Clone Wars Vol. 3: Last Stand on Jabiim

Last Stand on JabiimOrder this bookStory: Dissatisfaction with the Republic leads Alto Stratus, a military commander on the planet Jabiim, to overthrow his world’s government. General Kenobi’s troops arrive to assist the small band of loyalist resisting Stratus’ coup. Minor skirmishes extend Kenobi’s forces, as massive rainstorms across the planet make it impossible for reinforcements to land. When Stratus’s soldiers attack the Republic’s main planetary base, Obi-Wan is presumed dead. Anakin and a group of masterless padawans try to hold off the advancing Separatist forces until the Republic can evacuate the loyalists. But then Supreme Chancellor Palpatine orders Anakin on a mission of his own, isolating the young Jedi even more.

Review: The Battle for Jabiim is an incredibly bleak story, one of those “War Is Hell” tales that seem designed mostly to highlight the apparent purposelessness of so many soldiers’ deaths. The reasons behind the civil war and Stratus’ coup are not made wholly clear, but Stratus’s rhetoric reinforces the notion of a Republic unresponsive to the needs of its member worlds. One would almost want the Republic to lose, except that we know that the Separatists aren’t any better – indeed, they’re two sides of the coin that eventually becomes the Empire. So given that we know this is all going to end badly, a bleak War Is Hell story is probably appropriate. […]

Clone Wars Vol. 2: Victories and Sacrifices

Victories and SacrificesOrder this bookStory: Obi-Wan leads a mission to assist Ohma-D’un, a Gungan colony moon orbiting Naboo. Upon their arrival, they discover the entire Gungan population dead, poisoned by a new Confederacy weapon. When Asajj Ventress and Durge turn that weapon on the Jedi, Obi-Wan and his fellow Jedi must fight their own bodies as well as their opponents, to prevent a horrific attack against Naboo and find an antidote for the deadly gas. Meanwhile, poor intelligence leads the Republic forces into a trap attacking the world of Brentaal IV. Shaak Ti must lead a small band of escaped prisoners, including old enemies and old allies, in a last ditch effort to turn the tide.

Review: The individual pieces in this compilation continue the generally strong record of Dark Horse’s Clone Wars comics. With two writers, three pencillers and at least two unconnected storylines, I’m not sure that the whole is equal to its parts, but that’s a risk that collected volumes always run. Blackman’s story of the swamp gas plague on Ohma-D’un is a good one – using Naboo sets up some obvious psychological conflicts for Anakin, and the use of biological weapons is somehow a little more viscerally horrific than, say, blowing up planets from afar. And there’s even something for the slightly more sadistic fan, who are sure to enjoy a two-page spread filled with lots and lots of dead Gungans. The third chapter of the story is a bit of a jarring shift from the first two – there’s a different artist, a sudden jump forward in time, and an awkward use of flashback – but it’s still a solid story. […]

Clone Wars Vol. 1: The Defense of Kamino

The Defense of Kamino and Other StoriesOrder this bookStory: A Jedi spy in the Outer Rim learns that the Separatists are planning a major offensive against the clone facility on Kamino. General Kenobi leads the defense, as the Kaminoans add the elite ARC Troopers to the Republic’s forces. Meanwhile, Master Windu meets with a group of dissident Jedi in an effort to heal the growing schism in the Order, but Asajj Ventress hopes to turn the dissidents completely away from the Republic.

Review: Taken completely on its own merits, this collection of stories set shortly after the Battle of Geonosis is a worthwhile continuation of the Clone Wars. The writing combines solid action on multiple fronts with character moments that probably exceed anything in the prequels thus far. Jedi disagree over the wisdom of serving a Republic that everyone acknowledges is corrupt; Obi-Wan tries to figure out how to reach out to his troubled padawan. Scenes like this definitely fulfill the licensed material’s mandate to flesh out the stories we see on the screen. At the same time, the most interesting element of the prequels for me thus far has been the Sith’s skill at playing one force against another for the Sith’s ultimate benefit, and Ostrander and Allie continue that theme in their stories. […]

Domesticating History

Domesticating HistoryOrder this bookStory: “Domesticating History” is a well-researched exploration of the contexts in which the homes of four different prominent Americans (George Washington, Louisa May Alcott, Thomas Jefferson and Booker T. Washington) were turned into museums. Unfortunately, the book does not provide much in the way of description of the museums themselves, nor of the particular interpretations that visitors did in fact take away from their viewing of the exhibits – West seems most interested in providing intellectual biographies of the museum founders and discussions of the political maneuvering required to establish and fund these museums.

Review: It is all interesting and very readable material, yet in the end, the lack of depth regarding the museums themselves leaves me feeling as if, at the core of the study, there’s no “there” there. […]

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

Battle Cry of FreedomOrder this bookStory: Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson explores the political and military history of the Civil War; he traces its roots to the dispute between North and South over the institution of slavery and argues that while the Union held significant advantages over the Confederacy, the outcome was far from guaranteed.

