmly enough in history to provide clear insights into Victorian morality, British class distinctions and the cultural and religious controversies that Darwin set into motion with his theory of natural selection. Since these controversies persist today, nearly 150 years after Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species, this book has a sense of timelessness that makes it a compelling read.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Of Blood and Blackwater

Author: T.C. Heffernan
Publisher: AuthorHouse
ISBN: 1-4259-3445-5

Ethnobotanist Gareth McKenna is troubled by terrifying nightmares. His terror mounts when he realizes that his nightmares are connected to the vicious murders of several young women in his hometown. Portland police detective Armando (Army) Padilla and FBI profiler Caroline Baxter’s investigation is stymied until a vital piece of evidence points toward Gareth as their prime suspect. Gareth’s journey to stay out of their reach and identify the killer leads him deep into the Amazonian jungle, to the place where, several years earlier, he completed the research that led to his life’s work. Gareth’s girlfriend, Karin, does not quite understand what he is experiencing. Nevertheless, she steadfastly assists him in his quest to clear his name. As the story ends, with a hint that Army and Caroline may one day become lovers, Gareth and Karin embark on a honeymoon journey along the Amazon River.

Of Blood and Blackwater is a very good book, particularly for a first novel. Heffernan uses a deft balance of action and dialog to develop his characters. All of them, even the murderer, capture and hold the reader’s attention and empathy. Gareth and Karin’s relationship survives a horrible test of love and trust. Army and Caroline have to deal with issues related to their past relationships and losses before their relationship can grow. Even the murderer, as thoroughly chilling as Hannibal Lecter, elicits sympathy as he desperately hopes to find love and companionship with one of his victims. My only disappointment with Heffernan’s character development concerns his use of Marvin Hayes, the sleazy reporter, รก la paparazzo, who exposes Gareth to public humiliation and scrutiny. His appearances, while spectacular, are frustratingly stereotypical.

In addition to drawing good characters, Heffernan paces his story well. He provides enough description to draw the reader into the book’s locales yet avoids getting bogged down in minutiae. He uses dialog to reveal the minds and hearts of his characters and to provide information that moves the story forward. Even though the action never falters, the reader never feels as if the author is rushing ahead too quickly and omitting necessary details. Back story scenes are woven into the storyline skillfully, so that they do not strike the reader as filler material or tangents. Heffernan strikes the right balance between back story, action, dialog and description to keep the story moving forward at all times.

My only significant criticism of this book is that it has several typographical errors of the type that typically occur when drafting, refining and editing on a computer. Diligent attention to the fine points of proofreading and editing would raise the standard of Heffernan’s work, which is already quite high, considerably higher.

Heffernan acquired his knowledge of botany and geography through his many personal and professional experiences as a scientist and world traveler. This knowledge is displayed tastefully, never pedantically, throughout the book. The details of the narrative ring true and the drama engrosses the reader deeply. This certainly is a book that thriller lovers will not want to miss. I, for one, will be on the lookout for future books from this author.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Expendability Doctrine

Author: Patrick Mackeown
Publisher: BookScape
ISBN: 978-0-9554328-0-4

Keith Connors, a wealthy oil industry consultant, was a nasty brute. It’s no wonder that his wife, Hilary, wanted him dead. Before investigators can interrogate her, however, she leaves Britain, gathers belongings from her French home and heads out to assume a new identity in Libya.

Upon arriving in Libya, Hilary quickly loses control of her life. She witnesses a murder, then is arrested and incarcerated in a horrific prison. In the midst of local unrest, Hilary and several other prisoners manage to escape from the prison, steal a truck and safely make their way to Algeria.

In the meantime, investigators in Great Britain uncover disturbing details about Keith’s business dealings. Their discoveries lead them to reconsider what role, if any, Hilary may have played in his murder. It is only in the book’s final pages that one learns whether Keith’s murder was a crime of passion or a matter of expediency.

Notwithstanding the fact that it contains several intriguing elements, The Expendability Doctrine is a rather dry story. For one thing, it’s difficult to identify who is supposed to be the main character. Is it Hilary? Is it Inspector Hawthorne? Is it Keith? Neither these nor any other characters are sufficiently developed to engage the reader’s empathy, though Hawthorne comes closest to doing so. Keith is too unlovable and Hilary is too unfathomable to be of much interest.

