Archive | Coffeehouse Review

Book Review: Death in the North Pacific

Posted on 19 September 2010 by John Rippo

Deadliest Sea: The untold story behind the greatest rescue in Coast Guard history by Kalee Thompson. William Morrow Press, Pub., 310 pp. Hardcover. $25.99. ISBN: 978-0-06-176629-9

Deadliest Sea makes your hands sweat when you read it—the true tale of the Alaska Ranger’s final voyage in 2008 describes an unsafe boat sent with untrained crewmen into bad weather and unimaginable cold to catch fish off the Alaskan coast for the boats’ Japanese owners. The inevitable sinking of the fishing boat due to worn mechanical systems and un-repaired earlier damage leads to a tale of an amazing Coast Guard rescue of the Alaska Ranger’s crew who had to swim away from their boat clad in insulating “Gumby” suits that may prolong their lives—and pain—while other men, technology and money work to save them.
The book is also the tale of a local man, Julio Morales, one of the Alaska Ranger’s crew, who endured as much as any of the crew did and who suffered the loss of a cousin who froze in the icy sea. Morales now works at a downtown gas station, coping with issues that follow the sinking that rob him of sleep and wondering at the differences between life and death. The book deals with these issues too, as well as the brutal economics of commercial fishing—likely the most dangerous job in the US—and the pressures that send men to sea in worn-out boats for an ever harder to find resource. Author Kalee Thompson’s fast paced narrative and elegant descriptive form of nuanced, staccato sentences drawn into long, detailed paragraphs, make the reader dig into the book from the first page as the tales of disaster and rescue come alive.
The real hero of the story is the US Coast Guard, whose ships and helicopter crews brave distance, lack of fuel and range and the elements in order to save the men of the Alaska Ranger. One soon comes to feel that the taxes to train and equip these people is money very well spent—they are the epitome of “can do” and skilled bravery in the face of grim odds anywhere they’re needed.
Beyond that, Deadliest Sea is an illustrator of the realities of fishing. Every delicate piece of nigiri sashimi; every can of tuna, every shrimp on the barbie comes at a cost unseen and unappreciated by most people. What’s left of our once-respected American fishing industry is now largely controlled by foreign interests that have little regard for the niceties of US law when it comes to safety at sea and sinkings like the Alaska Ranger’s are depressingly common. When they happen, the men lost pass out of sight and the underwriters pay up and life goes on; but the American taxpayer gets to subsidize the lifesaving system that keeps foreign owners’ crews alive to work another day—for them.
Deadliest Sea can be a thriller, a history or a wake up call to the lack of oversight of an important industry. However you want to read it, the book will keep you awake until the last page and leave you with a greater appreciation for the finer things in life, to boot.

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Book Review: Social Business as a new and improved form of capitalism

Posted on 19 September 2010 by John Rippo

Building Social Business: The new kind of capitalism that serves humanity's most pressing needs by Muhammad Yunus. Public Affairs Books, pub. 272 pp. hardcover. $25.95. ISBN: 978-1-58648-824-6

