Monthly Archives: July 2014

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Free to Fall’: Dystopic Thriller Should Appeal to Young Adult, Teen Readers — If You Can Get Them to Read a Book

If you think today’s teens are welded to their smart phones and never seem to do anything but text, behold the dystopian future portrayed by Lauren Miller in her young adult thriller “Free to Fall” (HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 480 pages, $17.99) and be grateful.

Free to Fall jacketIn the near future — about a decade and a half from now — Apple and Google and Samsung and all the rest have been replaced by Gnosis, a gigantic corporation that has developed the most life-changing technology to ever hit the market: Lux, an app that flawlessly optimizes decision-making for the best personal results. I see Lux as a lot like the drug soma in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopian novel “Brave New World” in its almost universal use and its power to take away decision making.

The heroine, Aurora “Rory” Vaughn, 16, is a brainy, introverted girl who has never known her birth mother. Her mother died giving birth to Rory, who lives in Seattle with her father and stepmother.

Like just about everybody in the world and almost everyone else, Rory believes the key to a happy, healthy life is following what Lux recommends. Her best friend, Beck, is old school, declining to use the Lux app on his handheld device. He limits his cell phone use to texting and phone calls.

When she’s accepted in the class of 2032 at the elite boarding school Theden Academy in Massachusetts, Rory’s future happiness seems assured. But once on campus, something feels wrong beneath the polished surface of her prestigious dream school. She discovers her mother was a Theden student who left before graduating. She wants to discover more about the woman who left her with a baby blanket — and nothing else.

Rory learns more about the school and her mother from hacker North Pascal, a handsome townie who doesn’t use Lux, and begins to fall for him and his outsider way of life. He has a big list of wealthy clients, but he keeps busy as a barista in the town’s coffee shop.

Not long after arriving at Theden, Rory is going against Lux’s recommendations, listening instead to the inner voice that everyone has been taught to ignore—a choice that leads her to uncover a truth neither she nor the world ever saw coming.

Rory is an outstanding student, but she discovers hostility toward her from one of her teachers, Dr. Esperanza Tarsus. Rory’s roommate, the beautiful Hershey, is also an enigma to Rory. There is something about Hershey’s behavior that unsettles Rory.

With its complicated plot and appealing characters, “Free to Fall” should be a perfect match for its audience, teen-age girls. All that’s necessary is to convince these members of the short-attention Twitter and texting generation to immerse themselves in a relatively large book. I think once the target audience starts “Free to Fall” they’ll discover the old-school joys of reading a big book. Adults can enjoy the novel, too, for its insights into the thought processes of teens.

Lauren Miller





Lauren Miller
About the author

Lauren Miller wrote her first novel, “Parallel,” while on maternity leave from her law firm job and blogged about it, an experiment she called “embracing the detour” (also the name of her blog). Many people told her she was crazy. When she realized they were right, she told no one and kept writing. “Free to Fall” is her second novel.

Born in New York City and raised in Atlanta, Lauren now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. You can find her online at



BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Catch’: Taylor Stevens’ Shape-Shifting Heroine Vanessa Michael Munroe Gets More Than She Bargains for in East Africa

Savvy readers know that — even before they open a novel by Taylor Stevens — you’ll find her androgynous heroine Vanessa Michael Munroe in the thick of action in some of the world’s most dangerous places.

The Catch jacket
That designation describes Djibouti, capital of the eponymous small (about 9,000 square miles with 810,000 people) nation fronting the Gulf of Aden, and the seaport city of Mombasa, Kenya, two of the settings of “The Catch” (Crown Publishers, 368 pages, $24.00, also available in Kindle eBook form).

The novel opens in Djibouti, where Munroe, in her male guise, is working as a fixer and interpreter for a small maritime security company headed by Leo, with his wife Amber Marie and soldier of fortune security guard Natan rounding the list of employees. Leo wants Munroe to accompany him aboard the old freighter Favorita to Mombasa, to protect the ship and the cargo — bags of rice headed for South Sudan by way of Kenya.

At first Munroe is reluctant, wondering why Natan doesn’t go along on the voyage. Leo convinces her that her knowledge of the region and especially her knowledge of the languages, Somali and Swahili, will help him on his apparently humanitarian mission. Leo is also appreciative of Munroe’s fighting skills, especially with knives.

Not long into the voyage through the pirate-infested Indian Ocean, Munroe discovers that the bags of rice are merely window dressing for a cargo arms and ammunition, part of a gunrunning operation of which she wants no part. But it’s too late, and when a team of pirates attack the ship, Munroe manages to escape with the unconscious captain on an inflatable boat to the Kenyan coastline.