For another thing, the connections between the two storylines, Hilary’s Libyan escapades and Hawthorne’s British sleuthing are unclear. The main questions that drive the story, of course, are, “who killed Keith Connors?” and “why did he/she/they kill him?” Obviously, Hawthorne needs to solve his case, which he does. And equally obviously, Hilary needs, or believes she needs, to escape arrest and prosecution. Yet the story ends without clarifying what happens to Hilary. Does she return to Britain? If so, is she arrested and tried? If not, why not? Does she wander the globe for the rest of her days? All of these possibilities are still open when the book ends. This is a major omission, because the question of Hilary’s guilt is precisely where the two storylines meet! Clarifying this connection is essential to resolving both storylines in a satisfactory manner.

Overall, The Expendability Doctrine is a moderately rewarding read. Mackeown has a good imagination and he handles the English language fairly well. With continued growth, he could be an author to watch in the future.

Friday, December 15, 2006


Author: W. William Winokur
Publisher: Kissena Park Press
ISBN: 0-9768508-0-X

The Ice Woman. That’s what her partners at Schroeder, Wilkes and Barron call Marianna Gardner. It is an appropriate sobriquet for a woman who was too busy practicing law to attend her father’s funeral.

While sifting through her father’s belongings, Marianna comes across a reminder of a once cherished but long-forgotten family friend. Determined to re-establish some connection with her past, she finds “Uncle Ion” in a shabby nursing home. As they rekindle their relationship, Marianna examines her life and slowly realizes that she is not fond of the person she has become. Her journey of self-discovery accelerates when she and Uncle Ion travel to Greece so that he may conclude some personal business.

Marianna’s Grecian sojourn is far from peaceful. As her respect for the people around her grows, so does her disdain for her own life. Moreover, upon unearthing several old journals, Marianna uncovers startling truths about Uncle Ion’s life and her own origins. Shortly before he dies, Uncle Ion unravels the mysteries of the journals and his complicated connection to Marianna. The story concludes as, armed with new insights, Marianna gathers the courage to make peace with herself, break free from the chains that bind her and build a new life.

A recounting of Pheidippides’ mythic journeys frames the stories of Marianna and Ion. The parallel accounts of these varied journeys complement each other well. In order to remain free, Pheidippides and his countrymen must defeat the Persian invaders who threaten to enslave them. His journey shapes a nation. In order to die free, Ion must reveal his ties with Marianna. His journey shapes Marianna’s future. In order to become free, Marianna must relinquish the life that corrupts her. Her journey depicts the universal quest for meaning.

Readers who like epic tales of struggle and triumph will enjoy Marathon. This lengthy (nearly 500 pages), engrossing novel is a touching tribute to a teacher, Ion Theodore, who influenced the author’s life in an extraordinary way. W. William Winokur weaves fact, fiction, poetry, biography, history and mythology into a beautiful story that sensitively explores eternal questions about life’s meanings. A first-time novelist, Winokur has established a high standard for himself. His prose is graceful and poetic, his images are vivid and his characters are interesting. Imagine sitting at Ion’s feet as he teaches history, philosophy and art as a seamless whole. Feel Pheidippides’ exhaustion as he runs over mountains, his lips filled with messages that will determine the fate of a nation. Suffer Marianna’s grief as she examines a life filled with much regret and little honor. And most importantly, rejoice as Marianna travels from desolation through resurrection to redemption, for her triumph gives hope to all who are compelled to traverse the dark places of their souls.

Monday, December 11, 2006

A Scientific Search for Religious Truth

Author: Phil Mundt, Ph.D.
Publisher: Bridgeway Books
ISBN: 978-1-933538-61-7

Phil Mundt, a retired geologist reared in a Protestant family, spent four years researching and writing this book, in which he endeavors to
  • reconcile misunderstandings between science and religion and
  • answer religious questions that he wrestled with throughout his life.
The book’s sixteen chapters are divided into two sections. In the first section, Mundt discusses evolutionary theories and provides historical overviews of the three major world religions that arose in the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Mundt accepts the general validity of the Big Bang theory, but, citing mathematical evidence, disputes that the universe could have arisen by chance. He argues that scientists should accept intelligent design theory as a plausible alternative to the chance and complexity theories that are currently favored by many. Mundt contends that many secular humanist scientists are intellectually narrow-minded and dogmatically predisposed to reject all theories that allow, in any way, for divine activity in the universe. Mundt takes such scientists to task for rejecting out of hand all theories that do not rest on premises that are identical to, or at least compatible with, theirs.

Mundt also accepts the general validity of evolutionary theories and urges conservative religionists to cast off their dogmatic predispositions and stop rejecting all evidence that contradicts a literal interpretation of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. He notes that many contemporary Jewish rabbis and Christian theologians interpret these chapters poetically and allegorically rather than literally. He also cites documents issued by Pope Pius XII and Pope John Paul II that affirm the validity of evolutionary theories. Mundt proposes that religionists could extend an olive branch in this debate by offering a “scientific paraphrase” of Genesis that incorporates accepted scientific facts, such as the age of the earth, etc.