Long ago, a banker lent money to the working poor; his idea was that those who worked hard would pay to gain money enough to lift themselves out of poverty by acquring the tools they needed to have profitable businesses and a better life. The banker lent relatively small sums to a wide variety of people and was successful beyond all expectation. Eventually, his San Francisco based bank—the Bank of Italy—became the titan of American banking that it is today—the Bank of America.
Fast forward a few generations to the Chair of the Economic Department at Chittagong University, Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and lender to perhaps millions of people in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Yunus theorized a new dimension for capitalism that some may call “re-discovering the poor” the way B of A’s Amadeo Giannini did earlier. What is much more subtle, complex and effective is that Yunus developed a new kind of capitalist model called “Social Business” that includes new dimensions in the traditional capitalist model.
Social Business is an enterprise that seeks to solve a social problem by using business methods. There are two kinds of social business: Type One is a non-loss, non-dividend company devoted to solving a social problem that is owned by investors who reinvest all profits in expanding and improving business. Type Two is a profit-maiking company owned by poor people either directly or through a trust dedicated to a pre-defined social cause. Type One Social Business owners don’t earn profits or dividends or any form of direct financial benefit. Investors can take back their original investment over a period of time they define, though this is not adjusted for inflation or currency fluctuations.
An example of a Type Two is a story that Yunus tells often about one of his first borrowers–an impoverished woman in Bangladesh who borrowed $4 from his Grameen Bank to buy some needed equipment for her husband with which to set him up as a hair dresser. This was a huge sum for the woman; she and her husband paid off the loan over time, though her bankers’ weekly visit. The interest rate maxed at 20 percent. When the $4.80 was repaid, a new entrepreneur able to sustain a family in an independent business existed where there had only been an impoverished family before. Presumably, this economically viable business would continue, perhaps grow and add to the consumer base of the community and nation. Grameen Bank was richer by the amount of interest on the pittance it loaned. Everybody was happy, except for larger banks that wouldn’t deign to loan only four bucks.
If you do some math, you can quickly see that the returns on tiny loans at up to 20 percent can be huge in no time at all, especially if your payback rate is the 98% Yunus claims. In his estimation, the profits from his Grameen Bank can rapidly build wealth in people who never had any disposable income; on a grand scale, it can transform peasants into a sturdy bourgeois class, able to determine their own fates instead of having it imposed on them from above. This makes it worth doing.
More engaging is the Type One social business that Yunus and the Grameen Bank have established with the French company Danone. The yogurt makers were interested in creating nutritional food for the poor in Bangladesh and elsewhere and turned to Grameen Bank for assistance. Yunus was quickly forthcoming, challenging them to produce a cup of yogurt for a nickel, with a cup that was edible. Danone achieved the first part of that equation, reaping business and prestige as well as an enhanced stock price. Should it succeed in making an edible cup for its yogurt, it will transform food production—with profits to match, which means that by solving problems, business can prosper in the long run within traditional capitalist dicta. Both Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes would be happy as clams.
Locally, the San Diego Foundation for Women and Elan Organic Coffees are partnering to bring Social Business to more women in the third world—and San Diego, by selling fair trade coffees as a way to raise seed money for “microloans” to women who need them. This is a noble effort, based on the ideas of Muhammed Yunus as set out in his book, that vaguely echo the pattern of the B of A’s founder who originally made his seed money out of a produce business down the peninsula from San Francisco more than a century ago. Money, it seems, can be grown of the earth and when placed into the hands of those close to the earth, can help make a reach to the stars that much more attainable for more people and this is a good thing.
Especially during a time of Depression, one may do well to read and meditate on Yunus’ ideas of Social Business and how to bring them about. Just because the times are devoid of money doesn’t mean economics can’t be fun and since no one will pull us out of the economic mire we now wallow in but us, it makes sense to look over some ideas that have some profitable traction built in.
Happy reading.

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Berkeley View of the 1906 SF Quake

Posted on 19 September 2010 by John Rippo

Earthquake Exodus 1906: Berkeley responds to the San Francisco refugees by Richard Schwartz. RSB Books, Pub., 148 pp. Paper. $24.95. ISBN: 0-9678204-1-3.

To those fascinated by the event, the Great SF Quake and fire of 1906 is remembered within the framework of the Arnold Genthe photographs; pictures of US General Frederick Funston, and the stock images that have survived for more than a century. This book is a new and amazing collection of images originating from Berkeley, which responded heroically to the needs of the displaced in the weeks following the disaster of ’06.

While Berkeley was spared the severe devastation that hit San Francisco, the quake had lasting impressions on what had been a somnolent cow town across the Bay. As survivors streamed in, they settled and became residents rather than go back to the stress of re-building San Francisco. Perhaps they were the smart ones; it took the City a long time to reconstruct itself and when it did, it found that Los Angeles had caught up to it. Things would never be the same.
Among some of the many treasures in the book are an account of the UC Cadets, a college militia outfit that went to San Francisco immediately following the disaster and who did guard duty for a time there. All the military and law enforcement units in San Francisco have had a shadow over them ever since and in recent years it was finally admitted that the number of shootings by soldiery was far more than admitted at the time. Schwartz paints a heroic picture of the Cadets stepping up to the challenge. The book is a wonder—well written, concise, a time capsule of a moment just over a hundred years ago of a time of utter and complete transformation of two cities and centuries and ought to be a part of anyone’s library who has an interest in the City that was. Earthquake Exodus will arouse no end of interest in the town of Berkeley and its role in recovery from the epic disaster.

