Book Review: Herblock at Large

Book Review: Herblock at Large by Herbert Block.

Herbert “Herblock” Block (1909-2001) was a multiple-Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist.  He’s most famous for his coverage of McCarthyism and Watergate, but kept working until just before his death.  This 1987 collection covers the early years of the Reagan administration.

Herblock at Large

As might be expected, these cartoons aren’t very kind to that administration.  From an Attorney General who was more concerned with “proving” pornography caused violence than with tracking down illegal arms shipments to America’s enemies, to the heavy influence of the Religious Right on the government, to the dubious Supreme Court nominations (the Senate finally balked at Robert Bork), there were a lot of things to criticize.

Iran-Contra gets a lot of play here, as does the fact that under Reagan’s “fiscally responsible” administration, the national deficit and debt both skyrocketed.  (A feat that would be repeated by his fiscally responsible Republican successors, while the fiscally irresponsible Democrats brought down those numbers.)  The rise of televangelists also came in for several cartoons, contrasting the prosperous preachers with the poverty-stricken viewers who donated to them.

Now, of course, we know that Ronald Reagan really was having memory problems at the time, early symptoms of his Alzheimer’s.  The cartoons about terrorists hijacking airplanes also take on a new connotation since that subject came to a head.

There are also text pieces by Herblock introducing the themed chapters, clarifying his views if the cartoons weren’t pointed enough.  One bit of information is helpful for those who did not live through those times–Mr. Block often drew the Secretary of Defense with a $640 toilet seat around his neck as that was one of the ludicrously expensive trivialities the military was spending tax money on instead of servicemembers’ salaries.

Copyright Herblock 1987
Copyright Herblock 1987

One subject where we have seen improvement is South Africa; back then apartheid and anti-equality violence were still the order of the day, with Reagan refusing to do anything that might make the white minority government feel the U.S. was unfriendly to them (what with them being anti-Communist and all, which was why we were allies with a lot of nasty regimes back then.)

This is perhaps not Herblock’s best work, but it’s still very good political cartooning, and a window into the issues facing America in the early 1980s.  Recommended for those who lived through the era and need a reminder, and those that want to know about the time before cell phones.

Book Review: What We Won

Book Review: What We Won by Bruce Riedel

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

What We Won

The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989) was a turning point in history.  It was often called the “Russian Vietnam” as the Soviet troops found themselves mired in battle with an enemy that had little structure, struck without warning and enjoyed strong local support. The war drained men and material with little to show for it, and displeasure with the conflict helped bring about changes in the Soviet government that led to the end of the U.S.S.R.

The United States government, working through the CIA, primarily influenced the war by partnering with the Pakistani government to funnel arms and intelligence to the mujahedin who were fighting to free their country from Communism.  The author, a former CIA agent, explains who the major players in the war were, what they hoped to accomplish and the outcomes.  He shows why this operation worked so well, in contrast to other covert operations such as the infamously botched Iran-Contra deal.  In addition, there is some compare and contrast of the Soviet invasion and the current Afghanistan conflict.

There are holes in the story, of course.  Several key figures died even before the end of the war,  and many others never wrote down their stories.  Much of the details of covert actions are still classified by the various governments, and thus off-limits for public consumption.  But the author has managed to get quite a bit of new information, including access to Jimmy Carter’s diary of the time.  (Since President Carter wrote his memoir while the U.S. aid to the mujahedin was still a secret, his part in setting it up wasn’t in there.)

It begins with a brief history lesson on the many previous foreign invasions of Afghanistan, primarily by the British.  Then there’s an examination of the Communist government of Afghanistan, which was fatally divided against itself from the beginning.  It introduced much-needed reforms, but, well, Communists, which didn’t sit well with the large groups of strongly religious citizens.  When the Communists proved unable to keep from killing each other, let alone control the insurgencies, the Soviets decided to roll in with their tanks, thinking it would be just like Hungary or Czechoslovakia.  It wasn’t.