The historical discussions of Middle Eastern religions require a shift from the methods and propositions of natural science to those of social science. Thus, even though Mundt presents a good case, from a social scientific perspective, for accepting the validity of Jesus’ resurrection, natural scientists will not find this argument persuasive. Nevertheless, Mundt is to be commended for including relevant data from a range of disciplines in his studies.

The final chapter of this section, entitled, “Final Thoughts,” rehashes, frequently verbatim, material from the previous chapters. The chapter should have been excluded, as it did not enhance Mundt’s argument in any way.

The book’s second section, labeled a Scientific Annex, provides much interesting material regarding the evolution of the universe, the evolution of life on earth and ongoing scientific investigations in genetics. Although this material is fascinating, it does not advance Mundt’s stated purpose of reconciling science and religion. If this section were deleted, Mundt’s argument would not be hindered. Mundt acknowledges this in the book’s introduction, where he states that this material is merely included for those who are interested in reading further about the science involved in his arguments.

Notwithstanding Mundt’s purpose, certain scientific and religious tenets will never be reconciled conclusively. Jesus’ resurrection, for example, was a singular event that can not be replicated and tested under laboratory conditions. And the initiation of the Big Bang may never be scientifically determined either, as it was also a singular event that cannot be observed or replicated in accordance with current scientific norms. The truth of both of these propositions, to name just two, can only be inferred from available evidence. Jesus’ resurrection continues to be a bone of contention across religions and the precise mechanisms of evolution continue to be debated among scientists. These controversies, and others, are likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

A Scientific Search for Religious Truth offers intriguing material that will interest readers seeking a better understanding of the historical and contemporary conflicts between science and religion.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Alone in Eden

Author: Stephen R. Pastore
Publisher: Cohort Press

ISBN: 0-9777196-0-X

Commencing in the pristine Garden of Eden, then moving quickly to the tragic event of Original Sin and its consequences for subsequent human history, Pastore’s tale explores cosmological, theological and anthropological questions that have puzzled humankind since the beginning of time.

The story is narrated by Traveler, the first-born son of Adam and Eve. Traveler’s idyllic life changes forever when he witnesses his parents eating fruit from the forbidden tree. Having run away from the horrific scene, Traveler awakens one day to find himself and his small dog, Zas, alone in a cave. An angel explains that his parents have been banished from the Garden and that Traveler and Zas will have to make their own way in a dramatically altered world.

Having once played freely with all sorts of creatures in the Garden, Traveler is disappointed to discover that many animals now fear him. Moreover, in the newly ordered world, many creatures must hunt and consume flesh in order to survive. These and countless other contrasts with his former life give Traveler many occasions for deliberation. Note, for example, what Traveler says about freedom and responsibility:

Where life in the Garden had no pattern and my parents and I could follow or not follow our whims and all things were provided . . . life in the Valley required a routine and tasks needed to be performed. . . . I realized that I had control over my own life but with that control came duty (p. 56).

When the adult Traveler falls in love, he gains this insight into relationships:

Earthly love must never supercede my devotion to God, not because God wanted to be loved above all others, but because God did not want me to lose my self, my soul, which was his greatest gift, for love of another. Such love is not love, but obsession. And in obsession we surrender our free will (p. 139).

Upon discovering ancient dinosaur bones, Traveler and his son reach this conclusion regarding evolution:

When the earth was created . . . [God] knew that the earth would be forever changing and that for life to continue as part of His plan, it must adapt to the world or be forever lost (pp. 160-161).

These few quotes provide just a small sample of the many philosophical and theological concepts that Pastore explores throughout his tale. Even though Pastore has clothed his ideas in the robe of fantasy, this book should not be regarded as mere entertainment. Pastore has packed more profound ideas into this story than many preachers pack into a year’s worth of sermons. While the reader probably will not agree with all of Pastore’s views, he or she should enjoy wrestling with them.

Alone in Eden is beautifully written. Traveler’s voice and tone are perfectly suited for his character and Pastore’s lush descriptions pull the reader fully into the scene. The story is well-paced and it never loses momentum. My one criticism is that Traveler is too far removed from much of the action. He witnesses much evil, yet always manages to avoid engaging in conflict himself. Traveler is wise, patient and sympathetic, yet somehow aloof. Nevertheless, he does successfully draw and hold the reader in the story.