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Book Review: Fixing the Problems of Planet California

Posted on 19 September 2010 by John Rippo

California Crack Up: How reform broke the golden state and how we can fix it by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul. UC Press, Pub. 224 pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-520-26656-8

This is perhaps the best description of the problems and controversies facing California that has appeared in the last five years.

Authors Mathews and Paul are long time observers of state government and journalists that have covered state politics for years. They have hit many nails on the head in this book—some of which are well known while others are more subtle. What they conclude is that California is virtually ungovernable at present due to a combination of several disasters: Prop. 13, gridlock caused in part by Initiatives, attaining a supermajority vote on taxation bills and term limits.

California wasn’t always in hock—we had a surplus, growth, first rate education system and exported culture by the carload everywhere. That changed because over time, Californians assumed that they could have more and more—and not pay for it. Tough law and order laws increased prison populations but added little money to state coffers to pay for the increases. Tax cuts made this worse. By terming career politicians out of office, compromise over governmental matters evaporated and capable people didn’t remain on the job long enough to leave a mark. The authors argue that democracy in California is broken—and that to fix it, we need to create a state Constitution that works, unlike the one we have now that is a patchwork of tissues that few can even read because it’s too thick.

The book is a fast read and rings true throughout every page. Pleasantly nonpartisan, it dumps on Democrats and Republicans fairly equally and gives significant blame to the folks who keep electing them. Best of all, it offers a clear and attractive argument for better ways to practice democracy—including changing the ways primaries work that would allow for third parties to achieve at least equal footing, if not prominence.

California has always been a bellwether for the United States and often presages what will happen to the rest of the nation that follows our lead whether willingly or not. Mathews and Paul argue successfully for a real new deal that would sweep away the deadwood of old and replace it with something that could be, if not perfect, at least functional, which they say would be an improvement over what we have now. It’s a scary though ultimately attractive argument that is worth analysis. Read it today.

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Book Review: 2012 Isn’t the End of the World

Posted on 19 September 2010 by John Rippo

The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012 by Anthony Aventi. University Press of Colorado, Pub. 190 pp. Paper. $19.95. ISBN: 978-0-87081-961-2

There is no end of hype about the year 2012, when, according to hypesters hustling for a buck off the ancient Mayan calendar, the world comes to an end, the poles reverse, the Second Coming is to occur and a Republican gets elected to the Presidency. No end of bad stuff will come and there’s nothing we can do about it, so the hysteria runs. And from now until then, we’ll have no end of madness to deal with about it, too, especially from TV quacks and supermarket tabloids.
Anthony Aveni is a cultural astronomer who happens to have a passionate curiosity about the Mayan culture. He says he was activated to write this book after an impressionable undergrad told him that he was thinking of killing himself rather than having to face the end of the world as prophesied by doomsayers. The result is an engaging read by a polymath of broad vision and depth of focus on a cherished field of study.
The upshot of that study unravels some of the more blood curdling predictions set forth by others past and present, and Aveni instead points to how the Mayan astronomers measured time—and argues convincingly that either on December 21 or 23, 2012 (depending on the sanctity of calculations used to back date an earlier significant event which may have been a flood that occurred on August 11, 3114 B.C., the 2012 date is an end of a time cycle. It may be like marking the end of a decade or a century or a millenium. For the Maya, their time calculations likely included spans of some five thousand years that had both social and cultural significance. We really don’t know what those might have been, and we certainly don’t know if the ancient Maya had a crystal ball to show the end of the world as we know it just before Christmas in two years.
The book is an entertaining, sensitive read written by someone who obviously not only cared for the subject but for the readers who may be a bit jittery as they sit down with his work. But in the end, Aveni asserts that though planets do line up in some unusual patterns and that solar flares, asteroids and floods may be possible on that day as on any other, there is no way to predict what such things mean and nothing in the Maya canon to indicate that the midst of December, 2012 is anything more than a grand flip of a chronological switch—and that life will go on even as a time-cycle has closed for good.

