Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

This is Times Square in New York City on the night of December 31st, 1954. I was home sleeping, unaware of the festivities just 8 miles from my door. The simple white ball dropping was indicative of the times. Black and white- simple. Not too complicated.

Funny how in all my years growing up and living in New York my friends and I never went to Times Square on New Years Eve.

My first New Years memory is of 1960. This was the first time I had heard the term "decade." During the next few years and until about 1967 my brother and I would celebrate by decorating the apartment with streamers and ballons. We bought candy and cakes to snack on. Our parents went out for the evening. At midnight my brother and I would watch the ball come down in Times Square and then we would toss streamers and confetti all over the house and pop all the balloons.

There was always an old movie playing on WOR- TV Channel 9 and I would stay up and watch it until my parents came home with the hats and horns from the party they had been to. It was these New Years Eves that introduced me to the old Busby Berkeley movies, which I still enjoy today.

I remember New Years Eve 1969 when I was 15 and John DiStefano and I rode the Avenue R bus to the end of the line at Flatbush Avenue. We were drinking Bali Hi wine all the way. The driver didn't seem to mind and we waited on the bus, drinking, for the return trip to Avenue R and East 16th Street. At about 1:30 in the morning we smashed our bottles (for good luck) against the walls under the Avenue R "trestle" of the BMT Lines. It was snowing lightly and all was peaceful when we wished one another a Happy New Years and went home.

There have been other, more dramatic New Years Eves over the decades. One of the more memorable ones was in Valencia, Spain 1978 going on 1979. We were in Valencia for the Christmas and New Years holidays. We had made friends with alot of the local University students and become regulars at the coffee houses and bars. We had even become friendly enough with some of them that we were invited into their homes.

Around 11 PM or so we were walking through the older part of the city when we came to the Plaza of Virgins. The whole plaza was filled with families! Some held candles, some sang, some were drinking a bit of the local wine. It was all so low key and very different from the hell raising we were used to. It was almost like an affirmation that though one year had come to an end, another was about to begin.

And so it goes, one thing ends and another begins. The past year, with all of its trials and tribulations has come to an end. And a new one awaits. A New Year is alot like a blank piece of paper. Anything is possible. It's up to you what gets written.

So to all my old friends, and the new ones as well, Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"My Prison, My Home" by Haleh Esfandiari

Iran is a fascinating country with a rich history and culture dating back to Persian times. It was the center of literature and commerce for many centuries. Jews and Arabs lived side by side in relative peace. What happened?

In this book Ms. Esfandiari explores the cultural past and political turmoil that led to the Iranian Revolution in 1978 and to the rise of the Islamic state that Iran has become. Interwoven with this history is the authors own story of imprisonment at Evin Prison in Tehran for 4 months in 2007.

After visiting her 93 year old mother for the New Year, Ms. Esfandiari is headed back to the airport at dawn on December 31, 2006 for a flight home to Washington, D.C. when her taxi is pulled over by Iranian Police. They take her passports, identity cards and personal papers, leaving her shaken by the side of the road.

What ensues after is a labyrinth of lies and deception as she is first questioned and then detained at Evin for 4 months. The Iranian government has taken note of the fact that the author works at a Washington "think tank", the Woodrow Wilson Center. They are convinced that she is a main link in a plot to overthrow the Iranian government.

Being married to a Jewish man only complicates matters for her as she endures relentless questioning at the hands of skilled "interrogators" who will stop at nothing to extract a "confession" from her. The main problem is that she has nothing to confess.

The book is well written and quickly paced. The author alternates between historical background on the past and current regimes in Iran and her own personal story. As the founding Director of the Woodrow Wilson Centers Middle East Program she paints a clear and accurate picture of Iran today and how it came to be the way it is.

Drawing upon her wealth of knowledge she lays bare the mistakes made by both the hard line clerics inside Iran as well as the misconceptions of the United States in dealing with the current political turmoil that has beset Iran for over 35 years.

