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Reviewing the Reviews

Publication: Tribune

Cover: "Favorite Books of 2007." One-hundred and fifty of them! Each with a single paragraph of small type devoted to them and crammed into four of the most unappealing pages ever published.

Other Reviews & News of Note: Of course not. Worst Book Review Ever.


Publication: Sun-Times

Cover: "The Final Ballad of John and Yoko."

Other Reviews & News of Note: "Holidays 2007: Coffee Table Books." A more readable offering than the Trib's list; a somewhat eclectic set of choices made by Sun-Times staffers, which makes it more fun.

Entertainment columnist/Society maven Bill Zwecker, for example, chooses Entertaining at the White House With Nancy Reagan! Too perfect.

Theater critic Hedy Weiss chooses Shakespeare: The Life, The Works, The Treasures. So that's probably a pretty good selection.

Rock critic Jim DeRogatis chooses Creem: America's Only Rock 'N' Roll Magazine.. And so on.

It would have been even more fun if more of the staff's recognizable bylines were included. For example, where are selections by Jay Mariotti and Rick Telander? Roger Ebert and Carol Marin? Tim Novak and Abdon Pallasch?


Publication: New York Times

Cover: "A Stranger in Camelot," a review of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Other Reviews and News of Note: "This July, when the Democrats John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton all proposed closing a tax loophole that saves hedge fund managers hundreds of millions of dollars each year, it wasn't immediately clear what to make of it," Noam Schieber writes in his review of Robert Kuttner's The Squandering of America.

"On the one hand, it was the sort of proposal you'd expect from the party of working people. On the other, these three presidential candidates had stayed silent on the issue for months - while raising gobs of money from wealthy financiers. Why would they turn on them now?

"Only later did we get some hint of an explanation. The New York Times reported that Charles Schumer, the Senate's third-ranking Democrat, had spent June assuring Wall Street donors that the loophole would remain intact. This made the pronouncements a victory for everyone involved. The Democratic candidates could take the high road publicly, while their contributors could rest easy knowing those tax breaks were safe."

And therein lies why I hate Democrats.

As Schieber writes it, Kuttner's book is an exploration of just this sort of behavior by so-called liberals - most notably within the Clinton Administration, rehashing the fight that occurred between the Robert Rubin faction, which wanted a balanced budget immediately and "free" trade agreements to satisfy bondholding yuppies and their pals, and the Robert Reich faction, which wanted more investment in infrastructure, education, technology and social services, on the way to a balanced budget.

The Rubin faction won - as they always do - but in fact got burned. As Kuttner writes, "What the Clintonites . . . missed was that clearing aside trade barriers can leave you dangerously exposed when many of your trading partners - especially in East Asia - don't reciprocate."

And is that Clinton balanced budget really as important now as long-term investment in people's lives would have been? Balanced budgets are important but investing in the long-term health of an enlightened economy is never the wrong thing to do.

Also Noted: P.J. O'Rourke is as annoying as ever in a review of Taylor Clark's Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture, which doesn't sound so hot in itself.

O'Rourke reveals that "his money manager" suggested his company take a pass on Starbucks' 1992 IPO because he visited one in Seattle and "I didn't like the look of the people hanging around in there."

It was too hippieish for him.

O'Rourke displays his usual ignorance when he chides Clark for including in his book the work of sociologist Ray Oldenburg, famous for his notion of the "third place" - "locations other than home or work that are 'neutral, safe, public gathering spots.' Oldenburg claims that third place is disappearing in America. I beg to differ. It's called a bar, Ray."

Memo to Pajamas O'Rourke: Oldenburg indeed cites bars as crucial third places - and indeed they are disappearing. It's been well-reported by now that under the Daley Administration here in Chicago, the number of taverns in the city has dropped by more than half.

Clark's work seems equally lacking in rigor. He argues, according to O'Rourke, that "the surest way to boost sales at your mom-and-pop café may be to have a Starbucks move in next door."

Are you going to believe Clark or your lying eyes?

Clark hangs this argument on the fact that there are now more than 24,000 coffeehouses in America, compared to 585 (a dubious figure if you ask me) in 1989.

Apparently he fails to note that 23,500 of them are Starbucks', or that Starbucks rode a trend it didn't necessarily invent, but exploited.

There is one nugget cited by O'Rourke that confirms what some of us have been saying all along: That Starbucks' coffee sucks. Without all the sugary accompaniments, that is.

"Clark tells us that Ernesto Illy, patriarch of Italy's Illycaffe, 'the most quality-focused major roaster in the world,' says coffee as dark as Starbucks's smells as if it's been through 'a fire that has been extinguished by a fire brigade.' After that, Clark discusses rumors that Starbucks sells bitter, burnt-tasting coffee so that customers will order its more expensive syrupy, milky concoctions."

Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz gave the game away himself in a 1997 Larry King interview cited by Clark:

"People weren't drinking coffee . . . So the question is, How could a company create retail stores where coffee was not previously sold . . . charge three times more for it than the local doughnut shop, put Italian names on it that no one can pronounce, and then have six million customers a week coming through the stores?"

Indeed. Starbucks is a marketing triumph; a mix between McDonald's and Evian. In America, you can never go wrong underestimating the intelligence of the same yuppie consumers who thought Friends was funny.

And now they can buy their Paul McCartney CDs with their crappy, overpriced "coffee." Perfect.


1. Stephen Colbert
2. Glenn Beck
3. Tom Brokaw
4. Steve Martin
5. Anna Quindlen
6. Eric Clapton
7. A dog named Sprite
8. Tony Dungy
9. Alan Greenspan
10. The American Revolution


Posted on December 17, 2007

MUSIC - Muddy Waters Museum Has Mojo.
TV - WGN Now Trump TV.
POLITICS - President Trump Has 3,400 Conflicts Of Interest.
SPORTS - The Big Ten's Blood Money.

BOOKS - Searching For The World's Largest Owl.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - New Mop Shaped Like Taco.

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