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Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs, by Jamie Loftus

With the summer picnic and barbeque season stretching out ahead of us, how could I resist reviewing Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs, by comedian and writer Jamie Loftus, published May 23rd. Since this is a book about hot dogs, a content warning is prudent, and the author herself opens her book with one:

Before we begin, a few content warnings. “But Jamie, content warnings are for babies, I don’t need a ‘content warning.’” Well, mind your business and turn the page then.

In this book, there are occasionally frank (pun not intended but cannot access better word at this time) discussions of disordered eating, drug use, violence, and descriptions of working slaughterhouses. Much of the book isn’t about these topics, but some of it is, and I’ve tried to give you a heads-up where those sections are in case you’d rather read ahead. Take care of yourself; it is not worth it to sacrifice your mental health over my hot dog book even though I think it’s pretty good and thanks for picking it up.

Well, this review is going to skip over those unpleasant sections (well, the slaughterhouses and ingredient parts at least, but maybe I’ll keep the sex and drug use bits), because we’re gonna celebrate hot dogs whether you like it or not!

The book for the most part is set up as a cross-country road trip in the late-Covid summer of 2021, with the non-driving author being driven thousands of miles hither and yon by her boyfriend (now ex-boyfriend), accompanied by a cat and an actual canine dog. My state of Arizona is one of the early stops, and here we explore the history and delights of the Sonoran hot dog, grilled and served in a bun sliced at the top but NOT end-to-end, with bacon, tomato, onion, salsa, mayo, mustard, and beans.

They also took a side trip to see The Thing! My heart went pitter-pat, because every time we’ve passed the The Thing? Mystery of the Desert! A Sight to Behold! billboards while driving in southern Arizona, I’ve begged ummm, suggested to my wife that we pull off at exit 322 and see it for ourselves. Alas, she has always nixed the idea. And alas, the author and her boyfriend actually get to the building housing The Thing, but then balk at paying the five-dollar admission. Dammit, they’d just paid $3.50 for a hot dog, but then passed up The Thing over a lousy fiver. I guess I’ll never know the Mystery of the Desert that lies within.

It seems rather fitting that after stopping at a gas station in Texas, Loftus sidetracks into a long, second-by-second description of a five-minute video uploaded to YouTube in 2012 entitled “How It’s Made — Hot Dogs.” Okay, I know I said I would skip the gross, disgusting parts of the hot dog story in writing this review. And so I shall. But let me just say that her five pages describing the video were absolutely hilarious. I would advise you NOT to eat a hot dog while reading these pages, not because of the disgusting details about what you are ingesting, but rather because you will be laughing so hard you’ll probably choke. At the very least, have someone familiar with the Heimlich Maneuver close by.

OK, I lied. I can’t resist. Here is a short sample:

A gigantic pile of randomized, pale raw meat said to include fatty tissue, sinewed muscle, head meat, and some liver is pushed into a tenderizer with a metal rake and pulses pornographically, bouncing as it smooths out in the same pulsed motions of a married couple doing doggy style on a Tuesday night. These are the cuts left on the slaughterhouse floor, only to find a third life in the soon-to-be-thick goop I will spend an entire summer punishing my body with.

Are you still with me? That wasn’t so bad, was it? Believe me, it gets worse. And funnier.

Soil: The Story of a Black Mother's Garden, by Camille Dungy

Soil: The Story of a Black Mother's Garden, by poet and essayist Camille Dungy and published last week, is just a lovely book in so many ways. The descriptions of the natural world, in particular of her garden and the plants she fills it with, are very finely observed and evocative. The portrait she paints of her relationship with her husband and daughter are sweet and loving, even in moments of disagreement and tension. She writes beautifully about the life of a writer.

And oh...the politics woven throughout...those are wondrous as well.

The publisher’s blurb about the book frames it around a tension between the gardening plans of the author—the only black family in the neighborhood within the predominantly white city of Fort Collins, Colorado-- and the neighborhood Homeowners Association restrictions on what could be planted. That’s a bit of a MacGuffin. This specific confrontation is dispensed with in a few pages early in the book: while there had once been a woman who walked the streets with a ruler measuring the height of people’s lawns, for the most part the neighborhood is benignly accepting. When a 140 square meters of soil and mulch are deposited in their driveway and in the street in front of their house on a windy October day, neighbors helped with securing the horticultural treasure beneath weighted tarps. And even more:

But I am lucky. The neighbors I speak to claim to be grateful we moved in, cultivating the most heterogenous environment on our street, both with our presence as a Black family and with our landscaping decisions. Our HOA eliminated its rules against “non-standard landscaping,” and the town of Fort Collins actively works to help residents create landscapes that support native plants and insect populations and lower the strain on our precarious water supply.