This is an engaging book that will inform the reader and make it easier to understand the issues that define Iran in the 21st Century.

Monday, December 28, 2009

"Drinking With George" by George Wendt

We all know hin as "Norm" on the TV sitcom "Cheers" where he plays a beer loving patron on a stool. Turns out not to be too far from reality.

In this quickly read and amusing book, Mr. Wendt describes his love of beer while mixing in some autobiographical sketches. His love for beer began in his native city of Chicago as a young boy. Armed with a note from his Grandfather or Mother, he would go to the saloon and bring home the beer. At 8 years old he takes his first taste and falls instantly in love with the brew.

Exploring the history of beer, he takes us back several thousand years to explain how beer first was discovered and then refined through the ages. He even explores the micro breweries that are so popular today.

Some of the book concerns ways to make your beer more potent- there are many ways. "Freezing" beer seems to be the easiest. Since water freezes and alcohol does not, you can put beer in the freezer and then scrape off the frozen part, which is water. The remaining portion is a more potent beer. Simple, but effective. The list goes on- freezing beer with CO2 fire extinguishers is another example.

Mr. Wendt describes and explores the differences in American and European drinking customs. His wit and story telling abilities are both on full display here.

The book is not one dimensional at all. The comedy scene of Chicago in the 1970's is fully explored. Luminaries such as John Belushi abound in stories of the legendary Second City, the comedy club that spawned a score of todays most famous comedians.

This was a surprise read for me- I was never much of a "Cheers" fan. Having been at sea for most of a decade I missed alot of TV. But I am glad that I did not miss this witty testimonial to one of Mans' Best Friends- Beer.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

My Friend Edgar- A Daughters' View

My wife, Sue, alerted me to the following post on my daughters Facebook site. It's about Edgar Allan Poes' grave in Baltimore, which we used to stop by frequently as it was downtown and on the way to Ft McHenry, where we spent alot of time. This is her view of those visits and I love her for posting it...

Sarah Ruth Hoffman - Me at the burial site of Edgar Allan Poe, Westminster Hall, in Baltimore, MD. My dad used to take me there on weekend afternoons. This was my favorite of all the old graveyards we visited. I would run around and look at the cool and interesting graves with him. I especially enjoyed looking for cracks and holes that... would allow me to peak into the old mausoleums. Before leaving, we would always stop at Poe's grave and say farewell. I didn't understand the significance of that place until I was much older and had read many of Poe's works. I had always thought that he was just some dude my dad used to be friends with!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Miracle On Kings Highway- Angelo's Story- Felice Navidad

This is a story of the Christmas Spirit. Every word is true – I know - I was there. These events happened 35 years ago this evening, way back in 1975, and still warm my soul each time I relive them. It is what Christams is all about.

The neighborhood of Kings Highway in Brooklyn was a world of its own. We had the same assortment of shops, delicatessens and candy stores as all the other main shopping avenues, only bigger. H and A Foods, as it was known, catered to the upper crust of the neighborhood. We delivered, which none of the big chains did, and that’s where our story begins…

Angelo was the youngest brother of Milton, who, along with his brother Leo worked for Harry and Al. Milton delivered the groceries in a station wagon bought for him by Harry and Al every 2 years. It was in his name and Harry and Al paid all expenses on it. Milton delivered the groceries and as the store grew he brought his 2 brothers over to help. Leo was the floor manager and Angelo was a “stocker”. Of the 3 brothers only Angelo still had family behind in Mexico - a Wife and 5 children. His dream was to save enough money to bring them here.

Angelo could ape a few words of English and taught me several foul words and phrases in Spanish. He was a hard worker- about 40 years old. He sent his pay home and lived in a furnished room around the corner from the store. He never got to go home and visit his family while saving to bring them here. He was an illegal and this was 1974. They still upheld the immigration laws back then so it was a risky business sneaking in and out.

