"We are of opinion that instead of letting books grow moldy behind an iron grating, far from the vulgar gaze, it is better to let them wear out by being read." - Jules Verne
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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Point in Time: The Search for Redemption in This Life and the Next by David Horowitz



A Big Change of Pace for Horowitz

David Horowitz is best known as a fearless in-your-face political brawler. He will literally go anywhere to debate anyone about any political topic - the more strident the opponent, the better he seems to like it. My local news and talk station interviews Horowitz once a week and I have heard a great deal of those interviews over the years. Horowitz is a formidable debater - a partisan of the first rank. To be honest, it never occurred to me that Horowitz had another gear (which, of course, is silly - we all have other interests) so when I read the description of this short book I knew I had to check it out.

In A Point in Time: The Search for Redemption in This Life and the Next, Horowitz waxes philosophical on time, how things change in this world (or more properly, how nothing ever seems to change), the way dogs live their lives compared to the way people live their lives, the paradox of the fragility and strength of horses, how out history is not really "going" anywhere and how living in a world with no faith at all is worse than living in a world with follower that follow their faiths imperfectly.

Each of A Point in Time's three chapters have unique and overlapping perspectives. In the first chapter we are introduced to Horowitz's dogs - three little sparks of life that he enjoys immensely. He considers this to be an odd proposition because he is a relative latecomer to dog ownership. All dog owners know that every dog is unique and, sometimes, the best thing they can do for us is remind us to take joy in the moment.

From there, Horowitz moves to a quote from famed Stoic Marcus Aurelius, the "philosopher king" of the Roman Empire: "He who has seen present things has seen all, both everything that has taken place from all eternity and everything that will be for time without end..." Or, as King Solomon put it: "There is nothing new under the sun."

Horowitz's point here is not to dispute our technological advances. Instead, he is commenting that people have not changed, and life is essentially the same. This is part of a well documented dispute he has had with his father who was an avowed communist that believed the world was moving in a "forward march" toward a future workers' paradise because human nature would eventually change with the right guidance.

Horowitz moves on to Dostoevsky. As he puts it on page 35, "Dostoevsky understood the dilemma we face if our existence has no meaning." To put it simply, men need a higher power to inspire them or, if nothing else, make them fear divine judgment. This is a powerful thought from a confirmed agnostic.

Horowitz comments on a rug that President Obama had installed in the Oval Office that states in its stitching: The arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice." He questions that. How can it when the human species keeps doing the same awful things to one another that we have always done? Are we moving forward? Horowitz insists the answer is no. Instead, "The arc of the moral universe is indeed bent, but there is no one and no way to unbend it." (p. 101)

This is a melancholy work. Horowitz mourns the death of his daughter, muses on his own serious health problems and even notes that one of his beloved dogs is now too old to take long walks with him. He notes that people die before they have all of their loose ends tied up. His daughter died and left behind a great deal of unpublished writings. He gathered the best of them together in a collection for a posthumous work. So, he notes in the last line of this book, did Mozart. Mozart died while writing Requiem - even working on it the very day he died. Perhaps, that is enough - the very stoic concept of doing what is laid before you to do and not expecting the world to change.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on August 22, 2011.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: A Point in Time by David Horowitz.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

1776 by David McCullough



Another great history from McCullough

David McCullough's 1776 is yet another well-written history from David McCullough, the two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and two-time winner of the National Book Award.

David McCullough
Many academic historians discount McCullough's work as being too "popular" - a complaint that I think is pure bunk. McCullough's works are popular because he is a good writer, not because he is chasing popular topics. He is not skimping on these topics or slanting them a particular way. 1776 is a perfect example of this. McCullough does not paint a picture of George Washington, the perfect general. Rather, Washington is portrayed as the man who is quite a bit over his head, but still the best man for the job because he understands the larger goals of the colonies and is finally beginning to understand the tactics and strategies required for a ragtag army supplemented with local militia to take on a British army with superior training, superior discipline, superior supplies and the freedom to roam the Atlantic Seaboard at will.

As its name implies, 1776 is the story of the American Revolution in 1776, specifically the story of Washington and the brand new Continental Army. The story begins with the American siege of Boston, moves on to the poorly handled defense of New York City and ends with the Battle of Trenton, a battle that McCullough clearly sees as a turning point of the war, the battle that vindicates Washington as a leader after his very poor showing in New York.

Henry Knox (1750-1806)
This is an easy to read history - it flows nicely. It flows so well that at times I felt like I was reading a novel. McCullough does an especially good job of relating the story of the challenges faced by young bookseller Henry Knox and his men when they brought the cannons from Ticonderoga to Boston. This move surprised the British so thoroughly that they soon left Boston rather than face those cannon in their new locations since they threatened the ships that were supplying the city.

I really have only one serious complaint about the book and that is a simple lack of maps. There is a photograph of a map of Boston made during the siege and another of a map of New York just prior to the invasion, but these were inadequate. This book just screamed for maps and lots of them.

Despite the issue with maps, this is a very fine history.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book cab be found on Amazon.com here: 1776 by David McCullough.

Reviewed on August 20, 2011.

