"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
Fifteen years reviewing books, audiobooks, graphic novels, movies and music!

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

WAYNE of GOTHAM (audiobook) by Tracy Hickman



Published by GraphicAudio in 2013.
Multicast Performance.
Duration: Approximately 6 hours.
Unabridged

GraphicAudio has been adapting novels into audiobooks that are performed by 20+ people like an old-fashioned radio play for years. In this case, they have adapted a novel by veteran fantasy/sci-fi writer Tracy Hickman. Hickman doesn't usually write about DC Comics characters, his reputation was made writing books related to the Dungeons and Dragons universe. That being said, the if you are going to make that move, going from knights in shining armor in big castles to the Dark Knight in Wayne Manor is a logical move.

The idea behind the book is a good one - Batman is getting threats and clues relating to his parents and family secrets that would be best kept secret.  The fact that Batman, not his alter ego Bruce Wayne, is getting these threats is significant because it shows that the unknown person knows his secret identity.

While Batman is trying to work this out, it becomes clear that a new villain has arrived in Gotham and this villain has the ability to implant memories into his/her victims and some of those victims are other super villains and they are being made to act on this unknown person's behalf.

More disturbing, Commissioner Gordon has been compromised and Alfred has become shifty and secretive and sometimes confrontational with Bruce Wayne. Batman may be truly alone on this one...

The premise behind this audiobook is solid and some of its luster may have been lost in the adaptation - I don't know because I have not read the original book. For example (*****spoiler alert - skip to the next paragraph), the Commissioner Gordon angle comes up and then just goes away when Batman and Gordon decide that Gordon just has to get over it - and he does.

There are some real strengths however to this book. It makes a nod towards the almost every incarnation of Batman - Adam West's Batman, the 1980's and 1990's movies and the Dark Knight series (it was written before the Justice League movies came out).

 If you are a fan of Batman, certainly give it a listen. It features an aging Batman who knows that he has limitations. It develops a great origin story for Batman's parents and Alfred's father. The lengthy Joker scene is quite good (the actor who portrays Joker is excellent) and even has some comic elements.  But, it is a hit and miss story with lots of description of the various Batmobiles and Batman's suit technology but not enough of the plot where it really counts. 


The idea is strong, but some scenes are fleshed out and some are just left vague, leaving this listener with the feeling that this was a good story, but it could have been so much better. If you are a fan of Batman, certainly give it a listen.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: 
WAYNE of GOTHAM (audiobook) by Tracy Hickman.

Friday, January 11, 2019

A PEOPLE'S HISTORY of the UNITED STATES by Howard Zinn



Originally published in 1980 by HarperCollins. Multiple updated editions have been printed.

Howard Zinn's (1922-2010) A People's History of the United States is perhaps the most famous and most controversial history book in publication today. 

I read this book because the former governor of my home state of Indiana and current President of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, repeatedly criticized it and actually advocated blocking its use in public schools in Indiana, including Indiana University. Governor Daniels used to be a frequent guest on a local newstalk radio station in Indianapolis and this book came up enough times in the conversations that I became aware of it. Before that I had never heard of it - but he certainly put it on my radar. That's not really what he had intended, I am sure.

I found my copy of A People's History of the United States in a local thrift shop on a half price day, which made this book a true bargain at $1. I decided that, as a good and loyal American I absolutely had to read the book that my state government's former chief executive had decided was "truly execrable" and should be removed from all classrooms and see for myself if he was right.

Zinn has a theme that he hits consistently throughout his book and it is that the "haves" are continually using and abusing the "have-nots" throughout American history although, sometimes, the "haves" give in a bit and let some of the "have-nots" get a little more because it ensures their survival at the top. He argues that this was the case during the American Revolution. He would have been a big promoter of the idea of the 1% vs. the 99% that has come into vogue lately.

He also argues that the elites stoke class envy and racial animosities to create internal rivalries among the lower classes so that they fight among themselves and fail to see who their true enemy is. Throughout the entire book, the details change but this is the basic story.

As a history book, this book succeeds fabulously at hitting that one note over and over and over and over ad nauseam. Is he right? Sure - to a point he is right throughout the book. For example, he is right that the founders envisioned limited participation from the common man in the early American republic. But, other arguments sound hollow. 


For example, on page 37 of my 1990 edition he argues that racial animosities were practically created by the elites as a way to control the slaves. It is a clever argument and it is the culmination of a long argument that he had been making in the previous pages concerning the presence of anti-miscegenation laws in the new world. His presumption that, if left to themselves, the lower classes would have not had any racial issues because the passing of these laws shows that the elites were bothered by interracial romance and conspired to stop it before the lower class united and overthrew them. This sounds too organized for my tastes. Also, I have less faith in human nature than Zinn does - the same base thoughts that he despises in the upper class exist across all of the classes.