First a few words are in order concerning Harry and Al. They were partners; 2 Jews perfectly mismatched. While Harry was short, Al was tall. Harry was an optimist, Al was a pessimist. Harry was a doer, Al was a dreamer. You get the point. Anyway, they operated on a system of checks and balances, not unlike our government. They had been in business for 20 years as partners after having failed on their own. It was only after they got together that they achieved any success.

There had been a slight recession in 1973 going into 1974. The Vietnam War had just wound down and Watergate was about to give us our first unelected President in Jerry Ford. There had been talk of some cutback in hours or possibly some layoffs in the store during the fall months leading up to the holidays. Harry had been in and out at all odd hours compared with his usual schedule, which was etched in stone like the Tablets on Sinai. We assumed he had been meeting with bankers to negotiate some financing.

The holidays approached and with them all the excitement that is generated by the prospect of the “Christmas Bonus.” This boiled down to two very basic questions- how much and when? The tradition at Harry and Al’s had always been a weeks gross pay in cash on Christmas Eve just before closing. We were all paid on the basis of 15 hours per week on the books at minimum wage ($2.50 an hour) and then the balance of our pay was in cash at a higher rate. This ensured that we made enough cash to live on and also that our Social Security Accounts would not be bare. It also helped when the Labor Dept Inspector dropped in to make sure we were all on the books.

Christmas Eve finally arrived and we rushed through all the last minute tasks before closing early for the holiday. Harry and Al were still busy counting the days receipts as the rest of us pretended to work, waiting for the “moment”.

Al and Harry stood behind the counter and we were all gathered on the customer side exchanging best wishes etc as Harry handed out the envelopes with our bonus. There was one for Milton, Izzie, Leo, Steve, Bob, Paul and myself. Angelo’s name was not called.

Meekly coming forward with hand outstretched Angelo spoke; “Me, dinero?” he implored, eyes showing the shame of asking. He was here illegally and there was no guarantee of a bonus for anyone, let alone this poor fellow. He continued, “Me mucho trabajo- no dinero?” Al held his hand up, arm outstretched, palm facing Angelo and said, “You no work bueno- you no dinero.” And then he turned away. The silence, as they say, was deafening. Angelo turned and ran to the basement to be alone with his disappointment and probably anger.

Suddenly from the basement we heard the sounds of laughter and tears. Seeing Harry and Al as they exchanged satisfied glances we knew things were not as they appeared to be. Milton and Leo seemed unusually calm as the rest of us herded toward the basement steps to investigate the cacophony of sounds.

There was Angelo, surrounded by his wife and five children, tears streaming down their faces as they embraced the greatest Christmas gift imaginable- one another.

And then we realized, Harry hadn’t been going to the bankers as we all thought. He had been going to Immigration arranging the visas and job commitment necessary to re-unite Angelo with his family.

There was not a dry eye as we left the store that night. We filed out under the caring gaze of 2 of the wisest men I have ever known - and I believe we had seen the true Spirit of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"The Imperial Cruise" by James Bradley

If the Treaty of Versailles was the harbinger of World War Two in Europe, then what was the catalyst for the Japenese expansion in the Pacific that led to Pearl Harbor? I have often wondered where the connection was. In "The Imperial Cruise" James Bradley provides the answers.

In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt, acting as his own Secretary of State (John Hay had recently passed away) initiated a series of treaties and negotiations that would have devastating effects and rock the world for a hundred years or more. We are still in the grip of what was begun in 1905. It is of interest to note that some of these treaties were illegal under our Constitution. Only Congress has the power to draw up, or agree to, treaties for the United States. "Big Stick" Teddy once said-"I took the canal and let Congress debate."

Sending his daughter Alice, who was the Jackie Kennedy of her time, on the cruise provided great cover for the mission her father had decided to undertake. With the Presidents' Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, at her side she embarked from San Francisco on a voyage to Hawaii and on to Japan, Korea and 3 stops in China before returning via the Phillipines.