Friday, August 19, 2011

People of Darkness (audiobook) by Tony Hillerman



One of Hillerman's best

Read by George Guidall
Duration: 7 hours, 2 minutes

Tony Hillerman (1925-2008)
People of Darkness is one of Hillerman's best and happens to be the first of the Jim Chee novels. It is set, like most of Hillerman's mysteries, in the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners Area. In this case, Jim Chee is working in the southeast corner of the reservation, in an area commonly called the "Checkerboard" because it consists of a series of parcels of reservation and privately-held land parcels that are interspersed with one another.

Even though he is an officer with the Navajo Tribal Police, Chee is contacted to do some work as a private citizen who lives off of the reservation using his vacation time. It seems a multi-millionaire's wife wants Chee to investigate the theft of some of her husband's private "momentos".

Chee starts to look into it and his curiosity draws him to the case, despite being warned away by the local sheriff and the multi-millionaire.

Plenty of action and even more Navajo cultural lore fill this book. This book is one of Hillerman's best - if you are a fan of his newer works and have not yet read the older ones do yourself a favor and get this one! It was a joy to listen to. This version of the audiobook was narrated by George Guidall who did a strong job with the variety of voices.

This audio version lasts about 7 hours. It is unabridged.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found at Amazon.com here: People of Darkness by Tony Hillerman.

Reviewed on February 28, 2008.

Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen



Good - recommended reading, but not without its faults

First things first: this history teacher strongly recommends reading Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe. Magellan and the early European explorers have long been overlooked - I can only assume due to Politically Correct attitudes among "professional" historians at the university level. Too bad. One does not have to admire everything that Magellan, Columbus and the other explorers did to admire bravery, audacity and the urge to explore that these men displayed.

Positives:

-Bergreen's text is very approachable. He tells the story in a well-paced manner and sets up the political background quite well. His portrayal of Charles I and all of the crises he faced intrigues me so much that I am going to look for a book about him.

-Bergeen uses research resources that have not been used before in a popular work - more information and perspectives is always better.

Negatives:

-Maps. This book has almost none, and the ones included are mostly examples of 16th century map work - they are not in conjunction with the text. Bergreen includes a NASA photo of the Straits of Magellan that I find as indecipherable as an ultrasound. A conventional map would have been so much more welcome.

Ferdinand Magellan (1468-1521)
-Endnotes. Bergreen did a lot of research for this book, but he does not use a single note in the text (I would not let my high school students get away with this oversight). His endnotes are organized by chapter, but this style makes it very hard to tie specific facts with specific endnotes. Also, if you are going to make commentary in your endnotes, be a decent fellow and make them footnotes so the reader does not have to flip back and forth to the end to see your comments.

-Opinion inserted into the text. It is impossible to eliminate bias from a work of history. The simple process of choosing what to include and what to leave out demonstrates that bias. However, several times Bergreen includes gratuitous comments about the commanders of Magellan's fleet after Magellan died. When critical of their choices, he would say things like "it was just the sort of mishap that Magellan would likely have prevented..." (363) and "Not even Magellan would risk taking one, and only one, ship all the way from the Spice Islands back to Spain." (363-4) One cannot know what Magellan would do and it is best to avoid (or at the very least, seriously limit) speculation.

All of that being said, I still strongly recommend this book.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe.

Reviewed on March 4, 2008.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

After America: Get Ready for Armeggedon by Mark Steyn



"If something cannot go on forever, it will stop"

The above quote is from the economist Herbert Stein. Besides being a clever little bit of the obvious, a Yogi Berra-type quote, it is also part of a scary thought about America itself that Mark Steyn points out in After America - America cannot keep doing what it is doing forever and hope to lead the world - it will stop. It cannot keep  borrow 40% of its budget forever and hope to keep its economy afloat or offer its children a decent future. America cannot hope that a post-America world will be pleasant - as Steyn notes on page 14 "...it's not hard to figure out how it's going to end."

After America: Get Ready for Armageddon is really the sequel to America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It a book that details how low birth rates, a general cultural malaise and a nanny state stupor threatens to overwhelm the same countries that once led the world in political, military and cultural might. Now, he warns of the same sorts of danger happening to America itself - we will not be "America Alone" but something different - different culturally, maybe more than one country, maybe nothing but a hazy memory.


Mark Steyn
Mark Steyn is truly one of the wittiest writers I have ever read. I have always enjoyed his columns, but in a larger format Steyn truly shines. He builds on what he has already written about so well that it almost becomes like an extended conversation with the man. He almost seamlessly ties together point after point. Steyn makes you laugh at the absurdity of the situation and then, while in mid-chuckle you stop and think, "Wait! That's not really funny at all. That's outrageous (or sad, or scary)." This is simultaneously the funniest and the scariest book that I have read this year.

What are his points? Steyn starts with commentary about the national debt that seems as fresh as if it were a column written today thanks to the government's extended wrangling over the debt ceiling this summer. He also comments about how politically correct thought, excessive regulation and years upon years of erosion of free speech rights and property rights are changing this country from a can-do country to an entitlement country.

