Book Review: Edible Secrets

Somewhere on another website that I was reading, this book — Edible Secrets: A Food Tour of Classified US History — was recommended as a graphic novel, and that is not quite right. Sure, there are graphics in it. There are images of classified files and other assorted images.

But I would not term it a graphic novel, per se.

Instead, this small, fascinating non-fictional book by Michael Hoerger and Mia Partlow is an interesting glance at some moments in United States history as seen through the lens of documents once classified as “secret” but now made public through the Freedom of Information Act. And the filter they use to peruse the documents is “food,” as in all of the areas of study — from trying to kill Fidel Castro, to sullying the reputation of Black Panther leaders, to experimenting with drugs on unwitting subjects, to the evidence that leads to the hanging of the Rosenbergs for being Russian spies, to the influence of Coca Cola on global politics in the Middle East — have some connection to food.

It’s a gimmick that works.

The focus of food provides a hook for Hoerger and Partlow to hang on, which is a good thing. It also allows them to inject some much-needed humor into their analysis, which is good, too.  (Some of the charts and maps they create are both hilarious and insightful — including the chart of the various attempts to get Castro over the years. One attempt involves a milkshake.) The files they expose here are pretty interesting — providing an inside look into some of the notes and letters sent between government officials as they sort through politics and intrigue. It’s sort of like a Wikileaks on a smaller scale (and the Wikileaks event happened just around the time of publication of this book, but the authors make references the emergence of electronic databases of secrets, although the files in this book are legally declassified.)

The authors clearly have a political bent, as they examine the documents from the eyes of someone very critical of the government and very critical of keeping secrets. They explain, “If you’ve ever wanted to peek behind the door of a top secret government meeting, or wondered how they broach delicate subjects such as corporate boycotts, mind control, espionage, and assassination attempts, these documents provide you with a voyeuristic insight into the US government.”

They sure do. And it isn’t pretty. This book is worth the read, if only to figure out how doughnuts, ice cream, Jello, milkshakes and popcorn play a role in the secret files of government officials.

Peace (in the secrets),



Using Visually for Twitter Matchups

I’ve been waiting for the new Visually site to get up and running to allow users to create infographics (I have one in mind for our Western Massachusetts Writing Project). Until then, you can do an interesting experiment around Twitter.
First, you can create an infographic of yourself on Twitter. Here’s me, according to Visually’s interpretation of data flow:

You can also go head-to-head with other Twitter users. Here is me versus one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman (he kicks my butt, which is perfectly OK with me):

And here I am, going up against one of my National Writing Project friends, Paul Hankins.

Yeah — so that is sort of fun. I can’t wait to tinker more with my own data.
Peace (in the play),

(Graphic) Book Review: Nursery Rhyme Comics

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I would think of this collection of traditional nursery rhymes re-imagined by 50 graphic novelists. But I trust the First Second Books to do interesting things, and so, I sat down with my youngest son to give Nursery Rhyme Comics a look. Well, it certainly is interesting and slightly off-kilter and fun, too. My son and I were giggling as we read together.

As Leonard S. Marcus notes in his introduction to this witty graphic collection, “The comics we discover in these pages are new-made fantasies spun from the whole cloth of fantasies we thought we knew, the old-chestnut rhymes that beguile in part by sounding so emphatically clear about themselves while in fact leaving everything to our imagination.”

That’s for sure.

There is whimsy here, and lovely artwork from artists such as Roz Chast and Gene Yang and Richard Thompson and Jules Feiffer, and the stories that unfold in the graphics here enhance or even replace the traditional nursery rhymes. Let 50 graphic novels and comic artists run amok with tradition and what you get is a chaotic wonderment such as Nursery Rhyme Comics. Each “story” is only a page or two — no more than three — and it’s hard to believe that the artist’s style could be established in such a short amount of time, but it is.

I’m not sure who the audience is for this collection but I imagine some elementary students would get a kick of the re-envisioning of traditional nursery rhymes (some of which I had never even heard and had a difficult time singing to my son — I had made up plenty of my own melodies — somehow, I don’t think the artists here would mind all that much).

Peace (in the frames),



(Comic) Book Review: Shapes and Colors (A Cul de Sac Collection)

I don’t care if you teach preschool or college or anywhere in-between. I would advise you to become a regular reader of Cul de Sac, a comic strip of such gentle humor by Richard Thompson that it will have you remembering the crazy innocence of growing up or maybe reminding you of how your students see the world, even if it is slightly skewed.

In either case, your foray into the worldview of a preschool girl — Alice Otterloop – and her older brother — Peter — will remind you (as it reminds me) that kids see the world very differently than we do as adults. As a teacher, I need that reminder. Often.

Thompson plays with perspective on all sorts of levels — in his drawings (check out dad’s undersized car), overheard conversations (where misheard words at the dinner table lead to interesting conversations), to the mysterious worlds of the kids’ teachers. And here, something as simple as a raised drain-hole cover can become the neighborhood stage for dance recitals, speeches and all sorts of drama (take that, you imagination-sucking mobile device!). It’s a world prone to dispute, but never malice. Kids here argue with the odd logic of kids, but then find a way (often with no adults involved) to resolve their differences.