The treaties and agreements negotiated and signed on this trip led Japan to embark on an agressive campaign to modernize her military. This eventually led to attacks on China, Korea and ultimatley to Pearl Harbor. Ironically it was left to Theodore Roosevelts' cousin Franklin Roosevelt to clean up the mess. FDR was also left with the need to apologize to the Phillipine Government for the treachery of his Uncle Teddy.

The book delves into the reasons that the elder Roosevelt felt the need to undertake this mission. His vision of American style democracy included importing it beyond our West Coast and Hawaii. He was also an avid Aryan. That's right- a race purist. He believed that we are descended from the Tuetons and Aryans and as such had the responsibility to civilize the whole world west of our Pacific border.

The real aim was to establish "coaling" stations for ships crossing the Pacific. It is several thousand miles from the West Coast of the United States to Hawaii. From there we were seeking other islands for the same purpose. To this end Roosevelt decided that the Japenese were the most civilized of the Eastern nations and he set about in securing conflicting "treaties" with Japan and Korea and China. He called this his "Pacific Monroe Doctrine." This policy, and the treaties, became the vehicle by which Japan militarized and began invading other Asian nations.

Eventually they got too big for our liking and we cut off all of their access to the raw materials they needed to wage war. This led to increased aggression on the part of Japan and opened the door for the later Japenese atrocities in Nanking and the road to Pearl Harbor.

If I have over simplified things here it is because the scope of the subject is so vast- beginning with Commodore Perry in Japan. The insights into this period of Japanese history are an essential part of understanding what happened then as well as what is happening now.

The book is carefully researched, as are all of Mr. Bradleys' books. He has a unique way of putting history in its' proper perspective and looking beyond the facade of what we were taught in school. This book will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about the road leading up to World War Two and beyond. It will also make you wonder why we honor Teddy Roosevelt on Mt. Rushmore.

An informative and gripping read, I highly recommend this book.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Graduate

My daughter, Sarah Ruth Williams Hoffman graduated Cum Laude yesterday afternoon from Winthrop University. At 22 years of age she has been married for 4 years to Michael Hoffman. He has been instrumental in her having arrived at her goal.

I was fine until Sue started to cry and I found myself getting a bit weepy because of it. But it has been a long journey to this day. Most of the credit goes to Sarah,of course, but her brothers and sister in laws, as well as my wife Sue,were all major forces behind Sarahs' accomplishment.

This photo was taken by my daughter in law Becky Hart. Congratulations Sarah- we love you and you make us proud!

Monday, December 14, 2009

"Let's Face It" by Kirk Douglas

This is Kirk Douglas' last book. At least that's what he says. I doubt it. His memoirs, there are three, are filled with such warmth and wisdom, they make you want to read "just one more page, please?"

Drawing on his extraordinary career and family, he seems to still get a larger kick out of life at 90 than I do at age 55. He admits to whining a bit after his double knee surgery but is quick to acknowledge the gifts in the life that he has been privleged to lead.

Life is filled with lessons to be learned and Mr. Douglas is trying to learn them all before the end comes. And he is so adept at passing on some of the wisdom he has accumulated during his time with us.

No plot line to discuss here- just a great read from an author who has seen and done so much with his life.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Movie Review: "Secondhand Lions" with Robert Duvall and Michael Caine

This is one of my favorite movies. It has two of my favorite actors and is a memoir. What more could I ask for?

When 12 year old Walter is dropped off at his Uncles farm by his irresponsible Mom, played by Kyra Sedgwick, the two old men are indifferent to him. He is terrifed of them. To make things more interesting there is the implication that the two old guys have hidden away a fortune on their farm. Walter's Mom wants the boy to find this fortune. She leaves him there for the summer while she goes off on her own.

The 2 old men don't have a clue about boys and Walter knows nothing of old men. His room in the attic leads to the discovery of an old photograph and some sand in a trunk. Who is this woman and where did the sand come from?

Over the course of the summer the boy learns the story of his two Uncles in the form of some unbelievable flashbacks. Uncle Garth, played by Caine, is the more sympathetic one, and through him we learn the story of the two mens lives.