Steyn changes his style a bit in a chapter called After: A Letter from the Post-American World. This is a sobering, even depressing chapter As the title suggests, this is a letter from the future and it shows how when the West hamstrings itself, the whole world suffers and it does not become a place you would want your children to live in. Or your Jewish friends. Or your gay friends. Or your culturally liberal Muslim friends. Or perhaps even your Christian friends. It's not like we aren't being warned about this possibility now - Steyn points out headline after headline, trend after trend that should be screaming to us. But, we have Facebook to play with and Jersey Shore to watch. Plus, who are we to judge? So, Steyn predicts on page 306: "...incremental preemptive concession was the easiest option. To do anything else would have been asking too much."

This is not a perfect book. Not all of Steyn's arguments hold water, in my opinion. But, 99% of them do and this is a must-read book for anyone interested in big picture history. In this entertaining and sobering book Steyn predicts that we are at one of those hinges of history moments and we are not going to succeed. Sadly, I can't say that I disagree with him on that point at all.

****

On a separate note, I criticized America Alone because it had no footnotes or end notes. It didn't even have a bibliography. This book has extensive end notes with bibliographical reference and is meticulously indexed so the reader can easily find this information and articles for him(her)self and inform others.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: After America: Get Ready for Armageddon

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Secret Scroll by Ronald Cutler



Not good, not bad

Some have reviewed The Secret Scroll very harshly. I am unwilling to do this, despite my opinion that this is not really a good book. I give it 3 Stars. As I told someone else, it is neither drek nor a Pulitzer Prize winner. It's kinda like watching an episode of Matlock - it beats watching nothing but it sure isn't To Kill A Mockingbird, despite being set in the south and having a courtroom drama.

Positives:

-The plot moves along at a quick pace.

-Lots of action.

-Truly bad "bad guys."

-a love story.

-I was interested in seeing where Cutler was going with his depictions of Jesus and Paul.

-The short (2-5 pages) chapter style makes it an easy book to put down and pick up again.

Negatives:

-It is set around a scroll that is discovered by an American archaeologist that is supposedly written by Jesus of Nazereth. Cutler makes the text of such a scroll accessible to readers who are unfamiliar with ancient texts by totally ignoring their normal style and making these writings of Jesus sound like those of a blogging early twenty-something.

-Most Christians are bound to be frustrated with this book as its characterization of both Jesus and Paul run counter to the understanding of most Christians.

A guide for book club groups is included at the end.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found at Amazon.com here: The Secret Scroll.

Reviewed on March 7, 2008.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Deed: A Novel by Keith Blanchard



Hasn't this book already been written?

Keith Blanchard's premise in The Deed is that the fabled sale of Manhattan Island by the Manhata Indians to the Dutch is actually incorrect. Instead, the island was sold a second time by the starving Dutch colony to a Dutch man who sympathized with the Manhata, married a Manhata woman and insisted on a deed for the island so that he and his heirs could hold it for the native peoples who did not understand these legal machinations.

It's an interesting premise, but one that was explored 4 years earlier by Larry Jay Martin in his book Sounding Drum. Interestingly, it was also a quirky comedy, it also involved a romance, the mafia and Indian casinos.

Regardless of those similarities, this book should be judged on its own merits. I liked the historical section and the actual mystery of the deed. I truly disliked Blanchard's description of Hansvoort and his friends. Page after page in this book involve the bar scene and the consumption of literally gallons of alcohol. If Blanchard was trying to show us the dichotomy between Hansvoort's pointless career and the empty lives he and his friends live and that of the Indians he failed because he did not explore the lives of the Indians. Maybe he was just writing what he knows, as the old adage goes. If that was the case, it left me out completely.

On the whole, this book failed to go farther than just being OK for me - the white characters were unlikable, the Indians were mysterious and barely developed as characters and the mafia characters were menacing until it came to actually menace - then they were duds.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Deed: A Novel.

Reviewed on October 18, 2006.

Dead Weight (Bill Gastner #8) (Posadas County #8) by Steven Havill



Wonderful

I absolutely love the Bill Gastner series. I have read a few unsatisfying novels lately and Dead Weight was a real joy.

Gastner is the nearly 70-year-old insomniac sherrif of a small town in New Mexico. He consumes great quantities of coffee and very spicy Mexican food (even for breakfast!) while he juggles a homicide investigation, a mysterious accusation against one of his officers and a landlord/renter dispute. Small town politics and good police work don't necessarily go hand-in-hand, but Gastner makes it work anyway.

Havill's characters remind me very much of those of fellow New Mexican author Tony Hillerman. For me, this is very high praise since I absolutely love the Leaphorn/Chee novels. If Havill and Hillerman are par for the course in the world of New Mexican authors than I am going to looking for more of them. Truly a delightful read.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Dead Weight by Steven Havill

Reviewed on October 18, 2006.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dave Barry's Greatest Hits (audiobook) by Dave Barry

Audio Version a real treat

Read by John Ritter
Duration: 2 hours, 33 minutes

Dave Barry
Dave Barry's Greatest Hits was read by John Ritter who was one of the few people who could actually read Dave Barry correctly - he put the emphasis in the right places and pauses to make the jokes work perfectly.

