Book Review: ‘Lost on Planet China’ entertains

Entertaining—yes, educational—yes, informative—yes, captivating—much of the time, irreverent—definitely, unconventional—assuredly.

Lost on Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation (Broadway Books, 2008) is not going to be a book everyone is going to enjoy. Of course a universally liked book probably doesn’t even exist.

Maarten Troost, a native of The Netherlands who was bored living in Sacramento, went to China on the premise to see if that country might be a suitable landing spot for his family.

Readers are taken on an enlightening journey through China. Much of what he shared assuredly would not have changed in the last 14 years, and at the same time so much has in the world. Don’t even think about the pandemic. Think about how much more of a player China is in the world today.

This book is relevant as a travelogue. Having spent a couple weeks in China in 2011, I found what he had to say to be entertaining and spot on in many ways. Troost, though, had to figure out menus on his own; which included cattle penis with garlic. My dining adventures were much better because of being with my Mandarin speaking niece who lived in Beijing.

For anyone who has an inkling of interest in China, this will be entertaining. For anyone who likes stories of travel you may never take, this may be of interest.

Book Review: Captivating true story of female code breaker

Page after page I was learning something new. I love books like this.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies (HarperCollins, 2017) by Jason Fagone is riveting.

It’s a story about a woman in the United States whose story had not been told until five years ago. Another woman written out of the history books.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman was the top code breaker in World War II. She also had a significant role in the first world war and with drug smuggling rings. In the second war she was intercepting Nazi radio traffic in ways that helped the Allied armies.

Her husband, William Friedman, was in the same line of work. He is the one who got the public glory.

Theirs was an interesting story in how they met and got into this line of work, as well as their life during and after the wars. Both working in secret, they could not come home at the end of the day to share what they were working on.

But most fascinating was the work itself. This book is as much about the Friedmans as it is the history of code breaking. It’s mind-boggling to think about the work they did without the aid of computers.

It’s also a history lesson about the evolution of agencies that today we seem to take for granted, like the FBI, CIA and NSA.

J. Edgar Hoover in many ways is the villain in the story, which probably doesn’t surprise too many people.

A big surprise for me, though, was South America’s involvement in World War II, in particular the allegiance to Germany by so many of the countries.

I highly recommend this book.

Celebrating statewide writing award

Awards always feed the ego. They also make the long hours of hard, sometimes tedious, work worthwhile. When the award comes from your peers it’s even more special.

Such is the case with having just been awarded first place for Enterprise News Story in the California Journalism Awards which is sponsored by the California News Publishers Association. This particular category was judged by journalists outside of the state.

A few things made it even more special. One, I didn’t know any of my stories had been entered in the contest. Two, it’s a story I wrote as a freelancer, so for the publication to include it with staff submissions made me feel really good. Three, doing a little research about this year’s awards made me realize CNPA has evolved—and that’s a good thing. The N used to stand for newspaper; while now it is news, which is more inclusive. CNPA also used to not allow digital publications in its membership nor did it have an awards category for online news sites. It was also an impediment to allowing online only news organizations to publish legal ads, which is a cash cow for print publications. I don’t know where its policy on legals is today, but once upon a time it mattered a great deal in my life.

Back to the award.

The story was published in the North Bay Business Journal in September. (The awards are for stories written in calendar year 2021.) The article talks about the growing demand for vegetarian and vegan food in grocery stores and how the dairy industry in particular is not thrilled.

CNPA’s criteria for an enterprise news story is it must be: a proactive story or series that is not directly based on a news event and that covers a topic or issue in a new and creative way. Coverage should be comprehensive and enlightening, while demonstrating effort and difficulty; quality of writing; selection of material, balanced reporting; local appeal; photography, graphics and headlines. Awards are handed out based on whether the publication is a weekly or daily and then its circulation size.

This is what the judges said about my story: “Beautiful, explanatory journalism that reveals to readers facts they may have not known. This should make people look at grocery store food aisles in a whole new way.”

There is no money associated with the award. No one ever writes for monetary gain.

Even after all these years, I’m still idealistic about the purpose of quality news sites such at the North Bay Business Journal. I’m proud to be associated with such a publication and humbled to have my work submitted for an award.

Book Review: Inspirational Story About First All-Black Crew Team

I’m a sucker for a good story about athletes overcoming adversity.

