Saturday, April 4, 2020

Book Review: 'Argo: How the CiA & Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History' by Antonio Mendez & Matt Baglio

✰✰✰✰½ What happens when a gifted artist joins the CIA? Magic. On November 4, 1979, Iranian student protesters stormed the American Embassy in Tehran. The diplomats had experienced something similar earlier in the year, so initially they weren't too worried. Unfortunately, this was different. It was just the beginning of a 444-day ordeal in which Americans were held hostage in horrible conditions.

As if the situation weren't intense enough, six Americans had managed to evade capture and were hiding somewhere in the city. It would only be a matter of time before they were discovered. With the clock ticking, the United States began to create scenarios for rescue, and Antonio Mendez, a top CIA officer, was brought on board.

The result was a plan so fantastical, it just had to work. Or would it? With the help of Hollywood special-effects artists, a script for a sci-fi flick, and courageous Canadians, Mendez was about to undertake a rescue so daring, it would be one for the history books.

The Bottom Line: Told by a true hero, Argo is a real page-turner. This quick read will keep you on the edge of your seat and provide the reader with a fascinating look at some of the "tricks of the trade" used in the past to exfiltrate people. Perfect for the armchair adventurer, fans of spy novels, and students of American History, this book is highly recommended.

Book Club Notes: As a group, we rated this book very highly with a median of 4.5 stars. For those of us who watched both the movie and read the book, we gave the movie 3 stars. We found the movie a bit disappointing because of the many fictional parts created just for the sake of adding suspense. It's already suspenseful without jazzing it up. Nevertheless, for those members who only watched the film, the movie was very entertaining. Both (but especially the book) are enthusiastically recommended for book clubs.

The book takes the reader back to a time many of us still remember, albeit vaguely. Many scenes in the book were filled with memories. It was a a fast and easy to read book with lots of suspense. We appreciated the backstory into what it was like working for the CIA at the time. This book also highlighted the coordination between the Americans and the Canadians. (Thank you, CANADA!) The only thing missing from this book were maps and photos, but I was able to make up for this with information I found online.

Since the book did not come with a reading guide, I put together discussion questions from the following resources: Teach With Movies, the Carnegie Council, Pilgrim Uniting Church, and a teacher resource guide from News in Review. My list of discussion questions is at the bottom of this post and includes some of my own as well as those from the previously listed sites. [NOTE: If you use the list of questions for your book club, please give credit where credit is due.]

Additionally, here are some of the links I used to supplement the discussion: The Official Website of Tony & Jonna Mendez, Pleasant Valley Studios (featuring artwork by the authors), Anonio Mendez's obituary, Ken Taylor's obituary, a fascinating article about Jonna Mendez, artifacts from the ARGO caper, a survivor story, Tony Mendez's case study, and a short video of The Real "ARGO."

Details: Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History by Antonio Mendez & Matt Baglio. Paperback published in 2012. 320 p. ISBN: 978-0-14-750973-4 

ARGO  Discussion Questions created & compiled by Nana A. Herron:

The day of the takeover:
  • Did you know anything about this event prior to reading this book? 
  • Did you know anything about the houseguests before reading the book or watching this film?
  • What issues does this film/book raise?
  • What preconceived notions did you have about Iran before reading this book? Did these change after reading the book? 
  • Why wasn’t the embassy simply closed?
  • Were there any other options for freeing the hostages or houseguests? (Military interventions, negotiations, dialogue…)  Before Tony came up with the exfiltration plan featuring a Hollywood cover story, there was another plan. The original idea was to create a dead body double of the shah in exchange for the American hostages? What were the pros and cons of this option?
  • Discuss the culture of Iran.
  • In the film, were Iranians portrayed unfairly? Were they stereotyped? 

Questions about the houseguests:
  • How do you think the Americans felt about leaving their diplomatic post and walking out into the street?
  • What would have happened if they had been discovered?
  • How would you have spent your time in hiding?
  • Do you think this incident left any long term effects on the houseguests?
  • If you were a houseguest, which exfiltration scenario would you have considered? (English teachers, nutritionists, or Hollywood) What made the Hollywood cover story stand out from the other options?
  • Discuss the ARGO exfiltration plan. What did you like or not like about it? Who was the primary audience for the Argo cover?
  • Discuss the lengths the CIA went to in order to create a face production company, man phones in Hollywood, and create fake Canadian identities for the houseguests.
  • What were their chances for success? How did the houseguests feel about the rescue plan? At the end of the film, former President Jimmy Carter says their chances for success was 50%. The houseguests did not know that at the time. Do you think it would have made a difference at the time if they had known?
  • Discuss the personal risks to the Canadians involved and the political risks to Canada as a country.