Uncle Hub, played by Duvall, is brillant as a crusty and tough old man, haunted by lost love and who has "fought in two world wars and countless smaller ones on three continents."

Walter has no father and these two Uncles become his world. He learns about life and what is important from them. And he teaches them an equally valuable lesson, that love is not just in the romance of the past or the glory of battles once fought. Love is what you do now to change the future and make a difference.

The film ends 3 times, by that I mean the film seems to come to an end and you're satisfied, but then it goes one step further and you're amazed. So, when when it goes one more step to a surprise last 3 minutes, you simply fall in love with the whole thing.

And then you realize what Uncle Hub has been saying all along- "Some things are worth believing in- and true love never dies. You believe in these things not because they are true, or not, but because they are the things worth believing in."

Superb direction by Tim McCanlies, who also wrote the screenplay, and wonderful acting by all, make this a movie to see more than once.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Chanukah - Festival of Lights

For millions of the world's Jewish population, me included, this is the first night of Chanukah, our "Festival of Lights."

The holiday commemorates the rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem after the Jews' 165 B.C.E. victory over the Hellenist Syrians. Antiochus, the Greek King of Syria, outlawed Jewish rituals and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods.

In 168 B.C.E. the Holy Temple was seized and dedicated to the worship of Zeus.

While many Jewish people obeyed the Greeks others began to fight. The fighting began in Modiin, a village not far from Jerusalem. A Greek officer and soldiers assembled the villagers, asking them to bow to an idol and eat the flesh of a pig, activities forbidden to Jews. The officer asked Mattathias, a Jewish High Priest, to take part in the ceremony. He refused, and another villager stepped forward and offered to do it instead. Mattathias became outraged, took out his sword and killed the man, then killed the officer. His five sons and the other villagers then attacked and killed the soldiers. Mattathias' family went into hiding in the nearby mountains, where many other Jews who wanted to fight the Greeks joined them.

Judah Maccabee and his soldiers then went to the holy Temple, and were shocked by the outrages they saw before them. Most of the religous items had been broken and some stolen, including the Golden Menorah. They cleaned and repaired what they could, and when they were finished they decided to have a ceremony to rededicate the Temple.

For the celebration, the Maccabees wanted to light the Menorah. They looked everywhere for oil, and found a small flask that contained only enough oil to light the menorah for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days. This gave them enough time to obtain new oil to keep the menorah lit. Today Jews celebrate Hanukkah for eight days by lighting candles in a Menorah every night, thus commemorating the eight-day miracle.

So Happy Chanukah to all!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Very Special Book

This is a very special book. It was given to me by my Mother for my 8th birthday in 1962. She bought it at the Farmers Market on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. In 47 years it has never been far from me.

The book is comprised of 85 Children's poems. "The Walrus and the Carpenter", "Who Has Seen the Wind", "The Animal Store", "The Land of Counterpane", "The Owl and the Pussycat", "Wynken, Blynken and Nod", they are all here.

And inside the front cover there is a little inscription from my Mom that says simply "To Robert." It appears that she never finished writing whatever it was she had planned to write. She was ill a good deal of the time and actually was in the hospital the morning of my birthday. I remember waking up that morning and going to the kitchen for breakfast. My Dad had left early to see her but there was a card and some presents for me on the table. I don't remember what else I got that day- but the book, with it's unfinished inscription from my Mom, was the one which I cherished the most.

I still return to its' pages now and again to read the innocent rhymes and be carried away by their cadence. And sometimes when I hold the book I am 8 years old again- lost in the magic of the poems.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"that bird has my wings" by jarvis jay masters

The small letters at the top of the page are no accident. No typo. They are indicative of the humility with which Mr. Masters writes of his life.

Dealt an awful hand at birth, he details his early years vividly. Raised for the first 4 or 5 years in a drug house in Long Beach, California his recollections there are of playing with the multi colored ballons which were popular in the late 1960's for dealing heroin. After being taken from his mother by the Department of Social Services, he is placed in a foster home. He speaks lovingly of Mr. and Mrs. Procks, two elderly Christian folks who never had a child of their own. Theirs may have been the only unconditional love that he has ever known. But this respite from misery doesn't last too long.