But if the HOA confrontation is a MacGuffin, the issue of race remains central to the book, though that was not necessarily at the forefront of her mind when she first envisioned it:

In the proposal for the fellowship that bought me the time to write a new book, I made it clear that I wanted to write about my yard. Those crocuses. The patches of purple iris. A cluster Mexican sunflowers. Tithonia, that volunteered in our back garden in 2018. At first, I suspected the Tithonia were an undesirable weed. Then they blossomed into flowers so gorgeous I brought friends to the house to see them. Nine feet tall and topped with orange blooms like a cross between a zinnia and a gerbera daisy….I wanted to spend a year thinking about the soil that surrounded me: what grew from it, and why.

Two New Books on Comedy and Cancel Culture

It’s not often that I review a book by a right-winger, but I’m making an exception with You Can't Joke About That: Why Everything Is Funny, Nothing Is Sacred, and We're All in This Together, by Gutfeld! co-host and Fox News contributor Kat Timpf. Fortunately for my self-respect and sanity, another book by another female comedian, this one with a progressive slant, came out at the same time: Not Funny: Essays on Life, Comedy, Culture, Et Cetera, by Jena Friedman, enabling me to do a tandem review.

There has been much debate in the news recently about idea of ‘sanitizing’ the language in new editions of classic books, erasing words, descriptions or plotlines that might offend the sensibilities of modern readers. These two books about comedy tackle the same debate in their own particular arena: are there things that just should not be joked about, whether out of concern about causing offense, or concern about actually perpetuating racist, sexist, ageist, ableist or violent ideas under the guise of ‘it’s just a joke.’

***TRIGGER WARNING*** If you are sensitive about insensitive humor, you may want to skip to the new book synopses below, as this review will likely have more triggers than a Waffle House at 3am.

The debate over ethical comedy often revolves around the idea of ‘punching down’ versus ‘punching up.’ In its simplest formation, punching down involves aiming your humor at classes of people with less power or social privilege than you, while punching up involves aiming your humor to tweak at people with power.

After the Miracle: The Political Crusades of Helen Keller, by Max Wallace

The early years of Helen Keller’s life were first portrayed to a great extent in the same way as I learned about her late in her life, as a boy growing up in the 1960s. My knowledge of her was almost entirely shaped by the 1962 movie The Miracle Worker: a girl rescued from the limitations of being blind and deaf by the steadfast and miraculous work of her teacher, Anne Sullivan. As Max Wallace points out in his new book After the Miracle: The Political Crusades of Helen Keller, Anne Bancroft won the Oscar for her portrayal in the movie of Anne Sullivan, while Patty Duke won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Keller, in effect assigning Keller a supporting role in her own story.

Wallace points out that this echoed the creation of her life story from the beginning. The first several chapters of the book take us through Keller’s early years and learning, and show how her first book, The Story of My Life, published in 1902, when she was 22 and attending Radcliffe College, was shaped by various forces to highlight the role of the teacher over the student.

But, oh, her life in between those early and late years! Before reading this book, I confess that I was unaware of what an outspoken political activist she was. Early on, she spoke out against Jim Crow laws, and opposed America's entry into World War One. She was giving money to the NAACP as early as 1916, and helped found the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920. She was a suffragette, a supporter of birth control, and had joined the Socialist Party in 1909. She spoke out against Hitler as early as 1933, and spoke out against Senator Joseph McCarthy during the height of his anti-Communism witch hunts in the 1950s.

Keller’s political journey began in her twenties with her embrace of socialism, which is covered in several chapters. From there, she became active in the suffragist movement. Indeed, she was more attracted to the movement as represented by Britain’s Emily Pankhurst, who advocated direct action and civil disobedience to further the cause. Keller expressed doubt about the more genteel ways of the American suffragist movement, writing

“So long as the franchise is denied to a large number of those who serve and benefit the public, so long as those who vote are at the beck and call of party machines, the people are not free, and the day of women’s freedom seems still to be in the far future,” she wrote. “It makes no difference whether the Tories or the Liberals in Great Britain, the Democrats or the Republicans in the United States, or any party of the old model in any other country get the upper hand. To ask any such party for women’s rights is like asking a czar for democracy...We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. We elect expensive masters to do our work for us, and then blame them because they work for themselves and for their class.”

