If Kennedy Lived: An Alternate History (Book Review)

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Be forewarned: Some SPOILERS ahead.

The most important aspect of any alternative history story is plausibility. The credibility of the story itself and the attention span of many readers (including myself) hinges upon that. If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History I think ultimately doesn’t live up to the hype and it ended up losing my plausibility at several points.

I thought it started out great by using weather (a common alternative history trope) as the butterfly that would set off the series of events. Everything through the actual attempted assassination was plausible and I did not stop to question any of it. Considering Bobby’s views in the ’68 campaign, I wasn’t surprised to see some of it reflected here. It also seems like Greenfield took some of the more liberal aspects of Nixon’s administration (China) and incorporated it here.

The book loses me when it decides to suddenly push out LBJ, and lost me further when it did not focus on many of the potential butterflies of America not being in Vietnam. I won’t spoil anything more beyond that, but this coupled with Greenfield’s unnecessary use of historical context lost me. While I understand some of your average readers may not know the full circumstances behind some events, the inclusion of historical context for every main decision just seems like unnecessary padding for the book and trying to pre-justify what he’s trying to accomplish. Just let the story tell itself.

My other main complaint is the amount of jumping around that this book decides to do. This alongside skipping years of the Kennedy Administration was extremely disappointing to me. This book was sold as the first and second terms, instead we largely get to see what Kennedy decides to do about Vietnam and race relations. It seems almost shocking to me that events like the Space Race (something Kennedy championed) and women’s liberation are completely ignored.

One other minor complaint with this book is that it (especially towards the end) decides to allude to real events to the point where it’s no longer witty. I understand this is a common inclusion in alternative history stories, but typically it ends up playing out elsewhere. Here, we get lines like “No mission accomplished” in relation to Vietnam.

You’re probably wondering why I gave it two stars instead of one at this point. My reason for that is I am probably more critical of alternative history stories than your average reader since I read a lot of them. The other reasons are that I thought the text itself was written well, the author looked at the right sources, and there were some clever points to the book.

If you’re looking for a good alternative history book, this honestly isn’t the place to find it. Greenfield’s other alternative history book, Then Everything Changed Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics JFK RFK Carter Ford Reagan is superior and makes for a better read.

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made (Book Review)

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Imagine if you found yourself in a movie where the “characters’ motivations changed from scene to scene, important plot points were raised and then dropped, and all of the dialogue sounded exactly the same.” Imagine that the film’s director/writer/producer/main actor had a $6,000 private bathroom for himself but there was no air conditioning on set. Imagine that this same film spent $1 million on camera equipment and the same film cost $6 million to make. Now imagine working on this film for 4 months, and it ends up making a whopping $1,800 in its two-week run. This film is real (The Room), the person talked about is real (Tommy Wiseau), and the result is what has been dubbed the “Citizen Kane” of bad movies.

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made is written by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell. Sestero not only knew Tommy Wiseau for many years but worked on the infamous movie previously mentioned as the main character Mark. The book itself trades off between the production of The Room and Sestero’s budding acting career and eventually his time spent with Wiseau. At this point in the review, if you haven’t seen the film, I highly suggest that you do so. It’s certainly not going to win any oscars any time soon, but reading it will make you enjoy this book even more. Here’s one scene from the film.The film itself is filled with numerous continuity errors with problems in each of area of filmmaking plaguing this film. Despite this, the film has quickly become a cult classic among its fans, with screenings similar to that of Rocky Horror Picture Show.

While unsure how much of the book is Sestero’s and how much is Bissell’s, the book is overall extremely heartfelt and was written better than I would have initially thought. One can’t help but sympathize with Sestero as he attempts to achieve his dreams. Of course, one also cannot but help sympathize with Wiseau as well. Someone who comes off as a profoundly lonely man in this text and is simply trying to achieve his own dreams of hollywood stardom. The book does a great job of covering the production of the movie while interspersing it with stories of Sestero’s acting challenges and his fascinating time spent with Wiseau.

The movie itself in the book is called by one individual as “cinematic masturbation” but I rather look at it as a product of love by someone who sought out to make his own mark after feeling rejected by Hollywood. Wiseau’s ideas, whatever they may be in his head, clearly don’t come across well on screen but it speaks to the passion (and perhaps insanity) of a man to invest $6 million in a dream product. Sure, some will mock Wiseau and his film, but he at least took the time and effort to try and achieve his dreams. Something that is often sorely lacking in society today. That level of respect has at least been earned.

Overall, The Disaster Artist is a fun and extremely readable book. Each page left me wondering what would happen next. If Sestero decides to hang it up with acting, writing may be an avenue he would want to explore. If you’re looking to read something interesting or something different, this book is definitely the one for you.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag (Book Review)

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Kang Chol-hwan’s story of being sent to a concentration camp in North Korea for 10 years starting at the age of 9 is a powerful one. Readers are given a first hand look not only at the place that has been called “the hermit kingdom” but a rare first hand look at one of the most brutal places on Earth. Humanity has decided to take what seems to be a permanent vacation from here as Kang spent 10 years in the Yodok prison. It is terrifying to imagine how Kang’s family came back to North Korea with the hope of making a better life, only to be arbitrary tossed into this brutal prison because of the behavior of one family member. Although it’s sadly common in North Korea for the Kim regime to keep people in line by punishing the whole family, truly breaking the spirit of the individual who wants to rebel in any fashion against them.