Controversial issues about the film:   (Note: The genres are historical fiction/historical drama thriller.)
  • How faithful was the film to the book? What did the movie get right? What is inaccurate? Do the inaccuracies bother you?
  • This film won the 2013 Oscar for Best Picture, but it’s been “widely criticized for not being historically accurate,...” Creating a story of film sometimes means leaving out some information while including other details. Discuss the necessity to include or cut some facts.
  • Do you think filmmakers and writers have a responsibility to represent historical events with accuracy? How much creative license should a writer/artist have?
  • In Canada, this incident was known as the Canadian Caper. What was Canada’s role? John Sheardon & his wife are not represented in the movie. Discuss this omission.
  • Should the movie have given Canada more credit? If so, would an American audience have been interested?
  • What do you think about the scenes that were fictional, but used to create suspense in the movie? Was Affleck justified in using them to create tension?
  • Was there anything that you saw or heard in the film that was unconvincing or seemed out of place?
  • For those who both read the book and saw the film, which did you prefer?

Wrap-up:

  • Do you think the author was the right person to tell the story?
  • Who do you think acted more heroically? The Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, or the author, Antonio Mendez?
  • Did this book or film improve your understanding of the hostage crisis?
  • How does this book help you understand what is going on in Iran today? Do the issues raised in this book affect the world now? In the future? How so? 
  • What was your impression of the CIA before reading the book? Has it changed?
  • Why did the CIA keep this rescue operation concealed for so long (for 17 years...until 1997)?
  • Did you learn something new? If so, what was it? If not, how did the author fail? 
  • Did this book broaden your perspective of the world? In what way?
  • Please rate the book from 1 - 5 (with 5 being the highest) and share why you either liked or disliked the book/film.



Monday, March 30, 2020

Book Review: 'American Fix' by Ryan Hampton

✰✰½ The numbers are staggering. Whether you realize it or not, almost everyone knows someone who is dealing with the opioid addiction epidemic in America. It could be your co-worker, neighbor, parent, sibling, or friend. Opioid addiction  can affect anyone. No one is immune. But how did we get to this point? Who is at fault? Many would blame the person with substance use disorder, but there are so many other aspects of this epidemic to consider. American Fix takes a look at Big Pharma, the healthcare community, local resources, and the government.

The author, Ryan Hampton, offers a unique perspective to this issue. As a person in recovery, Hampton has taken on the challenge of putting a face on this epidemic. By sharing his story and that of others, he hopes to encourage people to take action in creating change. If you have an open mind and are interested in discussing what can be done in communities to battle this epidemic, then pick up this book and read on.

The Bottom Line: This is a difficult read that gets you thinking about the current opioid addiction crisis. There is a lot of repetition in the book, and Hampton can sound preachy at times. Nevertheless, Hampton has valuable experience to share. As a person with a substance use disorder who is in recovery, Hampton brings his lived experience to the pages. Hampton succeeds in creating an awareness of the current epidemic, and hopefully encourages the reader to get involved. Recommended for healthcare professionals, mental health professionals, educators, parents, and people struggling with substance use disorder.

Book Club Notes: Members of our group felt very strongly about the issues brought up in this book. Unfortunately, this was one of those rare times when we really did not enjoy the book itself. On a scale from 1 - 5, with 5 being the highest, ratings ranged from a low of 1 to a high of 3.75, with an average rating of 2.5. Why the low ratings? Well, in a nutshell, the author comes across the pages as being very angry and self-serving, which put a lot of people off. Members commented that overall the book was preachy, repetitive, and poorly written; it could have benefited from a good edit. Others commented that Hampton seemed disrespectful to Alcoholics Anonymous and was loose with his facts.

Another issue that really bothered several of us was the comparison of substance use disorder to other chronic diseases, especially breast cancer. While Hampton does have the lived experience of substance use disorder, he made some assumptions about breast cancer, for example, that show a lack of insight. Instead of making comparisons to other diseases, perhaps Hampton could simply focus on the opioid addiction crisis. 

That being said, this book sparked one of our book club's most engaging discussions. Despite all the negatives, this book got us talking to our families, friends, and each other. Hopefully, we will take this discussion into our community, which in turn will allow us to continue to create awareness and understanding about substance use disorder.

This book is a challenging read. Recommended for colleges, communities, and hospitals looking for a way to start a dialogue about the opioid addiction epidemic. Discussion questions are available at Perusall. 

Details: American Fix: Inside the Opioid Addiction Crisis--And How To End It by Ryan Hampton with Claire Rudy Foster. Hardcover published by All Points Books in 2018. 304 p. ISBN: 9781250196262 

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Book Review: 'How to Catch a Leprechaun' by Adam Wallace

✰✰✰ Kids everywhere dream of catching a leprechaun so they can get their hands on the pot of leprechaun gold. However, it's not that simple. Leprechauns like to play tricks. They temp children by leaving gold coins behind while taunting, "You'll never catch me." Again and again the leprechaun outwits these clever little kiddos and their innovative traps. Will anyone ever catch the leprechaun? You'll have to read the story to find out!