The Girl Explorers, by Jayne Zanglein


I do love travel, as you’ve probably gathered by the number of globetrotting tomes that have made it into my weekly reviews. And I’ve long enjoyed the tales of daring women who undertook adventures around the world, having read books by or about such adventurers as Gertrude BellIsabella BirdNellie BlyIsabelle EberhardtAlexandra David-NéelDervla Murphy, and Freya Stark. What is nice about The Girl Explorers, by Jayne Zanglein, first published in 2021, is that it doesn’t retell the stories of those famous women. There are many more stories to be told!

The author was led to her research by finding the story of Blair Niles.

I was immediately taken aback by this woman. Blair was born on a Virginia plantation in 1880, surrounded by freed slaves. Nearly two decades earlier, her maternal grandfather, a Virginia congressman [Roger Atkinson Pryor], had provoked the Confederacy into launching the Civil War against the Union. When Blair was a child, her mother started a mixed-race night school to educate Blair, her brothers, and the children of the household’s former slaves. She did this to expose her children to diverse viewpoints at a time when the family could not afford to send them off to school. Because of her mother’s influence, and in spite of her grandfather’s reputation, Blair became an advocate for marginalized and oppressed people.

Although Blair is remembered as the author of the first compassionate book about gay people in Harlem (Strange Brother), her books on the brutal treatment of prisoners in French Guiana (Condemned to Devil’s Island), the uprising of slaves during the Haitian Revolution (Black Haiti: A Biography of Africa’s Eldest Daughter), and the mutiny of the Amistad slave ship (East by Day) have been forgotten. Also overlooked is Blair’s role in founding the Society of Women Geographers, an organization with more than 500 members worldwide that will soon celebrate its one hundredth anniversary.

She helped found that organization because the famous Explorers Club, founded in 1904 as both a professional society to promote scientific exploration and a hangout for gents to swap tall tales, refused to admit women. The head of that latter organization, Roy Chapman Andrews, had declared women “temperamentally unfit” for exploration.

Proving Ground: The Untold Story of the Six Women Who Programmed the World’s First Modern Computer

I enjoyed Proving Ground: The Untold Story of the Six Women Who Programmed the World’s First Modern Computer, by Kathy Kleiman, published last July. In truth, I’m not really a tech kind of guy, and so much of the bulk of the story, taking us through the programming puzzles that had to be worked out in the early days of computers, was more background noise to me (although Kleiman does a very good job of explaining for those who are interested.)

The most fascinating parts of the book for me were the Preface and the Epilogue. She begins the book by detailing the long, painstaking discovery of this story. It began with her curiosity about a single black-and-white photograph of the room-sized ENIAC computer built on the University of Pennsylvania campus in the 1940s. There were six people in the room: two men and four women, but the caption only identified the men. Kleiman, herself a woman interested in computing, was intrigued. As she writes, she’d knew about Ada Lovelace, who worked on early programming theory in the Nineteenth Century, and with Captain Grace Hopper of the US Navy, who was credited with some early programming work in the 1940s. But who were these other women? A deep dive into musty archives turned up some more photographs, but still with no identification of the women.

She turned for advice to Dr. Gwen Bell, cofounder of the Computer Museum. Surely another computer-oriented woman would be interested and perhaps have some insight. But her answer?

“They’re refrigerator ladies,” she said.

“What’s a refrigerator lady?” I asked, baffled as to what she was talking about.

“They’re models,” she responded, rolling her eyes. Like the Frigidaire models of the 1950s, who opened the doors of the new refrigerators with a flourish in black-and-white TV commercials, these women were just posed in front of ENIAC to make it look good. At least, that’s what Dr. Bell thought.

Well, no, they weren’t simply models posed to give visual interest to the walls of knobs, wires and lights. There were six women, erased from history, who did much of the early programming that made this early computer a success. The bulk of the book is devoted to meeting these women from various walks of life, recruited by the government for secret work in developing ways the computer could help the World War Two effort. There were no instructions to follow, no programming languages to base their work on. They created ENIAC’s programming on their own, overcoming multiple puzzles and roadblocks along the way. It is a fascinating story, well told.

In the epilogue, Kleiman relates how she finally tracked down the identities of these women, some of whom were still alive and who she interviewed. You would think the world would be gratified to have this lost history rescued, but the book ends with a kicker. She was the target of vehement pushback from many in the computing industry. William Aspray, a senior researcher with the Charles Babbage Institute, accused her of revisionist history. Nathan Ensmenger published a book entitled The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise, which featured a white man standing in front of a massive computer on its cover. He dismissed the women programmers as “glorified clerical workers” and bloviated that they “were obviously low on the intellectual and professional status hierarchy.” Another book, ENIAC in Action: Making and Remaking the Modern Computer, by Thomas Haigh, Mark Priestley and Crispin Rope, was equally dismissive, labeling them mere “operators.”

