"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, September 8, 2018

MISSION: JIMMY STEWART and the FIGHT for EUROPE (audiobook) by Robert Matzen



Published in 2017 by Blackstone Audio.
Read by Peter Berkrot.
Duration: 11 hours, 45 minutes.
Unabridged.

The chief mechanic of the B-24 Liberator Nine Yanks and a Jerk 
sticking his head out of the hole blown through the cockpit by a piece
of unexploded ordinance. Jimmy Stewart was in that cockpit on
that flight.
Just a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hollywood actor Jimmy Stewart was a new recruit in the U.S. Army angling for the chance to fly a bomber in combat. At the time, he was the reigning male actor in Hollywood, having recently received the Oscar for Best Actor.

But, deep down, Jimmy Stewart wanted to continue the family tradition of military service. The Army tried to divert Stewart to a non-combat role, aided by some string-pulling by his movie studio. But, Stewart pulled some strings of his own and eventually found himself training to fly bombers, despite the fact that he was easily at least ten years older than all of the other trainees.

Stewart and his men flew their bombers to England and joined the massive collection of planes involved in the bombing campaign in November of 1943. Stewart's age and extensive pre-war flying experience played a part in him becoming an leader of his squadron of B-24 Liberators. He felt the profound weight of the immense responsibility of leading his men. He was all too aware that a simple mistake on his part could kill dozens of men, including himself.

Maybe it was that sense of responsibility, maybe it was just dumb luck, but Stewart's men did much better than average when it came to getting there and back successfully, although it took a profound toll on Stewart. He visibly aged during those 16 months. He felt like he was losing even his nerve as the mission (and the close calls) added up. Despite his concern, he led larger and larger missions up to the end of the war.


Robert Matzen's three-pronged look at World War II in Europe mostly focuses on the early life and military service of famed Hollywood actor, but it also tells the story of German civilians that ended up being near a site bombed by Stewart and the story of another airman that went briefly interacted with Stewart on a shake-down run. His story, though, is used to show what could have happened to Jimmy Stewart since he is shot down over Europe and eventually is captured.

This was an interesting audiobook. Peter Berkrot was the narrator and when it comes to narrating the danger and drama of a bombing run of Nazi Germany, there is literally no one better. Berkrot's pacing and dramatic delivery are perfect. But, the problem is that Berkrot never turns that dramatic style of reading down - everything is equally dramatic, including very mundane things like the descriptions of Stewart's childhood. So, it becomes sort of a mixed bag.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: MISSION: JIMMY STEWART and the FIGHT for EUROPE by Robert Matzen.
 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

THE JOURNEY that SAVED CURIOUS GEORGE: THE TRUE WARTIME ESCAPE of MARGARET and H.A. REY by Louise Borden



Originally Published in 2005.

Published in 2016 by HMH Books for Young Readers.

This book is really three stories all wrapped up in one.

#1) It is the early biography of two authors and how they got started.

#2) It is also the story of how Curious George, the iconic children's book character came to be.

#3) And, most importantly, it is the story of how these authors and this character were almost snuffed out at the beginning of World War II because of their religion.

This edition of the book is designed to be used in a classroom. Not only is is wonderfully illustrated with both photographs and original drawings reminiscent of H.A. Rey's work, it also includes assignments and discussion questions at the end of the book.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: The Journey that Saved Curious George.

 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

WORLD'S TALLEST WOMAN: THE GIANTESS of SHELBYVILLE HIGH by Rita Rose



Published in 2008 by Hawthorne Publishing.

Indiana native Sandy Allen (1955-2008) was the tallest woman in the world at 7 feet 7 inches tall. This book is an entertaining, but fictionalized, version of her years at Shelbyville High School in Shelbyville, Indiana.

Rita Rose wrote the book with the full knowledge of Sandy Allen after having interviewed her towards the end of her life.



Written as a coming of age YA book, the book is centered around Roseann, a high school student who has moved from the north side of Indianapolis to Shelbyville, a small town of less than 20,000 a little more than a half hour's drive from Indianapolis. Roseann is working hard to fit in and eventually finds a spot on the high school newspaper.

She couldn't help but notice Sandy Allen, easily the tallest person she has ever seen at more than 7 feet tall. She is mercilessly teased by a group of boys no matter where she goes and is clearly experiencing some physical issues, despite the fact that she is on the high school basketball team.

Roseann decides to interview Sandy in an attempt to ease the teasing by letting people know more about her. In the process, they become friends and Roseann learns a lot more about Sandy's horribly difficult home life (which she keeps out of the paper, of course).

This was an interesting and quite compelling read. Sandy Allen was a local celebrity at the end of her life, having moved back to Indiana after having made a living making appearances as a Guinness World Record holder so I found this look into her early life interesting. It makes you appreciate her kind nature (everyone that met her always said that she was very nice).

