Saturday, April 10, 2021

My Amazon Review of Ronald Brownstein's "Rock Me on the Water:......."


Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll, Movies and too Much Politics


Atlantic magazine editor and political writer Ronald Brownstein has written an ode to the creativity surrounding Los Angeles in 1974. Of a sudden Los Angeles was awash in musical, television and motion picture talent with something to say. He highlights Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty for their roles in “Chinatown” and “Shampoo”, respectively. Both movies were written by Robert Towne. With respect to “Chinatown,” Brownstein, in essence, summarizes Sam Wasson’s “The Long Goodbye.” ( See:  Shulmaven: My Amazon Review of Sam Wasson's "The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood") Just like Wasson Brownstein views the end of Los Angles’ creative moment with the arrival of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” the following year. He forgets that most people go to the movies to be entertained.


With respect to the music, he highlights the careers of singer songwriters Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne along with Joni Mitchell, the Eagles, Crosby, Stills and Nash and the music impresario David Geffen. The way he writes about Ronstadt it seems that he had quite the teenage crush on her. Brownstein was sixteen at the time and likely was not alone.


Among the musicians and the actors Brownstein writes of excessive drug use and bed swapping among his leading characters. At times you needed a scorecard to see who was sleeping with who and as the year progressed cocaine use grew to the extent that it eroded their creativity in the years to come.


On television Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin made social commentary and had big hit with “All in the Family.” Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, became a caricature of Nixon’s silent majority. But what Brownstein does not understand a good part of the audience was laughing with Archie, not at him. As an aside, I sat next to O’Connor at a wedding and he was far funnier than he was on television. It was also the time of “Maude,” “Mash” and “Mary Tyler Moore.” Brownstein revels in idea that previously untouchable subjects were brought up on television.


Where Brownstein goes astray is when he writes about politics of the era. He spends way too much time on Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden. I knew both of them. By 1974 the antiwar movement was a spent force. The real activism on the Left was taking place in the nascent environmental movement which was planting the seeds for today’s housing crisis in California, feminism, and gay rights.                        

On the Right activism was on the rise in opposition to feminism, school busing and rising property taxes. Those movements would flower later in the decade and bring on the Reagan revolution. In 1974 Jerry Brown was not the future, Ronald Reagan was, and I say this as someone who knew Brown then and served on his Housing Task Force. Jerry Brown was a far better governor 40 years later in his second go around.


Most troubling and not mentioned by Brownstein was that while all of the actors and musicians were partying on, Los Angeles was beset by gas lines, a recession, and the collapse of its manufacturing base. For most people 1974 was a very bad year and what they longed for was escape. It took a while, but Hollywood finally figured it out, just as it did during the Great Depression.


I was on the periphery of the events discussed in the book. To me the book stated out very strong then faded. Brownstein preaches too much and he forgets that entertainment is a business, and that business will not succeed if it beats people over the head by telling them how bad all of the social problems of the country are. As Brownstein notes George Lucas of “Star Wars” fame wanted people to feel better after they left the theater than when they first arrived. I go to the movies and listen to music to be entertained. If I want to look at the flaws in American life, I watch the news and read The Atlantic, of which I am a subscriber.

For the full Amazon URL see: Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll and too Much Politics (

Monday, April 5, 2021

Biden's "Infrastructure" Plan: A Bridge too Far


Last week President Biden offered up his $2.3 trillion “infrastructure” plan, but only $115 billion goes to highways and bridges and only $111 billion goes for improving the nation’s water systems. There is also $85 billion for public transit, $80 billion for rail, mostly AMTRAK; $100 billion for building out broadband, and $100 billion for extending and hardening the electrical grid. All to the good, except maybe AMTRAK. In terms of intangible capital, Biden’s program calls for a $180 billion increase in R&D spending. Indeed, with real interest rates below zero, now is the time to finance much needed infrastructure.


What is questionable is the $174 billion allocated for electric charging stations. It seems to me that the administration is making a huge bet on electric vehicles. That bet may pay off, but with fast moving fuel cell technology, the future may not all be in electrification. What is even more questionable is the $213 billion allocated to affordable housing and the $400 billion allocated to home care. Although arguably necessary affordable housing and home care are a stretch to being called infrastructure. Further if such programs are enacted they would likely be continued beyond the plan’s eight-year budget window making it far more costly than advertised.


Make matters worse is that the plan does not waive environmental permitting and the prevailing wage requirements of the notorious Davis-Bacon Act. By avoiding the waivers, the plan all but guarantees exorbitant costs and delays. Indeed, by failing to waive environmental reviews we can look forward to years of delays in siting power lines from wind and solar farms to our urban centers. In fact, the Biden Plan requires project labor agreements that would put the Davis-Bacon Act on steroids.