Thanks to Kleiman for this fascinating history and setting the record straight.

They Knew, by Sarah Kendzior

If you’re expecting to simply kick back and cackle to yourself over the insane conspiracy ravings of MAGA and QAnon adherents, Sarah Kendzior’s They Knew: How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Complacent will disappoint. Oh, there’s plenty of that rightwing insanity dissected in the book, to be sure, but Kendzior takes a much deeper dive into the history and practice of conspiracy theories in America, and at some point you're sure to be set to squirming about something you believe no matter where you lie on the political spectrum.

She sets the scene early in the book with an example undercutting the liberal tendency to blame vaccine mistrust primarily on voter partisanship, an oversimplification that ignores the fact that there are nearly as many voters identifying as ‘Independent’ as there are ‘Republican,’ and that the most-vaccinated segment of the population—White Boomers—is also one of the top Trump-supporting segments. Indeed, the whole idea of ‘Red States’ is a misdirection: she calls them “gerrymandered hostage states run by hard-right Republican legislatures that disregard the public will.” So what is going on, if not a purely partisan divide? “[A]n epidemic of disillusionment and distrust so vast it stretches into paralysis.”

What is happening in Missouri is the result of having been lied to so many times about matters of life or death that the desire to die on your own terms outweighs the desire to get tricked into choosing it. What is happening here is the aftermath of predatory big pharma dynasties like the Sacklers swooping into your state and promising you relief in the form of opioids, assuring you they are safe, and leaving your community addicted and decimated while they laugh and profit off your pain and seek permanent immunity in the courts. What is happening here is recognition that if something were indeed wrong with a new and experimental vaccine, there would be no recourse and no justice, because political officials do not care if you die. What is happening here is abandonment as a way of life, from the streets of St. Louis to the hills of the Ozarks, and the knowledge that making a wrong move in a broken healthcare system is a gamble too expensive to take. What is happening here is not only people falling for conspiracies but remembering the times their loved ones had faith in the system and faith made a fool of them, at the cost of their survival.

In short, “of course people will flock to conspiracy theories when nearly every powerful actor is lying, obfuscating, or profiteering off pain.”

To be clear, Kendzior’s primary target is the blatant authoritarian criminality of the Trump regime, whose dangerous election she had predicted as early as the Fall of 2015. In her previous book, 2020’s Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America, she called it “a reality show featuring villains from every major political scandal of the past 40 years—Watergate, Iran-Contra, 9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 financial collapse—in recurring roles and revivals...a Celebrity Apprentice of federal felons and disgraced operatives dragged out of the shadows and thrust back into the spotlight.”

Your Best Year Yet! 2023 and every other year

The End is Near. The end of the year, that is, and if you’re the type who makes New Year’s resolutions, it’s the time to think about what you want to do better. You are not alone. Self-improvement books continue to have a huge market, and its only getting bigger. According to NPD Bookscan, sales in this publishing category nearly doubled between 2013 and 2019. I’ll give Trump credit for the latter years of that period: he offered people a window into how truly awful a human being could be, and no doubt spurred many to seek the path of not becoming Trump. More recent years have seen continued growth, as people deal with the fallout from Covid-19: the loss of connection, of certainty, of loved ones, of routine and expectations. The number of self-improvement titles in print is pushing 100,000.

I’ve never been a big consumer of self-help titles. I have a soft spot for the book in this diary’s title: Your Best Year Yet!: Ten Questions for Making the Next Twelve Months Your Most Successful Ever, by Jinny Ditzler. Part of that has to do with how I acquired it: In late 1999, after years of working in restaurants, I had just taken my first bookstore job, with the Barbara’s Bestsellers outlet in the Philadelphia International Airport. The company generously gave all its employees a one-hundred-dollar gift certificate for Christmas. I only remember two of the books I bought: my first Bukowski, Hot Water Music (the link is to the 2002 printing), and the new printing of Your Best Year Yet!, published on January 1st, 2000. The latter book just seemed right, given that I’d just switched career paths, and, well, it was the dawn of the year 2000, a New Year’s on steroids.