On to the material -

Pulled from Barry's earlier material in the early 1990s, it was a bit up and down, but mostly up (even the downs weren't down very far). His time-share condo essay is a gem that should be printed off and handed out to people before they go into any time-share condo presentation. His "Diplodocus" essay was funny and touching all at the same time. One of his best ever. The "Can New York Save Itself?" essay was a prime example of Dave taking a joke and running it into the ground. It was mildly amusing but it kept going and going and going and going and ... you get the point.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on October 3, 2006.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Course of Human Events (audiobook) by David McCullough

Lovely speech - a joy for any history lover

David McCullough
Narrated by the author, David McCullough
Duration: About 40 minutes

I am a high school history teacher - not the type of history teacher who got into it so he could also coach. I am a REAL history teacher. I love history. I read histories for entertainment. I go on trips to see historical places. History is exciting and important to me.

The Course of Human Events, McCullough's wonderful 40 minute speech on the Founding Fathers, history and great literature made my soul sing. I learned a lot but mostly I found the joy of listening to a kindred spirit discuss history and its importance and the joys of learning.McCullough is a two time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a winner of the National Book Award for his histories.

I also found myself being a bit envious of McCullough's wonderful speaking voice and the fact that he writes so well. However, I quickly recovered since McCullough is not stingy with either of these talents.

Do not let the relatively short length of this CD deter you from purchasing it - you will want to listen to it again and again over the years.

I rate this speech 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on September 22, 2006.

A Means to Evil by John Trenhaile



Really, really bad

John Trenhaile lives in England - and this is an important fact for the rest of this review. He lives in England and he has written a mystery set in California.

Now, it seems to me that a mystery set in 1990s California should feature characters that sound like Californians, behave like Californians and follow Californian police procedures. Instead, in A Means to Evil Trenhaile has characters that speak like they live in England, they behave like the English and they follow insanely ridiculous police procedures.

By page 150 of this 388 page book I was sick of the meandering story and the unprofessional behavior of the psychologist. But then I started to fold over the pages that had silly comments, unlikely technical achievements and flat out use of non-American English. I ended up with well over 30 folded pages.

Examples of non-American English:

Police chief yelling at reporters before a press conference: "Give way!...Give way to the front there!"

One of the policemen mentions that he talked to someone a "fortnight" ago. Fortnight is never used in America!

A character mentions that she wants to move away. She says that they should just "move house."

Bad facts:

He refers to the reporter at a local CBS affiliate station as a CBS reporter - that is never done in the United States. Reporters who work for a network affiliate always say that they work for the affiliate (WTHR or KABC, for example), not the network. That is because they DO NOT work for the network!

He has the police talking about executing someone via the electric chair in Cailifornia - California only uses lethal injection.

Technical impossibility:

A CD player is playing a CD when the power is cut at the fuse box. After several seconds, power is restored and the CD player resumes playing right where it stopped!

At the very least, Trenhaile should have had an American editor read the book to see if the dialogue sounded even close to true. Also, anyone who has worked a CD player would know that his description, while certainly dramatic when placed in its scene, is impossible.

But even more unforgivable is the boring, plodding, dragging, annoying first half of this book. Do not buy this dog - read the back of a cereal box instead!

I rate this book 1 star out of 5.

You can find this book on Amazon.com here: A Means to Evil.

Reviewed on September 14, 2006.

Monday, August 8, 2011

You Know Me Al: A Busher's Letters (audiobook) by Ring Lardner

Keefe's "voice" captured perfectly on this version of the audiobook
 
Ring Lardner (1885-1933)
Read by Barry Kraft
Duration: 3 hours.
Publisher: Book of the Road (August 1990)

You Know Me Al: A Busher's Letters consists of a series of rather detailed letters written by a bush-league ballplayer named Jack Keefe. Keefe has been called up from the Terre Haute team to join the Chicago White Sox. He is writing to one of his former bush-league teammates in Bedford, IN.

Keefe is truly a country bumpkin, a rube, a bumbling fool who does not understand the more sophisticated world of the major leagues, but who still succeeds based on the strength of his pitching arm. The reader gets a kick out of seeing the world through his eyes but really understanding the situations he is in, similar to Forrest Gump, except that Jack does not have a disability - he is just ignorant.

The audio version I heard (Book of the Road's version) is wonderfully performed by veteran Shakespearean actor Barry Kraft. Kraft captures his self-confidence, Hoosier country-boy accent and innocence perfectly. To me, he will forever be the voice of Jack Keefe.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on September 5, 2006.

The Known World: A Novel by Edward P. Jones



How can I effectively heap praise on a book that has already won the Pulitzer Prize?

Edward P. Jones
Originally Published in 2003.

What else can I do but chime in with my own little two cents worth of opinion and join the crowd?

The Known World is a complex, rich, frustrating, fascinating, compelling, comforting, detailed work that is filled with 3-dimensional characters that draw the reader into the complex, confusing, often brutal world of slavery on the Virginia frontier in the 1800s.

Set in a fictional county in Virginia, The Known World revolves around the Townsends, a family of ex-slaves. Henry Townsend is a former slave who owns a plantation replete with slaves. The irony of that situation strikes one his slaves who notes to himself that it is odd for a black man to own slaves, but really no odder than the very idea that one person may own another in the first place.