The Bottom Line: This fun story featuring clever kids and art in bold colors is sure to be a winner with children in Grades Preschool - Kindergarten. And if you liked this one, be sure to check out the other stories.

Details: How to Catch a Leprechaun written by Adam Wallace & illustrated by Andy Elkerton. Picture book published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky in 2016. 32 p. ISBN: 978-1-4926-3291-7

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Book Review: 'Spencer's New Pet' by Jessie Sima

✰✰✰✰✰ A young boy named Spencer is thrilled to have a new pet balloon. He loves to play with his new pet and takes it to the vet's office, the park, and a birthday party. Although these places are full of dangers for balloons, Spencer manages to steer his pet away from all disasters until...POP! With a surprise twist, happy ending, you'll never look at a balloon the same way again.

The Bottom Line: Told in four parts, the story in this picture book unfolds like a silent film. The author brilliantly tells this nearly wordless tale with a very limited color palette. The surprise twist at the end was clever; I didn't see it coming at all (and that's rare!). Very highly recommended for kids ages 5 - 8. This could be a top contender for my fave book of the year!

Details: Spencer's New Pet written & illustrated by Jessie Sima. Picture book published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in 2019. 56 p. ISBN: 978-1-5344-1877-6

Monday, February 24, 2020

Book Review: 'Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen' by Anne Nesbet

✰✰✰✰ Darleen Darling is a young silent film star who's life is about to get even more daring. When her family's studio decides to generate some extra publicity with a fake kidnapping stunt, things go terribly wrong. Not only does Darleen get kidnapped for real, but she stumbles upon another kidnapping already taking place. To her surprise, the captive is none other than heiress Miss Victorine Berryman!

It's evident quite quickly that the two captives are in a heap of trouble. When it's obvious help isn't coming, the two young girls quickly become friends and hatch a plan to rescue themselves. With daring escapes, murderous plans, and danger around every corner, their daring rescue unfolds like an adventure movie serial. Will the two manage to outwit their captors or will evil prevail? Check out this captivating read to find out.

The Bottom Line: This tale of adventure is a quick read that will keep kids in middle school turning the pages. The escapes and plots are fun to read, but the budding friendship between two very different (and very resourceful) young ladies is what really shines through. I'm looking forward to reading more mysteries featuring these two clever heroines. Highly recommended for young fans of mysteries and historical fiction. 

Details: Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen by Anne Nesbet. ARC published by Candlewick Press in 2020. 368 p. ISBN: 978-1-5362-0619-7  [NOTE: I received a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This was made possible via the Early Reviewers program at LibraryThing.] 

Friday, February 14, 2020

Book Review: 'A Crankenstein Valentine' by Samantha Berger


✰✰✰ Welcome to Valentine’s Day, a time when everyone is caught up in pink bouquets, sweet candy treats, and cheesy cards. Everyone, that is, except Crankenstein. He doesn’t like underwear with hearts, chocolate with coconut, or being in the school pageant. Yechhhh! What could possibly melt this Crankenstein’s heart? Something everyone needs. Check out this picture book and discover the secret.

The Bottom Line: Not everyone is a fan of candy hearts, flowers, and kisses. This large picture book with bright, bold illustrations is perfect for kids in Preschool – Grade 1 who don’t enjoy the lovey-dovey nature of the season.

Details: Crankenstein Valentine written by Samantha Berger & illustrated by Dan Santat. Picture book published by Little, Brown and Company in 2014. 40 p. ISBN: 978-0-316-37638-9  

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Book Review: 'Brownie Groundhog and the Wintry Surprise by Susan Blackaby

✰✰✰✰½ When Brownie Groundhog leaves for her long winter’s nap, she tells her friends not to bother her until spring. What is a fox and a bunny to do in the meantime? “Wintry things,” says Brownie. Although they try to do wintry things, it’s cold outside, and Fox and Bunny soon get bored. When Fox gets the bright idea to borrow his friend’s warm scarf, a hesitant Bunny follows along. Soon Fox “borrows” lots of things. With all the racket, it’s only a matter of time before Brownie wakes up to find a BIG surprise waiting for her. Will Brownie be angry with her friends? It looks like Brownie won’t get the sleep she needs, but the ending just might surprise YOU!

The Bottom Line: Friendship is the key to this tale, because although Brownie’s friends borrow her things without permission and wake her up, Brownie keeps her cool. Segovia’s whimsical, wintry illustrations in acrylic and ink are a real treat and add humor to the story. Plus, this picture book manages to be a holiday book without specifically mentioning a particular religion or culture. An enjoyable read for celebrating Groundhog’s Day, Christmas, or the season of winter. Highly recommended for little ones in Preschool – Grade 2 or for classroom storytimes.

Details: Brownie Groundhog and the Wintry Surprise written by Susan Blackaby & illustrated by Carmen Segovia. Picture book published by Sterling Children’s Books in 2013. 32 p. ISBN: 978-1-4027-9836-8