A Most Beautiful Thing: A True Story of America’s First All-Black High School Rowing Team (Flatiron Books, 2020) did not disappoint. It was first published in 2015 under the title Suga Water by Wise Ink Creative Publishing. And it has been made into a movie, which I have not seen.

Author Arshay Cooper takes readers on a journey through what it was like growing up on the west side of Chicago in the late 1990s and the discovery of crew. While I learned a lot about the sport, what was more intriguing and gratifying was the transformation of these adolescents. It proves that a little help, faith, support, and opportunity can change lives.

Crew is traditionally a sport reserved for white people with money. As such, snide remarks were made about this all-black team by classmates, other teams, and adults. Even parents were skeptical and didn’t allow some of their off-spring to participate.

I didn’t look up the author until after I had read the book. I didn’t want to know his whole story beyond having written a book about such a pivotal point in his life. After all, many in Cooper’s neighborhood were in gangs, selling drugs, with a future that didn’t involve higher education or well-paying jobs. I felt connected to Cooper and his teammates; feeling like I was rooting from them with each turn of the page.

The book was incredibly inspirational.

Book Review: Ephron successfully captures women as they age

Nora Ephron has yet to disappoint me. Her ability to turn the mundane into entertaining reading is artful. If only there could be more of her sassy, irreverence.

Her collection of thoughts in I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman (Heartburn Enterprises, 2006) was a delight to read. It’s fast, it’s easy, it’s fun. Ephron had such a gift for putting words together.

It’s hard to imagine men enjoying this book. And it really is geared to women of a certain age.

This particular book is about the issues women face as they age. Some topics are universal to nearly all women, others pertinent only to her. And, yet, all were relatable on some level.

Mostly this book made me smile.

It’s not a book about how to age gracefully. It’s not even a book that embraces age being a good thing. Instead, it’s a book about life told in a truthful, funny manner.

Book Review: ‘Astronaut Wives’ a trip to another time and place

Plenty has been written about the men in the U.S. space program, but what about their wives?

After all, it was a prerequisite at the start of NASA’s space endeavors that the astronauts, who of course were all male at the time, be married. They were to exhibit what a perfect American family looks like. But we all know there is no such thing, no matter how hard one tries.

Lily Koppel takes readers on a journey to a land far, far away known as the United States starting in the late 1950s in her book The Astronaut Wives Club (Red Leather Diary, 2013). The book focuses on the original seven wives of the men in the Mercury program, then nine women who came on board with the Gemini program, and then the 14 who were part of the Gemini and Apollo missions, and the next 19 wives whose husbands were selected in 1966.

It’s not so simple being the wife of an astronaut—a profession that was brand new, and is still so limited in its numbers today.

Suddenly, with the Life magazine contract these women were obligated to open their homes to reporters and photographers in ways most people will never be subjected to. Then the masses of journalists infiltrated their lives when launches were about to happen, afterward, and when tragedy struck.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book. It gives more than a glimpse into what life was like for these women as they navigated this new terrain, and mostly while their husbands were gone for extended periods of time training. Financial issues, alcoholism, infidelity, jealousy between the men as well as the women, and the evolution of their lives fill the pages. Relationships with each other, their husbands, NASA are all fair game.

It’s a book that essentially tells the rest of the story. Stories many of the astronauts probably didn’t even know because they were so seldom home. It certainly gave me an appreciation for a group of women who I knew nothing about prior to this book.

Book Review: ‘There There’ misses the mark

My knowledge of native American history is dismal. It did not improve much after reading “There There” (Vintage Books, 2019) by Tommy Orange.

What it did do is it got me to realize I need to find some books to enlighten me beyond the limited education I received in school decades ago and what I have gathered since then. (Any suggestions?)

I chose the book because it is this year’s Book in Common at California State University, Chico.

According to Chico State, “The Book in Common is a shared, community read, designed to promote discussion and understanding of important issues facing the broader community. The Book in Common is chosen each year by a group of university faculty, staff, students and community members.”

The author spoke at the college on March 1. It was free to Chico State and Butte College students. I had a ticket, but something else came up. I’m guessing if I had been more impressed with the book, I would have attended.

One big issue I had with the book is that it is fiction. Of course I knew this going in, but I was still disappointed.

Another issue was Orange had 12 main characters. That was way too many. I had a hard time keeping them straight. This is never good.

I’m sure I expected too much considering the college picked it as the Book in Common.