He is taken from Mr. and Mrs. Procks and sent to live with the Duponts, as villianous a couple as ever invented by Charles Dickens. Deprivations and beatings are the norm in this house. This is the point where you start to see the system fail the author. His innocence becomes a casualty of the very people who are supposed to protect him.

Running away to Los Angeles he meets and is befriended by "Rags", an elderly black shoeshine man, at the Greyhound Station. After about a week of living at the terminal "Rags" convinces him to be placed in Juvenile Hall.

The juvenile hall is where he first becomes “institutionalized.” He sees the fence surrounding him as being protective rather than restrictive. Having had all the love and it’s attendant experiences snatched from him twice already and with the experience of his last foster parents still fresh in his mind, he is comfortable in the predictability of his life at Juvenile Hall.

Being surrounded by kids whose lives have been as troubled as his own makes him feel “normal.” But he cannot stay there forever and his caseworker tries for a year to find him a home. But everywhere he is taken he can see the signs of abuse in the other childrens eyes, all the while wondering why the caseworker cannot.

After searching unsuccessfully for a year he is transferred, at his own request, to “Boys Town of the Desert.” This is an institution for troubled kids, ones who have been sent there by the courts. They eagerly count down the days until their release, which confuses Jarvis. After all, this is the first place he has been in since the first foster home that seems safe to him. He soon discovers the truth.

The place is run along the lines of a prison, with the inmates organized into rival gangs. At this point his life takes it’s first wrong turns. While the others use the point system to have their sentences shortened so they can go home, he begins to “act out” in order to remain incarcerated. After all, he has no where to go if they release him early. This would mean going back to a foster home, which, given his last experience, is not an option for him.

He is now in the grips of the system and it will have terrible ramifications for him in the years to come. This is the point at which the system truly fails him. All the warning signs are there and yet his case worker remains blind- concerned only with "placing him" somewhere.

After running away and getting caught several times he finally comes to live with his Aunt and Uncle and his cousins. They're into dealing pot and eventually he falls into a pattern of crime and spends most of his life incacerated. Finally he is charged with conspiracy to murder a guard and is sentenced to death. He is currently appealing that sentence based on a technicality, though he still maintains his innocence.

The book is well written and reads quickly. It is astonishing to me how so many people could have failed this kid so badly. His sense of self worth still intact, Mr. Jarvis has written a superb account of one of the most neglected groups in our country- juvenile offenders.

They are locked in a wasteland from which someone must rescue them now or pay the larger bill later. This is an exceptional read.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Pearl Harbor- 68 Years- Nothing Learned

Today is the 68th Anniversary of the Japenese Attack on Pearl Harbor. This was a day that changed America. It brought us out of the despair of the Great Depression and may have been the last altruistic war we ever fought. Our Nation pulled together in a common cause- people did that back then. And I want to take this opportunity to say thanks to all those who fought in it. Abroad, and here at home.

But my focus is not on the war, right or wrong. Instead it is on the faces in the photographs of that day. They are so vivid, so real- almost larger than life. Bigger than the moments they portray.

The faces of these young men as they face a devastating surprise attack cannot be seen without affecting the viewer. What were they thinking as the attack raged all about them?

War is never pretty- even when it is a just war fought for valid principles. These pictures serve as a reminder of the wasted potential of the good within us all. That we have not moved beyond war as a means of settling our disputes is not encouraging. It is a reminder of how much work still needs to be done if we are to survive as a world united.

Take a moment today to reflect on a world free from war. A world in which all people would be free to maximize their potential. What a world that would be...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Follow up on "Decoding the Lost Symbol" by Simon Cox

I reviewed this book by invitation a few weeks back and got the following article by Simon Cox from his Publicist Anna Suknov today. I wanted to share it here and hope that you will find it interesting.

