Book review: Friends of the Wigwam: A Civil War Story by John William Huelskamp

September 18, 2016 · Posted in Book Reviews · Comments Off on Book review: Friends of the Wigwam: A Civil War Story by John William Huelskamp 

The Pecatonica River meanders its way across the northern section of Illinois as it works its way out of Wisconsin,  slowly winding toward a junction with the Rock River west of Rockford. One would think that a stream hundreds of miles away from the action couldn’t be worked into a Civil War story, but author and historian John William Huelskamp succeeds in making this corner of Illinois a key player in the events surrounding the conflict. (Of course, it helps that the Commander-in-Chief at the time as well as the victorious Union general were both connected to that corner of the state in the years preceding the war.)

Huelskamp opens the tale by transporting us to the banks of the Pecatonica in 1857, introducing us to 16-year-old Will and 13-year-old Aaron as they discover the wigwam of the title along its banks. But the action doesn’t just occur there – in scenes around the region, from Chicago on the east to Galena on the west, we are introduced to a number of characters whose lives will eventually be intertwined in and around the conflict. The story moves quickly through a number of historical guideposts that set the stage for what’s to come, with some of the most interesting pieces being those where Abraham Lincoln is convinced to run first for Senate against Stephen Douglas and later for President as a Republican, with a band of supporters that came to be known as the “Wide Awakes.”

But the wigwam was the stage over the next two years to six major characters who became the friends of the wigwam – Will and Aaron, the 15-year-old tomboy Allie, the teenage sharpshooter T.J. Lockwood and his portly fisherman friend Patrick “Trick” Kane – who become part of the pact thanks to a rare errant shot from T.J. – and Allie’s 14-year-old friend Jenny Putnam. They come of age as the nation lurches closer to war, with the boys eventually joining the 93rd Illinois Regiment being recruited in the area by Jenny’s father Holden Putnam.

In truth, this book could have easily been subdivided into two parts, as the onset of war changed both the tone and the pace. The second portion opens with Elmer Ellsworth,  a “friend and brother” of Allie’s – who she had teased about “actin’ so stiff and stuffy” in his military drill uniform at the Lincoln-Douglas debate a few years earlier – becoming the first casualty of the rebellion as he was ambushed taking down a Confederate flag from a hotel in Virginia, just across from Washington, D.C. As the hostilities escalate, several of the men of the area become part of what was the 45th Illinois Regiment, while the boys eventually join with the 93rd being formed under Colonel Putnam in August of 1862. A distraught Allie, who has fallen in love with Will, begs them not to go, but Will calmly tells her, “Allie, it is our duty to go. If we don’t fight this war, who else will?”

As the 93rd heads south and becomes entangled in the campaigns in Tennessee and Mississippi, we find Jenny and Allie back home, mortified at the prospect of losing their friends – so much so that Allie concocts a desperate plan with Jenny’s help to check on their welfare.

There’s no question that the warfare takes its toll on those in the small towns in that region of “the Sucker State,” with many of their best and brightest men never making it home or returning disfigured or mutilated. The friends of the wigwam are not spared those fates before the story ends with a reunion of some of the survivors along the Pecatonica in 1864. Huelskamp closes the loop with an afterword revealing what happened to many of the main characters, including the six friends of the wigwam.

The beauty of Huelskamp’s work as a historian and writer is how the characters are brought to life. There are some accounts from those with integral parts of the story brought to us through the text itself, with Huelskamp providing photos of the actual documents from the battlefield. We get a glimpse at letters sent from the front, military orders as presented, and other documents that explain bits and pieces of the account he puts together.

But much of the work comes from his imagination as to how events could have taken place, even if some of them seem too strange to be true. As an example, the overall story of Allie’s journey is one which reads as complete fiction but it was eventually documented as historical fact in the decades after the war came to an end. (However, Huelskamp had to take a measure of fictional license with her to make the overall story more clear.) It takes a long time and great deal of flipping back and forth, though, to recall where some of the characters had appeared before as the different regiments and divisions work their way through the battle southward. Huelskamp takes the broad strokes of how the battles were fought and adds in a mix of fact (based on the first-hand accounts of the letter writers and correspondents) and realistic fiction to tell a fascinating story of life as soldiers who were fighting for the cause of preserving the Union.

With the book being so full of characters, though, it seems to me a few weren’t fleshed out as well as they could have. One example was the Negro boy L’il Joe, who the clan discovered hiding in the wigwam as an escaped slave before they assist him on his trek northward. Although he’s later brought up in passing, we only get his story as he reports for duty (with his father and two other family members) in a colored regiment near the end of the war and in the penultimate chapter of the book. But since Joe’s story wasn’t followed upon, it’s possible the Negro and Underground Railroad facets of the story were added as fictional tales based on the real events of the era.

In Friends of the Wigwam, Huelskamp combines all the facts and tales into a believable, riveting story that has enough twists and turns to keep you guessing how the story of each participant will end. Perhaps it’s not the best summer beach book out there, but if you are into historical fiction or relish the legends of the Civil War, you will be fascinated at how interesting the people and places of this portion of the great state of Illinois became as the War Between the States played out. Those in our region who likely learned of Maryland’s place in the war should be fans of this different perspective on history.

