"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, July 30, 2011

Indigo Slam (Elvis Cole #7) (audiobook) by Robert Crais



Read by David Stuart.
Duration: 8 hours, 27 minutes

While not as action-packed as The Last Detective (which follows Indigo Slam in the series, but I've not read a single one of them in order so why start now?), this is a strong book. Lots of smart comments, action and twists and turns, although the very last twist was so obvious that only the clinically brain dead couldn't see it coming. But, that didn't lessen the overall value of the book for me.

Elvis is hired by a group of children who have been living on their own for a while to find their missing father. As the investigation progresses, Cole and his enigmatic partner Joe Pike get caught up in the Witness Protection Program, a counterfeiting ring, a crime syndicate and all sorts of other incidents of violence and mayhem. Cole's deep down soft heart and his smart mouth are, of course, an enjoyable part of the story.

The audiobook is read by David Stuart who captures the voice of Elvis Cole perfectly.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Indigo Slam (Elvis Cole/Joe Pike Series)

Reviewed on April 24, 2008.

Jack Arute's Tales from Indy 500 by Jack Arute




Jack Arute (center)  joking with Tony Kanaan
Jack Arute's first Indy 500 was in 1969 as an 18-year-old spectator. His family owns a track in the Northeast and racing is in his blood. His dad passed down a love for the Indy 500 in particular.

In Jack Arute's Tales from Indy 500, Arute only tells stories from 1969 to the present (2004 in the hardback version, 2005 in the paperback version). Nothing too complicated and a real fun read, especially if you want to re-live some of the more exciting, interesting and sad moments from the last 35 years or so.

I'd recommend the paperback version over the hardback since it has been expanded to include the 2005 race - the race where Danica Patrick became a household name.

This is a quick read - I finished it in just one evening, but to be fair, I did read into the wee hours of the morning because the stories were that much fun.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Jack Arute's Tales from the Indy 500

Reviewed on May 2, 2008.

Indianapolis 500: The 70's A decade Of Legends (Collectors Edition) DVD



A must for Indy 500 fans

Janet Guthrie
Part of a series of DVDs produced by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, this collection reviews all of the races from 1970-1979, including A.J. Foyt's famed and unprecedented fourth win.

The collection features original TV & radio commentary, sound and video and lots of interviews with the drivers. Some of the interviews are from the 1970s and some are from nowadays looking back.

Indianapolis 500: (The 70's A decade Of Legends) Collectors Edition is more than mindless promotion of the race - the lowlights (1973) are exposed along with the controversy associated with the arrival of Janet Guthrie, the first female participant in the 500. Changes with racing technology is highlighted throughout.

DVD features include collecting all of the bits and pieces of interviews with several drivers and some owners and adding a few bonus bits. Rick Mears and Roger Penske are especially strong interviews.

Well done.

5 stars out of 5.

This DVD can be found on Amazon.com here: Indianapolis 500: the 70's.

Reviewed on May 2, 2008.

Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning by Jonah Goldberg



An Impressive Amount of Research

Jonah Goldberg
The traditional left-right concept of political beliefs is incorrect. Understanding this is key to understanding Goldberg's thesis that modern liberalism is the intellectual heir to Rousseau's ideas, the French Revolution and is, at the very least, the intellectual cousin to both fascism (especially Italian Fascism) and Soviet Communism.

To fully understand this you have to understand that measuring political philosophy with a one-dimensional left-right line lack the depth to measure both social and economic political philosophies. A quadrant map used to measure political beliefs will more accurately show depth of support for government involvement in economic issues, political rights and social issues. Anarchists lie at the edge of one quadrant, Libertarians a little more toward the center of that same quadrant but totalitarians lie in the opposite corner. Search the web to discover more about the grid concept for yourself.

Knowing this and actually knowing the stated goals of the fascist states (not including the racial discrimination of the Nazis), one can easily see that those goals are more in line with those of modern liberals and not with those of the Right, despite the popular belief that Fascists are nothing more than extreme Conservatives.