In addition to starting a land war in Asia, the Soviets had three leaders in a row whose health was failing, and a developing problem in Poland that kept them from moving sufficient troops and weapons down into Afghanistan.   In addition, it was the first time the U.S.S.R.’s troops had seen serious combat in decades, and they just weren’t up to speed.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani government was rightfully concerned that if the Soviets took over Afghanistan, they might well be next.  Especially if Russia could talk their other hostile neighbor India into helping.  So they were all too ready to arm the freedom fighters, directly delivering the aid and training provided by funds from America and Saudi Arabia.  However, they had very strong ideas about what kind of mujahedin they wanted to support, and their favoritism helped sow the seeds of discord after the war.

Which leads us to the Arab volunteers who came to Afghanistan to fight alongside their Muslim brothers in a jihad against the foreign and officially atheist invaders.  At the time, they were only interested in throwing out people who had come uninvited and unwanted.  Even Osama bin Laden almost certainly had no clue that in twenty years’ time he’d come to think that crashing airplanes into civilians was a good idea.  It’s emphasized that the Arab volunteers had no direct contact with the CIA or other American forces.

The closing section looks at why this particular operation was so successful for the U.S., what happened to the people of Afghanistan after the world turned its eyes away. and how we ended up in the Afghanistan mess we have today.

There are no maps or illustrations, but there are extensive endnotes and an index.  The writing is a bit dry but informative, and the writer’s biases don’t get in the way.  Recommended for those who wonder what’s up with Afghanistan, and fans of the movie Charlie Wilson’s War

Book Review: A Curious Man

Book Review: A Curious Man by Neal Thompson

Disclaimer:  I received this volume free from the Blogging for Books program, on the premise that I would write a review.

This is a biography of Robert Ripley (nee LeRoy Robert Ripley), the cartoonist who created the Believe It or Not! feature.  I was fascinated by the paperback reprints of the cartoons back in my boyhood, but knew little of the story behind the creator.

A Curious Man

This volume covers Mr. Ripley’s life from barefoot poverty in Santa Rosa, California, to his early career as a sports cartoonist, through his discovery of a love for bizarre factoids and the creation of his famous comic strip to his worldwide fame.    He became a world traveler, a millionaire, star of radio and newsreels and knew many beautiful women, all for doing something he enjoyed immensely.

Of course, he also had his faults; Mr. Ripley was a heavy drinker, sexist, racist by our current standards (though progressive for his time), could not keep it in his pants, and had a tendency to fudge facts about his own life the way he didn’t the stories in his cartoons.  He also became a more difficult person towards the end of his life as his health failed and his drinking and overwork caught up with him.

The story of Ripley’s life is told in mostly chronological order,  with little “Believe It!” factoids about the people and places mentioned.  There’s also the story of various supporters of Ripley; most importantly, Norbert Pearlroth, Ripley’s main research person who found many of the factoids that appeared in the comic.  (He actually stayed with the strip longer than Ripley himself!)

There is a black and white photo section in the middle, but if you have a smartphone, you can download an app with audio and video clips from Mr. Ripley’s many public appearances.  For those of you with multimedia capability, this will make the book a much better value for money.  There are extensive end notes and an index as well.

This biography benefits from the very interesting person at its center, and I would recommend it to any Believe It or Not! fans.

Book Review: Christians at the Border

Book Review: Christians at the Border by M. Daniel Carroll R.

Disclosure:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Christians at the Border

Daniel Carroll is a professor of Old Testament at Denver,  whose mother was Guatemalan, and who has divided his time between the U.S. and Guatemala since he was young.    As such, he has ties to both mainstream American and Latino culture.  In this updated edition (first version published in 2008) he speaks to the issue of immigration from a Biblical perspective.

He covers the history of immigration, primarily Hispanic, into the U.S. starting in 1848, and its ebbs and flows.   There’s a look at the question of  cultural identity and the economic impact of illegal immigration.  Unlike many articles on the subject, he also writes about the effect on the countries the immigrants are from.