I can’t say I’ve ever used the book in any comprehensive way. Still, at this time of year, I usually find myself browsing through it as a way of refreshing my appreciation of the past and affirming my hopes for the future. It’s a nice little book in the genre. She doesn’t so much tell you what you should do, but rather, asks you to do the work yourself. The format is ten questions to ask yourself over the course of three hours, to ponder where you’ve come from and where you want to go.

  1. What did I accomplish?
  2. What were my biggest disappointments?
  3. What did I learn.
  4. How do I limit myself, and how do I stop?
  5. What are my personal values?
  6. What roles do I play in my life?
  7. Which role is my major focus for the next year?
  8. What are my goals for each role?
  9. What are my top ten goals for the next year?
  10. How can I make sure I achieve them?

So, basically, take stock, create a narrative about your life, and set goals. The essence of every self-help book out there. But if you’re going to read one, Ditzler’s is a congenial and valuable start.

Taxi from Another Planet, by Charles S. Cockell

I said it in my review back in May of David George Haskell’s Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution's Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction: “I already live on a knife-edge of awe, stunned disbelief and overwhelmed incomprehension when it comes to the natural world we inhabit.”

But I keep trying understand more, and so I turned to Taxi from Another Planet: Conversations with Drivers about Life in the Universe, by Charles S. Cockell. With this book, I go beyond “the natural world we inhabit” and journey into both the origins of life on Earth as well as the farthest reaches of the universe. And I make the trip by taxi!

Kudos to the author, who is a Very Serious Astrobiologist with the University of Edinburgh, and to Harvard University Press, a Very Serious Publisher, for presenting some Very Serious Science into such an entertaining and even whimsical package. It has become almost hackneyed for journalists to pay tribute to taxi drivers as sources of inspiration and information. The author of this book happily latches on to the tradition, initially inspired by a question posed by one particular driver in 2016:

Taxi drivers are linked into the collective mind of our civilization in a way few of us are. They feel the pulse of human thought...Unencumbered by a cartload of academic knowledge, technical detail, and the conservatism bred by uncertainty, taxi drivers have clear perspectives on the sorts of questions that most people find significant. Sometimes, they offer an entirely new point of view…. Name a single academic who would stand in front of 200 university students and ask, as though it were a profound question, whether there were alien taxi drivers. Yet here we were. 

And off we go in the first chapter of the book, examining various theories of whether life on Earth is unique, or whether it is just one node of a universal pattern that would be replicated countless times, with lifeforms dropping the flag in their taxis as they ferry others around on countless planets throughout the universe. What exactly is it that triggers, as he calls it, the “transition from mere chemistry to biology.”

README.txt: A Memoir, by Chelsea Manning

I picked up Chelsea Manning’s new book README.txt: A Memoir at the library on a whim, and I’m glad I did, as I've found it a thoroughly enjoyable read. You probably know the basics of her story: while still living as a male in 2010, she used her position as an intelligence analyst in the US Army to download hundreds of thousands of diplomatic and military documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which she then shared with the world. She was caught, charged and convicted to 35 years in prison. At the beginning of her sentence, she came out as transgender and fought to be allowed to transition. In 2017, President Obama commuted her sentence.

With stolen documents and potential exposed secrets in the news, and as someone with a transgender granddaughter, the book called out to me.

She’s a good writer, and her account of her life before all this happened is engaging, especially as it intersects with some of the historical events of her youth. She grew up in Crescent, a small town just north of Oklahoma City, where she and her older sister had to deal with parents who drank, and a father who could be violent. She describes their politics, such as they were, as a sort of conservative libertarianism, suspicious of government, and her description of the roots of their thinking seemed to paint a direct line to the dangerous and deluded anti-government MAGA crowd of today:

What really bothered him, and a lot of people like him...was that the government had killed people, including women and children, in Waco, Texas, during their botched intervention there in 1993, when I was six. The words Waco, David Koresh, Janet Reno, and ATF left most of us with a bitter taste. Our community shared a pervasive fear of the feds coming in again and interfering in our lives, taking away our firearms, going from house to house and forcing a new way of life on conservative, working-class people. I don’t think people who are not from that part of the world understand just what a formative event the stand-off at Waco was, or that it still feels like recent, urgent history to many.

The following year, when she was seven, she heard a loud boom outside. It was the explosion, thirty miles away, of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, where rightwing terrorist Timothy McVeigh had set off an explosive mix of agricultural fertilizer, diesel fuel, and other chemicals in a rented Ryder truck. 168 people died, including women and 19 children. Manning learned at a young age that violence could be random and could come from many sources.