On the political grid, one can see that Fascists and Communists are really nearly the same thing, or at the very least political cousins of one another. They are both Totalitarians. Totalitarianism it the opposite of the Enlightenment philosophies that America was founded upon (see John Locke) and they are the opposite of the views of Classical Liberals.

Goldberg's thesis in Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning is that modern liberals are not Adolph Hitler death camp fascists. Rather, they are akin to Mussolini's pre-World War II vision of fascism. Goldberg likens Mussolini's fascism to being very masculine and he likens modern liberalism to being more of an "eat your vegetables" nanny-state style of fascism, a more feminine model, if you will. Not classic Totalitarianism, but with clear Totalitarian features. The government is getting more and more involved in your daily life. The government tells you cannot smoke in your own business (Indianapolis), the type of grease you can cook with (New York City) and what types of grocery bags you can use (San Francisco).

None of those things belongs in the realm of government in the view of Classical Liberalism, which is more concerned about protecting you from government intervention, not in protecting you from yourself. While a nanny state is clearly not a Totalitarian state, it also is clearly closer to fascism on the quadrant grid than it is to classical liberalism.

Goldberg uses an impressive array of quotes and sources to back up his arguments. Goldberg is not afraid to go after Republicans as well. He's not happy with Karl Rove or George W. Bush for their own fascist tendencies. Mind you, his complaints are not those that the hyperbolic bloggers on the Left obsess over. He is bothered by the faith-based initiatives and the tremendous reach of No Child Left Behind into areas that were once left to local and state government.

Liberal Fascism is often dense reading, more like a political science textbook than the typical political stuff put out by partisans like Michael Moore, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity. A strong working knowledge of political philosophy and political science vocabulary is a must with this book.

Goldberg provided tons of endnotes to document his work which is a strength and indicative of the quality of work that he has created. It was also quite annoying. Not the notes themselves, but the fact that they were endnotes with commentary requiring the reader to constantly flip back and forth to the end of the book and to keep two sets of bookmarks- one for the text and one for the endnotes. If a writer plans to write additional commentary in his or her notes common decency would suggest that footnotes are better for the reader. The continuity and flow of the main text is not broken by constant flipping to the back of the book. Shelby Foote did this to great effect in his gigantic 3 volume Civil War series. Tom Holland uses both in his book "Rubicon" - notes at the end, additional commentary at the bottom of the text.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Liberal Fascism.

Reviewed on May 2, 2008.

Friday, July 29, 2011

America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It by Mark Steyn



  Important information but not well-presented

Mark Steyn
I am a genuine fan of Mark Steyn. I am a frequent reader of National Review and his "Happy Warrior" column is what I read first. I picked this book up as a result of listening to a half-hour interview with him on my local radio station. I picked it up less than 4 hours after hearing him.

The information in America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It is important, but the presentation is lacking. Steyn repeats himself so often that, if properly edited, this book would only have about 50 pages. Steyn writes brilliant columns. This book reads like a series of columns that overlap information, commentary and theme and was not up to the standards that I expected.

Steyn has done a lot of research, includes dozens and dozens of quotes and paraphrasing. However, he includes absolutely no endnotes, no footnotes, heck, he doesn't even include a bibliography! C'mon, Mark, I expect my tenth grade students to show their sources. You should do the same.

An interesting side note: A Canadian court tried to ban this book, Mark Steyn and the magazine that printed excerpts from this book due to some sort of 30 year old politically correct hate crimes law (can't write items critical of ethnic groups, etc.). While I'm not fond of the way this book is written, I can't stand the idea of banning a book for PC reasons. Steyn's book describing the trial is Lights Out: Islam, Free Speech and the Twilight of the West. Click here for my review of that book.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on May 2, 2008.

Talking God (audiobook) by Tony Hillerman

Read by John MacDonald
Duration: 6 hours, 35 minutes

Tony Hillerman (1925-2008)
Talking God is good, but not the typical Tony Hillerman book. Rather than being based in the Four Corners area, this one mostly takes place in Washington, D.C.