I won’t go into all the details of Munroe’s actions in Kenya. Suffice it to say that the Slavic captain was the main target of the attack. She uses all her skills to help Amber and Natan plan a mission to get the ship back. Anyone who underestimates Munroe does so at his or her peril.

Taylor Stevens continues her saga of Vanessa Michael Munroe, begun in “The Informationist” (see my review: with a fast-paced action thriller that vividly shows why Munroe is probably the best new action hero.

“The Informationist” will be brought to the big screen by Canadian director James Cameron (“Avatar”, “Titanic”). From a story by Ben Child in the Oct. 24, 2012 edition of The Guardian:

The Canadian film-maker has optioned the rights to Taylor Stevens’s bestselling novel, which centres on the information specialist Vanessa Munroe. The story sees the character, described by producer Jon Landau as a “mix of Lisbeth Salander and Jason Bourne”, finding herself back in the Africa of her childhood after being hired by a Texan oil billionaire to find his missing daughter.

“Vanessa Munroe is an intriguing and compelling heroine with an agile mind and a thirst for adventure,” said Cameron. “Equally fascinating for me is her emotional life and her unexpected love story. I’m looking forward to bringing Vanessa and her world to the big screen.”

Landau added: “This is one of the most cinematic books I’ve ever read. And it’s got all the classic Jim Cameron elements – a female protagonist who is smart, physically adept and skilled, great action, and an unexpected love story.”

Summing up, if you fell in love with Munroe in “The Informationist” and the subsequent novels “The Innocent” and “The Doll”, you’ll love “The Catch.”
About the author

Taylor Stevens

Taylor Stevens

Taylor Stevens is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of “The Informationist”, “The Innocent” and “The Doll”. Featuring Vanessa Michael Munroe, the series has received critical acclaim and the books are published in twenty languages. “The Informationist” has been optioned for film by James Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment.

Born in New York State, and into the Children of God, an apocalyptic religious cult spun from the Jesus Movement of the ’60s, Stevens was raised in communes across the globe. Separated from her family at age twelve and denied an education beyond sixth grade, she lived on three continents and in a dozen countries before reaching fourteen. In place of schooling, the majority of her adolescence was spent begging on city streets at the behest of cult leaders, or as a worker bee child, caring for the many younger commune children, washing laundry and cooking meals for hundreds at a time. In her twenties, Stevens broke free in order to follow hope and a vague idea of what possibilities lay beyond. She now lives in Texas, and is at work on the next Munroe novel.

Her website:

David M. Kinchen review of “The Innocent”: and “The Doll”:

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Real Murder’: Volume 2 of Lovers in Crime Series Explores Family Dynamics as Joshua Thornton, Cameron Gates Investigate Cold Case Deaths

If you thought the first entry in Lauren Carr’s “Lovers in Crime” series, “Dead on Ice”,  was full of twists and turns and plot complications (my review: I have to say you ain’t seen nothing’ yet when you pick up the second entry, “Real Murder” (Acorn Book Services, 302 pages,  trade paperback, $12.95; available from and other online sources; also available in a Kindle eBook edition).

Real Murder jacket
A passage from my Nov. 19, 2012 review of “Dead on Ice” is worth repeating, to introduce Cameron and Joshua, who are now a married couple:

There are so many characters and red herrings in this artfully plotted comic mystery that I’m grateful that Carr has included a cast of characters in the front of the book. I had to refer to this list frequently as I read this page-turner, to make sure I had the right character. Every mystery and thriller that I’ve come across could benefit from a cast of characters.

Joshua and Cameron met for the first time in Carr’s “Shades of Murder” which I reviewed earlier this year (Link: It was love at first sight for the widower with five kids and the childless widow. Even though they’re not married — yet — their banter reminds me of the famous “Thin Man” couple created by Dashiell Hammett, Nick and Nora Charles. There’s even a counterpart to the Charles’s dog Asta, in Admiral, an Irish Wolfhound/Great Dane mix who owns Joshua. Cameron has Irving, a Maine Coon cat with the coloring of a skunk, a gigantic cat who can’t stand to be apart from Cameron — and who is no friend of Joshua.

* * *

Joshua Thornton is the prosecuting attorney of Hancock County, West Virginia, the northernmost county of the state, wedged in between Ohio on the west and Pennsylvania on the east. He’s a widower, with one son at home, Donny. He’s now married to Pennsylvania State Police homicide detective Cameron Thornton.

As the novel opens they’ve been married 45 days. This is completely copacetic with sixteen-year-old Donny, but not so much with Joshua’s twenty-something daughter Tracy, who’s home for the summer from her studies at the C.I.A. No, not the spy shop in suburban Virginia; the Culinary Institute of America in New York City. She’s a gourmet chef who is unhappy with her dad’s decision to marry the attractive Cameron, whose husband was killed in what seems to be a hit and run accident. The tension between Tracy and Cameron is palpable.