The author, Edward P. Jones, does not tell the story in a linear fashion. Instead, he bounces his readers along a timeline stretching from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, but mostly focusing on the 1840s and 1850s. At first this is quite confusing, but then it starts to seem natural. It reminded me of hearing family members talking about family histories - the way that the tellers often bounce along through time when telling those stories.

Symbolism abounds throughout the novel, especially with the names.  Examples include a slave/overseer named Moses and an unassuming ex-slave named with the pretentious name Augustus. Even the title of the book has multiple meanings. It is the name of a map in the Sheriff's Office (maps abound throughout the book) but I think that the title implies that this way of life - owning slaves - was the only thing that anyone knew. It was their known world - their only way of seeing how society could be structured.

I would love to be part of a book club that seriously looked at all of the detail for hidden meanings, foreshadowings, etc. This is one book that I could easily read again and again and pick up something new every time. An earlier reviewer said that this should be used in schools - he is right! It is a rich, complex, satisfying read. It should lead to any number of wonderful discussions.

I rate this novel 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Known World: A Novel by Edward P. Jones.

Reviewed on August 31, 2006.

Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation DVD

The cover and the title make you think you're in for more than this movie delivers

As fans of Starship Troopers know, the very name Starship Troopers implies a galaxy-sweeping epic with lots of violence, gore, heroism, humor, drama and tons of big-budget special effects.

This one is limited to one location, his lots of gore but little in the humor, drama and big-budget special effects department.

One has to wonder at the thought processes in Hollywood. Starship Troopers was a big success. Sure, it was expensive, but it is also a regular staple on cable TV and it continues to sell well (#2500 or so on Amazon in DVD sells as of today - which isn't bad for a 10 year old movie).

One would think that a Starship Troopers 2 would have been in the works for a long time - perhaps a final push to the bug home system. Instead, according to the director's commentary track, the special effects director of the original Starship Troopers came up with this simple, low-budget plot that he wanted to direct. Somehow sold it to the powers-that-be at Sony and they backed it, provided that he slash his already bare bones budget even more.

So, what do you get when you give Starship Troopers 2 a budget that is only 5% (yes - five percent!) the size of the original movie? A bad movie full of special effects tricks that you are most likely to see in 50s sci-fi cult classics. The movie's premise changes from being a war epic to being a haunted castle movie, a premise that the producers and director freely admit to on the director's track. They also admit to it being a "B movie" and that it was intentionally filmed to go straight to DVD. It is a poorly-lit movie. That was also intentional - poor lighting means that the movie's special effects can be of lesser quality. Unfortunately, one of Tippett's other compensations for a low budget is to add more blood to every scene in the last half of the movie. It gets silly after a while, rather than dramatic.

The movie is derivative of several other movies and TV shows including:

-Star Trek: TNG. Remember the plot that Picard uncovered in which aliens were physically inserting themselves into the brains of high-ranking members of Star Fleet? Well, I hate to write a spoiler, but...

X-Files. Same as a above

Aliens - there's a scene that just steals from the one in which the Paul Reiser character drops an alien into Ripley's sleeping quarters.

Alien - the dark sets with a creepy monster about.

John Carpenter's The Thing - the premise of being an outpost cut off from the rest of humanity while an alien takes people over one by one. The scene where the General is chased into the base steals from the one in which the dog in The Thing is chased to the Antarctic research lab by the helicopter.

Brenda Strong comes to this movie as a familiar face, but not as the same character. Her character in the original Troopers was a fleet captain who died a horrible death. In this one she is an army sergeant. No one is quite sure why they felt the need to have a face from the first movie but she does a good job and on the director's track they credit her with making this movie shoot a positive experience on a lot of levels. That makes it all the more bizarre that her name is not listed on the cover of the DVD or on the back cover credits. Too bad - her character was just about the closest thing that I found to believable in the whole movie.

I give this two stars rather than one because I found the director's/producer's track to be quite fascinating. Maybe it should only be watched with that track playing because it fails to deliver on the promise of the original in so many ways.

Reviewed on August 19, 2006.

The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy by Thomas Sowell

Good, but needed more detail

Thomas Sowell, a noted conservative thinker and a genuinely interesting person (I've heard him as a guest on a local radio station several times) writes an effective book against the actions of those whom he calls 'The Annointed.'  The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy is effective, but not a great work.

Who are The Annointed?

He uses the term in a sarcastic way here to illuminate those 'Teflon prophets' (he uses that term because some of them are still considered credible despite no evidence that their predictions have ever come true) that scream doom and gloom and offer the direst of predictions unless we immediately give them the power to save us - since we are too simple to see the problem for ourselves and take the actions needed to save ourselves.

Thomas Sowell
It does not necessarily need to be someone with world-shaking problems, like Paul Ehrlich and his population bomb theories(Sowell skewers him thoroughly), but it can be anyone who claims to see society as it really is - they have the Vision of the Annointed - and can take the proper steps to ensure that justice (in a cosmic sense) is accomplished. A great deal of the book concerns those that believe that society is to blame for crime, poverty, etc. and how they try to make adjustments in our criminal justice system and our welfare system to compensate. Rather than achieving a measure of compensation, Sowell powerfully argues that justice is compromised and the overall welfare of society is put at risk.