Navajo Tribal Police Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee investigate a body found in Gallup, New Mexico. Some digging into the case discovers a trail that leads to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and Navajo artifacts that are on display there.

It is interesting to see D.C. through Navajo eyes, but we do spend a lot of time in the mind of the bad guy as well, which is to the detriment of the story in my mind.

Chee's personal life features prominently as he re-connects with his on again-off again love interest Janet Pete, who is now an attorney in D.C. Leaphorn's painful loneliness and a general feeling of loss pervades throughout the book.

I would have rated the book as four stars, but I am reviewing the audiobook. My audiobook was read by John MacDonald and I cannot think of a worse pairing than MacDonald's voice and Hillerman's writing. It's not that MacDonald isn't clear - he's easy to understand. But, his voice sounds like Eastern establishment, not Western. This audiobook lasted about 6 hours and 35 minutes.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on May 2, 2008.

Indianapolis 500: (The 80's) A decade for The Ages DVD



A must for Indy 500 fans

Part of a series of DVDs produced by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, this collection reviews all of the races from 1980-1989.

The collection features original TV & radio commentary, sound and video and lots of interviews with the drivers and owners. Some of the interviews are from the 1980s and some are from nowadays looking back.

1988 Indy 500: all Penske front row (Mears, Sullivan, Big Al)
Indianapolis 500: (The 80's) A decade for The Ages is more than mindless promotion of the race - the lowlights (1981 and the ridiculous court case that determined the winner) are exposed as well. Changes with racing technology is highlighted throughout.

DVD features include collecting all of the bits and pieces of interviews with several drivers and some owners and adding a few bonus bits. Rick Mears, Roger Penske and Tom Sneva are especially strong interviews.

Another nice feature is the inclusion of an uninterrupted highlight reel of great duels from the 1980s on the track, such as Mears-Johncock, Danny Sullivan's "Spin and Win" with Mario Andretti and Sneva vs. both Little Al and Big Al.

Well done.

I rate this DVD 5 stars out of 5.

This DVD can be found on Amazon.com here: Indianapolis 500: The 80's.

Reviewed on May 2, 2008.

They Call Him Cale: The Life and Career of NASCAR Legend Cale Yarborough by Joe McGinnis

a NASCAR legend deserves better

Cale Yarborough's famed 28 car in the 1980s
Cale Yarborough is a living symbol of NASCAR from its beginnings to the very creation of the dizzying heights that it has achieved nowadays. Sadly, most of the Johnny-Come-Lately fans have no idea, or at best, only a very dim idea who he is.

Sadly, this biography of Cale Yarborough, They Call Him Cale: The Life and Career of NASCAR Legend Cale Yarborough, only covers half of his career. Indeed, most of the book covers his life before NASCAR. There are only 203 pages in this biography and he joins NASCAR full-time on page 169. Considering that the last 11 pages discusses his retirement years, that leaves 23 pages to discuss his amazing run of 3 championships in a row, the famous fistfight at the 1979 Daytona 500, his decision to run a partial schedule for more than 7 years and his 11 year stint as team owner (just 5 pages for that).

The book could have been tremendously improved if the author had bothered to interview a few people. After all, his stable of drivers include a bevy of current and recently-retired drivers, including Dale Jarrett and John Andretti (his only win as a car owner came with Andretti). All of these drivers are media friendly. I've heard Andretti speak about Yarborough with nothing but praise.

The author should have included commentary about how Yarborough was able to field competitive cars running a partial schedule (nearly impossible to do today). How about Yarborough's willingness to have in-car cameras when most did not want them? How about Yarborough's involvement in a group that tried to set up an alternative to NASCAR after he sold his race team? Nope. None of that.

The lack of depth is not too surprising, really. The author's notes (p. 261) say that he got "many" of the stories in his book from Cale's autobiography and most of the rest came from 7 internet sites.

A nice feature of the book is the inclusion of more than 50 pages of tables that detail Yarborough's NASCAR and IROC career and his Indy 500 runs.