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys spiritual fantasy. If you like the works of C.S. Lewis, you’ll probably enjoy Alone in Eden.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

the lost years

Authors: Kristina Wandziak & Constance Curry
Publisher: Jeffers Press
ISBN: 0-9777618-1-9

Told from the complementary perspectives of an addict and her mother, The Lost Years is a rich chronicle of drug and alcohol addiction and recovery from those addictions. Kristina Wandziak describes her long, painful slide into addiction, crime and life on the streets. Constance Curry, Kristina’s mother, describes the denial and co-dependence by which she unwittingly, and certainly unwillingly, facilitated her daughter’s addictions. Together, these joint accounts reveal the personal and familial complexities that contribute to and derive from addiction.

To all outward appearances, Kristina Wandziak lived a charmed life. She lived in a beautiful home in a picturesque town near San Francisco. She was intelligent, athletic, pretty and popular. Similarly, Constance Curry appeared to have the perfect home and family. This picture of perfection was badly marred, however, by the presence of a verbally abusive, alcoholic husband and father. Behind the closed doors of their lovely home, Kristina, her three siblings and Constance lived in inexorable fear and tension.

Kristina was thirteen years old when she sneaked her first swig of vodka from her parents’ liquor supply. This is Kristina’s account of that first drink:

I lifted the glass to my mouth, and slowly let the liquor
slide over my tongue. . . . It was wonderful. . . .
I felt incredible. . . . Nothing was ever the same
after that night. I had found the secret to life. . . .
Increasingly, the desire to drink grew strong in me (p. 9).

Constance noticed her daughter’s odd behavior that night but chose to ignore it because she was busy hosting a party. She tells it this way:

I went downstairs . . . and I noticed
Kristina was acting a little funny.
But I was wrapped up in the party,
so I didn’t dwell on it. . . .
I felt a queasiness in my stomach, but . . .
I didn’t know how to listen to my gut.
I wish I had listened (p. 12).

As the story continues, Kristina describes her physical, emotional, social and psychological decline. When her parents place her in rehabilitation programs, she promptly runs away. She drops out of school and descends into a life of crime to support her habits. At age seventeen, she sees abortion as the only solution to an unwanted pregnancy. Eventually, she ends up living on the streets of San Francisco: homeless, filthy, isolated and filled with self-loathing.

As Kristina declines deeper into addiction, Constance struggles with the effects Kristina’s addictions have on her and her other three children. Constance slowly realizes that she must make two radical changes in her life if she is to save her remaining children from ruin. First, she must divorce her abusive husband. Second, Kristina must not be allowed to have any further contact with the family until she agrees to seek treatment for her addictions. As painful as these decisions are, they ultimately enable Constance, Kristina and the other children in the family to rebuild their lives.

Finally, at age twenty-one, Kristina willingly enters a rehabilitation program and her mother agrees to pay for her treatment. Moreover, Kristina’s mother and siblings attend group therapy sessions in which they and Kristina examine the issues that led to and arose from Kristina’s destructive lifestyle. Kristina’s recovery is long, slow and difficult. She discovers that giving up drugs and alcohol is only a small part of the battle she must fight to build a life. She is mortified when she tries to complete job applications and realizes

I couldn’t get past “name.”
I had no address, no phone number,
no previous work experience and no education.
I could not put down one person as a reference.
I felt so lame and helpless (p. 202).

Fortunately, Kristina’s story does not end there. She gets a job and eventually moves into increasingly responsible positions. Now, she runs a successful addictions intervention program. Constance, similarly, has taken the lessons learned from her ordeal and become a specialist and lecturer in the fields of addiction and family recovery.

The Lost Years is a gritty, often grim, account of the horrors of addiction. More importantly, though, it is a book about hope and redemption. Kristina can never relive the years of her youth that she wasted on drugs, alcohol and crime. Constance can never recover the sleepless nights she lost wondering if her daughter was alive, warm or safe. Nevertheless, both of them have moved beyond addiction and its effects, beyond the trials of recovery, to lives of contentment, fulfillment and purpose. That inspirational message is the reason this book should be read by anyone whose life is affected by the tragedy of addiction.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Thanks for the Memories: Love, Sex & WWII

Author: Jane Mersky Leder
Publisher: Praeger Publishers
ISBN: 0-275-98879-1

The USA’s official involvement as a combatant nation in World War II lasted just over 3.5 years. During that period, approximately 16 million young adults, males and females, enlisted in the various branches of the US armed forces. They trained in military bases scattered across the USA. They served in Europe, Africa and the Pacific. They left loved ones behind and met loved ones abroad. Their lives were brutally disrupted and they inevitably disrupted the lives of others. In Thanks for the Memories, Jane Mersky Leder examines the numerous ways in which World War II changed American soldiers, families, communities and culture. She explicates the war’s immediate effects on American society and argues that wartime disruptions laid the foundations for the later cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.

