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A People's History of American Empire

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This is a retelling of A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present in comic book form, with an emphasis on American foreign policy that downright imperial. And we're not talking classic American soft power here, where we send Coke and McDonald's in order to get people to buy American products in an effort to spread our cultural values. Rather, we're talking about a cynical examination of American international actions like the Spanish-American war, Manifest Destiny, Iran Contra, and other incidents that make the good old US of A look less than savory.

I agree with Zinn's politics, for the most part. Zinn has an agenda, and he's clear about it. As such, it's the responsibility of the reader to take what he says with a grain of salt. But that aside, he does paint a pretty bleak picture of the USA's human rights record, one that We Americans like to pretend that we don't have many human rights violation, except for a few isolated incidents. What Zinn points out is that our violations are not restricted to a few isolated incidents, but rather are a systemic abuse, repeated over and over throughout history. If American policy results in significant human rights violations in nearly every decade, can we really claim to be the white knights that we like to pretend we are? Perhaps we owe it to ourselves to really evaluate our foreign policy and tell ourselves the truth.

That said, this book is still a long, long way from perfect. I've never read Zinn's People's History, so I'm afraid I can't compare this volume to it. But whatever I would think about the parent title, this comic rendering has its issues. There's an extreme cult of personality surrounding Zinn in this book, which is ironic considering that Zinn spends so much iconoclastic effort tearing down politicians and generals. The image of Zinn, an old white guy, lecturing to an anonymous audience from a podium is repeated frequently, and without any kind of acknowledgement of just how strange this is in relation to the idea that this is "a people's history." Heck, some of the book is even autobiographical, in a way that seems very, very odd and stuck on there haphazardly. Perhaps the book should be called "Howard Zinn's History of American Empire?" Or "A People's History of American Empire and of Howard Zinn?" It certainly feels that way.

And this cult of personality issue ties into a larger issue. Zinn's point in this book does not seem to be that the reader should think for herself, but rather that we should switch from the dictated version of history that we were taught in school to Zinn's more radical version. A lot of time is spent tearing down the old history and establishing a new point of view, but the evidence given is extremely one-sided. I'm no expert on most of these topics, but there are omissions that I caught, and points that the standard history espouses that are never addressed. The history that comes out of this book is not necessarily fuller, it's just a different viewpoint. So, for all of Zinn's criticism of the mainstream, his history is still not telling the whole story. And thus, it's implied that being dogmatic about history that isn't the problem, it's that we follow the wrong dogma.

Finally, the comic art itself is lacking. It has a bit too much Sunday funnies feel, with stilted paneling and art that begins to feel repetitive. The caricatures are good, but the whole book is lacking soul. In some ways, this feels like Zinn said "I want to bring my work to more people, so I'm going to make it more accessible. And what's more accessible than comic books?" So, a comic book gets made, but somewhere in the process, the things that make a good comic book get lost. Maybe Zinn or somebody else in the process who was unfamiliar with making comics micromanaged the process too much, or maybe the studio didn't take enough liberties with the pacing and story, or maybe the dialogue wasn't cut down enough. Whatever happened, the comic turned out firmly mediocre.

And so although you have a story that needs to be told, it is told in a misleading fashion, and the telling is flubbed. This isn't a book I'd recommend.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/160044179

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Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!

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Art Spiegelman is one of the most powerful comic artists I know. This is a collection of an old comic that was almost published, then wasn't, then was again, along with an new comic that focuses on his childhood. That old comic was a collection of short pieces he had done up to that point, and they show Spiegelman's more raw, R. Crumb-esque nature.

Breakdowns is interesting from an artistic point of view, and interesting as a document to trace Spiegelman's growth, but that's all it is. It doesn't have pretentions to be anything more. The introductory retrospective really shows how much Spiegelman has evolved as an artist, particularly when thrown into such sharp contrast with his earlier, more adventuresome but less polished work. I wouldn't recommend this to anybody but comics fans, but for those of us who are, this book's a good one.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/132979753

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A History of the World in 6 Glasses

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Smacks a bit too much of pop history to be taken seriously. It's not that I don't think that the research is there, it simply doesn't go deep enough into the topics to really be interesting. Most of what's here is stuff I already knew. I suppose I should have realized that this would be the case when I saw that it was such a short book, with such a wide scope of history. No way you can cover six very different topics in any depth in less than 250 pages.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/53858509

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ALEC: The Years Have Pants

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A good book, and up my alley, but lacking a certain something to put it over the top. It's got some wry humor sprinkled throughout, and it's true to life. But I wanted a little something more. It was just missing the sparkle that separates really good graphic novels from the also-rans.

I think part of my difficulty with the book is due to a generational divide. I have the luxury of looking back at this collection with the benefit of hindsight. I know what comics are capable of becoming, and I know that they can explode to something more than the simple capes and tights superhero crap that was overwhelming in the graphic novel scene in the 70s and 80s, when much of this was written. I have a feeling that if I had been used to the comic book scene of the 70s, and then I read this book, I would be flabbergasted to see something so new.