A disturbing feature is the naming of each of his children, grandchildren and the little towns in which they live in South Carolina. Jeez. There are weirdos out there, McGinnis. Why give out this sort of detailed info?

I give it two stars. The pre-NASCAR part of the book is interesting. It's just too bad the rest of the book couldn't follow up.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on May 9, 2008.

What Dragons Prefer (kindle) by Dayle A. Dermatis



A very short short story

Dayle A. Dermatis' What Dragons Prefer is a Kindle "freebie"from Amazon.com, at least it is at the time of this review. If it were printed in book form it would be 5 pages or less, I am sure.

The plot revolves around a "dragonseeker," a woman who was brought to a small town to deal with a dragon that lives nearby. The dragonseeker knows how to get rid of a dragon, if necessary, but her expertise is really knowing about dragons - how often they eat, what they eat and what they really like.

The mayor of the town is a horrible, lecherous man and once his boorish ways get to be too much for the dragonseeker, she turns the tables.

The story in and of itself is quite easy to read but it telegraphs its punch line early on. It's satisfying, but not overly so. I rate this story 3 stars out of 5.

This short story can be found on Amazon.com here: What Dragons Prefer.

Reviewed on July 29, 2011.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

LT's Theory of Pets (audiobook) by Stephen King



Funny story with a grisly ending.

Read by the author, Stephen King
Duration: 1 hour.

Stephen King
Read by Stephen King at a live performance in the UK, LT's Theory of Pets is an entertaining short story about a couple with two pets - a cat and a dog - and what the fact that family pets tend to actually prefer one member of the family over the others.

LT is a friend of the narrator of the story - they work at the same packing plant in Iowa. LT's wife left him nearly a year before and LT has become quite adept at telling the story of how his wife left him and why she took their dog with her and left the cat with him.

LT's telling of the story is quite funny. His wife's "Dear John" note she left him on the refrigerator the night she left him has to be the funniest Dear John note ever written. LT's observations about pets and married life are quite funny.

The end of the story has a hurried feel to it. King prefaces the story with a short introduction in which he notes that this story started out completely humorous but veered into scary, like a lot of his stories do. Personally, I think King did not know how to end the story so he headed for his familiar territory of the gruesome and the macabre.

Nonetheless, this is an entertaining listen. Stephen King reads his story very well and the funny parts of the story really shine. His distinctive Maine accent make it an even more interesting listen to this Midwesterner.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: LT's Theory of Pets.

Reviewed on July 28, 2011.

Young Abe Lincoln: His Teenage Years in Indiana by W. Fred Conway

While it does not feature any factual errors, you start to wonder...

...is this a book that you really had to be written?

I know that the top-rated, best-selling history authors depend a lot on writers like C. Fred Conway in order to get the more popular, wider-audience histories written. Why? Because Conway is a fan of Indiana history and he has done a lot of research that people like James McPherson would never have time to do simply out of a love for his local area. This is one of the 4 books he has written about Indiana, Kentucy and/or Ohio and life along the Ohio River. Conway knows his stuff but...

Well, I am also a proud son of the Hoosier state and I found Young Abe Lincoln: His Teenage Years in Indiana to be more than a little pointless. The important facts could have been written in about 10 pages, maybe less. A little more than 5% of the book is the hopeful reminiscings of women that Lincoln may or may not have dated and their wishings that they could have married Lincoln (at the time they were interviewed he was the assassinated former President) if only they had really wanted to.

Out of 130 pages of text (Including Appendices showing Indiana state parks that have a Lincoln connection), I would estimate at least 40 pages of the text consists of pictures. Conway likes to include whole poems that Lincoln wrote about his boyhood in Indiana - page after page of poems. One whole page is filled with the creeds of the church that Lincoln attended but never joined. Trivia, not history.

So, I give this one 2 stars out of 5. Too many pictures and too much inane detail. I felt like someone had tried to pump up a large pamphlet into a book. It is not a one star rating because at least the facts he has presented are correct, which is saying something.

Do not buy unless you are a serious Lincoln collector.

Reviewed on August 2, 2006.

