"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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Saturday, February 21, 2015

NPR ROAD TRIPS: ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS (audiobook)



Published in 2009 by HighBridge Audio
Multicast Performance
Duration: about 1 hour.

National Public Radio has combed through its broadcast archives and found 13 different stories about the great American institution - the road trip. But, these aren't just any stories. These are stories that feature another great American institution - the roadside attraction. 

The stories cover a variety of quirky attractions including the Elvis Is Alive Museum, The Velveteria (featuring black velvet paintings of Elvis and lots more!), the world's 2nd biggest ball of twine, a series of backyard folk art exhibits in Michigan and even a couple of more famous attractions like Florida's Cypress Gardens and Seattle's Space Needle. A slightly off topic, but very interesting, story about the famed Burma Shave signs is also included. The stories wind up with the story of an epic musical piece written in the classical style about the trials and tribulations of the family car-based vacation.

The stories are all told with a sense of good-natured fun and some, like the story about the Velveteria and the musical tribute to the family road trip have moments where they are laugh-out-loud funny. The first story was fairly weak. But, taken as a whole, these stories are well worth your time.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on February 21, 2015.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

WHAT CAUSED the CIVIL WAR: REFLECTIONS on the SOUTH and SOUTHERN HISTORY by Edward L. Ayers



Published in 2005 by W.W. Norton and Company

This wonderful set of nine essays is just about as complete of a discussion of the South, the Civil War, Reconstruction, family, home, historical research and some practical applications of the lessons of the Civil War for us today as I have read.

It seems to me that most of these essays have been published somewhere else first. That being said, Ayers has arranged them in a rough chronological order based not on the historical topic of the essay but on Ayers's own life. He starts with his own childhood in Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina and his own growing understand of what it means to be a Southerner. As the essays go along, Ayers goes to college, travels the world a bit and eventually returns to the South to do research and eventually teach at the University of Virginia. 

As Ayers moves through his education and his career he develops a perspective on the Civil War and that perspective changes as he grows in his research.

The best essay was the title essay. Ayers has a surprisingly simple yet nuanced tale of the causes of the war. I have read plenty of books on the war (easily 100 non-fiction books and at least 20 fiction books) and Ayers provided a thoughtful look at this topic. 

In short, he argues that it was slavery, of course, and a complete failure of the politics of the day to deal with changing public attitudes. The Whigs, one of the two major political parties, died by fracturing over slavery in 1840s and 1850s. The reactionary anti-immigrant Know-Nothings and the Republicans replaced the Whigs. The Know-Nothings caused a lot of noise and chaos but had no staying power. The Republicans adopted a mild anti-slavery platform (basically, no new slave states) and this caused the Democrats to fracture into multiple parties. 

Basically, slavery went from being an unhappy but back-burner issue to being
The Issue - the one that could not be compromised on, either way in just a few short years. It was such a short time that the political system could not figure out how to respond fast enough. In our modern culture, gay rights has had a similar evolution and it might serve as a useful comparison. 20 years ago it was considered to be a giant leap forward to let gay soldiers serve under the Clinton's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Now, Gay Marriage, a topic that wasn't even on anyone's radar 20 years ago, is a reality in most states and one political party is struggling to deal with this new reality. Churches are split and ugly insults go back and forth across social media as people try to re-work things in their own minds.

I enjoyed the essay on Reconstruction a lot as well. "Exporting Reconstruction" pointed out something obvious that I had never noticed before. Reconstruction was America's first attempt at nation-building- and it was not very successful. The parallels with our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan are striking. 

I did not enjoy "A Digital Civil War". This essay spoke of Ayers's attempt to coordinate a massive amount of data in the early days of personal computing and how he helped pioneer some new techniques. At first it was kind of fun to remember those "good old days" of small memory and primitive software but it grew wearisome soon enough.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on February 13, 2015.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

THE SAVIOR GENERALS: HOW FIVE GREAT COMMANDERS SAVED WARS THAT WERE LOST - from ANCIENT GREECE to IRAQ by Victor Davis Hanson

  Victor Davis Hanson Delivers Another Quality Book

Published in 2013 by Bloomsbury Press

Victor Davis Hanson, best known for his works on Ancient Greece, looks at five different generals from five different time periods and discusses how these generals became what he calls "Savior Generals". This book is very similar in structure to his 2003 book Ripples of Battle.

Hanson picked five generals to discuss. All are from the West and he notes that this is not an all-inclusive list. They are not even particularly spread out well over history. One is from Ancient Greece, one from the early Byzantine Empire and three of them are American generals. In my opinion, not all of them fit the mold perfectly. In fact, I think only two of them do.