While I can’t recommend this book, I write about it because the topic is of importance. And perhaps that will send you on your own quest to learn more about Native Americans, their history, and their stories.

Book Review: ‘Caste’ a jarring look at tiered system in U.S.

Sobering. Educational. Disturbing. Enlightening. Thought-provoking. Difficult.

Those are just some of the words I would use to describe Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House, 2020) by Isabel Wilkerson.

I had never thought of the United States of having a caste society until Wilkerson laid out the facts for me. I’ve used a lot of words, OK, maybe just a few to describe the inequities in our country. I just never used caste.

But it’s more than the choice of words. I really have to accept there is a tiered system in the United States; even today.

This is not an easy book to get through, but it is one I think everyone should read or listen to. It’s so powerful.

She primarily compares the castes of the United States, India and Nazi Germany. It was so alarming to learn how the Nazis used the United States as a model to oppress people, and that even some of what was going on here was too much for them to adopt.

Examples of the bigotry, hatred, racist, inhumane behavior are so hard to hear. (I listened to the book.) I forced myself to keep listening. It’s the least I could do. Clearly, we have not evolved much as a society.

One line in particular struck me when Wilkerson said so many people in the United States are willing to side with being white instead of siding with the Constitution. She said it a little more eloquently, but the sentiment is the same.

I know I have white privilege. It’s how I use it that matters. I want to work toward a world where no one’s skin color gives them a better or worse life than someone else.

While I’m not doing anything substantive to change the world, I do believe educating myself about the inequities, sharing what I’ve learned, and talking about it are at least a start. From there, perhaps I can help effect some positive change.

One day, though it won’t be in my lifetime, it would be wonderful if the caste system in the United States were abolished. It won’t happen, though, if those of us in the upper caste don’t start doing more, and doing it soon.

Book Review: Obama’s 8-Year Presidency In His Words

Exhaustive, but not exhausting. That is how I would sum up A Promised Land (Crown, 2020) by Barack Obama.

It’s one thing to live through history, it’s another to have the former president of the United States give his unabridged take on events.

For the most part, this is more of a political book than a personal one. Still, there are personal moments in it.

It’s going to take you a while to read or listen to. It is so long—768 pages. I got it as an audio book from the library. My 21-day rental was not long enough to hear it all, so I listened to it with a gap. Not a problem. It gave me time to digest some of it before finishing it by the next deadline. Obama reads the book, making it even more captivating.

I kept wanting to listen because there was such a depth to the stories, to the news of the time that either I had forgotten or never knew about or it wasn’t shared in the moment.

I think most people can agree the challenges of being president are daunting. Obama shares with his readers (and listeners) what it was like to make the tough decisions. He touts his successes, is willing to admit to failures, and shares insecurities and doubt. It’s also about so many of the people on both sides of the aisle who he was interacting with regularly.

If seemed like it was honest retelling of events. It didn’t sound like he was trying to rewrite history in his favor, as a memoir can often be.

A lot happened in those eight years of his presidency. It was educational to relive what he wanted to share and have it put in context.

I was fascinated by this book.

While it will be seen as partisan based on whose memoir this is, it would probably be more educational for those who didn’t vote for him to read this book in order to understand Obama’s choices and thinking.

Book Review: Billie Jean King’s life in her words

While I knew a lot about Billie Jean King before I read her autobiography, there were plenty of new nuggets in this more than 400-page book.

All In (Alfred A. Knopf, 2021) is definitely comprehensive. It’s so much more than tennis, though.

When President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, he said it was for “all the off-the-court stuff.” It proves how multidimensional King is. She is still a huge advocate for women’s rights as well as the LGBTQ+ community.

King seems to leave no relevant topic untouched. The book is entertaining, enlightening and thought provoking. She doesn’t shy away from the difficulties the women had in achieving equality with the men. She doesn’t shy away from the self-conflict she had in defining her sexuality.

There is a depth to this book, which is why it’s so long.

I can see it being of interest to people who are not tennis fans, but doubt they will read it. There is just so much tennis—which as a fan and a player—was wonderful.

I have been a fan of King’s for decades. My junior racket was a Billie Jean King autograph. I wish I still had that wood stick.

When the book first came out last year the Los Angeles Times book club hosted her, which I listened to. It was great to hear her talk and not merely read her words.

King really is a living legend.

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