Book review: Off Script by Josh King

Title: Off Script: An Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide

Author: Josh King

Publisher: St. Martin’s

Published: 2016

Version reviewed: Audiobook from Blackstone Audio, read by the author

Politicaldictionary.com defines an advance man as, “A staffer sent ahead to prepare for the arrival of a politician at a campaign rally, media appearance or other large event” (http://politicaldictionary.com/words/advance-man/). In Off Script, advance man Josh King takes the reader through the good, bad, and ugly of presidential advance work in what he calls the Age of Optics, from Michael Dukakis’ failed campaign in 1988 through the early days of the Trump campaign in 2015.

King started his career in advance work with the Dukakis campaign, served as Director of Production for Presidential Events in the White House Office of Communications during most of the Bill Clinton years, and created the Sirius/XM radio show Polioptics. He shares his wealth of experience and war stories in Off Script and lets readers (and voters) go behind the curtain to see how campaign events are scripted and candidate images crafted. Spoiler alert: if you think every move a candidate makes is carefully planned, you’re right. King will show you how and why those plans are made. He will also show you lots of instances when a seemingly small incident had a huge negative impact: Dukakis’ tank ride, George H. W. Bush’s encounter with a supermarket scanner, the Howard Dean scream, and John Kerry’s windsurfing–to name a few. Having followed politics since the late 80s, I’ve often found it disturbing how silly things like these could make or break a campaign for the highest office in the land. King’s book helped me understand why that happens–though I still find it disturbing.

The biggest downside of Off Script is its slow start. King spends the entire first section of the book–at least 2 or 3 hours of the audiobook, maybe more–on Dukakis’ tank ride. Yes, really. It may have been the biggest campaign failure in modern presidential history, but I’m not convinced it warrants that much page time. But if you’re interested in either politics or marketing (and sadly, they’re becoming so intertwined, it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes), it’s worth persevering through the seemingly-endless tank ride. King’s book will help you understand how optics trump (no pun intended) substance in modern presidential campaigns and therefore make you a more informed–if also possibly more disillusioned–voter.

And if you’re wondering who the heck Dukakis was and what the heck he was doing in a tank, congratulations on not being older than dirt. Here’s a little history lesson, courtesy of Politico:

And here’s the infamous George H. W. Bush campaign ad that effectively ended Dukakis’ chances:

One final note: you’ve probably guessed that King is a Democrat, since he worked for Dukakis and Clinton. In the book, though, he is refreshingly unbiased. He speaks respectfully of presidents and candidates from both parties; if anything, he’s more critical of his own party’s candidates. He shows no partisan intent in Off Script–just the intent to explain and educate.

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Book Review – Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon

With her TITLE: Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon
AUTHOR: Patty Lovell
ILLUSTRATOR: David Catrow
FORMAT: Children’s
PUBLISHED: 2001
MY VERSION: 2017 for Imagination Library

 

As you may remember, my boss is 3 1/2, and he brought this to me the other day to read to him.

Molly Lou Melon is ridiculously tiny (the illustration reminded me of Cindy Lou Who), has huge buck teeth, and a terrible voice, which the author describes as “a bullfrog being squeezed by a boa constrictor” in the book (and which every review on the internet quotes – lol).  Her grandmother is The Most Amazing Influence, of course, and has always told her to be proud of herself and carry herself accordingly.
She moves away from her friends and her grandmother (ANYTHING BUT THAT!), and goes to a new school, complete with bully.  Ronald Durkin is every bit the turd we expect a bully to be, and she shows him up by simply being better/smarter/faster/whatever than he is at everything they have to do.  With her grandmother in heart, she stands tall and everything’s right in the end.

So, we know I have a soft spot for grandmothers, so of course this book got me because she had to leave her grandmother behind.  (My grandmother died in 2009, so anything that has a strong connection between fmc and Gramma gets me in the feels hard…)  So the book seriously resonated with me, which I’m sure added to my enjoyment.  But I loved that there was a character that happened to be a girl, but who wasn’t judged for being one.  It was kind of nice/refreshing, you know?  She’s a great strong character (regardless of gender) because her entire existence was ‘you know what?  this is me, and I’m totally okay with that.’  And that’s a lesson that we all need to keep close to heart, you know?   Be okay with you.  Everyone else is already taken.

I didn’t like the illustrations at all.  I guess they’d be much better as a stand alone piece of artwork, but I found them distracting, so they detracted from the story, and certainly from my enjoyment of them.  So there’s that.