Simon Cox article starts here;
I don't read much non-fiction. I simply don't have the time, and when I do, its not generally from the "thriller" genre. So how come I have written three guide books to three thrillers? The answer is simple. Dan Brown. What Brown has managed to do brilliantly within the framework of his novels, is weave facts and fiction seamlessly together in a coherent and logical way, the like of which is rarely seen. I'm not saying its all perfect -- indeed, as I point out in my guide books, some of his factual research leaves much to be desired -- but he does have an uncanny knack of being able to hit the zeitgeist of the moment when it comes to historical themes and ideas.

Brown seems to follow certain pre-set rules within his Robert Langdon based novels. Generally there is a religious element and this element is stacked up against a scientific element. Then there are the codes and clues -- mainly left within an historical framework -- mathematical conundrums being a favorite of Mr Brown. Finally there are the secret societies that seem to be the glue that holds the stories together. In The Da Vinci Code, we see an exploration of the sacred feminine and an alternative life of Christ. In Angels & Demons, the very heart of Christendom, the Vatican is central to the story and in The Lost Symbol Brown takes it all a step further as he espouses the ideals of deism and universal godhead. Essentially what Brown has written are three books that have woven between them a central theme of tolerance to all faiths, but above all, an acknowledgement that faith plays an essential role in the development of mans consciousness and being. As a historian, I can attest to the fact that this mantra was crucial to most if not all ancient cultures. In this respect Dan Brown is carrying on a long standing tradition.

The Lost Symbol is at first glance a less remarkable book than its predecessor, The Da Vinci Code. It seems to lack the one major hook, the heart in mouth fact that suddenly makes one gasp out loud as you read the page. However, this book is a slow burner. Its message of tolerance and universality is not at first obvious -- but the more you read and digest the message within the pages, the more you realize that this time 'round, Brown has a clear and decisive meaning that he is trying to get across. When I first saw this I was aghast. A novelist trying to change the way the world thinks from inside a story of chases and code breaking. But then, think about it. Brown has an audience unlike any novelist ever has. The Lost Symbol was awaited as if it were the harbinger of a new messiah after the enormous success of The Da Vinci Code -- some eighty million people the world over had become instant fans of his writing -- he had an audience who patiently waited for every word on every page. What better way to change the world.

It remains to be seen if the book will have any effect at all. Its early days yet and the response, though swift in sales, has been less than that of The Da Vinci Code. However it is to be remembered that The Da Vinci Code itself was very much a slow burner of a book at first -- not really exploding until some time after its launch. I have attempted to give a clear and easily understandable view of where Mr. Brown researched his facts and what parts of his book are fact and what fiction. It was a writing exercise that I really enjoyed, just as I had with the other guides. Decoding The Lost Symbol is a book that I am very proud of, especially given the incredible time constraints that I was under -- it was fun to do and fun to write. I hope you will enjoy it too, should you choose to pick it up and should you choose to explore some of the themes and ideas within The Lost Symbol itself. I encourage debate and criticism and can be contacted via my website at:

Copyright © 2009 Simon Cox, author of Decoding The Lost Symbol: The Unauthorized Expert Guide to the Facts Behind the Fiction

Author Bio
Simon Cox, author of Decoding The Lost Symbol: The Unauthorized Expert Guide to the Facts Behind the Fiction, was the founding editor in chief of the successful newsstand magazine Phenomena. Having studied Egyptology at University College London, he went on to work as a research assistant for some of the biggest names in the alternative history game, including Graham Hancock, Robert Bauvel, and David Rohl. He splits his time between Britain and the United States.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Movie Review: In the Valley of Elah with Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon

This movie will leave you thinking about the pre-conceived notions which divide us all.

Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon play the parents of a young man who has just returned from Iraq but is nowhere to be found. His father (played by Jones) makes the trip to his son's base to find out what has happened to his son. As an ex military man he was largely responsible for his son enlisting and going off to war.