Then he really warms to the theme of the Christian dimension of Hispanic immigration, citing its invigorating effects on American religious life, and an understanding of the “sojourner” theme in the Bible.   He refers to several different experiences in the Old Testament of immigration, including the stories of Ruth and Esther.

The book also looks at the Old Testament laws regarding “the stranger and the foreigner in your midst.”   Mr. Carroll claims this is different from similar law codes of the same time period in the Middle East because those others do not have laws to deal with immigration, and because they are influenced by the Hebrew people’s own experience in Egypt.

But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.  Leviticus 19:34

Turning to the New Testament, Mr. Carroll admits Jesus didn’t say anything about the specific topic of immigration, but he did spend time reaching out to the despised and those outside Judean society.  The parable of the Good Samaritan indicates that tribal identification is less important than a person’s behavior to determine who is a “neighbor” to be loved.

!st Peter extends a metaphor of all Christians as sojourners in strange lands.  And last, Mr. Carroll examines Romans 13, which is often used as a “clobber text” against undocumented immigrants.  If they are here illegally, they are breaking the law, and we need give them no further consideration, end of discussion.  But he feels this text should be examined in the context of Romans 12; discerning submission, rather than blind obedience.

The book wraps up with a call to Christians to make their decisions on how to treat immigrants, legal or otherwise, with a view to what the Bible teaches and the example of Jesus.

The text is clear and in understandable language, with a logical progression of thought.  The introduction by Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference is a bit more jargon-laden.  There’s also an afterword by Ronald J Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action.

For further study, there’s an appendix of resources including websites, both pro- and anti-immigration.  There are extensive endnotes and a small index.

This book will be of most interest to Christians, particularly of the evangelical persuasion, searching for perspective on the issue of immigration.   People interested in the immigration issue who are not Christian might also find it helpful to understand the Biblical perspective.

To quote again, May the Lord illumine us and grant us understanding.

Comic Book Review: Persepolis

Book Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Disclaimer:  I received this book through the Rasmussen College One College, One Book program on the premise that I would review it.

Persepolis

This is the graphic novel memoir of Marjane Satrapi, who was nine years old when her home country of Iran had a revolution and kicked out the Western-backed Shah.  It follows her life from when she was small to about age fourteen, when her parents sent her to school in  Austria for her safety.

As it happens,  her family was far from ordinary, as her great-grandfather had been the Emperor of Persia before he was overthrown by Reza Shah, the father of the Shah that was overthrown in 1979.  Her grandfather had been made Reza Shah’s prime minister, but converted to Communism and was treated as a traitor thereafter.  Even so, the family remained relatively wealthy and influential.

Mari (as she is called in the text) and her parents had high hopes for the 1979 Revolution, hoping it would bring the proletariat to power in a socialist republic.  Instead, the Shi’ite fundamentalists took power, and Iran soon became a very different country.  Worse, the things that the revolutionaries most wanted to change from the old regime, imprisonment of dissidents, torture, assassination, only changed in the persons who did them.

All this has a traumatizing effect on young Mari; she sees friends, relatives and random people she meets suffer great injustice, and feels stifled under the new religious restrictions she must obey, even if they are technically not actually laws.  As if all Iran had happening internally was not enough, Saddam Hussein decided that it would be a good time to invade Iran.

Marjane Satrapi does not depict herself as an entire innocent–Mari lies to inflate her self-importance, says hurtful things, and breaks even fair rules.  She has a rebellious spirit that becomes more dangerous to her as she grows older.

The art is black and white, with much use of large black areas.  The creator is a trained illustrator, and it shows.

Trigger warnings for torture, and for off-panel rape.

Because of the subject matter, this book may not be suitable for children, especially sensitive ones, despite being about a child.  I’d rate it as for older teens and up.  There’s also an animated movie which combines this volume and Marjane Satrapi’s later life, which I have not seen.

This is a book that is valuable for its look into a country many Americans have not heard anything good about in a long time, and a reminder that no culture is monolithic.  There are real people underneath the seemingly united front Iran shows the world.

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