The toddler’s reaction means more than mine, so I’ll tell you that he liked it, although he cared more about the illustration than the story sometimes, which is a little sad.  This book had a great message and he was too busy pointing out frogs to hear it sometimes.

But, I’ll give the book a 4/5 and the illustrations a 2/5.  I really wish the artist had a less-is-more approach, but it’s definite a story with reading, and I’ll certainly read it again if the boss wants to hear it.

Book Review-The Justice Riders by Chuck Norris et al.

Title: The Justice Riders

Author: Chuck Norris, Ken Abraham, Aaron Norris, and Tim Grayem

Format-Hardcover, Broadman and Holman Publishers

Published: 2006

 

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Things to look for that should raise your concerns about the quality of a book…

One-When a celebrity is listed as an author of a fiction work. Granted, this is not always a bad sign, pointing out Kareem Abdul Jabar’s recent work or the novels by Steve Allen as solid examples of good writing. With that said, though, a celebrity from tv or film penning a fiction work usually doesn’t read well.

Two-When said celebrity appears on the cover of the book, or at least an image obviously meant to be said celebrity graces the cover.

Three-And this is the biggest red flag-When there are four authors listed on one fiction novel that isn’t a round robin or a collection spotlighting each author.  When it takes four authors to write a singular novel, there may be issues with that work.

Such is JUSTICE RIDERS.  Riding on the prestige of not only Chuck Norris alone, but also the much loved WALKER, TEXAS RANGER tv series, Chuck, his brother Aaron, and the Canon Group decided that this book was a good idea. Focused on Ezra Justice, a Southerner in the Union Army, this book sees Justice commissioned to form a multicultural group of men dedicated to secretly ending The Civil War.

Not a bad premise, but every opportunity to do it right was missed.

The dialogue is ham fisted and heavy.  The descriptions of the characters are not only stereotypical, they’re either loaded with sweetness like syrup if they’re white hats or reek of sulphur if they’re black hats.  History is also played with fast and loosely throughout the book, although it hangs its Stetson on being loosely based on real events.  There is nothing redeemable about JUSTICE RIDERS, except perhaps that it didn’t ever become something other than a book to ignore.

One page out of five, and that’s only because there’s not a ‘Hell, No, Don’t Read This’ ranking. But please, don’t read this…ever.

Book review: A Life on the Road by Charles Kuralt

Title: A Life on the Road

Author: Charles Kuralt

Format: Hardback, Putnam

Published: 1990

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Some of us are old enough to remember when most people got their news from the evening news on one of the big 3 networks. We trusted anchors like Walter Cronkite to report the news of the day–wars, political scandals, natural disasters–with truth and gravitas. Charles Kuralt was a newsman of this era, but he was best known not for the big serious stories but for for finding the unique and fascinating people and stories hiding in small towns all across America. In A Life on the Road, Kuralt tells the story behind the stories, chronicling his career as a newsman in the glory days of TV news as well as some of the people and events he discovered on the back roads of America.

It’s fitting that I found this book serendipitously–specifically, on a dusty shelf at an estate sale in Phoenix–since Kuralt and crew relied on plenty of serendipity (he called it dumb luck) when searching out stories. In a time before cell phones and the Internet–heck, some of us didn’t even have a private phone line (raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember party lines)–Kuralt and crew would roll up to a farmhouse in a rickety old RV and ask to do a story about whatever interesting thing the family was involved in. No appointment, no string of emails explaining exactly what and where and how, in some cases no advance planning at all beyond, “Look, a story!” and off they would go, RV trundling down a country road toward the nearest local color.

The stories themselves were (and are still) interesting, but part of what made them so was the warmth and wit of Kuralt the storyteller. Those traits are evident in A Life on the Road. Kuralt blends his own story and that of his crew with the colorful characters he encountered. Here’s a sample:

We went to Sopchoppy, in the Florida panhandle, to look into a story about worm grunting. Worm grunting is not practiced just everywhere. Maybe I’d better explain it.

You go out into the woods and pound a hardwood stake into the ground, preferably using a heavy truck spring to do the pounding. Then, you rub the truck spring sensually, but with a certain pressure, across the top of the stake. This sets up a vibration in the ground which you can feel in the soles of your feet. Earthworms must find the vibration disagreeable, for to escape it, they wriggle to the surface; whereupon, you pick up the worms and go fishing.