Book review: You Will Be Made to Care: The War on Faith, Family, and Your Freedom to Believe by Erick Erickson and Bill Blankschaen

February 15, 2016 · Posted in Book Reviews, Personal stuff · 1 Comment 

As I described a few weeks ago, I was one of a select group that was picked to read an advance manuscript of this book for reviewing purposes. Having read Erick Erickson’s work on a regular basis through RedState and his new website called The Resurgent, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect in this book. Yet I was still intrigued by the direction that it went and by the emotions this book took me through as I read through it.

In its opening chapters, the book honestly made me quite angry. Knowing that Erickson is legally trained, it should not have been a surprise that he lays out the initial argument regarding the ongoing war on faith, family, and (particularly) freedom to believe by laying out case after case after trumped-up case where aggrieved members of the protected classes of today’s society work to rob those who proclaim their adherence of traditional, Biblical values of their livelihoods and reputations. While Erickson initially brings his main focus to the case of former Atlanta fire chief (and onetime Obama appointee) Kelvin Cochran, who was dismissed in early 2015 by the city of Atlanta based on a book he had written over a year earlier, he works briefly through dozens of other cases where believers have encountered unexpected consequences for running afoul of secular society.

Needless to say, my leftwing friends would read through this laundry list of incidents – which include the more famous examples of businesses like Sweet Cakes by Melissa, Ralph’s Thriftway, or Memories Pizza – and conclude that these entities were trampling on the “right” to, using these particular examples, seek to solicit a wedding cake created for their same-sex ceremony, purchase the “morning after” pill, or cater their same-sex wedding reception. To the activist plaintiffs in the former two cases it didn’t matter that each of these entitles were happy to suggest alternative arrangements or, in the case of Memories Pizza, was dealing with an entirely theoretical request: the plaintiffs believed these businesses were using the fig leaf of religious belief to deny “rights,” and sadly in most of these instances the heavy hand of government was putting a thumb on the scale against the business owners. These abuses of power, which appear throughout the first two-thirds of the book, should make anyone who reads this book angry.

Yet as Erickson explains, after going through several of these examples:

There is one key reason that those on the Left must force their beliefs on the rest of us. It’s really very simple. If they didn’t force their craziness on us, we would never embrace it. Deep down, they know that to be true. Progressive thinking doesn’t work in the real world.

They go on to try and figure out the progressive worldview, and at that point my anger turned more into a sense of pity. It’s really not all that hard to come to the realization that we are but sinners who fall short of the grace of God, but to do so means you actually have to admit to yourself that many of your acts are sinful and eventual repentance is necessary.

But Erickson makes the case in his book that pastors and churches are falling short in their calling as well, substituting symbolism for substance. For example:

There seems to a pattern here in Protestant circles: the more liberal a church becomes, the more it invests in all the trappings of the appearance of religion. The more it compromises the truth, the more it seems to try and compensate with impressive liturgies, pompous ceremony, and clerical garb. The compromisers seem to want you to get a feeling of spirituality from the way they conduct the service – not the words they use. It’s as if they want to be judged by the color of their robes and not the content of their sermons.

To Erickson, too many men of the cloth have come to avoid the discussion of sin as it relates to everyday life. Pastors, he argues, have become overly timid in their discussions so as not to scare away parishioners by appearing too judgmental or jeopardize the church’s tax-exempt status. While the modern church can be entertaining, he writes, it falls short on the enlightenment aspect. Through most of Christian history, he continues, we have been persecuted so why should we expect different today? In fact, Erick boldly states that our faith in America as a nation may be misplaced if it supersedes our faith in God. Ours may not be the Christian nation we grew up believing that it was.

Yet my anger at the outset turned to hope as I continued on. While it has the appearance of being a little bit self-serving – as Erickson’s recently-created website is dubbed The Resurgent – within the final chapters of You Will Be Made to Care he lays out ideas for a resurgence of the people: The Resurgent Community, The Resurgent Believer, The Resurgent Family, The Resurgent Church, and finally The Resurgent Citizen. I see these five chapters as the “how-to guide” of the book – like the erstwhile lawyer, local politician and campaigner he was, Erickson laid out the case for change, added the necessary backstory and history, then explained his platform and agenda for positive, worthwhile improvements to our state of being.

In introducing this segment of the book, Erickson writes that the nation is not about red vs. blue states or regions anymore. Instead:

I see us – the resistance to the suddenly dominant Spirit of the Age – as a group of conservatives and faith-filled people united against the forces of the Left. Sensing what is at stake in the conflict, many of us have found our voices and are willing to be bold, to become a resurgent people of free ideas, faith, and family.

The evolution of this book hit home for me because it reminded me of my own journey through faith and what it can lead us to believe. I’ve been pro-life for many years, but never really became as activist about it until I began regularly attending church. It’s also led me in the direction of bringing my cohort Cathy Keim on board as a relatively like-minded writer with many of the same goals in mind but a different and unique audience.