I feel somewhat guilty as Kang tells his story about always being hungry, and how they eventually found rat to make for a good meal. The amount of food Kang received for a month is probably what your average American eats in a few days at best. It’s also horrifying to watch the breakdown of humanity as the rules and methods of the Kim regimes in these prisons turn everyone against one another, even family members.

All of this being said, something felt “off” to me throughout the time I was reading this book. Even after finishing it, I still can’t put my finger on it. Although I find it odd that the book commonly refers to the North Korean regime as communist, even at one point using the word Stalinist, when its fairly common knowledge these days that the North Korean ideology is Juche. I chalk this up to the co-writer being an editor of a book detailing communist crimes.

Furthermore, the writing itself in the book is a bit flat. I’m not sure if this is due to the fact the book has been translated, but its unfortunate since the book sometimes ends up repeating itself.

Overall though, Kang’s story in The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag is one worth reading about. It certainly gives some insight into the workings of the Kim regime in North Korea at the time of writing and its utterly brutal behavior.

Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero (Book Review)

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This book was so dry I believe it was written during prohibition.

In all seriousness for a moment though, the narrative of Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero is extremely straightforward but it all comes off as very meh to me. It might be a combination of prior knowledge about a number of the events in this book and how relatively boring Ness’s life was. People complain that Ness was more myth than fact in the 1987 movie The Untouchables (and no doubt he was) but it was extremely entertaining. If they had made a movie out of this, it would have done terribly at the box office.

The gist of the book: Eliot Ness doesn’t deserve half the credit he gets for defeating Al Capone since he never actually did that, rather it was an IRS case. The Untouchables were in fact not untouchable. Eliot Ness seemingly cheated on multiple wives (of which he had 3) and drank heavily, dying at 55. Also, everyone who was overseeing prohibition was a giant hypocrite. There was also a lot of raids. In fact, a great chunk of the book is simply reading about Eliot Ness on a stakeout or busting the umpteenth brewery.

The real meat of the book that’s actually worth reading is Ness’s time in Cleveland as the city’s Public Safety Director. Despite the narrative once again focusing on more raids, there’s a lot of interesting changes that Ness made to the police department that is now common place today. Furthermore, what Ness tried to accomplish actually worked. 25% drop in crime in 18 months, 20% increase in arrests/convictions, and 60% drop in 3 years for juvenile crime. It was also more interesting since Ness dealt with a wider variety of crimes, including gambling, union racketeering, and even a serial killer.

Unfortunately, a scandal ended up costing Ness his job and the rest of his book is a brief glance at the rest of his life. In short, Ness ended up drinking more, being more miserable, and ultimately unsuccessful in many of his ventures. This includes running for Mayor of Cleveland, although an interesting what-if forms considering he could have walked away with it easily in 1941. The book doesn’t offer much insight into Ness’s childhood or teenage years either.

Ultimately, I think this book suffered from the fact that it’s entire point was Ness wasn’t as interesting or upstanding as we thought. When all of that is stripped away, we’re left with what is really a police officer who had brief bouts of fame but was largely overshadowed even at the time by his peers. The whole reason why this book can even be written about Ness is because of the myths that surround him, take those away and you’re left with not much.

For what it’s worth, I thought the book was well researched and the writing itself wasn’t bad. However, the book was dry and despite its short length made it difficult at times to trudge through. Those interested in learning about the real of Eliot Ness should consider reading this book.

Superman for All Seasons (Review)

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“It’s not nearly as hard learning you have limitations as it is learning how to work with them.”
- Pa Kent

Superman for All Seasons is one of those stories that I never got around to reading for one reason or another but I’m glad I finally did. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale (Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: Dark Victory) tell their Superman story alongside colorist Bjarne Hansen. Everything about this book is simply beautiful. The writing, the art, the small touches, everything about it. The mood of the four issue story is set even before it begins with the reader getting to see black and white photos of Clark Kent’s childhood.

One of the biggest things about the New 52 that I actually disliked was the lack of Ma and Pa Kent and this story only further proves why. Some will say that Batman uses Bruce Wayne as a disguise (that’s changing however) but Superman is just ultimately Clark Kent, the kind hearted man from Smallville that was originally born on Krypton. Loeb and Sale do a wonderful job of letting us see Clark Kent as a character and as a person.

I thought the format of the book, with each issue being “seasons” was an interesting choice. Even more interesting is how the narration of each issue wasn’t done by Clark. Rather, we have Pa Kent (Spring), Lois Lane (Summer), Lex Luthor (Fall), and Lana Lang (Winter). We see Clark as a young man, a god like figure, an alien who’s a dangerous threat, and the hometown boy that left love behind.

