Tuesday, November 27, 2007

BRAND AMERICA by Simon Anholt and Jeremy Hildreth

The themes of Brand America are related to the question President Bush asked after 9/11: Why do they hate us? Since its inception, America has marketed itself and its culture as a brand. Looked at that way, America is the world's most powerful brand. Yet in recent years, as America's popularity has plummeted all over the globe, it is evident that this power has declined.

Brand America traces how America's brand became powerful, how it declined, and how it might strengthen again. Much of the suggestions are common sense, and are just good marketing. For example, good companies market a good product rather than dressing up a campaign for a crappy product no one wants. The U.S. has done the latter in recent years as the government has been unresponsive to any outside input, that is, the market.

Few people are aware of it, but the Smith-Mundt Act, passed in the 1940s, prohibits the government from exposing its citizens to its international propaganda. While this act has had hits value, it keeps the citizenry in the dark about what our government is doing abroad. Now, anyone can view this information on the internet, but the fact remains that no matter who is at fault, the American public has been relatively uninformed about and uninvolved in international diplomacy.

The authors do not take the "to know us is to love us" position that some mass communication scholars have, as they appear unimpressed by programs like Charlotte Beers' Shared Values Initiative.

There are many more concepts in this book on how America as a brand can and should handle itself, many of which are thought- and conversation-provoking. This book certainly would be a beneficial read to anyone the slightest bit interested in America's place in the world.


Monday, November 26, 2007


Mark Twain might have been a sad, grim man with the bleakest conceivable outlook on life, but the man could turn a phrase like nobody's business.

Pudd'nhead Wilson is a fairly short novel, but there's a lot going on. There's a white baby switched at birth with an identical-looking 1/32nd black baby (who is therefore a slave). There are political and financial machinations all around.

Most interesting is Twain's use of fingerprinting as a crime-solving device. He was, in fact, ahead of his time, as governmental police agencies were only beginning to use fingerprinting to identify criminals a few years after this book was published. What seems to us now to be rather common sense and everyday must have been cutting edge, CSI type stuff to Twain's original audience.

Twain uses his trademark distinct, vivid and real vernaculars when writing dialogue, including the heavy use of the N-word, which ignorant people have been fussing about for generations. We also get a very vivid idea of exactly what it means to be "sold down the river" in its original sense.

My copy of the novel has an introduction by Langston Hughes, which I recommend first-time readers skip until they have completed the novel, because he basically walks the reader through the book's plot in five pages.

Pudd'nhead Wilson is a fast, engaging novel, combining mystery with Twain's typical biting social commentary.


Sunday, November 25, 2007


The title also happens to be the plot outline. Elements of the plot have been duplicated in countless books, TV shows and movies. Army of Darkness and MacGyver leap immediately to mind. The book is a fantasy, and if haters can set aside its numerous anachronisms (A man from 1900, for example, would never be able to understand the language of 6th century England), it's quite enjoyable.

The novel is considerably more adversarial than one might expect. The main character is uncouth, obnoxious, and a jerk, even more so than is necessary given the immensely frustrating ignorance of the 6th century people. I suspect Twain plugged himself in to the Boss character, and had a good old time writing this one.

The main character is out to get the established Church, not in a no-holds-barred, Philip Pullman way, but in a logical way that recognizes the value of faith while tearing down the humanistic and suppressive political and economic machinations of the Church.

Twain also takes shots at England through the ages, at its historically oppressive caste system and at the English people's long-running love of hereditary nobility.

Commentary on politics and on human nature abound, but A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is still a great adventure story. These two elements step on each other's toes sometimes, but Twain pulls it off.

Clunky title. Great book.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury

I think pretty much everybody had to read this in high school; that's when I first read it. Along with Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 is part of the English class dystopian trinity.

I picked the book up again because I recently saw the 1966 film, and it had a gaping plot hole that I didn't recall from the novel. In the movie, there is no printed material of any kind (even the credits are narrated). If this is the case, how is anyone literate? How is Montag able to read his pilfered books? (For the record, it is clearly set forth in the novel that this is not the case.)

I'm not going to talk about the most obvious theme, state-sponsored censorship (you all wrote English papers on it, no doubt). Bradbury, as I understand it, said that he was more focused on how television decreases interest in books. Anyway, there are more interesting themes going on here. Certainly not to be missed is the retarding effect of television; Montag's wife, who consumes television all day long, is a pitiful creature. She has no sense of responsibility to herself or to the world.

Most interesting to me is that the finger of blame for censorship is pointed squarely at the mongers of political correctness. In 1950, when this book was published, political correctness's primary issue was banning of books from libraries.

Today, political correctness has evolved into a fire-breathing hydra. I am not against the principles behind political correctness – that is, I believe that we (particularly as Christians) should be courteous of the beliefs and feelings of others, and should be careful not to give offense. That said, today the beast is out of control. I feel like political correctness these days is not about not giving offense; rather, it is about quickly taking offense. Some people go out of their ways to get offended. Certainly, everybody has an underlying point that is typically valid, but by and large we really need to have more constructive uses of our time.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

THE UGLY AMERICAN by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick

I've had this book lying around for a long time, but I never read it until it was assigned in my International Mass Communication class, even though it's been a classic for fifty years. The novel is set in the fictional southeast Asian nation of Sarkhan. It was written before the Vietnam War, and proved eerily prescient concerning how and why the United States would lose that war. What is most frustrating is how the United States continues to make the same foreign policy mistakes today.