On medical leave from her job after injuries suffered in a spectacular successful capture of a murder suspect, Cameron is intrigued by Dolly Houseman, the little old lady who lives across the street from Joshua’s and Cameron’s house in Chester.

Dolly wants Cameron to investigate the death of one of her “girls.” Cameron has been warned about the apparently senile blue-haired old lady, but she persists; if there’s one thing about Cameron, it’s her persistence!

As is the case with all of Lauren Carr’s mysteries, I don’t want to spoil the book for readers by divulging the spoilers; there are so many in this book that it would be a shame to ruin the book for fans of Carr’s books — and I’m at the top of that list.

When the squad car of Josh Thornton’s boyhood friend, Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Gardner, is hauled out of a lake, with Mike in it, the past becomes personal. Was Gardner’s death an accident or was he murdered? Complicating factors include Mike’s son Hunter, who’s training to become a police officer. Hunter and Tracy are an item: Their casual dating has become serious and they’re engaged to be married at the end of the book.

Carr presents us with a cast of characters (yes, there’s a front-of-the book list) that would be worthy of a much longer book. Take Congresswoman Rachel Hilliard, who was elected to her office after her husband, Congressman Roderick Hilliard, died in the mysterious crash of his private plane. It happened on a Friday the Thirteenth, as did many of the other deaths in “Real Murder.” What was her relationship with Dolly Houseman and does she have a past she’s trying to conceal?

Humor abounds in “Real Murder,” and the tension between Cameron and Tracy adds an extra dimension to the novel. Fans of Lauren Carr’s Mac Faraday series will find the second entry of her “Lovers in Crime” series a welcome addition to the rapidly expanding Carr mystery canon. Look for Volume 3 of the series, “Til Murder Do We Part” in June 2015.

Lauren Carr
About the Author

Lauren Carr fell in love with mysteries when her mother read Perry Mason to her at bedtime. The first installment in the Joshua Thornton mysteries, “A Small Case of Murder” was a finalist for the Independent Publisher Book Award. A best-selling mystery author on Amazon, Lauren created the Mac Faraday Mysteries, which take place in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. “It’s Murder, My Son”, “Old Loves Die Hard”, and “Shades of Murder”, “Blast from the Past” , “The Murders at Astaire Castle”, “The Lady Who Cried Murder”, and “Twelve to Murder” have been receiving raves from readers and reviewers. Lauren is also the author of the Lovers in Crime Mysteries, which is located in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, where she grew up. “Dead on Ice” features prosecutor Joshua Thornton with homicide detective Cameron Gates. The owner of Acorn Book Services, Lauren is also an independent publisher of both ebook and print books, spanning several genres, both fiction and non-fiction. A popular speaker, Lauren is frequently asked for advice about how to succeed as an author while running a business, cooking dinner, feeding dogs, and doing laundry. Authors in Bathrobes tells budding writers the truth about what it takes to be a successful writer today: determination, hard work, a dependable laptop, a full pot of coffee, comfy slippers, and a durable bathrobe. She lives with her husband, son, and three dogs on a mountain in Harpers Ferry, WV.

Her website:

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace’: How Tradition, Architecture, Office Furniture Shaped Our White-Collar Workplaces

Not until I reached Page 247 of Nikil Saval’s “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace” (Doubleday, 368 pages, many in-text photographs and other illustrations, notes, index, $26.95) did I experience a full explanation of cubicle culture in all its ramifications. I expected this to be addressed earlier, judging from the book’s title.

Cubed jacket

Not that this diminishes Saval’s incredibly ambitious book on white-collar workplaces and how they were shaped by tradition, architecture and –of course — those ubiquitous office furniture manufacturers in west Michigan, Herman Miller of Zeeland and Steelcase of Grand Rapids.

I caught a glimpse of today’s cubicle farm from a photograph on Page 184 illustrating French director Jacques Tati’s 1967 movie “Playtime.” The walls of the little boxes housing the workers in the photo are taller than the average cubicle of today, but the message is clear: You’re boxed in, white collar worker! And Big Brother supervisor has his eye on you. I thought of the Malvina Reynolds satirical song “Little Boxes”. Folksinger Reynolds was writing about the tract houses of Daly City, south of San Francisco, in the 1960s, but I couldn’t resist this comparison to the boxes housing white-collar workers.