I thought it was touching with the inclusion of Pa Kent’s narration especially as he comes to terms with Clark’s growing powers. While there are some amusing scenes as Clark establishes his powers, there’s nothing more heartbreaking after a huge storm to see him say “I could have done more”. It really puts into perspective what drives Superman as a character and also drives him to Metropolis.

Each narration is really well done and really gives us the reader different layers of the character known as Superman. Getting to read a story where Superman comes to terms with his limitations and powers is really wonderful. Loeb and Sale do a really fantastic job.

I also really can’t say enough about the art for this. The art is unique and it really fits the style and tone of this book. Not only that, but the small details that are taken with each page is really well done.

Overall, Superman for All Seasons is not just a Loeb and Sale classic but its also a must-read Superman story. Definitely a must-read for all fans young and old.

Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories (Book Review)

 

 

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The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor contains 31 short stories by O’Connor that were written before her untimely death at 39 from lupus complications. O’Connor’s work is powerful and stunning considering some of its subject material. Her work is made even more stunning by her writing style and the lessons that she tries to get across to the reader in her work. Grotesque is a common trope in her work, as is irony.

O’Connor covers a whole host of topics, including many Christian themes such as sin, redemption, and forgiveness. She also covers broader issues such as race in “The Geranium”, logic versus faith in “The Barber”, racial integration in “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, the Holocaust in “The Displaced Person”, and several other themes. Many of her characters are simply not good people and O’Connor makes no qualms about it. Her writing style is almost always on point as well.

Considering there were 31 short stories (12 of which were previously unpublished), there is obviously going to be a clunker here and there within the complete stories. However, O’Connor’s overall body of work is stellar and is a must-read for someone of any background.

Overall, I had my favorites from this short story set. They include “The Geranium”, “The Barber”, “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, and “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. Readers may find themselves enjoying the same stories or different ones in the collection. Either way, there’s at least one story here that will make you stop and think, something that fiction has a difficult job of sometimes doing but when it does it leaves an impact.

 

Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (Book Review)

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One-sentence review: Baker’s examination of the creation and destruction of the one most powerful partnerships in American History is a must read.

Peter Baker’s Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House looks beyond the caricatures of former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney to look at the men that formed one of the most important partnerships in American history. Baker quickly establishes that Bush was not the bumbling doofus that many Americans took him for (and still do) while Cheney wasn’t the Darth Vader of the White House, making all the decisions from behind the scenes. In fact, Baker examines the creation of their partnership that led them through 9/11, the escape of Osama Bin Laden, the War in Afghanistan, the War in Iraq, Scooter Libby and Valerie Plame, no WMDs, the 2004 and 2006 elections, Hurricane Katrina, and of course the Great Recession which many Americans still feel the effects of today.

Baker demonstrates that in Bush’s second term, Cheney actually held less sway than he did in the first term. This can largely be attributed to the rise of Condi Rice in Bush’s second term (someone who Cheney constantly battled with, especially on foreign policy) and the divisions on issues and policy that divided the two men. Baker looks to humanize the two men (along with the rest of the Administration), especially with President Bush. Baker takes the time to note many of the things the President did that the American public never saw but should be aware about.

If there is one lesson I’ve taken away from this book, it’s never to run for the office of President or Vice President of the United States Unless of course I want an ulcer or heart attack or four. I’ve gained a certain amount of respect for President Bush, and now better understand why he made the decisions that he did. Even if I still don’t necessarily agree with them.

Baker’s biggest flaw with this book is part of what it makes it such a good book, the book is written as if the reader is in the room for these conversations and events with an insider point of view. While an insider point of view is beneficial in certain aspects, in other ways it allows for the negative events or words to be largely glossed over. Which occurs here at times (albeit perhaps unintentionally) in Days of Fire. I understand that Baker was looking to avoid ideology, but in doing so completely he ignored a lot of what made President Bush and his Administration unpopular. In fact, many readers will read this book and be left wondering what was so bad about President Bush outside of having the bad lack of miscommunication with him or his staff.

Furthermore, the glossing over is carried through to administration officials, where the only ones who receive any real criticism are the ones that seemingly betrayed the President’s trust in one fashion or another. This downside of the book can at least be partially attributed to being “too close to the sun” or in the case where the book had to be written with particular sources with it being so soon after the events of the book took place. While I don’t usually read these kind of books after the events occurred so soon, I made an exception in this case and am largely glad I did so.

If there is one thing this book is in terms of the events that happened in the Bush Administration, the word comprehensive comes to mind. Over 650 pages, Baker gives almost a day-to-day account of the large events and small that defined the Bush Administration.

Overall, the portrait that Baker paints with Days of Fire is certainly one looking at, although I would suggest looking a bit closer at certain parts. The book is extremely readable and the research that made up the book was clearly well done. Definitely worth reading for anyone looking to learn more about these two men, what happened during the Bush Administration, or just looking for a gripping read.