We also learned that the Biden Administration is not really serious about climate change. If it were, it would have offered to pay for at least part of the plan with a carbon tax, a tax that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen spoke highly of as a private citizen. A carbon tax would be a far more efficient way of financing infrastructure than an increase in the corporate income tax. Moreover, there is no mention of investments in carbon capture/sequestration technology which most experts believe to be essential in reaching our climate goals. Thus, there is much to like in Biden’s program, but quite a bit to dislike as well.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

My Amazon Review of Gershom Gorenberg's "War of Shadows:..........."


Signals War in the Desert


Israeli journalist/historian Gershom Gorenberg has offered up a very detailed history of the north Africa theater of operations in World War II through the prism of signals intelligence. The book opens with Cairo in panic as Rommel’s vaunted Africa Corps is within 60 miles of Alexandria in June 1942. As we know the British stand at El Alamein stops the offensive in its tracks.


Gorenberg’s history is in depth going into the desert explorers of the 1930’s who map the shifting desert sands. Those insights would have enormous strategic value when the war begins. He is very detailed in discussing the Polish capture of the German’s highly prized enigma code machine that is ultimately transported to Britain and its code breaking headquarters at Bletchley Park. He goes into minute detail as the British ultimately crack the German codes with the insight that the machine it of itself might be unsolvable, but human input errors under the stress of battle leave enough clues to crack the German codes. To Gorenberg it was the unsung men and women of Bletchley who are the heroes of El Alamein.


U.S. Army captain Bonner Fellers’ role is highlighted as military liaison to the British in Cairo. Fellers was an acolyte of America Firster Charles Lindberg who becomes a full-throated supporter of the British. After the war he returns to his rightwing form. Nevertheless, while in Cairo he has full confidence of the British and is privy to their plans. He transmits those plans to Washington, but unbeknownst to him the Germans, have access to the American codes. Thus, the Brits are listening in to the Germans and the Germans are indirectly listening into the Brits. Just two days before the Battle of El Alamein, the U.S. changes its code, and for the first time Rommel is operating blind of British intentions. It leads to his defeat.


Gorenberg shows how steadfast Churchill was in protecting British interests in the middle east.  This was true, not only in Egypt, but in Iraq. A reader interested in that part of the war should read John Broich’s “Blood, Oil and the Axis."  (See: Gorenberg discusses the neutrality of the Egyptian Army which kept them out of the fighting and the pro-Nazi sympathies on the then young officer Anwar Sadat. To Egyptian nationalists the British were the enemy. On the other hand, the Jews of Palestine fearing a holocaust in their homeland fought with the British against the Germans on many fronts. That battle hardening experience would pay big dividends when they faced off against an unprepared Egyptian army in 1948.


As I said at the outset Gorenberg offers up a very detailed history. As a result, the book slows down at times. It also would have helped if there were maps depicting the battles described in the book. Thus, I give the book four stars, instead of five.

For the full Amazon URL see: Signals War in the Desert (


Friday, March 26, 2021

Kamala Harris' Poisoned Chalice

Earlier this week President Joe Biden put Kamala Harris in charge of solving, or at least ameliorating, the immigration crisis on the Mexican border. Because the Mexican border has been in an on-off crisis state for over two decades, her task, to say the least, will be extraordinarily difficult. Further the solution in the long run involves fixing the failed states of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala is no easy task and it will take years. Importantly, Harris does not have the administrative experience needed for the task. Perhaps she will rise to meet the challenge, but that is no ways certain.

Thus, in the here an now, Harris might have to resort to Trumpian-like tactics to at least put a band-aid on the problem. Of course that would inevitably give rise to a hue and cry on the Democratic Left. Simply put the president has put her in a no-win situation and has given her a poisoned chalice.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

My Amazon Review of David Downing's "Wedding Station"


Berlin on the Brink


I read and enjoyed all six of David Downing’s “Station” series novels featuring the journalist John Russell set in prewar and wartime Berlin. This is his seventh effort which serves as a prequel of what was to come and trust me, I was not disappointed. As the title suggests much of the action takes place in Berlin’s gritty working class Wedding district which historically had been a hotbed of communist activity. Russell lives in a small apartment in Wedding.