Saval frequently references popular culture, including novels and movies about white- collar workers: “The Best of Everything,” “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” Nine to Five” and many more in his discussion of office culture. This is a wide ranging book, as I indicated above, and Saval ran the risk of trying to get too much information in his book. I think he handled this situation quite well and I never got the feeling that he was padding out the book. On the contrary, his references seemed to me to be appropriate, especially the passages describing the role of architecture in creating the workplaces of today.

A pioneer in the transition of workplaces from the small, dank spaces called “counting-houses” — the places where Herman Melville’s fictional “Bartleby the Scrivener” and his fellow workers inhabited — to something much more inviting was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building in Buffalo, N.Y. Wright designed the building in 1904 and it was built in 1906 for the Larkin Soap Co. Saval writes that Larkin was in many respects a predecessor of Amazon, selling many products by mail other than soap.

Unfortunately demolished in 1950, the five-story steel-framed brick building incorporated many modern innovations, including air conditioning and built-in desk furniture (Wright loved built-in furniture in his designs for private residences).

From this pioneering effort by one of America’s greatest architects, we experienced a major change in how white-collar workers were perceived. Offices became rationalized, designed for both greater efficiency in the accomplishments of clerical work and the enhancement of worker productivity. Women entered the office by the millions, and revolutionized the social world from within.

Skyscrapers designed by Mies van der Rohe; Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill; Philip Johnson and many others changed the landscape of our cities — and later suburban areas. Not all of the buildings were as successful as Lever House designed by Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and its neighbor on Manhattan’s Park Avenue, the Seagram Building, designed by Ludwig Mies van deer Rohe. A case cited by Saval is the Portland Municipal Services Building, designed by Michael Graves. One critic called the downtown Portland, OR structure “an enlarged jukebox”, while another said it was more suited to the Las Vegas Strip than “sober Portland.”

Visionary designers like Florence Schust Knoll and Robert Probst created office furniture and proposed major changes from the traditional offices with row on row of desks (think of scenes from Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”) to the cubicles of “Office Space” and the “Dilbert” cartoons of Scott Adams.

It’s estimated that 60 percent of American white-collar workers inhabit cubicles — and that 93 percent of them dislike them. With the downsizing corporations have experienced in recent years, the cubicle dwellers of today probably consider themselves fortunate to have jobs at all.

“Cubed” is the first book I’ve encountered that brings all the elements of workplace design together, in all its variations and placed in proper context. It’s also a very readable account that will evoke laughter — and maybe other emotions — from those who’ve experienced cubicles and other types of office Nikil Saval 2layouts.

Nikil Saval
Photo by Katrina Ohstrom
About the Author

Nikil Saval is an editor at n+1; he lives in Philadelphia. “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace” is his first book. He is completing a Ph.D. in English at Stanford University. His family comes from India’s third largest city, Bengalura (Bangalore), India’s Silicon Valley.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty’: Yes, Dave Barry Lives, Although Brazil is Dead


Why am I reviewing Dave Barry’s latest humor book “You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty: Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About” (Putnam, 240 pages, $26.95) on the day when Germany defeated (that’s the understatement of the year) host country Brazil 7-1 in the FIFA World Cup? Especially since the book was published on March 4. It’s like this — and I’m not making this up — the folks at G.P. Putnam’s Sons didn’t send me a book to review. I had to check the book out at the local public library. I visited the library today with three grocery bags of books I’ve reviewed; I love to help out libraries in their hours of need — all 24/7 of them!

Dave Barry You can date boys when You're fortyActually, Barry knows as much as most men do about parenting: He has a son, Rob, in his 30s, from an earlier marriage and a teen-age daughter, Sophie, 13, from his current marriage to sportswriter Michelle Kaufman. Rob needs no understanding: Barry knows that as a guy he’s much like his dad. On the other hand, Sophie is almost a woman, creatures that Barry — along with the rest of us of the male persuasion — can never understand.

We males can’t understand why women made a monster bestseller out of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a porno book by a middle-aged British woman about a clueless American girl in love with the kind of man Barry hopes will never darken his South Florida doorway.

As I do with all Dave Barry books, I laughed so much the Brazilians must have thought I was laughing at their ridiculous performance on the pitch in Belo Horizonte.

No, dear Brazilians, and I include you, dear Evelyn De Wolfe, one of my former colleagues at the Los Angeles Times. You’re all fantastic and you live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. You make some of the best autoloading pistols on the planet, including my little .380 Taurus TCP. Just remember: Belo Horizonte means “beautiful horizon” and it’s always darkest before the dawn. Yeah, that’s easy for me to say, a clueless American male who doesn’t understand what the fuss with soccer — the “Beautiful Game” — is all about. Don’t get any ideas, Brazilians, about those wonderful Tauruses. It’s only a game!