When he arrives at the base no one seems willing to go the extra step it will take to find his son. The military says it's a Police matter and the Police say it's a military affair. The only Detective that seems willing to take an interest in the case is played by Charlize Theron. At first skeptical, she is gradually drawn into the case, largely because she is frustrated by the treatment of her fellow, all male Detective Squad.

Following the path of his son the father begins to see the underbelly of the War on Terror. Quick sex, strip clubs and drugs offer the father a rare glimpse behind the New Militarism that has followed in the wake of 9/11. And he begins to realize how different that world is from the one he remembers.

When the sons' cell phone is downloaded and the images from the camera are made clear the suspicion arises that the son may have been involved in drug smuggling. The images of an argument between the son and an Hispanic platoon member lead Jones and Theron to believe that the boy was killed by a Mexican Cartel that has employed soldiers to smuggle Heroin back home. When the body is found hacked up and burned in a field near the base it appears that all loose ends have been tied up. Or have they?

What is in the unopened package that has arrived at the boys home and addressed in his own handwriting?

The lessons learned in this film are timeless. We all want the answers to our questions. Sometimes the answers are not what you expect. And sometimes the answers can really hurt.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

America's Girl - Gertrude Ederle by Tim Dahlberg

This is a fascinating account of an American woman who was way ahead of her time. After training for and winning the Olympics in Paris 1924 she goes on to become the first woman to swim the English Channel. She also beats the previous record set by men.

Born October 23, 1905 in NYC she trained for the Olympics by swimming from Battery Park in NYC to Sandy Hook, New Jersey against the tide. The distance was 21 miles. At one point she was actually swimming in place for 2 hours! Another favorite spot for her to train was the shorter distance between Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn to Brighton Beach.

The Paris Olympics of 1924 included swimmers like Johnny Weissmuller who would later go on to play Tarzan in the movies.

Jabez Wolffe, her trainer for the crossing, was a 22 time failed aspirant but knew the currents and risks better than anyone else. With his steady hand and knowledge of the endeavor she was about to undertake he guides her to sucess.

One of the biggest problems she faced was the drag created by the women's swimsuits of the day. Although these were not the skirt and leggings type of suits, they were made of heavy wool, which added weight. She needed something better. So she made her own version of a bikini by cutting the suit into a bra and shorts. Slathered with crude oil to ward off the cold of the frigid waters in the Channel she went on to triumph over the elements and set new standards for women everywhere.

Arriving home to New York she is given a Tickertape Parade the likes of which would not be seen again. The Parades for Lindbergh and even the World War Two Victory Parades (VE and VJ Day) would be dwarfed by comparison.

Set against the backdrop of the 1920's and flappers and jazz, the book is written in a very readable fashion. With the aid of Gertrude Ederle's niece, who kept every newspaper clipping about her famous Aunt, the book is an accurate and inspiring story of the determination it takes to make dreams come true.

And swimming must be good for you- Ms. Ederle passed away at age 98.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Movie Review: Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang with Val Kilmer and Robert Downey, Jr.

A very different movie with a very different approach in its' Direction. The film is told (narrated) by the principal character(played by Robert Downey). The story unfolds in pieces much like "Pulp Fiction." One big difference- the narrator. He fills you in on little things that you might have missed, or in some cases not been told.

The story centers on Downey's character, a shady but likeable kind of guy who gets caught up in a burglary which leads to a brief chase which lands him a part in a movie playing a Detective. Simple enough? Not on your life.

When he arrives in Hollywood he befriends a woman who turns out to be his high school crush. They were good friends then, but what are they now?

Val Kilmer plays a gay Detective in a movie with more twists and turns than the Cyclone at Coney Island. The quick and unusual direction and the use of narration by Robert Downey, Jr. as he stumbles through all of this, make the viewer feel connected and sympathetic to Downeys' character.

It's kind of like Frank Capra meets Quentin Tarantino. That alone should makes this film worth watching. Throw in some decent acting by both Downey and Kilmer and this is a highly entertaining film. The only question I have is where was I when this film came out?