Sowell has his favorite chew toys in this book, including Judge Brazelon (he has 12 entries in the Index) and a NY Times columnist (11 entries) and he does make his point. The nice thing about Sowell is that he criticizes based on policy rather than on a personal level, unlike such political writers as Coulter, Savage, Moore and Franken.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on August 19, 2006.

The Soviet Turmoil (Fall of Communism) by Jeffrey Symynkywicz

A solid history of the Soviet Union

This small book (about 145 pages plus a large set of endnotes) provides a solid but short history of the Soviet Union.

The last half of The Soviet Turmoil concerns the last 2-3 years of the Soviet Union. It was written in 1997, which is still too close to the actual events of the USSR's collapse to get a proper perspective. Symynkywicz goes into too many details about Gorbachev and the men involved in the attempted coup(s) against him - it simply does not match the tone and pacing of the first half of the book. It would have been more appropriate to look at some of the other causes of the USSR's collapse, including economic pressures and world political pressures. However, it may be that many of these types of facts were still unavailable in 1997.

Good, simple history of the USSR and its downfall.

Final Grade: 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on August 10, 2006.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

To the Nines (Stephanie Plum, No. 9) by Janet Evanovich

I'm a big fan but this one was a bit tedious

Here's my problem:

*My previous experiences with Stephanie Plum have all come in the form of audiobooks. Her wise cracking comments and first person narration of all of the antics of her family and neighbors make you feel like your riding along with her and your getting the inside scoop. I enjoyed them so much that when I had to switch cars at a moment's notice due to I car trouble I forgot my lunch in the old car but remembered to bring Stephanie Plum with me to the new car!

Reading To The Nines, I felt the whole thing became plodding and tedious. The bloom is off of this lilly as far as I am concerned. Unlike other formulaic novel series (such as Parker's Spenser series) this one does not hold up too much scrutiny for me. I keep wondering things like:

*How does Ranger pay for all of these fancy cars and employees when he is so busy working skip traces out of a third-rate bail bondsman's office in a medium-sized city?

*Is Stephanie ever going to get any better at this? It was cute at first, but now? C'mon!

*Are these characters ever going to develop? They stay in a perpetual holding pattern of bizarre behaviors that I found charming at first but now I want to meet new people or see some growth!

Final Grade: 3 stars out of 5 (I got to see old friends again but it was not enough).

Reviewed on August 8, 2006.

Blue Screen (Sunny Randall) by Robert B. Parker

A quick, enjoyable read

Robert B. Parker (1932-2010)
I came across Blue Screen yesterday afternoon and I snapped it up immediately. I think that I have read through the entire Parker collection at this point and I immediately pick the newest one up as soon as I see it (I have been holding back on reading my last two Michener books since there will be no more ever written and once they're done...)

This is really a tale of two stories. One is a mystery and one is a bit of soap opera. The mystery part is pretty good but really comes off as a bit of a hodgepodge of Parker's enthusiasm for baseball, 'Get Shorty' and the Spenser book 'Back Story'.

Witty banter and familiar faces keep the story moving along. I have no idea if this story could stand alone or not. Probably not. If this might be your first foray into Sunny Randall, pick an older one first and than move to this one.

The soap opera is the merging of the worlds of Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone. We could quibble and say that they were already in the same world, but Spenser, Stone and Randall have always interacted with the peripheral characters (Yes, I am saying Susan is a peripheral character) rather than with one another. The coming together of these two characters is interesting and, for once, the psychoanalysis sequences did not bother me too much - they seemed to have a purpose and Sunny actually moved (maybe even leaped) forward.

As has been the case for several books now, the book seems quite hefty when you pick it up. However, open it up and it reminds me of when a college student tries to pad the length of his paper by enlarging the margins and the font size. This book features large print, extra thick paper, lots of space between each line and full one inch margins. Each chapter also starts about 2/3 of the way down the page and there are 61 chapters, so that's a good way to stretch it out an extra 30 pages or so. Not that it makes any difference, but I wonder why they've done this. It weighs in at 306 pages and could have easily have been printed in a 200 page format without straining the eyes. This little one-day read is wider than most textbooks! This has to be more expensive, it adds to shipping costs and makes it harder for the stores to stock multiple copies...which seems counterproductive to me.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on August 5, 2006.

The Soldier's Friend: A Life of Ernie Pyle by Ray E. Boomhower

A strong, short biography of the corresppondent who gave us the GI's "worm's eye view" of WW II

Ernie Pyle with Marines bound for Okinawa
Ernie Pyle (1900-1945) was a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist who wrote for Washington, D.C. and New York City newspapers before the war. But, he became a beloved figure due to his Pulitzer Prize-winning work during World War II, especially in the European Theater. As one of the soldiers quoted in this biography said, "He was...our spokesman. It was not that his column told us things we did not know or feel, but the fact that we knew you folks at home could read it, and get to know and understand."