The novel opens with Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933. Within a month Hitler was granted broad dictatorial powers. Against this dramatic backdrop we find John Russell working as a crime reporter for a Berlin newspaper that is gradually losing its freedom to print.   We see him arriving at the scene of the murder/mutilation of a seventeen-year-old “line boy” at night club catering to homosexuals. The presence of a brown shirted SA officer at the scene indicates that politics maybe involved.


He next works on the murder of a genealogist who was researching the past of high Nazi officials for the purpose of blackmail. More than a few of them had stronger Jewish connections than they would like to admit. With the discovery of the genealogist’s code book, he is led to a high officer in the intelligence division (SD) of the SS. Here we see the growing rivalry between the black shirted SS and the brown shirted SA.


Russell, as a favor to a friend, takes on a freelance assignment from a member of the German general staff in seeking to find his 19-year-old communist daughter. Russell is chosen because as recently as 1927 he was a member of the German communist party. (KPD) Through is contacts he finds her, but the net result is not pretty. Along the way Russell get beat up pretty badly.


Because Russell is not a German citizen his relationship to the authorities is very tenuous, especially because he is estranged from his wife. What is keeping him in Germany is his five-year-old son. Fortunately, the couple is on friendly terms.


Along the way we witness the attacks and boycott on Jews themselves and their businesses. The SA hooligans run riot through the streets of Berlin. At the very end Russell meets Effie Koenen who would become his paramour for the series.


I was really impressed the look and feel of 1933 Berlin that Downing brings to his work. By making his characters real your get a sense of the speed Hitler was operating at. To me the book represents a novelized version of Peter Fritzche’s very academic “Hitler’s First Hundred Days.” ( Shulmaven: My Amazon Review of Peter Fritzche's "Hitler's First Hundred Days")To sum up, Downing does not disappoint!

For the full Amazon URL see: Berlin on the Brink (

Saturday, March 20, 2021

My Amazon Review of Wright Thompson's "Pappyland: A Story of.........................."


Good Whiskey, Fast Horses and Family


ESPN writer Wright Thompson tells the story of the rise, fall and resurrection of bourbon in America through the eyes of Kentucky’s Van Winkle family, particularly through the life of Julian Van Winkle III. Because Thompson is also a son of the South, he brings many of his own life events into the story, including the role of race, his wife’s pregnancy and the birth of his daughter. In that sense the book is partially autobiographical.


Pappy Van Winkle opened the Stitzel-Weller distillery on Derby Day 1935. His innovation was to add wheat, instead of rye, to the bourbon mix which is what we drink today. Wheat was local, while rye had to imported from the Dakotas. His business booms, but with the coming of the 1960s, brown liquor gave way to white liquor in the form of gin and vodka. As a result, that by 1972 the family had to sell the distillery to Norton Simon, and it is now owned by Diagio. The family continued to make bourbon using other distilleries.


In 1981 Julian Van Winkle III inherited the business and he struggled with it for many years. But make no mistake, the Van Winkle family came from money and he still retained a residue of stock from the sale of the business. Through it all Thompson offers an intimate history of the family and the role of fatherhood and friendship. Thompson and Van Winkle become the best of friends and Van Winkle even writes an afterward for the book.


Van Winkle’s big break occurs when bourbon comes back into style in the late 1990s and in 2002, he establishes a joint venture with the Buffalo Trace distillery to manufacturer different variants of Pappyland bourbon. Distilling bourbon is an act of faith. The raw materials enter the barrel anywhere from 10-23 years before it is bottled. A lot can happen during those time periods. But, by the early teens, the bourbon became a bit hit, with bottles selling for over $300 and some for as much as $5,000. Artisanal bourbon has become very “in.”


Whether it lasts, who knows. But remember bourbon is about nostalgia for a past that was never as good as we remember it. Meantime “Pappyland,” is a wonderful book to learn about the origins of the bourbon business and more importantly, the importance of family.

For the full Amazon URL see: Good Whiskey, Fast Horses and Family (

Monday, March 15, 2021

My Amazon Review of Ed Douglas' "Himalaya: A Human History"


A Mountain too High


My book club chose Ed Douglas’ book for our April selection. I and most members of the club were very disappointed, and we elected to call an audible to switch books. The book is dry and way too academic in its writing style. To be sure it could have been interesting given that the Himalayas stand at the crossroads of three major religions: Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. They also stand amidst the geopolitical rivalry involving China, India, and Pakistan.


The problem here is that Douglas gets way to wrapped up in socio-political history going back a thousand years where he highlights the rivalry of the various tribes in the region. With all of the names he mentioned the reader would need a scorecard which he does not provide. As a result, unless the reader is really interested in a very deep history of the region, I would pass.

The full Amazon URL appears at: A Mountain too High (