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Book Review: 160 Year Old Tale Comes Alive Again

Posted on 19 September 2010 by John Rippo

The Man Who Ate His Boots: The tragic history of the search for the Northwest Passage by Anthony Brandt. Alfred A. Knopf Pub. 440 pp. Hardcover. $28.95.

Recently, the HMS Investigator was in the news; she was the ship used by Royal Navy Captain Robert McClure on an expedition to find the earlier expedition of Sir John Franklin who sailed off to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. Investigator was caught in pack ice and crushed; her hulk was found preserved on the bottom. McClure actually found the Northwest Passage, though he didn’t know it and Investigator still pointed in the right direction when found. The Northwest is like that as this book shows.
While good history, the book best succeeds as a fine postscript to the Franklin expedition. It vanished into the unknown and little of it has been found and for years, the loss of the Franklin expedition spurred a series of rescue attempts similar in fervor to our own MIA efforts after the Vietnamese War.
Brandt tells a grand tale, though his scholarship relies more on secondary sources than perhaps it should have. What he does well is to re-create the times of exploration and contrast them with the amazing ignorance that ran the Royal Navy then, and his illustrations of he Inuit are first rate. It is from them that we learn what we can about Franklin; safe to say, they didn’t want to know more when they deciphered the native’s meaning.

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EXCERPT: Deer Dancer, a novel by Gary Winters

Posted on 19 September 2010 by John Rippo

The Deer Dancer by Gary Winters. Sunbelt Books, Pub. 184 pp. Hardcover. $16.95. ISBN: 9780916251000

I glanced toward the dock. “There they are.”
A man smoking a pipe and a dark-haired Tzotzil woman waited on the wooden planks. She stood about four feet tall, dressed in a traditional rainbow embroidered blouse with ribbons and ruffles. I poled the boat to them and they stepped aboard.
I eased into the channel. “This is Conchita.”
Marcos nodded. “Good idea to bring the women and the lemonade. Just a few friends on a little outing.” He unscrewed the cap and poured the juice into the glasses.
I let the boat drift in the placid water. “Conchita knows why we’re here.”
Marcos smiled. “My date is Comandanta Ramona of the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee, the General Command of the National Army of Liberation.”
Comandanta Ramona smiled at the astonished look on Conchita’s face. Conchita tried to be cool. “I watched you on television. You wore a black ski-mask when you spoke to the Chamber of Deputies.”
Ramona pressed her hand to her side. “You see only what we want to show.”
Marcos looked at me. “She has kidney cancer.”
Ramona’s dark eyes burned with pain. “The army is everywhere. They have Apache helicopters and M-16 rifles from the United States. We need LAW rocket launchers. Means Light Antitank Weapon. It can penetrate armor plating upt to three-quarters of an inch. It’s good for one shot.” She leaned back and relaxed. “Until we get them our own faces are our best disguise.”
Talk like that coming from such a delicate woman. Conchita stared at her without smiling.
Marcos held his glass up. “Salud, my friends.” He took a drink and let his shoulders drop. He turned to me, not waiting around for any more small talk. “I hear President Zorro is backing down on his pledge to investigate the sins of previous governments.”
“My meeting with him yesterday wasn’t encouraging, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to drop the investigation. He’s going to submit the truth bill to the Chamber of Deputies in September.
“I’m on the Truth Commission because I’m an Indian and the youngest member of the group. He doesn’t want it to look like the same old politicians. The problem is most of the old politicos are trying to cover the areas where they feel vulnerable instead of doing anything useful.”
Comandanta Ramona stared at me for a second. “How vulnerable did the Indians feel when they were murdered in church?”
The list of government abuses flashed through my mind. The 1968 massacre of students demonstrating for their rights in Mexico City. The leftists that disappeared in the 1970s after being taken by the army. Waste of time to go back any further into the seven-decade rule of the PRI.
My voice sounded flat. “Zorro is trying to get a citizens commission to examine some past events. He says a broad investigation wouldn’t work.”
For a moment Ramona sat still. Then she turned so she could look at us straight on. “The spokesman for the Democratic Revolution Party says, ‘There can be no transition to democracy in Mexico until those events of the past which have been hidden, are cleaned up.’ Then he goes home to a dinner party cooked by servants at his house in Las Lomas.”
Marcos frowned. “He’s called the spokesman because he can say things without saying anything.”
I drank my lemonade and lowered my head, having trouble getting the words out. “Zorro says he thinks people in Mexico are more interested in jobs, having something to eat, having their kids in school, having a health care system, and if we keep digging up the past that will never happen.”
Conchita tried to give Ramona a steady look. “The world recession is holding Mexico back. President Zorro says we should be praying to the Virgin of Guadelupe our economy will make a comeback.”
Ramona spoke to Marcos in an Indian dialect. I caught a few phrases. “In other words, he changes the subject. Look, we’re at war. In a guerilla war you hit and run. Travel light. You live with what you can carry. There’s killing, sure, but not government murder.”
Marcos didn’t say anything right away. watching boats gliding by, making light ripples on the water. “What about assassination? Executing senators the way they killed the Indians? When they’re all together in one room
“President Zorro goes to his nice office while the army chases us in the mountains. Then he tells farmers in Chiapas to change their ways. Modernize, he says, after NAFTA has forced more than six million farmers and farm workers to leave their farms.”
Marcos shook his head. “Sure, modernize while their children starve to death so agribusiness and corporations can run their empires all the way into Central America.”