The Soldier's Friend: A Life of Ernie Pyle is published by the Indiana Historical Society Press because Pyle was originally from the small town of Dana, Indiana, near Terre Haute. The Indiana Historical Society has access to literally millions of Indiana-related historical photographs and that library of pictures is put to good use in this biography. Most of the photos aren't just the standard posed shots, but they show Pyle interacting with his favorite soldiers - the G.I. (Infantry). You can see his relaxed style and his curiousity about everything - including looking down the business end of a 155 mm gun, cooking on a Coleman stove in France, walking among the rubble of the hotel that he was in when a German shell hit it, talking with nurses, officers, and even washing his feet in his own helmet.

The book is actually intended to be a biography for advanced middle school students or high school students to read, but it is excellent for any student of World War II history, no matter his or her age. At the end of the text, 3 of his complete, unedited columns are re-printed, including the sparse and moving "The Death of Captain Waskow".

Strongly recommended.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on March 9, 2008.

Lost Light (Harry Bosch #9) (audiobook) by Michael Connelly

Tremendous. Unbelievably strong.

Read by Len Cariou
Duration: 19 hours, 37 minutes.

Michael Connelly
Allow me a rare moment to gush over Lost Light by Michael Connelly. I've reviewed over 500 books and rarely do I gush, so please permit me this indulgence.

Harry Bosch has retired. He no longer has the power and the protection of the badge. He also no longer has the limits and restraints of a cop.

He is enticed to start investigating a case that he never solved and soon gets sucked into way more than he bargained for. Connelly leads us into the dark world of criminal conspiracies, police bureaucracy and the FBI counter-terrorism unit.

Len Cariou, the narrator, did such a strong job that I can honestly say that I have never heard a better job of narration, and maybe only one or two that equal his effort. Cariou is especially strong reading the part of Lawton Cross, a former LAPD detective who is a quadrapalegic due to an injury sustained in a shootout. I know we have a fascination with assigning spoken word Grammies to politicians reading their own books lately, but I have to wonder how readers like Cariou get overlooked when they do this kind of quality work.

The FBI interview scene with Lawton Cross is so strong that when it ended I actually had to turn of my car's stereo and drive the last few minutes to work in silence. That kind of power in a piece of throwaway pulp fiction is appreciated.

Fun moments:

Harry Bosch at the computer trying to use a search engine. Maybe you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but Connelly made it entertaining, light and one of the pivotal moments of the book all at the same time.

Watch for a brief interaction with Robert Crais's Elvis Cole character. No words are exchanged, so you've got to pay close attention.

Bravo.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on March 11, 2008.

Notes from the Road: 16 Months of Towns, Tales and Tenderloins by Mitch Daniels

A Hoosier's review of this unique book about the quest for the Hoosier governorship

Mitch Daniels' book Notes from the Road: 16 Months of Towns, Tales and Tenderloins chronicles his unique (and successful) campaign to become governor of Indiana.

Mitch created a catchy slogan ("My Man Mitch" - lots of alliteration helps), a consistent look to his products and than eschewed mass bombardment of the airwaves with television ads in order to go with a more personal approach. Inspired by complaints that candidates hadn't dropped in to visit some counties in decades, his campaign bought and Indiana-made RV, a scout-ahead mini-van and he hit the road with a couple of staffers, driving more than 50,000 miles and hitting every county (Indiana has 92 counties) at least 3 times in the 16 months prior to the general election. He did not spend a dime on hotels, nor did he sleep in the RV. Instead, he slept as a houseguest in extra bedrooms and fold-out couches. I can't think of a better way to get to know the people of Indiana.

Daniels chronicled his trip with a series of e-mails to subscribers from his webpage. This book collects those e-mails, some of his assorted speeches from the high points along the way (winning the primary, winning the general election, etc.) and lots and lots of pictures.

Essentially this book is a travelogue. Sure there's politics in the discussion, but it is kept mercifully vague. Most of the book deals with small town businessmen and women, local restaurants some of the unique Hoosiers Mitch meets along the way, including the 93 year old electrician, the Newton/Jasper community band (consisting entirely of senior citizens) and the bar owner in Bainbridge who has an extensive list of things that will get you banned from her bar, including "throwing a dead possum" in the back of her truck.

Positives:

The travelogue features of the book are top-notch and enjoyable.

Daniels' writing style is pleasant. It's not Steinbeck, but it's pretty good for a governor.

Lots of whimsical humor.

Good photographs.

Negatives:

The speeches. They are a small part of the overall text, but they offer little new. They tend to repeat something he has already written.

General product info: Paperback, roughly the size of a student's notebook. 106 pages of text plus a few pages of notes at the end.

In sum, this is a good book not counting the political stuff and its standing as an informal record of a unique political campaign will make it a collectible in the future.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on March 21, 2008.

M Is For Malice (Kinsey Millhone Mysteries) by Sue Grafton

Good "basic" detective story

Sue Grafton
How much more "back to basics" can you get than this? A multi-millionaire dies. The current will is missing so an older one has to be used. The dis-inherited black sheep son is found and brought back to the mansion. Murder & mayhem follow.

Kinsey's personal life continues to evolve in M Is For Malice. Set in 1986, the total lack of laptop computers, internet & cell phones are a bit jarring and will probably confuse younger readers (why doesn't she just google this person?) who don't pick up on the clues, do the math and figure out what year it is.

I am an occassional reader of the Kinsey Millhone series rather than a hardcore fan, but it seems to me that they have a tendency to get better, rather than weaker like most series.