(This also affords me the opportunity to remind readers that Erickson has a co-author for this book – Bill Blankschaen seemed to be an excellent choice as a co-author given his history as a collaborator and pastor. While I write about Erick in the singular for the purposes of the review, I’m sure Erick would be the first to tell you the book is a joint effort.)

Yet the chapter on The Resurgent Community reminds me of something I wrote (to considerably less fanfare) a few years ago. After the introduction, I wrote about community in the respect that we should stop looking inward and do more to help our fellow man. While my perspective wasn’t overtly religious, the point Erickson made in this chapter made me think about that which I wrote a few years back but had contemplated long before that.

I also enjoyed the humanizing moment he shared in the book. Wrote Erickson:

If we know we need the fellowship of other believers, why do we seem to be so cloistered in our own homes? I don’t know about you, but one of the greatest barriers our family has to connecting with other believers is (a) very practical concern – a clean house. It sounds crazy when we think about it in the context of facing persecution for our faith, but the first thing people have to be willing to do to cultivate community is to stop worrying about how their home looks.

This light-hearted example aside, perhaps the thing I most took away from You Will Be Made to Care is Erickson’s conclusion that we are not alone. Despite these interesting times we live in, the advice to be a light in the darkness and be a happy warrior is timeless.

What I would encourage those who read my review to do is to (naturally) pre-order the book for yourself. (Like most new books, it already has a website and pre-ordering entitles you to some added perks.) Since it comes out next Monday (the 22nd) it will likely be in your hands next week. Read through it and then share it: loan it out to your friends, your pastors, your fellow worshipers and remind them they are not alone.

Even if they only read it and return it, I’m sure Erick and Bill won’t miss the dollar or two in their pockets if they know the information is being disseminated. There are a couple people on my personal list to share it with, so once I get my hard copy I’m doing the same.

It’s time for Christians to stop feeling sorry for ourselves or playing the victim. At my church we are reminded that the outside world is a missionary field, so if Erickson’s book helps you serve in that capacity there’s nothing wrong with enlisting his aid.

Book review: The Long War and Common Core: Everything You Need to Know to Win the War! by Donna H. Hearne

June 17, 2015 · Posted in Book Reviews, Cathy Keim, Education · 1 Comment 

Reviewed by Cathy Keim

I was out weeding my flowerbeds this afternoon, which is very therapeutic. You feel like you can bring order to chaos with a little sweat and elbow grease. The satisfaction is temporary though as you know those weeds will be back quickly, especially after a good rain.

This brought to mind the book that I just finished, The Long War & Common Core: Everything You Need to Know to Win the War!, by Donna H. Hearne. The current struggle against Common Core is just the newest battle in a continuous onslaught from the progressive educational community to capture our children’s hearts and minds. Valiant parents and teachers have fought against Progressive Education in the 1930s, Secular Humanist Education in the 1950s, and Outcome Based Education in the 1990s. “All of these strategies are based on the premise of “progressive experts,” instead of mom, dad and the teacher, setting common standards for all children. And since these secular, utopian standards drive the curriculum and assessments, local control of education cease to be a reality.” (Hearne 3)

Like the weeds in my flowerbeds, these bad ideas just keep popping up. Even now several states are rebranding Common Core because of the fierce resistance from parents. But just because the name changes, it doesn’t mean that the standards have changed.

Donna Hearne is well equipped to take up the challenge of documenting the twists and turns of our academic wars in America. According to her Amazon biography, Hearne “is executive director of The Constitutional Coalition and has a degree in elementary education from Washington University, St. Louis. She is a writer, a radio talk show host for thirty-plus years, and currently serves on a local school board. From 1981-1991, she worked in the U.S. Department of Education. Appointed by President Reagan, she served on several policy-making boards, with an appointment in 1988 to America 2000, the forerunner of Goals 2000 as her last appointment.”

I attended the 26th Educational Conference hosted by the Constitutional Coalition back in January of this year. Donna mentioned her book then as she was just sending it to the publisher. Her goal in writing this book was to equip parents to understand the history of the war that they are now a part of and how to protect their children while fighting to wrench control of their schools back from the federal government.

This book is a compact 141 pages including appendices and endnotes. The goal was to make a Reader’s Digest type condensed book that would point the reader to the facts, equip them with information for further research if they desired, but to be a fast-paced quick read for busy people.

Donna was successful in this endeavor. The book is so tightly woven that it is hard to pull a quote without wanting to just keep going. It is difficult to condense it any further.

She introduces you to the big players like Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist, who coined the phrase “the long march through culture” (Hearne 4), as well as John Dewey who reportedly said, “You can’t make Socialists out of individualists – children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society which is coming, where everyone is interdependent” (Hearne 3), and our current high priest of teacher education, Bill Ayers.

She presents the Frankfurt School, a Communist think tank officially called the Institute for Social Research that was started in Germany in 1922 by George Lukacs, a Hungarian aristocrat turned communist. The Frankfurt school moved to the USA in the 1930s and 1940s where John Dewey’s sponsorship gave them access to Teacher’s College at Columbia University, the premier teaching institution in the USA. From there its graduates filled more that 60% of all teaching and educational and administrative posts in the country.