Using material gleaned from magazine articles, news clips, contemporary advertisements, hundreds of interviews with elderly veterans and dozens of intimate letters, Leder immerses readers in the mindset of mid-twentieth century America. She describes the rapid alteration of social and sexual mores as young men and women, liberated from the customary constraints of family and community life, and spurred by deep uncertainty about their futures, explored their burgeoning sexuality. She describes hastily contracted marriages and the ordeals of wives who followed their husbands across the USA from one base to another, never knowing when overseas assignments would precipitate long separations. She describes the loneliness of soldiers spread around the globe, the longings of spouses left behind, and the inevitable infidelities that followed on all fronts. She discusses cultural and military prejudices against gays, lesbians and ethnic Americans, particularly African Americans, who fought for democracy abroad yet endured fierce obstacles in their own pursuits of life, love and a little bit of happiness. She discusses the ravages of sexually transmitted diseases and the dilemmas of unwanted pregnancies. And she describes, heartbreakingly, the difficult transitions of soldiers who returned home to wives who were reluctant to leave the workforce and surrender the delicious independence they had tasted for the first time in their lives. In short, Leder examines every aspect of love, sex and marriage as they were transformed throughout and after World War II.

In addition to being based on a substantial, well-documented body of research data, Thanks for the Memories is very well written. Leder captures the reader’s attention quickly and keeps the reader engaged throughout a well constructed, well paced presentation. The material is appropriately balanced between statistical information, scholarly discussion and heartwarming anecdotes. The text is enhanced by two photo essays depicting wartime couples, advertisements and celebrities. The stories of the photo subjects are shared throughout the book and the significance of the celebrities and advertisements is explained at appropriate points. All of the material – photos, interviews, advertisements, personal correspondence, etc. – is well integrated and easily digested.

Thanks for the Memories is one of those rare books that one can either read quickly or savor slowly. At times it is fun and witty; at other times it is poignant and thought-provoking. All who read it will gain insights into the natures of humanity, war, peace and love. Readers who enjoy social history, as well as World War II buffs, will want to include it on their reading lists.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Behind the Yellow Filter

Author: Stuart Held
Publisher: Outskirts Press, Inc.
ISBN: 1-59800-290-2

When Robby Schein accepts a job with The Allied Group (TAG), Inc., he expects to spend his life selling cameras. After six months of successful employment, he learns that the company’s mission of selling cameras is a cover for its real task: to use photography as a tool for gathering intelligence for the American government. Eighteen months later, Robby is promoted and trained for his first field mission. The CIA needs him to travel to Japan, where several companies are building extraordinary photographic equipment that shows great promise for use in amateur, professional and military applications.

Robby travels to Japan and meets with the top representatives of Nikon, Fuji, Mamiya and Tamron, with whom he conducts legitimate business for TAG. Robby also meets with members of the Japanese navy to learn about lenses they have developed for taking photos through submarine periscopes. He quickly discovers that several other countries (China, the Soviet Union and East Germany) are also interested in the new photographic technologies. A bidding war erupts and events turn violent when the Yakuza (a Japanese crime syndicate) gets involved. The story ends with Robby’s successful completion of his mission and his promotion to vice president of TAG, Inc.

Much of Robby’s story is taken from the author’s own experiences as a marketer of photographic equipment. Held has traveled extensively in Japan and his knowledge of Japanese culture is delightfully evident throughout the story. The book also includes many tidbits of information about the photographic industry. Held has a wealth of intriguing information to share about Japan and its rise to prominence in the international photographic industry.

Generally speaking, Held has successfully put together some basic nuts and bolts in this book. Robby Schein is an appealing character, the story’s plot holds together fairly well and Held has interesting material with which to work. Unfortunately, the book suffers from serious editorial flaws. Held’s writing style is unpolished and the book is hampered by numerous grammatical and syntactical errors. Since Outskirts Press is a venue for self-publication, I do not know what sort of editorial assistance, if any, they provided for this book. If his editor is employed by Outskirts Press, Held should consider finding another publisher for his future works. If his editor was acquired through some other avenue, Held needs to find another one.

One final observation I will make is that the book’s title makes me uneasy. Notwithstanding the fact that an actual yellow photographic filter plays a small role in the story, I can’t disregard the historically racist connotations of the word “yellow” when discussing east Asians, particularly the Japanese. I am perplexed as to how and why Held selected this particular title, which strikes me as a poorly chosen one.

Readers who enjoy espionage stories, and who can tolerate its rough edges, may find Behind the Yellow Filter an intriguing read.