To be a Savior General you have to have been on the outs with the establishment and then, when everything has fallen apart and the situation is about as dire as possible, the establishment command structure looks to you to come in with your unorthodox ways and save the day. You also have to have an odd sense of how people work - a sense that makes you approach the crisis at hand in a different way than everyone else. Once the victory is won, the "Savior General" is removed in some way.

Themistocles (524-459 B.C.)

Hanson starts out with Themistocles, the general turned admiral who almost single-handedly created the Athenian navy in order to prepare for a repeat Persian invasion after the Athenians defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. While most Athenians assumed that the Persians were not going to return after their defeat at Marathon, Themistocles understood the true size and scope of the Persian military and knew that the military losses at Marathon were a drop in the bucket compared to their true potential. When the Persians returned it was with "the largest amphibious invasion of Europe until the 1944 Normandy landing more than 2,400 years later." (p.23)


While the Sparta's famed 300 soldiers and their king slowed the Persian advance  for a few days at Thermopylae, the Athenians fled their city state using the navy that Themistocles had pushed for so hard between invasions. Hanson goes into detail about how Themistocles argued, cajoled, harangued and demagogued this fleet into existence and then repeated his performance all over again with the Greek allied leaders as they tried to figure out if they should even engage the Persians or if they should simply surrender. Luck, skill, sleight of hand, superior knowledge of the waters around Athens all contributed to a victory when defeat seemed so sure.

No general in this book was so far behind the 8 ball as Themistocles. His country (the Athenian city-state) was lost. It had been looted and burned and occupied. Thousands of foot soldiers were lost. For all practical purposes all that was left was the navy. but, Themistocles had prepared his country for exactly this moment and, even they they were heavily outnumbered (366 Greek ships against more than 600 Persian ships), the plan worked. Despite the great victory, Themistocles died in exile.

Belisarius (500-565 A.D.)

By comparison to Themistocles, Belisarius's story is not nearly so dramatic. He mostly fought on the Byzantine frontier - only once was the Empire itself at stake and even then, it probably could have been recovered easily enough if some troops had been recalled. He was a soldier always, rarely dabbling in court politics, unlike Themistocles who was a gifted politician for far longer than he was in actual combat.


The only known portrait of Belisarius. 
But, the career of Belisarius is remarkable in that he went from one lost cause to another and made the Byzantine Empire (really the Eastern Roman Empire) grow to the point where it nearly re-captured most of the combined Eastern and Western Roman Empires. His Emperor, the famed Justinian, never quite trusted Belisarius and deprived him of resources, men or clear orders necessary to finish the jobs properly. As I was reading, I found myself wondering if Justinian was a genius in his own right who was depriving a potential rival of the resources he needed to overthrown him, or a twit that was depriving a talented general of the resources he needed to complete his mission. Was he a brazen leader who was expanding his empire with a minimum of resources because that's all that was available or was he timid and just refused to completely commit to a military course of action. I decided that the answer to all of these questions was YES. Yes, he knew Belisarius was a potential rival and he was a twit for depriving him. He wanted to grow the Empire while the opportunity was there but he was all too aware of the risks of sending too many soldiers abroad. 

Despite his years of loyal service and saving the Emperor from a revolt and an attempted invasion of his capital, Belisarius was forcibly retired and brought back to the capital so the Emperor and his spies could keep an eye on him. 

William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891)

In a way, the story of Sherman is the story of two Savior Generals. Sherman fought in the first major battle of the American Civil War and even earned an important command and then had a nervous breakdown. Up-and-coming general Ulysses S. Grant discovered Sherman and brought him along with him. When Grant earned promotions, Sherman did, too. 

When Grant was promoted to be the head of the Union Army and headed to Washington, D.C. to confront Robert E. Lee, Sherman took over Grant's forces in the West and began to move on Atlanta.This is where Sherman does the atypical thing. Rather than seeking battle or blindly making a dash for the city, Sherman tries to outmaneuver his opponent in order to take the city with a minimum of losses.

Grant struggled with Lee and offered a demoralizing series of battles with massive casualties as Grant and Lee's armies grappled all over northern Virginia, rarely separating more than a few days before re-engaging and generating thousands of more Union casualties. 

Most historians believe that Lincoln's re-election was far from assured in 1864 and that Sherman's taking of Atlanta right before the election certainly helped. This is the crux of Hanson's argument for Sherman being a Savior General. Sherman helped ensure the re-election of Lincoln and Lincoln's re-election helped ensure the defeat of the Confederacy. 
1864 Portrait of Sherman by Matthew Brady.

On top of that, Hanson argues that Sherman's infamous March to the Sea was a revolution in warfare - a war on the property used to wage war rather than on the people that were fighting in the war. He argues that this revolution was more merciful than what was typical in most Civil War campaigns because it mostly avoided casualties with the focus on property.