Dave Barry, born July 3, 1947, is now 67, well past the age when we oldsters look forward to the mail. Yesterday I got a mailing from a hearing aid firm. At 75, I can expect to be getting mail from funeral homes, Medicare supplement insurance plans and at least two hearing aid providers a week until I really go deaf.

Barry doesn’t write a daily column anymore — more’s the pity — for the Miami Herald, where his wife, Michelle, is currently a sportswriter — and I’m REALLY not making this up — specializing among other things in soccer! Here’s a link to her story on the Germany-Brazil game:

Barry tackles everything from family trips, bat mitzvah parties and dating (he’s serious about that title: “When my daughter can legally commence dating—February 24, 2040—I intend to monitor her closely, even if I am deceased”) to funeral instructions (“I would like my eulogy to be given by William Shatner”), the differences between male and female friendships, and — the ultimate sacrifice for a maie parent accompanying Sophie to a Justin Bieber concert (“It turns out that the noise teenaged girls make to express happiness is the same noise they would make if their feet were being gnawed off by badgers”).

I’m guessing that Barry was an English major at Haverford College in suburban Philadelphia. If he’s not, the section in the book on mastering English grammar, is worth the price of the book all by itself. English grammar is boring? “No,” he writes, “English grammar is not ‘hard and boring’…all you have to do is learn a few simple, logical rules. Once you’ve mastered those, all you have to do is master nineteen trillion totally illogical exceptions to the rules because otherwise you will sound like an idiot.” Makes sense to this English major!

So pick up a copy of Barry’s latest tome and laugh your ass off: it probably could use it!

About the author

The New York Times has pronounced Dave Barry “the funniest man in America.” But of course that could have been on a slow news day when there wasn’t much else fit to print. True, his bestselling collections of columns are legendary, but it is his wholly original books that reveal him as an American icon. “Dave Barry Slept Here” was his version of American history. “Dave Barry Does Japan” was a contribution to international peace and understanding from which Japan has not yet fully recovered. “Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys” is among the best-read volumes in rehab centers and prisons. Raised in a suburb of New York, educated in a suburb of Philadelphia, he lives now in a suburb of Miami. He is not, as he often puts it so poetically, making this up.

* * *

For a hilarious interview — is there any other kind? — with Dave Barry on

In this interview — and in the book — you’ll learn that Barry loves anagrams, including this one for Leonardo DiCaprio: “a ripe raccoon dildo.”


BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream’: What It Means to be a Chinese American Today

To put it simply: America makes Chinese Americans, but China doesn’t make American Chinese — Eric Liu, in the epilogue (Page 209) of “A Chinaman’s Chance”

A chinaman's chance jacketThat formulation in Eric Liu’s “A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream” (PublicAffairs, 240 pages, bibliography, index, $25.99) is vital to grasp Liu’s view of what it means to be a Chinese American — and by extension, any kind of American.
He backs up his assertion in a relatively short book (I didn’t want it to end!) that combines a family memoir with essays on the ultimate inclusiveness of the U.S. — despite a despicable history of prejudice and exploitation of Chinese in the nation that led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act forbidding their admittance.

The exclusion act, which had bipartisan support in Congress, marked the first time in the history of the U.S. that a “group by race from entering our territory, let alone from ever becoming citizens,” he writes (Page 109). The exclusion act wasn’t repealed until 1940! Considering the woeful state of history instruction in our schools, I’m guessing that very few Americans are aware of the Chinese Exclusion Act. I don’t recall reading about it in my high school history classes in Illinois in the 1950s.

One part of the book that particularly intrigued me was the anti-Chinese racism of San Francisco Irish American Dennis Kearny (Pages 111-116). Liu describes how Kearny refused to debate a Chinese American citizen on the Chinese Exclusion Act. Liu mentions a 1995 book by Noel Ignatiev that I’ve heard of — but not read — “How the Irish Became White”. Here’s an essay on the subject:

Ignatiev writes that Irish immigrants became “white” by showing “the WASP power structure in word and deed that they, too, were willing to trample blacks,” Liu writes. “The same story, substituting yellow for black, obtained in California. The Irish made themselves insiders by leading the stigmatization of the most marginal of the outsiders.” (Page 112).

What jumped off the pages of “A Chinaman’s Chance” to me was the success story of his father and his five uncles in their quest for education and employment in America.

Liu’s father rose to the middle ranks of management at IBM, while his uncles achieved success in businesses and academia in the U.S. Most of them eventually returned to Taiwan, where they didn’t experience the glass ceiling they faced in the U.S.