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: WORLD'S TALLEST WOMAN: THE GIANTESS of SHELBYVILLE HIGH by Rita Rose.



Tuesday, August 28, 2018

LORD, SAVE US from YOUR FOLLOWERS: WHY IS the GOSPEL of LOVE DIVIDING AMERICA? by Dan Merchant



Published in 2008 by Thomas Nelson.

Dan Merchant went on a cross-country trip in an effort to discuss why it is that so many people have a negative view of Christians and Christianity. He often dons a set of coveralls covered in religious-themed bumper stickers (both for and against religion) and then engages random people on the street in a short conversation about religion. His goal is to find out why a religion that is supposed to be based on a message of love is dividing people? Isn't that oxymoronic?

Merchant's strength is his congenial nature. He takes criticism very well - he actually listens to the answers he gets to his questions and takes them to heart. The answers are pretty predictable. If Christians came even halfway close to their ideals, it would be a different story. But, the experience of too many people, especially in certain communities, is that Christians do nothing but condemn and maybe even rejoice at their misfortunes as punishments from God. 

Early on in the book (page 14), Merchant makes this point: "To me, the divisions of America, this separateness, isn't getting any of us anywhere. And both sides are making the same mistake: they think the culture war is a winnable war. Some think, eventually, one side will win out over the other."

Merchant talks a lot about being a "red letter" Bible Christian, meaning that he focuses on what Jesus said more than anything else (for those not in the know, many editions of the Bible highlight the spoken words of Jesus in red). I have to say, the older I get, the more I become a "red letter" Bible Christian. He emphasizes this point on page 26 by supposing that Jesus would say that the 10 Commandments are gifts to make the journey of life easier, but the new commandment is to show your love for God by loving His people. Who are His people? Everyone - even the ones you don't like. Especially the ones you don't like.

Merchant interviews several people for this book, including Al Franken (before he became a Senator, let alone before he had to stop being a Senator), Michael Reagan, Rick Santorum and even a few people you've never heard of, like Sister Mary Timothy, a transvestite who dresses like a nun in kabuki-style makeup. Some of those interviews are better than others, some are a bit dated. But, they do illustrate the "culture wars".

I was struck by the two of the last chapters in the book: "The Confessional Booth" and "Grace in Action". The Confessional Booth features an idea from the book Blue like Jazz, sort of a counterculture religious book. Merchant set up a a confessional booth at a Gay Pride celebration - not to hear the sins of the people at the celebration, but to confess the sins of both Christianity and Dan Merchant. Let's face it, if you actually want to talk to the other side of the culture war, you have to come in humility or you will not be heard. This was very powerful. It made tears come to my eyes. Very powerful.

Grace in Action featured stories of people doing simple, human things for "the least of these" that come off as amazing things because we simply don't do the thing that Merchant referred to way back towards the beginning of the book - show our love of God by loving His people.

This book is powerful and is really on inhibited by the fact that it is dated. I would love to see it re-worked with new interviews and takes on more current cultural trends. I'm going to keep it in my library.

Note: this book was written to be a companion piece for a documentary that I have not seen.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. Very powerful at times, but also dated. Also, there are some slow parts.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: LORD, SAVE US from YOUR FOLLOWERS: WHY IS the GOSPEL of LOVE DIVIDING AMERICA? by Dan Merchant.

Monday, August 20, 2018

HERE IS WHERE: DISCOVERING AMERICA'S FORGOTTEN HISTORY (audiobook) by Andrew Carroll



Published by Random House Audio in 2013.
Read by the author, Andrew Carroll.
Duration: 14 hours, 2 minutes.
Unabridged

Why are some things remembered in our shared historical memory and others are not? Why do we commemorate some things but others are only remembered by a few hard-core local historians?

Andrew Carroll compiled a list of historical locations that he felt have been overlooked. Inspired by the little known-but-true story of how Abraham Lincoln's son was saved from being pushed off of New Jersey train platform by John Wilkes Booth's brother one year before Lincoln's assassination, Carroll decided to hit the road and look at similar locations all over the United States. 


Among the locations he found were the home of a house slave that ran away from President George Washington. Even though she ended up dying in poverty in a rough cabin, she was still an inspiration. When asked if she would have been better off living in the relative comfort of working in the Mount Vernon plantation home, she said she would prefer to be poor and free. 

Carroll also found the birthplace of the man who created a great deal of the vaccinations that the world uses today and had a hand in literally saving millions of lives. And, on the other side of that coin, he tracked down the probable origins of the "Spanish Influenza" (in the American West, not in Spain).

How about the location of the earliest DNA samples in North America that re-wrote the history books? The site of a million graves on a New York City's Hart Island that serves as a giant Potter's Field? The place where the first two-stage rockets were built and fired? Or the place where the modern elevator was built? Carroll talks about all of these and even more.