Hanson has an amazing grasp of the Civil War for an historian that focuses on Ancient Greece. I enjoyed his analysis of Sherman but was frustrated with his dismissal of Grant as a Savior General as well. Before Grant arrived in the East the call was always, "On to Richmond!" with little concern about the Confederate army in the field except the degree that it kept the Union Army out of the Confederate capital. However, Grant re-focused the army on Lee, knowing that eventually Lee would simply run out of men and supplies. Grant's relentless effort ensured that Sherman would never have to face reinforcing units detached from Lee's army.

Sherman deviates from the mold of Savior General in his post-war career. Unlike most of the generals he profiled, Sherman had a successful post-war career.

Matthew Ridgway (1895-1993)

When Ridgway arrived in what remained of South Korea in December of 1950 the war in Korea had already been lost, won and lost again - in just six months.


Ridgway with his characteristic grenade
on his right strap and a first aid kit on
the left.
Ridgway was unpopular with the brass because he had plenty of opinions and never failed to share them. But, in just 100 days he moved the United Nations forces from a defensive (if not outright retreating) posture to an offensive footing and began pushing the North Korean and Chinese forces back across the pre-war border. 

His style of being with the fighting men and seeing what was really going on rather than being told through intermediaries re-invigorated a largely defeated army. He brought enthusiasm, proper supplies for the winter and an argument as to why this war in this place was important and he shared them all freely with his men. He also recognized the American advantages in this war (superior air power, having occupied Japan nearby as a source of men and supplies among other). He also limited the war aims to simply restoring the pre-war border rather than conquering North Korea. By doing that, he helped make the current truce that has largely held for 60+ years possible. 

Sadly, the Korean War is often referred to as "the forgotten war" and Ridgway's amazing success is often forgotten.

David Patraeus (born 1952)

Perhaps the most controversial Savior General to be added to Hanson's list is David Patraeus. 

This book was written before his disgrace over his mistress/biographer and her access to sensitive documents and information.

 No matter his personal failings and his failure in Afghanistan, Patreus had success in Iraq with George W. Bush's unpopular "Surge" from January of 2007 to May of 2008. Hanson details how Patreus had been removed from the Iraq theater earlier and then brought in to implement the Surge strategy that he had been advocating to calm the fighting in the unpopular Iraq War.

This strategy seemed almost counter-intuitive. Embrace the very communities that are attacking the American army. Move among them, become a part of those communities. And, once trust is earned, convince those communities that they should turn on Al-Qaeda and embrace the new government. It cost more lives lost at first because the trust had not yet been earned and the American soldiers were more exposed. 

Reading about the real progress made with the Surge was bittersweet considering the current problems in Iraq with ISIS and all of the beheadings, murder, mayhem and chaos as well as Patreus's fall from grace. 

I rate this collection 4 stars out of 5. 
More information on this book can be found here: The Savior Generals
Reviewed on January 20, 2104.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

THE BEST OF 2014

THE BEST OF 2014

This is a list of the best of the best of the 72 books and short stories that I read
or listened to in 2014. They did not have to be released in 2014.

I broke the books into several categories. The reviews are linked. 

* indicates the best book in that category.


Fiction books:


*Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez

The Black Box (Harry Bosch #18) by Michael Connelly

Steelheart (The Reckoners Book #1) by Brandon Sanderson

Republic: A Novel of America's Future by Charles Sheehan-Miles


Short Story:

*Truth and Dare by Nathanael Green

The Big Trip Up Yonder by Kurt Vonnegut

Noose by Ernie Lindsey

Mildred by Sean Ryan O'Reilly

Hard Place by Ernie Lindsey


Non-Fiction books:

*Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think by Victor Davis Hanson


Game Plan: How to Protect Yourself from the Coming Cyber-economic Attack by Kevin D. Freeman


An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker

Crazy is Normal: A Classroom Expose by Lloyd Lofthouse

The History of the Ancient World:  From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome by Susan Wise Bauer



Fiction audiobook:

*Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (Read by Kirby Heyborne)

Orbit by John J. Nance (Read by John J. Nance)

The Sea of Trolls (Sea of Trolls Trilogy #1) by Nancy Farmer (Read by Gerald Doyle)

Trident's First Gleaming: A Special Operations Group Thriller by Stephen Templin (Read by Brian Troxell)


Non-fiction audiobook:

*The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible (audiobook) by Simon Winchester (Read by Simon Winchester)

Mandela: An Audio History by Radio Diaries (multiple performers)

A Call to Arms: Women, Religion, Violence and Power by Jimmy Carter (Read by Jimmy Carter)

NPR Chronicles: World War I  by NPR (multiple performers)

NPR Driveway Moments: All About Animals by NPR (multiple performers)

THE CASE for CHRISTMAS: A JOURNALIST INVESTIGATES the IDENTITY of the CHILD in the MANGER (Kindle e-book) by Lee Strobel





A Lightweight Version of The Case for Christ

I picked The Case for Christmas up for free on Amazon.com as a Kindle e-book. For a freebie, this is a solid introduction to Lee Strobel and his style. But, if you purchase this book as a stand-alone book at the regular price of $1.99 it has issues.