Review: One remarkable element of the book is that almost 275 pages pass before the Confederacy fires on Fort Sumter and the war officially begins. McPherson uses those pages to carefully establish the political and social context of the time and make his argument as to the central cause of the war. Here he pulls no punches – while issues such as states’ rights and industrial expansion were bandied about, the fundamental, irreconcilable conflict between the North and South was the presence of slavery in the South and its expansion into the territories. Southern legislators were dominant in the 1850s, holding legislation such as the Homestead Act and the transcontinental railroad in check, and overturning the Missouri Compromise through the Dred Scott decision. […]

Bearing the Cross

Bearing the CrossOrder this bookStory: When Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on a segregated bus, Montgomery, Alabama’s civil rights community settles on a young pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr. as its main spokesman and leader. The lengthy boycott eventually pushes King to national prominence. King and other activists formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to promote nonviolent protest against segregation. While protests in Birmingham and Selma helped motivate reluctant politicians to pass important legislation, and the 1963 march on Washington produced one of the twentieth century’s most famous speeches, SCLC was almost always underfunded and understaffed, swept along by events as much as it initiated action. Caught between politicians who wanted to move more slowly and radical activists who felt he wasn’t moving nearly fast enough, King pursued a breakneck schedule of speaking engagements, meetings, and protests while the FBI sought to use his private life and friendships with suspected Communists to turn the country against him. Even as the Vietnam War distracted the country from the civil rights movement, King worked to call attention to the economic and social inequities inherent in American society, until an assassin’s bullet ended his life.

Review: David J. Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography is a fascinating read for those who might know only the most basic details of the civil rights movement. I myself was often struck by how the movement often asked for relatively small concessions, which communities would resist with seeming disproportionate force. During the initial Montgomery bus boycott, for example, King and the rest of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) were not asking for an end to bus segregation – they merely asked that blacks and whites be segregated in such a way that blacks would not have to give up their seats or stand while seats reserved for whites went unused. The bus company itself, damaged by the boycott, was more than willing to go along with this compromise, but it took a year before the local government would make any concessions. (Thus the boycott provides an early example not only of how economic interests could put pressure on political centers of power, but on how long it might take that pressure to work.) While looking back, such resistance appears hopelessly misguided, in truth it was also a boon for the civil rights movement. Garrow describes a number of incidents like SCLC’s failed protests in Albany, Georgia, where the local law enforcement showed restraint, allowed blacks to march, and never allowed the galvanizing moment that would motivate blacks and whites against segregation to occur. […]

Mickey Mouse History

Mickey Mouse HistoryOrder this bookStory: A collection of essays that explore how museums, theme parks, and other cultural institutions preserve and sometimes distort the past, and what can be done to give citizens a more sophisticated understanding of history.

Review: That the rich and powerful in America have dictated the interpretation and portrayal of American history, particularly in popular institutions, probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. Still, there’s something shocking about the vividness with which Mike Wallace (a history professor, not the guy from 60 Minutes) discusses the issue in “Mickey Mouse History.” Whether it’s the original, slave-free version of restored colonial Williamsburg or the corporate-designed exhibits at Disneyland and EPCOT, the depictions of America’s past that have been most heavily marketed to the American public are free of almost any real historical context, or any inkling that there is debate over the positive and negative effects of various events of the past. The strength of this book, other than its detail, is that it takes conclusions others have reached – such as those about Americans’ connection to their own pasts or about the need to commemorate the lives of “average” Americans, minorities and women – and marries them to a need for historical rigor and standards. Wallace makes clear that the past should not be sanitized or exaggerated for any purpose, no matter how noble. And he makes clear how dangerous distortions of the past can be, particularly in chapters that discuss Ronald Reagan’s or Newt Gingrich’s…shall we say, passing acquaintance with history as it happened as opposed to how they wish it had happened. […]

America (The Book)

America (The Book)Order this bookStory: The crew at The Daily Show turn their attention from fake news to fake education with “America (The Book),” a satirical look at American government structured as a civics textbook. The presence of actual facts within its pages is purely by accident, but the book will certainly make you laugh – if it doesn’t make you cry first.

Review: Jon Stewart has said in several interviews that one of The Daily Show’s biggest targets is hypocrisy, and that is certainly true of “America (The Book)”. Most mentions of the Declaration of Independence or the founding ideals of the country are accompanied by a parenthetical comment or footnote reminding the reader that at the time, “all men are created equal” meant “all white male property-owners are created equal.” A page of mock campaign buttons includes one with the slogan “My 5 slaves cast their 3 votes for…” There’s a fair amount of intelligent wordplay humor here – the table of contents identifies a section on foreign geography with the tagline “Denial: It’s not just a psychological defense mechanism.” But what often comes through is a certain amount of rage at the way America’s leaders and citizens have fallen short of its ideals. […]

The Book of Ratings

The Book of RatingsOrder this bookStory: In this collection of columns from the now-defunct Brunching Shuttlecocks, Sjoberg picks around five members of a given group, and then spends a paragraph making witty comments in praise or denigration of said items.

Review: The Ratings were my favorite recurring Brunching feature, and I’m very happy to see they now have their very own website. Sjoberg has a very smart sense of humor, and could probably teach Dennis Miller a thing or five about blending pop culture references with obscure facts to create humorous non sequiturs on seemingly inconsequential topics. Sometimes Sjoberg specifically targets pop culture phenomena – hence the ratings for Star Wars villains, Super Friends, classic video games, and so on – while other times he focuses on everyday items, cultural oddities, or longstanding pillars of our religious and social traditions. (You’ll find the ratings of the plagues of Egypt, for example, hysterical or blasphemous. I lean strongly to the former.) […]

Dave Barry’s Bad Habits

Dave Barry's Bad HabitsOrder this bookStory: Dave Barry collects some of his newspaper columns to form a “100% Fact Free Book.”

Review: In a way, “Dave Barry’s Bad Habits” is the reason my own website exists. When I read it in 1989, my career ambition began to shift toward journalism, and while like many other plans that one has since been relegated to the scrap heap, the skills and interests I developed while pursuing it have been funneled into Not News. So clearly I think this is a fine book. While it probably won’t cause you to go home and rethink your life, you should get a lot of chuckles and a few belly laughs out of the book. […]