One item in this book I thought was particularly interesting, and that's "How to be an Artist." This is a great second-person (!) telling of the story of just how Campbell got into making comics. And it's really cool, and very revealing. It's a great reflection of what made his career to this point, with all the false starts and halting stops along the way.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/156899009

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The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

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This book took me a while to read, but it was well worth it. There's some fascinating ideas here. I really am not qualified to say whether they are correct, but if they are, this is a staggering book. The theories here point to notions of history and of psychology and philosophy that radically differ from the established norms. It could be that it's still complete bunk, but it's incisive and persuasive enough that I am fooled. Jaynes' theories do address some holes in history, holes that are gigantic mysteries.

Of course, the biggest hurdle to get over is the idea that the mind can be so modified by social pressures in such a small amount of time, and that any physical record of this restructuring of the mind is not present beyond as vacancies in function of the brain. Such an idea is difficult to swallow, for sure.

I think I come down on Jaynes' side. I think he's probably right, at least inasmuch as there was radically different methods of thinking early in our history. It would explain a lot, such as why polytheism has mostly been in decline for the recent period of history, and monotheism has exploded. And it explains the more active roles that Gods from ancient myths take, versus the passive overseer of monotheist religions.

There is a lot of great stuff in this book. It's definitely worth reading, as it will challenge your preconceptions. You will get something from it, whether it's a change in worldview or a simple greater understanding of the ideas behind historical psychology.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/51791092

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Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

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Wonderful. Up there among the best graphic novels I've ever read, and certainly the complete package. As a memoir, it is erudite, powerful, and poignant. As a visual experience, it is well-laid out and well-drawn, with a single color that is used in just the right balance to compliment the text. I can't recommend this enough, even for those people who are not into graphic novels. This is one of the rare crossovers that is interesting enough to make it a worthwhile read even if the genre doesn't interest you.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/102642273

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Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965

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This kind of beautifully-drawn, but vapid and overly-simplistic crap is what gives honest-to-god real graphic novels a bad name. I should have realized what I was getting into, but I didn't see the DC comics logo on the book until after I had committed to reading it. This is a book about a battle in Vietnam, a battle that was basically lost through incompetence and poor planning, much like the whole war. And yet, the book treats it as a thing to be glorified, a type of "America got beat, but now it's okay because we used overwhelming force to take the land back again." The book is laden with the typical militaristic cockiness that got us involved in Vietnam, and despite the fact that it was written 40 years later, doesn't seem to recognize that it was one of the worst foreign policy decisions in our history. Finally, on top of an already putrid story, the entire account is fictionalized. So, you think you're reading a true account with well-researched history, when you find out that the whole thing is fictionalized, and that nothing of the type really happened.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/150019256

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World Without End (The Pillars of the Earth, #2)

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I'm giving this three stars, though if it wasn't a sequel, it would probably get four stars. I really enjoyed the first one, almost against my will. This, unfortunately, is almost a straight rehash. The characters feel very similar, with several of them playing the same roles that other characters played in the last book, though the focal points of the story are somewhat changed. Tom and Jack, the put-upon masons that built the cathedral in the first book, are very similar to Merthein the builder in this book. William Hamleigh, the thug from the first book, has his literary incarnation in Ralph Fitzgerald, and they even have the henchmen that stick with them to the very end. Aliena and Ellen are combined to make independent woman character of Caris.

If it's so unoriginal, why would I give it three stars? Well, I have the same weakness for this book that I did for the last one. It's still very well-researched, and it still reads very quickly and fluidly. Yes, the emotional resonance rings shallow, just like the first book, but I can't really downgrade the book too harshly when I found it so difficult to put down.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/149942801

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Luba (A Love and Rockets Book)

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If your id wrote comics, it would be a lot like this book. There's lots of sex, connected by a few thin threads of plot. I read about 100 pages, before getting bored and putting it down. The drawings are good, but a weak plot just isn't enough to keep me interested.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/148543025

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Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy

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Full disclosure: The author of this book is a family friend, and although I wouldn't say that I know him well, I have met him a few times.

Some people have fascinating stories to tell. Some people are able to write well. A select few people have both interesting stories, and a flair for authoring. Carlos Eire is one of those people.

On its surface, this is a very simple book. It's about a story that most people are at least moderately familiar with. Fidel Castro leads a successful rebellion against Batista in Cuba, and thousands of Cuban refugees flee the country in order to establish new lives in the US.

The part that sets this book apart is the excellent memories and descriptions of being a young boy in Batista's Cuba. All the typical stuff of boyhood is there, including mischief and complex relationships with family and school, but there's also a strong undercurrent of innocence lost, which parallels nicely with the fall of Cuba. All tied up in all of this is the impact of Eire's Catholic heritage, lurking as a crucifix in every corner of his mind.

Eire doesn't make an effort to capture the fighting of the revolution, or the immigrant experience; he doesn't have to. Instead, he focuses on his personal story. A very fresh book, I've read nothing like it.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/148448861

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