Here are a few of the goals of the Frankfurt School: “creation of racism offenses…teaching of sex and homosexuality to children…huge immigration to destroy identity…encouraging the breakdown of the family” (Hearne 40). These bullet points sound just like what we see happening all around us.

Donna addresses the problems with the science standards and the literature/history standards. “The traditional/classical liberal arts education laid down foundational truths and built sequentially, logically, and contextually on those foundations, ultimately creating an ever-widening knowledge base upon which any vocation or pursuit of life could draw upon and transition into.” (Hearne 98)

The current concept tosses out the old and teaches fractured thinking where the student is exposed to lots of information without any context. Since they cannot organize the random facts in any meaningful fashion, their brains become cluttered with irrelevant facts and the brain does not develop in an orderly way.

The examples will drive the claims home to you. If you think that you do not have to worry about Common Core because you homeschool your child or send them to private school, think again. There will be no escape for any student that wants to continue on to college because the entrance exams will be the choke point. Your student will not be able to pass if they do not conform to the standards.

Do not despair! There is a whole chapter called Solutions to help you take your knowledge and make a difference. The first Appendix has questions and answers about Common Core. This appendix is invaluable for the clear, succinct answers that you can use when talking to friends and politicians about Common Core.

Donna Hearne really did a great job of putting together a fast paced, highly readable book about an extremely important topic. If you care about fighting Common Core, this is the book to get you started.

When I talk to people about the big issues of the day, many are discouraged and feel helpless. Take heart from the weeds in your garden. They will always be there, but you are not helpless. Go pull some weeds, beat back the jungle, and see how much better you feel. Now do the same with the neverending battle over the educational system. Get educated and then do one thing with your newfound knowledge. Taking charge of your life and resisting the educational behemoth will change your attitude. You can make a difference.

Book review: America’s Suicide by Michael H. Davison

November 30, 2014 · Posted in Book Reviews · Comments Off on Book review: America’s Suicide by Michael H. Davison 

Americas SuicideFor decades there have been people convinced America’s greatness is behind her. Based on some of the evidence, though, a compelling case can indeed be made that this republic is in its final days and author Michael H. Davison believes that he both understands the problem and prescribes the cure in his new book, America’s Suicide.

As we all know, suicide is the act of taking one’s own life. It’s brought about generally out of despair, pain, or a feeling there’s no way out. In America’s case, though, this suicide is a slow-motion decline caused by the seductive message of the Left, one which tells the voter they can have it all if they allow the government to act as provider and guardian. Frequently citing the untold bloodshed of the twentieth century from tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and the Kim family in North Korea, Davison builds the case that continuing on our path will invariably lead to an American dictator. He closes his opening chapter by noting:

As you applaud the government white knight in his crusades to slay the evil dragon of prejudice, condemn the poisoners of air and water, champion the causes of the poor and bypassed, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, inspire the young to correct political thinking, protect us from the greedy, punish the exploiter, regulate the manufacturer into a straitjacket, transfer your burdens to the rich, school the ignorant, heal the sick, comfort the despairing and soothe the passage of the aged, all while he basks in your adulation of his compassion and generosity (which you pretend not to notice was at your and your grandchildren’s expense)…have you been meanwhile noticing that each year you have a little less to say about what you do with your life and property?

Few conservatives would find fault with that laundry list of laments, nor his suggestion that the Left in this nation has perverted capitalism into an unrecognizable form, and in this paragraph Davison sums up much of the issue he takes with the Left. It’s an easy target, one which Davison spends much of the first half of his book painstakingly detailing.

Yet Davison also finds fault with the Right, in part the wobbly opposition of the Republican Party. As he writes:

The more that the Republican Party abandons its ostensible principles and concedes moral superiority to its opposition by adopting diluted versions of the latter’s principles, the more will Republicans lose the allegiance of men of principle.

But on the other hand, Davison continues:

Yet the more that Republicans adhere to their advertised free market and limited government doctrines, the more votes they will lose from all too numerous people threatened by principles that hold them responsible for their own well being and who consistently vote to expand parental government.

He also contends that:

Capitalism can never become a viable economic system until it becomes moral, and it cannot become moral until it stops subordinating the good of mankind to profit.

In other words, the Right isn’t completely in the right insofar as economics goes, nor does it have a corner on the moral superiority aspect. It is in this aspect that I respectfully disagree with the author, who had done an outstanding job outlining both the problem and the possible solutions up to that point.

Davison contends that morality, and particularly science, has transcended the need for religion. In that respect Davison reminds me of the objectivism of Ayn Rand, whose philosophy is summed up by noting, “(t)o embrace existence is to reject all notions of the supernatural and the mystical, including God.” As Davison sneers:

Ironically leftists and religious conservatives have at least one desire in common. Both want us all on our knees.

Yet two key objections Davison writes about are creationism vs. evolution and the belief that religious people object to stem cell research – in essence, areas where religion and science interesct and perhaps cannot co-exist. I would concede those positions are held by the extremists in Christian thought, but by and large the mainstream of Christians understand evolution as a theory and have no problem with adult stem cell research. Only embryonic stem cell research, which has been shown to be of little scientific use anyway. runs afoul of most Christian doctrine.