I didn’t believe this when I first heard about it, but it turns out that some people around Sopchoppy make a living at it, selling their worms by the canful to Mr. M. B. Hodges’s bait store. It will not surprise you to learn that if you go worm grunting in the National Forest, you have to have a federal Worm Gathering Permit displayed in the window of your pickup truck. (p. 149)

If you’d like to see as well as read, some of Kuralt’s pieces are on YouTube–just search for charles kuralt on the road.. Here are a couple to get you started (unfortunately the one about worm grunting doesn’t seem to be available):

 

So if you get a chance, pick up a copy of Kuralt’s book and lose yourself in another time, a time when people still watched the same news–and some of them even made a living selling worms. Kuralt’s pieces may have seemed like fluff next to the tumultuous events of the late 1960s-1980s, but they are a reminder–then and now–that the United States is a rich tapestry of quirky places and resourceful, creative, diverse people. 4 out of 5 pages.

 

Book Review-Owls Don’t Blink by A. A. Fair

Title: Owls Don’t Blink: A Donald Lam-Bertha Cool Mystery

Author: Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A. A. Fair

Format-Paperback, Dell Publishing

Published: 1961 (Originally 1942)

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Most people know Erle Stanley Gardner for being the creator and author behind Perry Mason. Gardner was actually much more than that, including a rather daring lawyer himself. But even as an author, there’s more than fiction’s best known attorney to his credit. Writing as A. A. Fair, Gardner shared one of the most unique and best Private Detective duos ever with the world beginning in 1939. Bertha Cool and Donald Lam.

Some have referred to Cool and Lam as an interesting variation on the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin relationship, and although there are points of comparison, they’re not plentiful. Lam is the legs of the outfit, but not because Bertha can’t work or get involved, but usually more because Lam is the cooler head and better suited to the in depth detective work than his barrel shaped (at least in the beginning, she shed some pounds over time), hot tempered boss, later partner. But Bertha makes her own contributions in the field, often helping Lam when he needs it, but always attempting to make sure it goes the way she thinks it should, though it doesn’t always.

In OWLS DON’T BLINK, the firm of Cool and Lam are hired by an attorney from New York to find a woman in New Orleans who doesn’t want to be found. Not allowed to ask any questions about why she must be found, Donald makes short work of finding her…and shortly also finds a dead body in her apartment. The body belonged to a man that, just hours before his demise, Lam watched argue with the object of his search.

This begins a cross-country romp, both past and in the present of the book, stretching from New York to Los Angeles to Little Rock to New Orleans and a few other stops in between. It also ends up involving another murder, maybe a serial killer (though this book was written about thirty years before that was a term), a distraught husband, a missing wife, and Bertha desperate to keep Donald from being drafted.

This series is one of my all time favorites. Not every entry is top notch, but OWLS DON’T BLINK is Fair (Gardner) at the top of his game. Not only are Lam and Cool both completely engaging characters, but the cast sprinkled around them all have their own quirks and flaws, which make them stand out as well. The mystery is actually several woven together and done so tightly in a way that works perfectly. The pacing is perfect, not breakneck, but also not turtle slow. Lam has a confrontation or three that every good PI novel should have, but Fair does a great job of also showing the real work that goes into the job, the actual tracking down of leads, of questioning people, of wasting hours to get the few minutes that will solve a case. Add into that a twist at the end that fits the time period…and the lead characters….perfectly and OWLS DON’T BLINK is top notch.

Five out Five pages for this read. There’s nothing at all wrong with OWLS DON’T BLINK from beginning to end. It starts off well, runs the course, and wraps on a pitch perfect note.

Book Review – Mates, Dates, and Inflatable Bras

TITLE: Mates, Dates, and Inflatable Bras
AUTHOR: Cathy Hopkins
FORMAT: Paperback
PUBLISHED: 2011

Mates, Dates, and Inflatable Bras is a coming of age book about Lucy, her friend Izzie, and new girl Nesta.

Lucy is short.  So short that they call her a midget (under 5 foot at 14).  Blonde but flat chested.  And doesn’t really have a clue where her life is going.  One day, on her way to Izzie’s house, she sees a guy come out of a store and realizes that her life would totally make sense if she had a guy like him.

Cue a bunch of problems on a bunch of fronts.  There’s the identity of the mystery guy of course, and there’s Nesta, who is fairly new to the school and monopolizing Izzie’s attention with her seemingly lavish life.

Everything comes to a head when she forces herself to hang out with Nesta and Lizzie together.  Turns out the mystery guy is Nesta’s brother.  NO! Gasp!  She hates Nesta!  How can THE MOST AMAZING BOY INTHE UNIVERSE(tm) turn out to be related to the Horrible, Terrible, Awful person trying to take her best friend from her?