Some of the locations aren't particularly historical in my mind, but this was an interesting, rambling look at obscure history that often tied in to the some of the biggest historical events of the last two hundred years. Carroll looks into why some of them are forgotten. Many times it is because they are embarrassing, such as Washington's runaway slave or the hospital in California that sterilized more people than any other hospital in the country as part of a pre-World War II eugenics movement. Other times there is no particular reason why they are forgotten - they just get lost in the shuffle of history.

Carroll ends the book with a roundabout reminder that our own lives are filled with personal histories of our friends, neighbors and relatives that we should not let get lost like those other stories have.

I listened to this book as an audiobook. It was read by the author, a fact that I didn't know until I began writing this review. I think that says all you need to know about his performance - he was so solid that I had no idea that a professional reader was not reading the book.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. This book can be found on Amazon.com here: HERE IS WHERE: DISCOVERING AMERICA'S FORGOTTEN HISTORY by Andrew Carroll.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

SQUEEZED: WHY OUR FAMILIES CAN'T AFFORD AMERICA (audiobook) by Alissa Quart



Published by HarperAudio in June of 2018.
Read by Carly Robins.
Duration: 8 hours, 52 minutes.

Unabridged.

The premise of this book is that middle class Americans are feeling "squeezed" economically because...they are.

I heard an interview with this author on NPR and I was intrigued so I decided to check out her book.

Quart lists several factors, some more plausible than others. She is very big on the concept that the "caring careers" are under-paid due to latent sexism, since the majority of the people in those careers are female. These careers include nurses, daycare personnel and teachers.

She correctly notes that raising children is expensive and daycare is a big part of that. A great deal of the book is spent on this topic, including alternative arrangements to traditional daycare, experiments in state-funded pre-school and the struggles of single parents having to work and pay for daycare. 


The author, Alissa Quart
She calls into question the idea that everyone should attend college to move up in the world. In some states, the majority of people who graduate from law school never actually practice law - because there are simply too many graduates. Some people try to re-boot their professional lives by getting re-trained only to find out that the re-training was expensive and practically worthless. 

The book begins with a look at several adjunct professors who eke out a living teaching at several colleges with class-by-class contracts. These are non-tenure track jobs and there is no way an adjunct lecturer could make a decent living, even while teaching a full load of classes. The days when one could get their PhD and get a decent job teaching at a university are mostly gone - in some schools a majority of the classes are taught by adjuncts with their class-by-class contracts.

In the middle, she looks at public education, specifically New York City's system. This is a long, convoluted mess of a section, much like New York's schools. The reason I say that it is a mess is that New York's system in unlike any other system in the country so almost nothing that she notes about their system corresponds to the schools systems the vast majority of Americans experience. More about this down below.

She also briefly mentions, almost as an aside, the decline of unions. She never mentions the role of immigration in lowering overall salaries. It makes basic economic sense - the larger the supply of workers, the less employers have to pay because there are more applicants for every job.


The last portion of the book looks at the role of technology in "squeezing" the middle class. She quotes a report from Ball State University that says that most job losses have not come from moving facilities to foreign countries, but instead have come from technology taking over jobs. Hospitals are looking at robots to deliver medicine and other items. There is a very real possibility that long haul trucks will be automated in the future as well. Just yesterday, I was in a McDonald's that installed a series of touch screen kiosks to replace their cashiers (I didn't use them, though. I didn't even notice them until after I already was eating at my table).

Her final answer is a Universal Basic Income (UBI). This is the idea that the government makes sure every individual and every family has at least so much money. Here's a link to explain it better: UBI. I'm not going to try to explain it in more detail because I don't think it is even a realistic proposal.

There may well be a great book out there about the middle class being "squeezed", but I think this one falls short. She misses too many things, such as our collective failure to promote the trades in schools. Electricians, plumbers and auto mechanics make pretty good money. Maybe some of the re-training money she discussed in the book would have been better spent learning how to install HVAC systems. You might say, "What if he really wants to study French poetry because he wants to do what he loves?" Quart thoroughly trashes that concept as a tool used by management to stop people from complaining if their pay isn't high enough.

As I noted before, way too much of this book is rooted in the New York City experience - their schools, their rents, their pre-school program and more. While I freely admit, NYC is America's biggest and most important city, it is not remotely close to the experience of most Americans. There are roughly 9 million New Yorkers and roughly 325 million Americans. You do the math.

The audiobook was read by Carly Robins. She did a great job of reading the book, including the nice touch of throwing in a little bit of accent during a Dolly Parton quote.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: SQUEEZED: WHY OUR FAMILIES CAN'T AFFORD AMERICA by Alissa Quart.