Undaunted, Davison continues:

Contemporary man’s most desperate need is for a rational human based, instead of God based, ethical system for living on this Earth to fill the philosophical void in which we live…

Religion and morality must therefore be divorced. Our survival depends on it.

Yet while Davison has the answers for many of the other questions, he cannot lay a finger on just who or what should take the place of God, or our Creator, or any other higher power mankind feels the need to answer to. The Left has tried to replace the higher power of religion with a state-sponsored church or the state itself, but to no avail. While Davison seems to agree with Marx, who contended religion was “the opiate of the masses,” it’s worth noting that no Marxist state could completely stamp out religion as traditionally expressed, in large part due to the work of religious missionaries.

Therein lies the inherent weakness of Davison’s argument, for if a country acknowledges in its founding documents that “we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights,” it would take a radical transformation and perhaps an entirely new constitution to determine from whom these rights naturally emanate. Still, Davison wishes:

Suppose we cull from the Democratic Party that faction who holds capitalism guilty for all economic injustice in the United States, regards profit and property as theft, believes that corporations rule the nation even as they have been going bankrupt in greater numbers and fantasizes that a yet more expanded nanny state and widespread nationalizations will assure justice and prosperity.

From the Republican Party cull those who insist that their religion must trump the discoveries of science, believe in angels and devils but reject Darwin, and despite a universe full of evidence to the contrary, manage to convince themselves that the Earth came into being less than ten thousand years ago.

His result would be what he calls the Rational and Responsible American Party, with fourteen points of policy corrections he outlines near the end of the book.

America’s Suicide is a challenging book, not just in the sense of opposition to conventional wisdom but also in turgid and at times stilted prose. There are a lot of areas you may need to read a second time just to make sure you understand the point, and of all the books I have reviewed in this space it took me the longest to read and understand – thus you have a far longer review than most.

Yet the one thing it accomplishes is adding that dose of objectivism to the national conversation. It’s a book that pulls no punches and slaughters sacred cows left and right, but sometimes that’s the necessary tonic to provoke thought.

Book review: The Founder’s Plot, by Frank Victoria

July 18, 2014 · Posted in Book Reviews · Comments Off on Book review: The Founder’s Plot, by Frank Victoria 

The Founders Plot

Here at my site I have, on rare occasions, reviewed a non-fiction book which interests me from a political angle. For the first time, though, I’m today reviewing a fictional novel – but it’s one which could, more or less, be ripped from current headlines.

In The Founder’s Plot, at a time not-so-far removed from the present, Michael DiGrasso is elected as governor with the promise to get tough on illegal immigration. The one aspect of the story which is a little unbelievable is the part about being elected in California on that particular platform, although I suppose those few taxpaying citizens who remain in the Golden State could be motivated enough to do such a thing as conditions in the state continue to deteriorate from an onslaught of illegal immigrants. We have seen evidence of this outrage recently in the small town of Murrieta, California.

Regardless, DiGrasso is elected and immediately puts his plan into action. The secondary storyline of The Founder’s Plot shrewdly looks at the situation through the eyes of Carlos and Marisol Costellano, illegal immigrants who had made a home in America despite their lack of legal status. Over several years, Carlos had worked his way through a variety of jobs to the point of being a skilled laborer, investing his earnings into the purchase of the duplex where his family lived. Also residing in the duplex are the Castellanos’ good friends Julio and Carmella Perez, whose grown children also work their way into the story.

Yet it’s not just characterization, as Victoria puts a lot of work into the book’s details. While he glosses past the machinations of putting the tough immigration law into place, he doesn’t skimp on the political dealings which occur after the law takes effect and it becomes clear that DiGrasso means business. Nor are we spared the backstory explaining DiGrasso’s dogged determination and desire to make a stand against where he believes America has veered from the path intended by those who created our nation. In that regard, he gets assistance from some powerful friends.

On the flip side, Victoria adroitly creates a setting where we follow Carlos into an underworld of selling forged documents to fellow illegal immigrants as he desperately tries to make additional money for his growing family. While DiGrasso is only a man Carlos sees in the news, he senses DiGrasso is serious about enforcing the new immigration law and has to consider whether to pull up stakes and move to another state or even return to Mexico after years away.

The book’s seminal event is perhaps its most realistic prospect: a legal challenge to DiGrasso’s immigration law survives to the Supreme Court, which rules that it goes too far in its restrictions. The governor’s open defiance of the Court’s decision leads to protests and calls for his impeachment by California opposition leaders. Unsurprisingly, Victoria relates how some in DiGrasso’s own party are too weak-willed or blinded by political opportunism to stand up for a state’s right to enforce its own laws.

The accurate detail continues in the depiction of DiGrasso’s dealings with a skeptical, questioning press around the country. The harsh questioning from penny-ante television “legal experts” is expertly dissected by DiGrasso, whose confident answers – ones which cite well the Founders’ original intent – make you wish DiGrasso was a real governor putting these personalities in their place.