Unfortunately, I only get to read Cul de Sac in my Sunday newspaper because the local daily paper doesn’t carry it (why not? why the heck not!!). I do read it online now and then, but I can’t see to fit reading of comics into my digital reading habits. I guess I have other things to read. What is wrong with me?

So, when a book collection comes out from Thompson, I snap it up. The latest is Shapes and Colors and it is a fine immersion into the warped world of childhood imagination. It’s well worth the price of admission.

Peace (in the frames),


Book Review: Interface

I recently finished up Interface by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George just in time for the political season that is beginning to dominate the headlines. Although somewhat dated (particularly in reference to the technology — references to digital clocks are kind of funny since they have to be fully described for the audience), this fictional thriller centers on the use of an interface computer chip that gets implanted into the brain of a presidential candidate — Gov. William Cozzano. He’s a firebrand governor with an independent streak until a stroke hits him, hard, and he decides to do an experimental surgery that can help him recover … with a twist.

The data chip allows the candidate’s handlers to get a “read” on the mood of voters and shape the message of the candidate accordingly. Banks of computers and programmers are behind every campaign move, every sentence uttered by the candidate. Nothing is left to chance. Of course, not everyone buys this idea of a controlled candidate and there is a slow-building battle between the Network (the nefarious schemers who want a president who will do their bidding along economic lines) and folks like the candidate’s daughter and fiery running mate who uncover the secret. And there is a single voter out in middle America who senses what is going on and decides to take actions into his own violent hands.

Sure, the story in Interface is pretty far-fetched, but Stephenson (of Snow Crash fame) and George put together a nice summer read here, and they use lots of humor and satire to make jabs at our political system. The novel is now about 15 years old, and although the references to some technology seem dated, the eye-opener is that the politics and the hard-core fighting over issues is still alive and kicking (hello, Michelle Bachmann), and maybe even more divisive than depicted in this book. Some of this sameground was covered in The Manchurian Candidate, but Interface is a nice twist on that old story, particularly in the form of the vice-presidential candidate who is not afraid to speak her mind, and then goes even further when unexpected events push her into the role of our first black female president.

Peace (in the politics),


More on Mortenson, Three Cups and the World

My posts yesterday about Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceipt, and Greg Mortenson’s efforts to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, yielded plenty of interesting conversations in various places (Google+, Twitter and here). A few articles and posts also came my way as a result of my review and it worth sharing them out, too.

The first is a piece at Outside Magazine entitled Truth and Consequences, by Christopher Keyes. Keyes nicely balances the two narratives here — that of Mortenson the dreamer and that of Mortenson the scammer. He writes, “…our (the magazine) instinct has been that the truth about Mortenson may lie in the middle ground between the two narratives. There is no doubt that he embellished and, at times, entirely fabricated parts of his creation myth … What I’m not ready to buy is that Mortenson is a con artist who intentionally hoodwinked us all for profit.”

And I agree. Even with my anger over Mortenson’s fictionalized accounts and shoddy management, I don’t think he is a con artist out to get my students’ pennies. But that doesn’t let him off the hook.

The second piece is an interview with Scott Darsney, who was a hiker with Mortenson on the event that spurred the whole story forward, and he is someone that Krakauer interviewed for his investigative piece. Darsney now says that he was misquoted and/or his comments were taken out of context by Krakauer. Darsney concluded that, “Jon Krakauer is a respected and acclaimed author. He is a stickler for details and getting the facts straight, but from what I have read so far, the research needs to continue (as I’m sure it will). This is what Krakauer does, and why he can be a compelling author and journalist, and why I enjoy reading his books. But this one gives me pause. Greg Mortenson is a humanitarian first, an author second—also with a compelling story to tell—and Three Cups of Tea was a first-time process for Greg.”

I can’t quite tell is Darsney is covering his tail, or if he so inspired by the humanitarian potential, or if he truly believes that some things we can just let go because of the power of the larger story. But since Darsney’s voice is central to the debate, I was glad that he got his foot in the door here. It gives us yet another perspective.

The third piece is a post over at the Cooperative Catalyst, entitled Three Cups of Fiction, and while it is less a strike at Mortenson, it is a strike against the efforts that are at the center of Mortenson’s idea: that of building schools. Writer Carol Black notes that amid all of the backlash of Krakauer’s report, ” … the larger fiction which goes unquestioned is Mortenson’s romanticized portrayal of education as a panacea for all the world’s ills, a silver bullet that in one clean shot can end poverty, terrorism, and the oppression of girls and women around the world.”

Black really hits home with the high-mindedness that we Americans have about how to save the rest of the world, and she talks poignantly about trafficking of girls, backlash of anger against education, and the forced shift into schools that can upset the cultural balances in some communities. I need to think more about Black’s piece before I can make a solid reflection on what she is saying, but her piece is an interesting counterpoint to the overall discussion.

Peace (in the narratives),