Strengths:

-The discussion of Andrew Jackson and Indian Removal.


-The discussion of the labor movement during the Gilded Age/Robber Baron era was particularly well-written and flowed well.

-He covers the governmental overreach during World War I well.

Weaknesses:


-He wrote this book as an antidote to the "hero" version of history - the version that teaches about George Washington's battlefield exploits but overlooks the fact that he held slaves. Sadly, in his zeal to set the record straight, he often overlooks the good (or even great) points about heroes that he is out to debunk. 

-The Andrew Jackson section says literally nothing about Jackson's strongest political fight - his fight against the National Bank. I would have appreciated a look at how the defeat of this bank and the subsequent "panic" (economic recession/depression) affected regular Americans.

-Sadly, he often ignores the "people" and creates a new set of heroes to replace the ones he has debunked. But, he does little to debunk his new heroes so the reader is left with, essentially, the same problem. Also, this does not make it a true "people's" history since people like Frederick Douglass and Emma Goldman are so extraordinary that they are, by definition, not stand-ins for the "everyman".

-The sections on the Vietnam War and the 1970's suffer from just being written too close to when the book was originally printed (1980). I think he was so close to the events that he had a hard time determining what was truly important and what was trivia. This made the book bog down with things like his stories of community newspapers printed on ditto machines as a sign that media was changing. When compared to the tsunami of change that the internet brought to media just a few years later, these little stories are quaint and irrelevant. 

-During the Cold War sections, it never addresses what the other side in this Cold War was doing and at least acknowledging that America and its allies had reasons to be wary of the USSR and its allies.

************

As I stated above, Zinn hits one note throughout the book. This note does appear in most mainstream history books, but not in great quantity. So, the book has value in that it does bring that part of American to the forefront. But, since it does not waver from its obsessive focus, it becomes a tool of limited value. To quote Abraham Maslow: 
  "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

Now, to go back to the beginning of my review - would I outlaw this book from being used in a classroom? No, of course not. But, I do not think it should be the only text used in a class. Individual chapters are sold as smaller books and I think that would be appropriate. If it were a year-long class I might have students read the whole thing so long as they were reading lots of other works.

I don't see what the big fuss is on either side, to be honest.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: 
A People's History of the United States.

Monday, December 31, 2018

THE HERITAGE: BLACK ATHLETES, a DIVIDED AMERICA and the POLITICS of PATRIOTISM (audiobook) by Howard Bryant



Published by Beacon Press in May of 2018.
Read by Ron Butler.
Duration: 11 hours, 17 minutes.

Unabridged.

Howard Bryant's The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America and the Politics of Patriotism takes a hard look at athletes, particularly African-American athletes, using their position to make commentary of social issues. Bryant brings a wealth of experience as a sports writer for ESPN.com, ESPN the Magazine and NPR. 


Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Olympics 
Bryant does not come at this topic as a person critical of athletes taking political stances. Rather, he is very much in favor of it since athletes have a very large soapbox that they can climb upon and shout from, if they chose to do so. Some have. Bryant speaks in great detail about Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and especially Muhammad Ali.

Bryant starts, oddly in my mind, with someone who was an athlete (played 15 games in the NFL in the 1920's for teams that no longer exist) but is almost entirely remembered for his singing and acting - Paul Robeson. Robeson was very outspoken (he spoke out so often that he was blacklisted by Hollywood and was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee), which fits the model of person that this book profiles, but he hardly fits the model of a professional athlete that the book is focusing on.

Nonetheless, this is an interesting and thought-provoking book. Bryant's thesis is that the norm has been for Black athletes to stand up for other African Americans, either symbolically like early boxers who literally fought against white men, or by speaking up. This is what Bryant calls "The Heritage".



Colin Kaepernick
For about 25 years, more or less, "The Heritage" went away - from roughly the 1970's through the early 2000's. Bryant insists that it starts with O.J. Simpson and follows right through Michael Jordan. The model is "go along and get rich". Keep the controversies quiet and make as much money as possible. I am sure it is more complicated than that. For example, the large legislative pieces were already passed by the time Simpson made it to the NFL so there were few "official" government policies to protest any longer - at least not like before when there were a smorgasbord of racist policies to protest. But, he makes his point well - where was Michael Jordan, the most famous African American of all (except for Michael Jackson) when the Rodney King beating, for example, took place? Or when a host of other similar racial incidents happened? Nowhere.