No Promises in the Wind by Irene Hunt



Reviewed by a history teacher seeking reading material for his classes

I picked up No Promises in the Wind without much in the way of expectations since I am not that big of fan of Irene Hunt's most famous novel for the younger set, Across Five Aprils.

However, I am pleased to say that this is a much better book. No Promises In The Wind is about two brothers who leave home during the Great Depression simply because there is not enough money at home to buy enough food to feed everyone. They head off from Chicago with no plan except to try to survive as best as they can.

A soup line during the Great Depression
As a teacher, what I like best about this book is its portrayal of the complete and utter economic collapse that the Great Depression entailed. Most students have no conception as to the breadth and depth of the Great Depression. By looking at this small family, readers gain an inkling as to what went on. Modern readers might question why this family didn't apply for welfare or food stamps, so it could lead to a great discussion about the beginnings of such programs. The book addresses, in passing, the inability of private charities to keep up with the massive need.

When I asked my grandmother about the Depression, her experience as a young woman in the country mirrored what these boys do in this book. My grandmother spoke about young and old men alike coming up to their house and begging for food. Usually, they offered to do a bit of yard work in exchange for the food and the promise to keep moving on. This book echoed that experience wonderfully.

No Promises In The Wind would make a great introduction to the Great Depression as a topic in class. While, in the end, it is not nearly as powerful as more famous books, such as The Grapes of Wrath, it is much more accessible to young people and thus more useful.

Since the book ends just a few weeks after FDR takes office, follow up topics would naturally include the WPA and the CCC as well as Roosevelt's calculated strategies to appear as though he had things in hand in order to provide a bit of hope.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: No Promises in the Wind.

Reviewed on August 2, 2006.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Lincoln Laughed: The Wit and Humor of Abraham Lincoln (audiobook)

A different look at our most written-about  president

Duration: 42 minutes
Produced by Teaberry Tapes

Everyone knows the facts about Lincoln - the 16th president, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, his assassination. But, do you really know Lincoln?  This CD offers a completely different look at the myth that the man has become by offering a look at his humorous side.

Lincoln was a master storyteller and he often told his stories to prove a larger point. There are plenty of those types of stories on this CD.  Sometimes he just told stories to disarm an audience - the editor of this collection notes that Stephen Douglas feared the ability of Lincoln's homespun humor to win a crowd more than his arguments. Lincoln's stories were known to persuade juries and sometimes they were just for fun. His wife noted that Lincoln's sense of humor - his quick smile and laughing eyes were never present in his photographs - he always looked so solemn, serious and even sad. This CD goes a long way to presenting the Lincoln that his friends and colleagues knew.

This CD is available is only available online from the company that produced the CD, a company called Tellens (link here) although I have found references to this CD being sold at Lincoln-related historical sites. Mine was purchased at the Indiana State Museum.

Note: there are two small historical errors in the presentation. There was no Lincoln-Douglas debate in Bloomington, Indiana. Instead, the reference would be to a Bloomington, Illinois. But, there was no Lincoln-Douglas debate there, either. Instead, Douglas spoke and Lincoln came from the crowd with a series of prepared questions and comments to challenge Douglas in an effort to set up more formal debates later on - those later debates were the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The second mistake involves mixing up the general who noted that all of his dispatches came from his "Headquarters in the Saddle." The narrator claims it was Joe Hooker, but it was John Pope. Lincoln joked, "General Pope has his Headquarters, where his Hindquarters ought to be."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

110 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken Is #37) by Bernard Goldberg



Goldberg takes aim - both left and right (but mostly at the left)

Just so you know, I was officially tired of the Coulter / Moore slamfest format about two years ago and I went cold turkey for quite a while. Mostly, they end up being long lists of high crimes and misdemeanors committed by the other side and while that is interesting it also starts to get silly after a while. Does either party or any party have a perfect record? No. Both have loudmouths and losers that shoot off their mouths and write insane things. I'm a Republican and there are Republicans that I would just as soon sit down and shut their mouths - they've said enough idiotic things to last a lifetime - let someone else have a chance!
Bernard Goldberg

Now, Goldberg is in a different class (mostly) from the partisan bashers. He avoids the acid comments (a la Coulter, Savage, Franken, Moore) and he really knows how to write. Bias and Arrogance are the reason I picked this one up - they are well-written and not shrill.