One uncle — “Uncle No. 5” — even became the prime minister of Taiwan. Liu’s grandfather, Liu Kuo-yun, born in 1908, was a legendary Chinese general, fighting the Japanese and the Communist Chinese; the general’s widow– Eric Liu’s beloved “nei nei” — Wan Fang Liu– is still alive at 101 and lives in Taiwan.

Eric Liu himself is a success story for first generation Chinese Americans: He was a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. He’s an author of best-selling books like “The Accidental Asian” and the book under review. He’s a contributor to The Atlantic magazine and a correspondent for

While the book is serious, it’s also full of humor, as he tells how his mixed-race teen-age daughter Olivia joshes him about his Tiger Father tendencies. The book’s title came from his father, who died at the young age of 61. Liu says his father used the politically incorrect phrase — which originated in racist 19th Century California and which means “no chance at all” — to describe a variety of situations, including getting to the store on time before it closed.

Liu discusses Amy Chua’s best-selling “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” as well as “The Triple Package” by Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, published earlier this year. Liu says culture is a “coarse and deceptive filter. If it were true that Chineseness alone conferred this ‘triple package’ advantage, then all Chinese Americans would be thriving. That’s how it may seem in the popular imagination. But it’s just not true. There are hundreds of thousands of Chinese Americans, and not just in Chinatowns, stuck in poverty or struggling to get a fair shot in life.”

It’s the other side of the “Model Minority” coin, he writes, noting that the poverty rate for Chinese Americans is higher than that of other Asian Americans — and higher than that of whites. And while majority white America insists that merit alone should govern the admission of high school students to selective universities, the argument blows up in their faces when Chinese Americans and other Asians end up with a disproportionate share of students at universities like UCLA.

I was delighted to find that, like me, Liu loves counterfactual fiction, including Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” which deals with the persecution of American Jews when Charles Lindbergh is elected president. (Liu says it was 1932, but it actually was 1940 when Roth writes that Lindbergh defeated FDR– who was seeking a third term).

(for my Nov. 15, 2004 review of “The Plot Against America”:

The discussion of Roth’s novel leads to the often made comparison of Chinese Americans with the success of American Jews. He discusses this on pages 159-160, saying that the Jewish immigrants who created what Neal Gabler called in his book “An Empire of Their Own” — the motion picture industry — did so because there was little or no competition.

Nobody thought much of the early 20th Century nickelodeons and their crude films, which allowed immigrant Jews and their sons to create the “empire.” Today, he writes, the fragmentation of our civic and aesthetic life pretty much precludes any single immigrant group from dominating an industry the way Jews did in Hollywood.

But Liu undercuts his own argument by citing fashion industry icons of Chinese origin like designers Alexander Wang and Jason Wu and editor Eva Wang. (One Wang he didn’t mention was Vera Wang, the one I’m most familiar with). But then again, he’s got a point: No single ethnic group dominates fashion, although Jews like Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren are among the 48 pages of “Jewish fashion designers” listed in Wikipedia. ( Forty-eight pages sounds like an empire to me, with people like Kenneth Cole, Isaac Mizrahi, Marc Jacobs, Anne Klein, Arnold Scaasi, Diane von Furstenberg and many others populating the “empire”.

I was aware, dimly, of many of the topics in “A Chinaman’s Chance,” but not of the details of the exclusion act. This is an eye-opening book that should be read by everyone. To top it off, it’s entertaining.


Eric Liu


About the author

Eric Liu is founder and CEO of Citizen University. His books include “The Accidental Asian”, a New York Times Notable Book; “Guiding Lights”, the official book of National Mentoring Month; and “The Gardens of Democracy” (coauthored with Nick Hanauer). Eric served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. He is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for and lives in Seattle with his family. Follow him on Twitter @ericpliu.


BOOK REVIEW: ‘Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!’: Counterfactual Examination of a World Without World War I — and World War II

Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives JackREVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN

You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” — Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles in Carol Reed’s 1949 film “The Third Man”

* * *

June 28, 1914, when Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, a province of the Austro-Hungarian empire, is probably the one day in the 20th Century the outcome of which everybody would like to change. In a better world, Gavrilo Princip, the teen-age assassin, would fail and Franz Ferdinand — the anointed successor to Emperor Franz Josef — and Sophie would be unharmed.

Political psychologist Richard Ned Lebow examines the chain of events that led to war in the summer of 1914 and what could have been done to prevent it in “Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!” (Palgrave MacMillan, 256 pages, suggested reading bibliography, index, $27.00).

In the opinion of many historians — and in my opinion — even if the assassination had occurred there shouldn’t have been a war that would eventually involve all of the world’s great powers — and many lesser ones — that would claim nearly 40 million lives and set the stage for the next world war, the Holocaust and the Cold War. Germany didn’t want to go to war, Russia was hardly in a position to fight after being defeated by Japan a decade earlier and France wasn’t eager to engage Germany to get back its lost territory, Alsace-Lorraine. Britain, with a royal family related to both Germany’s and Russia’s, wasn’t interested in going to war.