This brings us up to Colin Kaepernick. This is, without a doubt, the strongest part of the book. Bryant takes us back through the trauma of 9/11 and reminds the readers that lived through it how shocking it was for all of us and how so many police officers and firefighters died in that attack. He reminds us how sporting events became a way for everyone to share in the loss and honor those that died on that day through flag ceremonies and special songs (Yankee Stadium performs "God Bless America" during the 7th Inning Stretch, for example).

But, soon enough, those special healing moments became part of the routine - a routine paid for by the U.S. military. Those honor guards that present the flag? Paid for by the military 
with taxpayer money (they pay the teams to let them do it). Those special, tearjerker reunion moments where a soldier comes home and his or her child is surprised on the field? Paid for by the military with taxpayer money. Those "shout outs" on the Jumbotron from soldiers in the field that are rooting for the home team? Paid for by the military with taxpayer money. Special "honor the troops" days where dozens of soldiers have seats together at the game and the camera focuses on them a few times and they all wave and say, "Hi Mom!"? Paid for by the military with taxpayer money (it costs more for more camera shots).

These combined to give sporting events a hyper-patriotic, even nationalistic feel that was not there before.

Personal note: I have attended every Indy 500 since 1986. The hyper-patriotic feel has been there throughout that time because the Indy 500 has always been scheduled on Memorial Day Weekend. They have incorporated a playing of Taps, a flyover (they were one of the first to feature a flyover) at least two patriotic songs and had a group of soldiers there representing all of the branches of the military every year. But, when I went to the August 2017 NASCAR Bristol "night" race, it was just as patriotic, including going so far as to feature a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Now, the NFL games are just as reverent as the Indy 500, so much so that the Indy 500 pre-race activities are not nearly as distinctive as they used to be.


So, when Colin Kaepernick decided to protest - in a much less divisive way than Ali (who talked non-stop and even went to jail when he refused to serve in Vietnam, but was publicly mourned when he died) he was excoriated.

Specific criticisms: Bryant strays from sports into popular entertainment from time to time - but not consistent enough to make it a comparison of how African American athletes, musicians and actors approached race-related controversies, with the exception of Paul Robeson (noted above) but enough to muddy the waters. He even brought up the movie Rocky as being racist because it features a white boxer as the protagonist and a black boxer as the bad guy. There are two problems with this: 1) Apollo Creed is not really a bad guy in any meaningful sense he is overconfident and symbolizes the establishment while Rocky symbolizes the "little guy", but he is remarkable for even giving Rocky the chance to fight in the first place and 2) Rocky was inspired by real-life the story of Chuck Wepner, a journeyman boxer who fought for the title Ali in 1975. When you hear Apollo Creed talk about himself he is clearly imitating Ali's style. Stallone saw the fight and then wrote the screenplay (he even settled a lawsuit with Wepner over using his story).

But, despite those criticisms, this was a remarkable book. Not always a fun book, but remarkable nonetheless and certainly an excellent ending to a solid year of reading.

The book was read by Ron Butler. His voice had a sense of authority and his pacing was excellent. He did a great job, even if he could not pronounce the name of the former baseball Commissioner Bud Selig's name correctly.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: THE HERITAGE: BLACK ATHLETES, a DIVIDED AMERICA and the POLITICS of PATRIOTISM by Howard Bryant.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

CARTHAGE MUST BE DESTROYED: THE RISE and FALL of an ANCIENT CIVILIZATION (audiobook) by Richard Miles



Published in 2011 by Gildan Media, LLC.
Read by Grover Gardner.
Duration: 14 hours, 9 minutes.
Unabridged.


Carthage has forever been relegated to the second fiddle of the Ancient Mediterranean world - the last power to offer the Roman Republic any sort of serious threat. The also-ran that could have been what Rome became...if only.

But, unlike Rome, no one seems to know much about Carthage except for that they were a sea power, they had battle elephants and Hannibal crossed the Alps leading them in a war against Rome.

Dr. Miles' effort is a bit hamstrung from the lack of original sources from Carthage itself - it was looted and destroyed at the end of the Third Punic War. But, he is able to reconstruct a history based on the writings of other countries, including such sources as the Bible, Greek and Roman histories, temples, changes in religious thought architecture and coinage. 


I do appreciate how difficult this must have been, but this book often gets bogged down in multiple long discussions of the coinage (what is on the heads side, what is on the tails side, where the coins were minted, what their exact metallic content was) and other topics that are meant to be supporting of the main story but not the main story itself. I mean, it was like clockwork - 45 minutes has passed, it's time for another extended coinage discussion.

