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Original Essays | August 20, 2014

Julie Schumacher: IMG Dear Professor Fitger

Saint Paul, August 2014 Dear Professor Fitger, I've been asked to say a few words about you for Powells.com. Having dreamed you up with a ball-point... Continue »
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    Dear Committee Members

    Julie Schumacher 9780385538138


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Ashley Bowen-Murphy has commented on (20) products.

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI by Betty Medsger
The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI

Ashley Bowen-Murphy, January 18, 2014

I feel deeply conflicted about this book. It's an *important* book that raises deeply unsettling, important questions about liberty, resistance, privacy, and the nature of government. That said, Medsger's writing left me frustrated and annoyed. I've rarely encountered a book as desperately in need of an editor as "The Burglary." Not only does the published book (from Knopf, no less) have typos in it, there are some grammatical errors and awkward (though not incorrect) sentences. It is also over 500 pages long-- much longer than needed-- because there is a substantial amount of repetition and "filler" material. These limitations to the writing are doubly a shame because the story of the Media, PA burglary and the resulting changes to the FBI is as relevant today as it was in the 1970s.

Medsger's book blends biographies of the people who participated in the burglary with a broad history of the FBI from its creation through 9/11 and the Edward Snowden-NSA leaks. The book is absolutely at its strongest when she writes about the burglary, her own history at the "Washington Post," and the overall concept of "resistance" as it was understood in the 1960s-1970s. Medsger's deep knowledge of the Catholic Peace Movement and Philadelphia-area peace activists makes these portions of the book especially interesting. Unfortunately, Medsger did not confine her work to the burglary and the period of reforms it ushered in. The last section of the book pivots to the 9/11-era FBI and NSA. While the issues raised by the Media, PA burglary obviously relate to Manning and Snowden's leaks, Medsger fails to directly compare the issues. At best, she alludes to the acts of resistance by Snowden and Manning without really delving into them. As a result, these portions of the book feel shallow-- almost as though Medsger backed away from the really juicy aspects of resistance in the digital age.

Left unanswered, too, is the question of "getting caught." Medsger approves of what the Media, PA burglars did-- but is part of that success the result of not getting caught? She acknowledges the difficulty that each burglar had with keeping their action a secret (emotional, personal, and political). However, she does not address why secrecy offers a kind of protective shield not afforded to, say, Edward Snowden. I think this would bother me less if the book did not close with a lengthy (though, again, fairly shallow) discussion of the NSA.

This is a story worth reading. I felt inspired by the Media, PA resistors and awed at the kinds of risks they accepted. Their actions forced me to think about the limits of dissent, resistance, and law. Medsger's book is frustrating. Ultimately, though, the importance of the story outweighed my own irritation with the book.
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Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: On Myths, Morons, Free Speech, Football, and Assorted Absurdities by Chris Kluwe
Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: On Myths, Morons, Free Speech, Football, and Assorted Absurdities

Ashley Bowen-Murphy, November 26, 2013

This is a strange and wonderful collection of (short) essays. I'd recommend keeping it by your bedside and dipping into it rather than reading it strait through. It's not bad that way, just no real reason to go from start to finish. Kluwe's tone is Internet posting meets education cut with a bit of nerd. This is the kind of book that I wish someone had given me at 15 or 16-- it's clearly written by a smart kid (er, now adult) who understands the limits of adult life.

There's not a lot of *new* information here, anyone who follows Kluwe on Twitter will already know his politics and nerdiness. Instead, the book reads a bit like getting drunk with your nerdy best friend from high school-- it's all time travel and good, "golden rule" politics.

It's a fun, quick read.
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Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine by Paul A Offit
Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine

Ashley Bowen-Murphy, November 15, 2013

"Do You Believe in Magic" is a rapid spin through medical history and quackery. Offit begins with ancient history, comes up to the 19th century's snake oil salesmen, and ends with the likes of Dr. Oz. It's clear that Offit is tired of people who believe that herbs will cure cancer or that modern medicine is nothing but curely masking "pure" or "natural" knowledge of the body. A great deal of the book focuses on the kinds of horror stories that would send anyone running to their local MD-- chiropractors that break bones, acupuncture needles in lungs, children who die after their parents reject chemotherapy. It is also clear that he does not think it is appropriate to charge people thousands of dollars for treatments that have not been scientifically evaluated. I do wish the book had spent a little more time talking about why insurance now covers things like acupuncture, massage, or chiropracty. At some point, insurance companies did some kind of calculation about value v. cost v. effectiveness. Offit leaves this particular form of medical endorsement fully undiscussed.

Offit does acknowledge that at least some traditional, alternative, or 'eastern' medicine has value-- as a placebo. His chapter on the placebo effect is interesting but limited.

This is the kind of book that's worth reading if you're surrounded by people who oppose vaccination, visit chiropractors, and reject "modern medicine." It will make you feel good that you believe in science and facts. However, if you want a more in-depth look at why the placebo effect works or what it is about alternative medicine that is so powerfully appealing, you'll need to look elsewhere. Offit is very focused on what alternative medicine gets wrong and less focused on what it is about modern/western medicine that is so deeply off-putting.
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Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story by Peter Bagge
Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story

Ashley Bowen-Murphy, November 15, 2013

A wonderful, concise account of Margaret Sanger's life. The short research notes in the back offer suggestions for further reading and elaborate a bit on the events and people included in the text. This book is a lot of fun and a solid introduction to Sanger. However, it's brevity means that it really only hits the highlights. Fine for a graphic novel but a little unsatisfying for a reader in search of a full biography.

Still, I strongly recommend it!
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Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio
Dallas 1963

Ashley Bowen-Murphy, November 15, 2013

I was so disappointed in this book. I grew up in the Dallas area, and my father was actually a high school student in Dallas when Kennedy was shot. I thought that this book would shed some light onto the political climate in my home city. The book does do this... a little. I think that the style was perhaps what turned me off about the book. The authors write in the present but passive voice and suggest the emotional state of many key players. While I believe that it is possible to know an historical actor's emotional state from the primary sources they leave behind, I do not appreciate authors that narrate history as though they are inside the heads of players.

Likewise, the book shifts rapidly between different, unrelated politicians, activists, pastors, etc. This contributes to the book's overall meditative tone, but also leaves the story feeling disjointed. It's possible that was the intent-- to suggest that the past is unknowable and that, ultimately, the Kennedy assassination is a tragic confluence of a bunch of unrelated people and political ideologies. However, the refusal to provide some kind of coherent narrative structure beyond chronology was deeply frustrating for me as a reader.

For folks interested in Dallas, the book is worth reading-- the authors explain the city's unique political and social climate in the 1960s (traces of which are, I think, still around today). However, if you're interested in how political ideologies can generate violence or an extended discussion of Oswald and Ruby, two otherwise unremarkable men who seared themselves into American history, you'll want to look elsewhere.
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