As the book continues on, both protagonists wrestle with a number of moral dilemmas. Castellanos finds he’s a good salesman of the forged documents, but keeping that job secret from his wife and staying one step ahead of the law takes its toll – yet to stop the activity exposes him to the prospect of additional harm. Similar family issues also leave DiGrasso wavering on whether to continue his defiant stance or find compromise with those who claim the law is too difficult on immigrant families simply searching for a better life.

I read The Founder’s Plot over several sittings, but it was crafted in such a way that getting deeper into it made it harder to put down. Running at 341 pages, Victoria puts together a gripping tale full of twists and turns which can’t be anticipated, leaving the reader trying to guess how the story would come out. The ending turns out to involve the President and may come as a pleasant surprise given the caliber of politicians and entities involved.

While Victoria has a degree in journalism and experience in the writing field as a longtime newsletter writer and editor, it’s a giant leap to writing fiction in a believable manner. Perhaps a pickier review would speak more to the lack of development of certain minor characters and subplots which could have been excised from the book, but overall I found The Founder’s Plot to be an excellent political thriller – as I said, the farther I got into it, the harder time I had putting it down. Those who like their fiction taken from the events of today would be well-served to pick up and read Victoria’s debut fictional effort.

A slightly different version of this is crossposted at Watchdog Wire.

Book review: Give Yourself A Raise (2nd Edition), by Gordon Bennett Bleil

November 30, 2013 · Posted in Book Reviews · 1 Comment 

While yesterday, Black Friday, was a day of “shop until you drop” revelry featuring what merchants try to advertise as “can’t miss” sales, we all know that for many the bill will come due sooner or later. A common complaint is how January is the most difficult month to get through financially because all the Christmas bills come due. It’s why vowing to straighten out finances is one of the most popular New Year’s resolutions.

But what if you could enable yourself to have a few extra dollars to purchase nice gifts without driving your credit card balance through the roof? It’s the premise of Gordon Bennett Bleil’s book, Give Yourself A Raise.

Writing a review of a financial book can be difficult because the plot isn’t a constant, nor can the book be indicative as a history of events. But GYAR can be used as a guide to the future if used properly and in the spirit of financial improvement.

Not so much of a traditional book as it is a series of lessons, GYAR comes chock full of charts, worksheets, and advice for climbing out of the financial hole more and more Americans find themselves in. Of course, the first step is evaluating your situation and this is handled ably in the introduction and expanded upon in the first chapter through what Bleil calls the Financial Freedom Risk Assessment Quiz. Chances are a high percentage of those reading the book need some help.

But much of what Bleil talks about can be termed common sense in money management: pay yourself first and live within your means. Those who are deep in a financial hole need to be reminded that the process of getting out of it will take a little bit of time.

One thing which struck me about the book – and perhaps a bone of contention – is Bleil’s advocacy of multiple, interconnected bank accounts in what he calls the Family Freedom Money Management System. It’s a complex system of checking, savings, and retirement accounts with a heavy reliance on electronic banking and bill paying. A hands-off approach such as this may be fine for a family on solid financial footing, and may already be in place for families to some extent as many already have checking, savings, and retirement accounts set up. But Bleil advocates tying all these together in order to transfer funds as needed.

Common sense returns in the second half of the book as Bleil applies his financial advice to debt management, spending strategies, and a series of chapters on financial literacy which briefly introduce readers to several aspects of the fiscal world. There’s no question that financial literacy is something which has to be learned by most because it’s not generally taught. Bleil’s is not a bad guide to doing so.

As it stands, the book can be a useful guide to those who wish to right the financial ship and want to invest the time in doing so. For example, there’s a time-consuming portion of the book where Bleil advocates analyzing spending over a month to determine where petty cash goes. While it’s true that those Starbucks lattes and trips to the corner store add up, going through statements and receipts may be a daunting task for many.

But in this book there is one huge drawback which must be improved to make it useful. Perhaps this is an oversight, but many of the charts in the book which are supposedly found on an associated website can’t be found there. Certainly this is a drawback to the usefulness of GYAR.

Unlike other authors, though, it’s worth pointing out that the price of the advice lies completely in buying the book and perhaps running a few copies of the charts. Bleil doesn’t use the book as a jumping-off point to sell other services, although he has worked in the academic and broadcasting fields as a financial expert.

So as a self-contained financial primer, this book could be useful to those who are looking for advice on getting out of debt. It’s a system which can work if one wants to devote time and effort to putting it in place and keeping an eye out for trouble.

Disclosure: the author of this review was provided a copy of the book by The Cadence Group, for whom he has reviewed a number of volumes.

Book review: Resurrecting The Street: Overcoming the Greatest Operational Crisis in History

September 1, 2012 · Posted in Book Reviews · 1 Comment 

As we once again approach the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it’s worth pondering that there is a generation approaching high school age which has little to no personal memory of how terrifying that day was. In that respect, it’s good to keep the narrative alive and author Jeff Ingber relates his unique perspective in his book Resurrecting the Street.