Lebow presents two counterfactual worlds, the “best” outcome and the “worst” one. To some readers the “best” wouldn’t be all that great, but it would have spared at least 100 million people, the Armenian massacre of WWI and the Holocaust of WWII, the two atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the madness of the two wars.

In both scenarios, there would have been no Holocausts, no breakup of the multinational Austro-Hungarian empire (it would have become a federal state, modeled on the U.S. with Franz Ferdinand, who becomes emperor in 1916,  at its head); no destruction of the Ottoman Empire, no Arab revolt led by T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia); no Israel and no enrichment of the U.S. by talented exiles of all kinds — composers, conductors, architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, no scientists like Albert Einstein and Edward Teller, no movie makers like Fritz Lang and Michael Curtiz, no writers like Thomas Mann, no artists — from Europe.

And there wouldn’t have been a Harry Lime, a black marketeer in war-torn Vienna right after WW II.

The “worst” outcome would feature a Cold War — between the German empire and Britain — and a nuclear accident in 1972 that would wipe out London and Berlin, but spare the rest of the world.

I especially liked Lebow’s re-imagining of people:

* Adolf Hitler would never fight in WWI because there wouldn’t be a WWI, and, after trying to be a painter but failing, becomes a successful entrepreneur of alternative “quack” medications. (Lebow points out that the real Hitler was interested in alternative medications). Hitler is not amused when people tell him he resembles the famous actor Charlie Chaplin.

* Barack Obama never becomes president, but he is elected governor of Hawaii — the most multicultural of U.S. states. (I would question whether Hawaii would have become a state in the extremely conservative U.S. of the scenario).

* A Kennedy is elected president in 1960, but it’s Jack Kennedy’s older-by-two-years brother Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. — “JPK”. In real life, Joe Kennedy Jr. was an Army Air Corps pilot who was shot down in 1944 over the English Channel. The counterfactual JPK chooses JFK as his attorney general. The U.S. continues to have racial segregation and “Gentlemen’s Agreement” anti-Semitism well into the 1960s. Lebow notes that his own Jewish family was refused accommodations at a hotel in the 1950s, reminding me of a scene in Philip Roth’s counterfactual novel “The Plot Against America”.

* Richard Nixon attends Harvard, serves two terms as a California congressman and becomes a traveling evangelist, like Billy Graham. The U.S., spared involvement in two world wars, is a conservative country, isolated in many ways from the rest of the world, and — for the better — not intervening in every country’s civil war! Absent the wars, there would have been no OSS and its successor, the CIA, which was involved in many coups.

* Curt Flood integrates baseball, not Jackie Robinson, and it’s not in the 1940s, but in the 1960s, when the Cleveland Indians draft him in 1962.

* Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, along with many other black musicians, goes to Europe in the 1920s and later and participates in a rich cultural scene in a much more accepting continent where black and white musicians routinely play together. Jazz combines with Jewish klezmer music to produce music that becomes popular in the U.S. as an import. (In real life, the very young and very poor Armstrong was virtually adopted by a Jewish couple in New Orleans, and always wore a Star of David medallion).

* Winston Churchill becomes an advocate of greater freedom for India, which becomes a dominion like Canada. There is no departure from India by Pakistan, and the present-day Bangladesh remains a part of India.

As both a history junkie and a fan of alternate/counterfactual history, I enjoyed “Archduke Franz Ferdiand Lives!” It’s one of those books I wish were longer — much longer. The insights Lebow presents in this book will expand your thinking and, to use that useful cliche´, push the envelope.

About the Author

Richard Ned Lebow is professor of International Political Theory in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and James O. Freedman Presidential Professor Emeritus of Government at Dartmouth College. He is also a bye-fellow of Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge, and the author of almost 30 books. His work has been cited in The New York Times , The Wall Street Journal , and The Economist , and he has been interviewed on NPR, the BBC, CSPAN, and German, French, and Italian radio and television. Born in Paris in 1941 to parents who died in the Holocaust, he lives in London, England and Etna, New Hampshire.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames’: Engrossing, Heavily Sourced Story of a CIA Operative Who Tried to Bring Peace to the Middle East

“But they are all terrorists, aren’t they?” — President-elect Ronald Reagan at a Nov. 19, 1980 briefing by CIA operatives who tried to explain the different Palestinian factions involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict (Pages 249-50) in “The Good Spy”

* * *

That comment by Reagan provoked eye-rolling by members of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), says Kai Bird in his magnificent account of Robert C. Ames (1934-1983) in “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames” (Crown Publishers, 448 pages, photos, maps, notes, bibliography, index, $26.00) but later events — including the April 18, 1983 suicide truck bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon that killed Ames and 62 others — may make Reagan’s comment more prescient than the nuanced formulations of more sophisticated intelligence operatives.