A mosaic from the Hagia Sophia in
Constantinople
Issue #1. This book is a essentially an edited, truncated version of Lee Strobel's signature book, The Case for Christ. Now, I like The Case for Christ because it is very thorough and includes a lot of detailed arguments as to why Jesus is not who the Church claims he is and then proceeds to counter them. The Case for Christmas is almost exactly 1/3 of the length of The Case for Christ and the editing hurts.


Issue #2. Regularly priced at $1.99, this kindle e-book is 2/3 the price of the original source text it comes from. Right now, you can buy The Case for Christ for $2.99. Spend the extra dollar and get the much more complete, much better book.


Issue #3. The title. If I had known that this book was a mere re-tooling of The Case for Christ I would not have gotten it, even if I did get it for free. I own The Case for Christ in paper format. I assumed, because of the title, that The Case for Christmas would be a look at the Christmas story itself featuring interviews with experts on the birth of Christ. Instead, this is a re-working of an existing work that people may buy even though they already own the larger book that it is derived from. If the publisher is playing this game, it is a cheap, greedy move.


I rate this book 3 stars out of 5 because what is here is good stuff. Please, get the original book instead.

Find The Case for Christ here on Amazon.com: The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus


The Case for Christmas can be found here: The Case for Christmas: A Journalist Investigates the Identity of the Child in the Manger 

  Reviewed on December 31, 2014.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

SCAVENGERS (Posadas County Mysteries #11) by Steven F. Havill

   Posadas County Mysteries Not the Same Without Bill Gastner

First published in 2002.

Synopsis: The Posadas County Sheriff's office is short-handed when it gets word that a pilot spotted a body that has been shot in the middle-of-nowhere. Literally, in the middle-of-nowhere - not near a road, a train track, a business or anything. The bullets were fired just in hearing range of a gravel pit but no one thinks twice about bullets being fired in the New Mexico countryside because people hunt or shoot at varmints on a regular basis.

So, new Undersheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman and her team start to dig into what they have - a body in the desert and no other clues. Soon enough, they discover more, including a local connection to what may be an international crime spree (although, it's not hard to be international so close to such a porous border). With the addition of the sudden death of a suspected animal trafficker in a fiery explosion, the new Undersheriff has her hands full.

This book marks a critical point in the Posadas County Mysteries series. Up to this point the mysteries feature Bill Gastner, an old county undersheriff (in New Mexico, the undersheriff is the main advisor to the elected sheriff - usually the professional who makes sure the policies of the elected sheriff, who may not necessarily be a professional are enacted in a proper way). Gastner was getting too old to be a credible character - extensive experience, lots of knowledge and talent are great things to have but it just becomes hard for a set of almost 80-year-old knees to climb up and down buttes and ladders and impossible to imagine Gastner chasing down anyone unless it is in a nursing home. In fact, you can just about guarantee that Bill Gastner would have died in a pivotal moment in this story involving a late night run in the desert and a hike in and out of a wash.


A southern New Mexico landscape. Photo by NMTrey.
The thing is, that is just too bad because I loved reading about cranky old Bill and his love for super-spicy burritos for breakfast and his insomnia that preceded all kinds of late night inspiration when solving mysteries. I sympathized with his creaky knees and admired his determination. Gastner does make a couple of short appearances in this book.

Gastner is replaced by Estelle Reyes-Guzman. She has been in and out of the series (mostly in) from the beginning and would be a remarkably good choice for the sheriff to pick to be the new undersheriff. She is capable, has the respect of the department, she is a woman (to counterbalance the male sheriff), she speaks Spanish, she has strong connections with the Mexican community directly across the border. 


But, she is also very boring. 


I had a hard time getting into this book. I liked the set up but then the middle half of the book just dragged. The secondary mystery with the burros was ultimately a let-down. The primary mystery ended with a lot of excitement but it just took too long to get there. 


I love the Gastner mysteries but I may not look into any more of the Reyes-Guzman stories.

On a positive note, the Spanish in the book is excellent (I am a Spanish teacher). Most authors with books set in Mexico try to include some Spanish to give it some authenticity and most of them fail miserably with actually producing authentic Spanish. On the negative side, though, there are times when you probably could not follow the conversation unless you could understand the Spanish.


This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Scavengers: A Posadas County Mystery (Posadas County Mysteries)

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on December 30, 2014.