Spoken from the perspective of one intimately familiar with the financial world of government securities, Ingber compiled the book over the course of many months and over 100 interviews with others who experienced the events of the day. With those additional voices to provide background, Ingber paints a well-rounded portrait of the events which unfolded in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, particularly the hard decisions on when the markets would reopen and how the billions of dollars of unfinished business which was conducted by traders who were victims in offices which were no longer in existence would be reconciled. It took until the following May, writes Ingber, to finally reconcile these lost trades to a point where the total in question was less than $40,000.

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings was a world financial market placed on hold thanks to the 9/11 attacks. With bated breath, people around the world were seeking a sign that America was not going to be defeated by the actions of radical Islamic terrorists who had succeeded in their second attempt to bring down the Twin Towers.

But there were a number of other operational hurdles to address in the days following the attacks as well. While the question of redundancy and backup planning was broached in the months leading up to the Y2k panic, few financial companies had adequate facilities to deal with the problem. And even when there were contingencies in the system, many had a fatal flaw: for example, there was only one Verizon switching facility in that portion of Manhattan, so even completely isolated systems were routed through that one choke point.

Given the amount of lavish detail the subject demands, Ingber does a reasonable job of humanizing a story which could have been bone-dry. But the book bogs down in some sections; for example, Jeff spends a number of pages relating the history of government securities and how that business evolved. It’s somewhat worthy background reading matter, but probably could have been excised without detracting from the final product. The extensive footnotes – nearly 100 pages worth – cap off a book which chugs past 300 pages by itself.

As a financial lay person, to me the most interesting parts of the story were the experiences of those who didn’t run from Manhattan. Obviously escapees from the World Trade Center had to get out by any means possible in a situation where delay eventually meant death (Ingber points out that those who escaped the World Trade Center after its 1993 bombing may have gained some knowledge which saved their lives) but those in surrounding buildings who stayed on to assess the damage and rebuild a system through sheer dedication, gut instinct, and faith that the financial crisis could be rectified are the real heroes in Ingber’s book.

We’re still years away from a time where those who lived through the 9/11 terror become as rare as those who distinctly recall Pearl Harbor Day are today. But Jeff Ingber tells a story which needed to be told, adding his expertise and extensive interviews to the tapestry of tales weaved about the most tragic day in our recent history.

Update: I’m told this book will be free (presumably the e-book version) between September 7th and 11th.

 

Book review: The 7% Solution: You Can Afford A Comfortable Retirement

June 30, 2012 · Posted in Book Reviews · Comments Off on Book review: The 7% Solution: You Can Afford A Comfortable Retirement 

For those who believe they might still be able to retire by choice in this economy, financial adviser John H. Graves has written a book detailing how you can take control of your future planning.

Obviously there’s quite a bit of work involved, and while Graves takes somewhat of a dim view of the financial planning industry – a group he considers “nothing more than salespeople for lucrative, prepackaged financial products” – he concedes there are people who would feel more comfortable with professional advice and gives pointers on what to look for in that field. A reader can quickly presume that Graves isn’t all that pleased with the work others in his chosen avocation have done for the millions of Americans who would like to enjoy their sunset years without financial worry.

But the book is so named because Graves believes one can get 7% income from your portfolio, year after year, by being diligent and attuned to opportunities from a variety of sources. Writing that “Mr. Market” shows up at your door every day with a broad spectrum of financial choices, Graves points out that it’s rare you won’t send him away without a sale, but there are times where you can take advantage of him.

A key component of Graves’ strategy lies in value stocks, for studies have shown a vast majority of total stock market returns comes from dividends. Obviously share prices move up and down, but companies which have paid relatively high dividends for long periods of time should be the basis on which a portfolio is built, says Graves. Whether a company’s price per share is $10 or $50, a dividend which continues to increase each year is income that can be counted on towards the 7% solution.

And while stocks are a key component of the strategy, Graves doesn’t discount the role that bonds, mutual funds, annuities, and other more esoteric investments like REITs, master limited partnerships, and business development companies, among others, can play in a well-rounded portfolio.

I have no doubt that someone with the time and a little bit of knowledge gained from this book and other sources Graves cites within can indeed build a reasonable portfolio which can provide income. Given that, The 7% Solution can be termed as a success, and Graves cites a few of his own clients as success stories at the end of the book. But I believe there are a number of flaws within his assumptions.

For one, Graves believes the Baby Boomer generation is a generation of savers. This may have been true at one time, but while many millions had something set aside for their retirement the sad reality is that too many counted heavily on the fallacy of home equity and on maintaining a full-time job for the remaining years until they decided to stop working, figuring those geese would lay the golden eggs while they spent what they earned to keep up an opulent lifestyle, one which outpaced they could truly afford. If a Boomer has seen his job and savings wiped out by the Great Recession and instead finds himself in debt up to his eyeballs, 7% of nothing is – nothing.

And while retirees of today can still rely on Social Security, there’s no guarantee that it will be here for future generations. Unfortunately, while many of Graves’ principles have stood the test of time over the last several decades, there is a wild card that no one can predict and that’s the impact of government policy on retirement. For example, Graves devotes the penultimate chapter in his book to tax policy for retirement planning, but that’s among the most susceptible to change at any time.