The Good Spy jacket

Bird says the bombing was carried out by Shi’a Muslims led by a young intelligence officer of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, who — amazingly — was provided a new identity by the U.S. and is alive today in the U.S.

In a summation in the epilogue, Bird says: “Robert Ames believed that a real peace was possible [in the Middle East]. The Middle East need not remain a perennial battlefield. He used his intelligence and charm to begin the peace process in the shadows of Beirut. His clandestine work was a catalyst for that symbolic handshake on the White House lawn. He was the good spy. But his work remains unfinished.” (Page 355).

The April 18, 1983 attack was a geopolitical turning point, says Bird. It marked the beginning of Hezbollah as a political force. Even more important, it eliminated America’s most influential and effective intelligence officer in the Middle East – Robert Ames.

What set Ames apart from his peers among the Arabists at the CIA was his extraordinary ability to form deep, meaningful connections with key Arab intelligence figures. Some operatives relied on threats and subterfuge, but Ames worked by building friendships and emphasizing shared values – never more notably than with Yasir Arafat’s charismatic intelligence chief and heir apparent Ali Hassan Salameh (aka “The Red Prince”).

Ames came from a working class Philadelphia background and fell in love with Arab culture much the same way that Englishman T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) did decades earlier.

While many C.I.A. operatives considered places like Yemen, Aden, and Saudi Arabia, “hell-holes” — preferring London, Paris and other locales — Ames welcomed postings to places where he could interact with the locals.

Senior Mossad — the Israeli counterpart of the CIA — agent Yoram Hessel called the 6′-3″ tall Ames “an American Lawrence [of Arabia ] a Lawrence with with Stars and Stripes.” (T.E. Lawrence was about a foot shorter than Ames).

Hessel and other Mossad operatives got along much better with Ames than they did with other CIA Arabists. But Hessel said of Ames that his love of Arabs and their language and culture came “with considerable baggage….Empathy in intelligence can be dangerous … An intelligence officer is not an advocate. When Ames came to Tel Aviv, his job was to listen — and to see if what he knew measured up to reality. But he was clearly emotionally involved with the Arab world. We were always aware that he was presenting things through a certain lens. We didn’t see him as an adversary — but he certainly came from a different place.” (Pages 240-241).

Ames’ deepening relationship with Salameh held the potential for a lasting peace. Within a few years, though, both men were killed by assassins, and America’s relations with the Arab world began heading down a path that culminated in 9/11, the War on Terror, and the current fog of mistrust.

Bird was a natural to write the story of Robert C. Ames, not to be confused with CIA counterspy Aldrich Hazen Ames, who was convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and Russia to fund his living beyond his means lifestyle.

Bird — who knew Ames as a neighbor when he was twelve years old, when Bird’s father was a foreign service officer in Saudi Arabia — spent years researching “The Good Spy.”

Bird says at the beginning that he didn’t get official cooperation from the CIA, but he did interview dozens of CIA operatives — many of whom are disguised with pseudonyms — as well as current and former Israeli and Palestinian intelligence officers. He was given the first access to hundreds of Ames’ private letters by Yvonne Ames, his widow. Bird was the first journalist or historian Yvonne Ames spoke to.

“The Good Spy” reads like a spy novel, and like the best spy novels, it’s based on solid research. I fell in love with Kai Bird’s writing when I read and reviewed his biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, “American Prometheus” more than nine years ago. (Link to my April 25, 2005 review:

I rank “The Good Spy” with Lawrence Wright’s 2006 “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” as essential books that one must read to Kai Birdunderstand the realities of the Middle East.



Kai Bird

About the Author

Kai Bird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer. His last book was a memoir about the Middle East entitled “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis 1956-1978″(Scribner, 2010). It was a 2011 Finalist in the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. He is the co-author with Martin J. Sherwin of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” (2005), which also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography and the Duff Cooper Prize for History in London. He wrote “The Chairman: John J. McCloy, the Making of the American Establishment” (1992) and “The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy & William Bundy, Brothers in Arms” (1998). He is also co-editor with Lawrence Lifschultz of “Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy” (1998). He is the recipient of fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Alicia Patterson Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s writing fellowship, the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, the German Marshall Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Study Center, Bellagio, Italy and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is a member of the Society of American Historians and a contributing editor of The Nation. He lives in Lima, Peru with his wife and son.