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Book Review: Not Your Daddy’s Italian Food

Posted on 19 September 2010 by John Rippo

Terroir Guides: Food & Wine - The Italian Riviera & Genoa by David Downie. The Little Bookroom pub. 400 pp. Paper. $24.95. ISBN: 978-1-892145-64-2

Near the top of the Italian boot on the Northwest coast is a region called the Cinque Terre. It’s home to a unique and subtle cuisine as different from the well-known forms of Italian food is as chalk is from cheese. Developed over centuries, artisanal methods prevail over everything, seafood is supreme, bread and olive oils happen here like nowhere else and vegetables come into their own in a variety of combinations, presentations and preparations. The well-to-do from Milan buzz down to towns outside of Genoa for a decent meal; the food struggles mightily with the beauty of the coastline for prominence in people’s experience. The new book from New York’s The Little Bookroom is a rich compendium of the foods, methods of preparation and exhaustive list of the places to eat in the region. Besides that, there is a good deal of history of the region, stunning photos of the coastal beauty and interiors of restaurants and cafés by the dozen.
Consider just one example of the form; the simple fugassa—a pizza-like dough made with durum wheat and a combination of olive oils from the region blended in that give the resulting thick crusted, supple and complex flavored dish an honored place in the area’s cooking. Fugassa is kneaded and blended into a crunchy outer shell resembling a moonscape that is light, fluffy and surprisingly delicate inside and locals eat it alone or with simple veggies, mostly onions, as a basic meal. Others top it with everything under the sun and like the tortilla in Mexican cuisine, fugassa serves as the foundation and carrier of a whole range of culinary artistry. Not common in America, fugassa done the right way is a joy and while you may go far afield here before you find anyone who can do it correctly, Downie’s book can show you where to go for it if you’re lucky enough to travel to Italy in the future. Worth the price just for that, it is.
Though it isn’t a cookbook, there are juicy descriptions of how many foods are prepared which will get your motor running and some fairly detailed explanations of how the sun and shade work on organic produce that influence tastes. The people of the Cinque Terre region have had millenia to get it all down and their retinue seems to be done as perfectly as care and time can make it.
Like everywhere else, regionalism and tradition enhance diverse food cultures even within a small area. But this book will walk the interested reader through the area place by place and dish by dish, giving a unique and detailed picture of a part of Italy that’s hard to find in America, which is a pity. Make sure you don’t forget this book when you travel.