To be frank, the problem with this book is that it simply had no flow. It was often sidetracked into areas that padded its length without adding any additional understanding. It read like an academic text - like one of those textbooks that you HAD to read in school, not like a book that made you want to keep on reading it. I learned a lot, but it was a chore. Too bad, because I picked this one up because I was truly intrigued by the topic.

Award winning audiobook reader Grover Gardner read this audiobook. I generally like Gardner's work, but I was not fond of his folksy style with the academic style of the text. It clearly wasn't a deal breaker since I finished all 14 hours of the book, but I don't think it was a great editorial choice by the producer(s) of the audiobook.

I rate this audiobook 2 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: CARTHAGE MUST BE DESTROYED: THE RISE and FALL of an ANCIENT CIVILIZATION by Richard Miles.

MAKE ME (Jack Reacher #20) (audiobook) by Lee Child



Published in 2015 by Random House Audio.
Read by Dick Hill.

Duration: 14 hours, 3 minutes.
Unabridged.

Photo by DWD
This is the 20th novel-length entry in the Jack Reacher series. But, readers of the series know that the books are not written in any particular order and there are a lot of short stories and novellas in the series as well. If you are trying to read everything in chronological order (from Reacher's point of view), this is entry number 37.

In the middle of the night, Jack Reacher gets off of a train bound for Chicago in an small town in Oklahoma named Mother's Rest. Yes, Mother's Rest. And, no, no one seems to know why it is named that.

He is immediately met by a former FBI agent turned private detective named Michelle Chang. She had initially confused him for an associate of hers that has gone missing in Mother's Rest. Reacher is intrigued by the situation (and the fact that no one in town seems to have any idea where the name came from) and starts to poke around a bit on his own. The reaction he gets convinces him that there is definitely something going on in this little town and it gets deeper and more dangerous than anyone had anticipated...

There are some things that are quite good about this book. For the first time, Jack Reacher actually has to admit to the reality that he is aging. There is a real detective story here and it is quite interesting. And, there is a look into the dark corners of the internet, which is also interesting. But, there are times when the story seems to be "paint by numbers", especially in the mandatory big fight scene. What would have been a 45 second fight is slowed down and over-analyzed to the point that it gets boring. It goes on and on and on. Also, the ending (no spoilers) was both stomach-turning and unsatisfying.

The audiobook was read by Dick Hill who was, in my mind, one of the best audiobook readers I have ever heard. I say "was" because he has since retired Hill has a special connection with this series and Lee Child's writing style, a topic he brings up in this interview about his retirement. Any problems in this book were not caused by the reader, but rather by the author who just needed to cut a 14 hour book down to a 11 or 12 hour book.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. It was good to keep up with Jack Reacher but this was not up to the usual standards of the series.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: MAKE ME (Jack Reacher #20) by Lee Child.

THE WANTED: AN ELVIS COLE and JOE PIKE NOVEL (Elvis Cole and Joe Pike #17) by Robert Crais



The Elvis Cole novels have been coming out for 30 years and this book would be a fine place for the series to end - not that I want it to end

Originally published in 2017 by G.P. Putnam's Sons

Robert Crais. Photo by Mark Coggins.
The Elvis Cole novels have been coming out for 30 years and this book would be a fine place for the series to end, especially considering the last 20 pages or so. Not that I want it to end - I will read them as long as Robert Crais wants to write them, but this book goes out of its way to include all of the hallmarks of an Elvis Cole novel, almost like it is going down a checklist one last time. Those items include:

1) Joe Pike is there and Joe Pike is scary, full of tech knowledge and lurks in dark places;

2) Elvis' car gets a special mention;
3) Elvis' cat is in several scenes and full of his special "charm";
4) Elvis shows off his culinary skills;
5) Elvis does his martial arts workout;
6) Elvis goes to his office (the early books always featured the office and its special decor);
7) Elvis and Joe reaffirm their bond multiple times;
8) Elvis and...Louisiana (no spoilers).

The book focuses on a case brought to Elvis by a worried mom. Her son is suddenly flush with cash and has a new group of friends that she barely knows but doesn't care for. She asks Elvis to find out what her son is doing. Elvis puts his considerable experience to use and figures it out soon enough. But...what he discovers is not good and he finds out that his client's son is in serious danger. There is a problem though - no can find him and Cole discovers a team of hit men are involved as well.

By far, the most interesting characters in the book are the two hit men (Harvey and Stemms). They function as a mirror image of Pike and Cole - they are just as smart, just as talented and their relationship is just as complicated.

This is a good book, just not a great one. I rate it 4 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: THE WANTED: AN ELVIS COLE and JOE PIKE NOVEL.