I rate this novel 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on March 24, 2008.

The Iron Will of Jefferson Davis by Cass Canfield

A flawed biography of a man who is often overlooked

Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) is an oft-overlooked figure in American history, especially when compared to his presidential counterpart in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln. This biography is not recommended as a place to start by this history teacher, though. It has too many flaws.

First, there are strong points:

1. The basics of Davis's life are correct.

2. Lots of good pictures and maps.

Weak points:

The Iron Will of Jefferson Davis is replete with factual errors, such as claiming that Lexington, KY was "in the East" (pg. 8) in 1823, when this was clearly considered the "West" by Americans of the time. He claims that Southern slave plantation farming was more productive than Northern agriculture - this has been proving to be untrue, unless you consider that you can get extended growing seasons and get multiple crops in Deep South, which is all about climate, not slavery (pg. 11). He also erroneously claimed that "slave trading had almost died out by mid-nineteenth century." (pg. 11) International slave trading was nearly dead (but still in existence as demonstrated by the Amistad incident), but internal trading was alive and quite healthy.

He comments "if all plantation owners had treated their slaves as Jefferson did, slavery might have been considered a beneficient institution." (pg. 20) If this were a biography written in the early 20th century, I could understand such an ignorant statement about slavery. Not for a book published in 1978! Slavery as a positive!

He claims that plantation managers were among the first to be conscripted in 1862 (p. 22) - untrue. They were given exemptions throughout the war.

He claims on page 50 that all of the slave states were united in the war when Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware and Missuouri never left the Union and West Virginia split from Virginia to stay in the Union.

He contradicts himself: On page 92 he notes the the choice by Lee to go on the offensive in September 1862 was poor because it was "a bad moment to wage an offensive in the North..." On page 93 he comments, "Had the Confederates won decisively at this time, Great Britain would probably have intervened on the side of the South and forced mediation." It was either a bad time or it wasn't.

Canfield blames George Pickett for Pickett's charge and excuses Lee (pg. 96). Pickett was all for making the charge but this was Lee's attack.

On page 102 he claims the Union had 100,000 African-American soldiers in 1864, and on page 104 claims it was 200,000.

In sum, the basics of Davis's life are correct, but so many other errors force me to recommend that those interested in Jefferson Davis look elsewhere.

I rate this biography 2 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on March 25, 2008.

Racing Can Be Murder edited by Brenda R. Stewart and Tony Perona



Racing can be tough...

This collection of 19 short stories center in and around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, especially the Indy 500. Just to tell you up front, I am a big fan of both mysteries and the Indy 500 (I've been to every 500 since 1986)

Most of the stories in Racing Can Be Murder are about 12-18 pages long and between the stories are little bits of information about the track or the Indy 500, including biographies and odd facts written by Wanda Lou Willis.

The stories are of varying quality, which is to be expected with so many authors contributing to this volume. I was especially fond of "Race to the Rescue" by Andrea Smith, "One Cold Dish" by S.M. Harding, "The Early Bird" by Lucy Coyle Schilling, "Driven to Death" by Tamera Huber and "The Volunteers" by Tamera Phillips. In all of them, the feel of Indianapolis and its West Side was well-portrayed, but it was especially well done in "The Land Grab" by Tony Perona. He tied in current events in the little town of Speedway quite nicely.

"Pre-Race Jiggers" by Wanda Lou Willis seemed out of place since it is much more of a ghost story than a mystery.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Racing Can Be Murder.

Reviewed on March 28, 2008.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Narrows (Harry Bosch #10) (audiobook) by Michael Connelly



Thoroughly enjoyable audiobook

Read by Len  Cariou
Duration: 10 hours, 57 minutes

Michael Connelly
Fans of Harry Bosch know that he is named for the Renaissance painter Heironymous Bosch. Bosch the painter specialized in sweeping panoramic paintings of hell, with details of how individual sinners were being gouged, burned and otherwise tormented by gleeful demons. Connelly has commented many times that Harry Bosch is meant to be our tour guide through the hellish side of Los Angeles - the world of serial killers, hidden sins and chaos. Interestingly, Bosch the detective sits in his house high in the hills of Los Angeles looking down on the panorama of it all, just as the viewer of a Bosch painting sees hell from high above.

In The Narrows, Bosch spends a great deal of time in Las Vegas. It would not be inappropriate to say that Vegas is "Sodom" to LA's "Gomorrah" - twins in sin. Bosch is worried that his daughter is growing up in Las Vegas and he is living there part-time trying to be the best father he can be. But, mostly he's in and out of Vegas on business in this story. Bosch investigates the death of a friend, confronts the FBI, encounters hookers, bikers and just some plain old lost souls all while hunting a killer and trying to be a dad. Besides being a Bosch book, it's also the sequel to two other books in the Connelly family of books: The Poet and Blood Work.

I listened to this as a book on tape and found it thoroughly enjoyable and a welcome diversion during my daily commute. Len Cariou narrates and he does a fantastic job of finding Bosch's "voice". 5 stars for Cariou. The audiobook is unabridged and lasts about 11 hours.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Narrows (Harry Bosch)

Reviewed on April 3, 2008.