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Book Review: Living Liberally Means The Good Life

Posted on 19 September 2010 by John Rippo

538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal by Justin Krebs. Skyhorse Pub. 246 pp. Paper. $12.95. ISBN: 978-01-60239-982-2

American society changes itself through the years by a democratic process that is shaped through discussion, consensus and action. The premise of 538 Ways to Live Work and Play Like a Liberal is to give shape to the process of getting to know the society surrounding the individual and cohering it around shared ideas, and ultimately to action to make a better and more suitable society. This may as often as not begin over a beer in a favored bar or café.
Though hanging out and solving the world’s problems over a beer can be fun, 538 Ways isn’t merely a planform for evening discussions. It’s an ideal; an example of what some people once called a salon that’s as old as democracy itself and one that lends a maximum of interaction in a non-threating environment. So much for the form.
What happens is that people coalesce around what matters to them. In the author’s case, his first weekly drinking and discussion session turned into a social group that bounced ideas, got feedback, got noticed and got queried by the press, the curious and others who wanted to know what “liberals” thought on things. Soon, a network of discussion nights in other places was born. The book is a natural result.
The 538 ways are points of behavior; guidelines on things to remember about interacting with the world and suggested ways to live more like a liberal; everything from shortening commutes to questioning authority and one’s friends, to inviting candidates for office to an evening of beer and discussion about issues prior to an election get numbered and expounded on. It’s clear that living liberally is not merely a social club but an action group that organizes like minded people into communities to make their lives and communities better. It seems to be working, too. So far, there are chapters of Drinking Liberally in many cites in the east and midwest and the program is uniting liberals even in the reddest of states.
Discussion is the lifeblood of coffeehouses and has been for four hundred years. This book is a gold mine for café spirits of all kinds who might want to implement some of the actions found within its covers to meet fun people, start an action group or merely overthrow the whole existing social order. Democracies can do that and it usually starts with someone with an idea to share with someone in a pleasant environment with time to listen. What could be more egalitarian and filled with promise than that?

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Book Review: A Pilgrim History to be Thankful For

Posted on 19 September 2010 by John Rippo

Making Haste From Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World by Nick Bunker. Alfred A. Knopf pub. 480pp. hardcover. $30. ISBN: 978-0-307-26682-8

Much excellent American history has been written by English historians in the last twenty five years and Nick Bunker’s Making Haste is one of the most engaging of its kind. The depth of research, wide scope of view of the subject and intertwining of related issues mark his work as a triumph of brilliance that brings to life not only the Pilgrims who sailed in Mayflower, but the Europe and America of the time.
Bunker begins his tale with the flash of a comet over Europe that caused great wonder and foreboding and inched the agonies of religious separtists further away from their homeland in the north central provinces of England. The British Isles of the 17th century was a troubled land beset by a failing economy and war. England was not a safe for the conscience stricken, who first fled to Holland only to discover that the Netherlands was no haven—and eventually to America, where they became the de facto employees of venture capitalists.
Every facet of the world those emigrants knew is illustrated in rich detail; better, it is interwoven by a master story teller who brings alive the times nearly four hundred years gone. Making Haste is a joy to read, even if you’re not a history fan.
Religion and politics went together in King James’ England. The Crown hated Separtists with a passion and the very word “Puritan” was a slur first used by Catholics to describe reactionary believers. There’s a delicious passage that tells of the first landing in Massachusetts where the texts consulted for allegorical explanation were in Hebrew, from the Old Testament—which gives the tempest tossed refugees a new light to reflect from; one that many of their apologists would rather forget. And it seems that among the first things some of those who landed did was cause an uproar among the Indians by desecrating a grave. There is much detail; all of it relevant and fascinating.
Making Haste will offer many uncommon insights to that first Ur-American boatload that ought to be compared to what one thinks they know. The past is never so simple as some want others to think it is and Bunker’s diligent research into Spanish, Dutch, French and British archives is exemplary for its thoroughness. Read this book soon.

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