Certainly his book is fine for the time being, but there’s another question left unanswered: what happens if we reach a financial Armageddon where, say, the government decides to take over 401.k accounts? Those rumors have floated around occasionally since the 2008 financial crisis and with government holding trillions of dollars worth of unfunded liabilities, anything can happen. And aside from land and improvements thereon Graves only writes about paper assets, a fact which may prove a disservice in difficult times when hard assets like precious metals could be useful in saving for retirement.

Retirement is a phenomenon unique to the last few decades, since our ancestors worked until either they dropped dead or their bodies could no longer bear the strain. With the rise of capitalism, people were finally able to save money and insure themselves a relative life of leisure in their golden years. It’s also provided authors like John Graves a lucrative market for books like The 7% Solution.

The do-it-yourself approach to retirement planning Graves espouses is a sound one, even if it puts people in his chosen line of work out of business. As a primer, you could do much worse than invest in the book and put the ideas Graves suggests to work. But be aware that government interference has been keeping us from realizing the real 7% solution of annual GDP growth, so don’t count on Mr. Market to keep showing up at your door.

Disrupting the obesity narrative

January 14, 2012 · Posted in Book Reviews, Pajamas Media · Comments Off on Disrupting the obesity narrative 

A book by Mike SchatzkiThis is my latest piece for PJ Media, a book review.

For starters, the full title of Mike Schatzki’s The Great Fat Fraud is almost as long as the book. The paperback version of this volume only weighs in (pun intended) at 197 pages, and the conversational tone author Schatzki adapts makes this a book easily read in an afternoon, as I did.

I’ll be up front with you: if you’re a born skeptic who has extra pounds around the middle — a description which fits me to a “T,” unlike those pairs of size 40 pants which mock me from the back of my closet — this book provides the perfect excuse for you to not worry about dieting or strenuous exercise. Next to quitting smoking, losing weight is the most popular New Year’s resolution, so it seems an appropriate time to peruse this book and its message.

(continued at PJ Media…)

Book review: What Sex Is A Republican?: Stories from the Front Lines in American Politics and How You Can Change The Way Things Are, by Terri McCormick, M.A.

Perhaps Terri McCormick didn’t have those who became politically attuned thanks to their local TEA Parties in mind when she started to write her book, but it comes at an opportune time for those who would like to expand their newly-minted political involvement into a bid for seeking elective office.

While TEA Parties weren’t being contemplated yet in the early 1990’s, Terri McCormick was leading a grassroots effort of her own. After becoming involved in her children’s school, Terri worked for change within the system but was stymied by the powerful teacher’s unions. She was forced to build a broad coalition and take her fight to the statewide level – through her leadership the state’s legislature finally adopted the necessary reforms and allowed the formation of charter schools.

At times, What Sex Is A Republican? does read like a how-to textbook for would-be politicians, including a short summary of bullet points after each chapter. It’s a method of giving some of the nuts-and-bolts of campaigning from a woman who has been there: after spearheading the drive leading to charter schools and educational reform in Wisconsin, Terri McCormick ran for and won a seat in Wisconsin’s state legislature in 2000.

But even more telling in the story is McCormick’s heavy emphasis on the political gamesmanship once a candidate wins office and arrives ready to serve constituents. Her book talks at length about the treatment she encountered while in the Wisconsin House, couching the dealing and backbiting she witnessed in Machiavellian terms.

And while she decries the “vertical silo” of radical partisanship exhibited by many in both parties, her most bitter venom comes at the expense of what Terri calls “front row politicians,” the party leadership which controls how the legislative game is played. Those who have that sort of political power determine which bills are moved, which amendments are added, and even select the staffers who work with their inferiors, who are relegated to the back benches.

Yet the political shenanigans didn’t stop there. In 2006 McCormick opted to leave the Wisconsin legislature to make a bid for Congress, only to find out after she’d made the decision that she was not the “chosen” candidate in the race and that Beltway Republicans had already decided to back her opponent. Terri noted during a campaign appearance afterward that, “I am running for the Eighth Congressional District against George W. Bush.”

In writing What Sex Is A Republican?, Terri McCormick manages to reinforce practically every stereotype of the person we’ve come to expect as a career politician: arrogant, vainglorious among his peers, and exhibiting an insatiable lust for power. Sadly, she also correctly points out that most regular folks are drummed out of the political business because they just have too many morals to get along in such a system.

Still, McCormick obviously believes that, despite its faults, there is a place for good people in our political system. Moreover, she feels that, with the assistance of a populist campaign built upward from the grassroots, it is possible for people who want to be there for the right reasons to run and win despite today’s political climate. While her book could have been tightened up a little bit, Terri McCormick’s case for convincing a would-be candidate he or she can make a difference is strong and those who aspire to political office, particularly women, may well find this a helpful guide to read and follow.

Perhaps Terri McCormick didn’t have those who became politically attuned thanks to their local TEA Parties in mind when she started to write her book, but it comes at an opportune time for those who would like to expand their newly-minted political involvement into a bid for seeking elective office.

*****

Disclosure: I was asked by The Cadence Group to review the book and they sent it along to me to do so.

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