Most significant is the theme that the majority of Americans who go to Sarkhan to help or work are woefully ignorant of what is required of them. These Americans are unable to understand the need to learn the Sarkhanese culture and language. They are unprepared to put forth the necessary effort and unwilling to make such a commitment. Many Americans in Sarkhan are more concerned with their own business interests than with sincerely helping the Sarkhanese. This collective approach culminates in an ineffective policy of throwing money at the problem regardless of the results, which are most often quite poor. The most alarming aspect of this mindset is the consummate arrogance that the American policies will work in spite of continued and overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The reader shares the manifold frustration of those few characters who understand how to achieve results in Sarkhan. The powers-that-be are, for a variety of shameful reasons, by and large unwilling to accept these characters' simple, pragmatic solutions, despite the success they have achieved. Numerous characters remark on how simple it would be for America to win the hearts and minds of the Sarkhanese and drive out the communists, but America's continued unwillingness to be flexible in its approach only compounds their frustration. Certainly the irony of the novel's title is not lost here. Homer Atkins, the "ugly American", is one of these few people who understand how to interact productively with the Sarkhanese, and he does so with great success. Meanwhile, the attractive, rich and well-to-do continue to flog America's ineffective policies.

Although the authors were experts on the topic, the novel is not without its minor faults. The dialogue is stilted in places, particularly early on. But this is hardly unforgivable; the dialogue is not a focal point of the novel, and the accepted writing style for fiction was different fifty years ago, and continually changes. Additionally, the pacing is good, which helps overcome that particular weakness. The introduction of a new character nearly every chapter is unorthodox, but works fairly well as a means by which to portray the myriad examples of the various strategies of foreign diplomacy.

The novel is not a tremendously enjoyable read, nor is it supposed to be. The authors want the reader to feel the frustrations they feel, the frustrations that the few who employ effective methods feel. In sharing this frustration, the reader comes away from the novel with a clearer understanding of the situation, and with the knowledge that there are alternatives to the United States' ongoing policies of antagonism and alienation.

The Ugly American has become a timeless classic, and this is immensely regrettable. That the plain and simple explanations of how to and how not to achieve success in foreign policy have been and continue to be utterly disregarded by the United States government in spite of repeated failures and constant admonitions is nothing short of a travesty. Had the United States heeded the warnings of this book and changed their policies accordingly, the novel would certainly be left with little to say to a twenty-first century American audience. Until such a sweeping diplomatic overhaul occurs, however, The Ugly American will remain valuable to each succeeding generation.


Friday, November 9, 2007

TEARS OF THE GIRAFFE by Alexander McCall Smith

This is the second volume in the continuing No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, which is set in Botswana. This is therefore the favorite series of my wife, naturally, and I read this book at her behest. My grandma enjoyed these books, too.

I met McCall Smith at a writers' conference, and he's a nice and funny guy. This series is what made him big, although he has written some others (His Isabel Dalhousie series is strongly recommended against).

I was not thrilled by the first volume of this series, titled The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. There was too much setup and not enough happening. This one is a lot better, as the characters really are charming, and they manage to be entertaining even though there really isn't ever a whole lot going on. The focus of the story is more on the lives of the characters than on the mysteries that are being solved.

As mystery novels go, this is more in the vein of Lilian Jackson Braun's Cat Who series or other mysteries in the "cozy" genre. No violence, no bad language, and really not a whole lot of detective work going on, either. All in all, I was entertained, but it wasn't quite enough to hook me. I wouldn't actively seek out the rest of the series, but I might read them if they were handy.

RECOMMENDED to those who like cozy mysteries or low-intensity stories with endearing characters.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


The book is over a hundred years old, so you'll forgive a few spoilers. There are actually two related stories here:

First, there's Mr. Bedford, who has no scientific training and mooches a ride to the moon with Mr. Cavor, where he plots all his business ideas and bludgeons scores of moon people to death with a solid gold crowbar. He goes home, a stupid little kid accidentally flies off in the Cavorite sphere, and that's that. Good times. Convenient how he, against the extremely long odds mentioned by the narrator, not only gets back to earth, but back to England.

Next, there's Mr. Cavor, who gets left on the moon more or less out of necessity, and perhaps by his own choice. The Selenites track him down, and begin to communicate with him. How inconsiderate of Mr. Cavor to make them all learn English instead of him learning their language, especially since they only have one language globally. Here we get into the book's social commentary, which Wells was always big on but which posterity has forgotten in favor of his science fiction elements. Is it truly by accident that Cavor mentions that he's the only way humans can get back to the moon, and that he fails to send earth his formula for Cavorite? Or is he conveniently trying to keep the indigenous peoples from being trampled down by the earth's world powers? Plus we have the Selenites' interesting social structure, like communism, to the extreme.

Reading this book for the first time in the twenty-first century, one's thoughts go like this: "Hey, Wells made some pretty decent predictions about helium and the moon…well, except for the moon plants…and the giant moon cows…and the moon ant people. Never mind."

Wells was a great writer, though, and this story is engaging and, early on, humorous. Seems like he was trying to outdo Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and its sequel. The First Men in the Moon is over the top in this day and age, maybe, but in 1900 nobody knew any better. Well done, sir.