Of course that’s not how it goes down.  She’s forced to examine a lot of things – how she looks at Nesta, who she is as a person, etc.

 

So, I found this book at my local thrift store while on a quest for the most bizarre book I could find.  No, this isn’t it, but the title made me giggle and I bought it (probably for about 50 cents) for me.  I thought by the title it was going to be chick lit, and it is, but I didn’t realize it was YA until I got it home and actually read the back cover (Note: I don’t care, just putting that out there.).

The book is very British, which I love.  I think it could have had a little bit more substance, but it’s geared towards the younger end of YA, so it fits the genre just fine.  Just a personal thing.

The only thing that reallllllly annoyed me about this book was that he planted a huge kiss on her just because he thought she should get a kiss from a boy.  Nevermind that he wasn’t at all interested (not as much my problem) and had a girlfriend (very much my problem).  And I guess it was a minor issue, but still.

In all, it was a decent book.  I don’t know that I’ll rush out to find the rest of the series, but if I come across them, there’s a good chance I’d read them.  It was a light, fast read, I liked how the characters went down, and it’s a nice deviation from books that weigh heavy long after I’m done with them.

In all, I’ll give this a 4/5 page rating.  It’s a great short read when you just want something fun.

 

 

 

Book Review — Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Title: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
Author: Edward Abbey
Format: Paperback
Published: 1968

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Delicate Arch, Arches National Park. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Paxson Woelber. Creative Commons licensed.

A colleague at work was shocked that I’d never heard of Edward Abbey, so she gave me a copy of Desert Solitaire. I read all but the last few pages and wrote most of a draft of this review before I looked him up in Wikipedia and discovered that Desert Solitaire is, “regarded as one of the finest nature narratives in American literature.” So now I feel ignorant, but at least this review is a genuine reaction to the book, not influenced by its reputation.

Desert Solitaire chronicles Abbey’s experiences as a seasonal ranger in Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park) in 1956-1957. “This is the most beautiful place on earth.” That’s the opening sentence of the first chapter, and Abbey spends the rest of the book showing the reader that beauty. His prose is as poetic and vivid as John Muir’s but with more snark and bite. Abbey was a philosopher, an environmental activist, and an anarchist; all three of those identities are on display here. He blends rhapsodic odes to the beauty of Utah’s canyonlands with misanthropic rants about the evils of cities, cars, development, tourists–and especially the Glen Canyon Dam, which was being built during his time at Arches and which he considered an abomination.

Even if you don’t share Abbey’s environmental views, Desert Solitaire is worth reading if you have any interest in the stark, stunning landscape of the Four Corners region (Confession: I live near there, so I’m biased. This region is breathtaking. You need to see it. Start packing.) Whether describing a cattle drive or the Colorado River rushing through narrow red rock canyons, Abbey immerses you in the otherworldly beauty of the canyonlands. He’s also one heck of a storyteller, regaling you with hair-raising tales of him doing extreme (and occasionally really stupid) things like sliding down waterfalls or hiking into The Maze (now part of Canyonlands National Park) with little more than a bottle of water and some trail mix.  My favorite chapter is also the longest: Abbey’s tale of rafting Glen Canyon, which was later flooded after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. I’ll never see Glen Canyon as he did, because much of it is at the bottom of Lake Powell, but at least I got to see it through his eyes and prose.

I’ll leave you with two passages from the book, which, taken together, will give you a sense of Abbey’s writing style. The first is from near the end of the book, as his time at Arches is coming to a close:

October. Rabbitbrush is in full bloom. The tumbleweeds on the move (that longing to be elsewhere, elsewhere), thousands of them rolling across the plains before the wind. Something like a yellow rash has broken out upon the mountainsides–the aspen forests in their autumn splendor. Sunsets each evening that test a man’s credulity–great gory improvisations in scarlet and gold that remind me of nothing so much as God’s own celestial pizza pies.

Now whenever I look at the aspens on the flanks of the San Francisco Peaks in fall, I’ll think of a yellow rash. Thanks, Mr. Abbey.

The second passage is from the end of the introduction:

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.

I disagree with Abbey on at least one point: I think you should hop in your car and get out here, and seeing this area from a car is better than not seeing it at all. But if you can’t get here–or you’ve been here and want to relive the experience–pick up a copy of Desert Solitaire and let Abbey be your cranky, crotchety, yet oh-so poetic guide.

Rating: 5/5 for people who enjoy nature writing; 3/5 for everyone else.

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