110 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken Is #37) usually avoids shrillness (about 100 of the 110 are shrill-free) and Goldberg takes shots at both Conservatives and Liberals - which is a nice change of pace from most books of this genre. While I would have a different list of 110, I can't really disagree with the reasoning of any of his choices.

I give this one 5 stars out of 5. Well-written, interesting read. I shot through it in no time at all because it was compelling.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: 110 People Who Are Screwing Up America.

Reviewed on July 30, 2006.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Lord of the Dead: The Secret History of Byron (abridged audiobook) by Tom Holland

Lord Byron as a vampire

Performed by Richard E. Grant
Duration: 3 hours

Lord Byron (1788-1824)
I picked up this audiobook version of Lord of the Dead: The Secret History of Byron because I very much enjoyed Holland's non-fiction book about the end of the Roman Republic, Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. I am not particularly a fan of vampire books nor of Lord Byron (who I can believe was a vampire considering the level of his debauchery and self-absorption) but I decided to give Tom Holland another try and trust that he would make it interesting.


The abridgment of the book contributed to my enjoyment, I am sure. There were many long stretches that were so bloated by flowery speeches, especially in the first hour or so of the audiobook, that I probably would have bailed on an unabridged version of the book. However, the last two hours were so interesting and so well-performed by Richard E. Grant that I had to bump the score up to 4 stars.

The running time of the abridged audiobook is about 3 hours.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on May 9, 2008.

Indianapolis 500 (The 90's) Collector's Edition DVD

"There's nothing as mighty as this in the world." - Nigel Mansell, F1 champion, Indy 500 driver

Part of a series of DVDs produced by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Indianapolis 500 (The 90's) Collector's Edition reviews all of the races from 1990-1999.

The collection features original TV & radio commentary, sound and video and lots of interviews with the drivers. Some of the interviews are from the 1990s and some are from nowadays looking back.

The video is more than mindless promotion of the race - the lowlights (poor officiating in several races, for example) are exposed along with the controversy associated with the infamous CART-IRL split.

The DVD features include collecting all of the bits and pieces of interviews with several individual drivers and some owners that were in the feature and showing them in a longer format and adding a few bonus bits. The interviews highlighting many of the family connections are especially strong, although leaving the Andrettis out of it was odd, although they are highlighted in the review of the 1991 race. The feature on Scott Brayton who died in 1996 while practicing for the Indy 500 is touching.

The 1991 and 1992 races are especially well covered. Rick Mears makes a disparaging comment about Mario Andretti and Mears' comments about his reasons for retiring are not only enlightening, they are funny.

Well done. This is an enjoyable series. A must for an Indy 500 fan.

I rate this DVD 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on May 9, 2008.

The Fallen Man by Tony Hillerman

Good, but not great Hillerman. 

Shiprock formation in New Mexico
Joe Leaphorn has just retired and Jim Chee continues his exploration into cross-cultural dating (and difficulties). Officer Bernadette Manuelito becomes a full-fledged character in the series. In fact, this may be the best characterization of her in the series.

There are actually two mysteries in The Fallen Man. One is a cattle-rustling caper. The other is the long-dead body of a climber that is found on Shiprock (Rock With Wings). If you ask, "What's a shiprock?" than you haven't been to the Four Corners area since this giant exposed interior of a volcano dominates its local landscape like some sort of gothic tower created in the imagination of Stephen King.

This is not Hillerman's best work, but it is enjoyable for any fans of Hillerman. This would not be a good one to start with if you have not read any of the series.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on May 29, 2008.

Blockade Billy (audiobook) by Stephen King

Two short stories about the dark side of human nature

Read by Craig Wasson and Mare Winningham
Duration: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Stephen King
This audiobook is actually two short stories. The first and longest story is called "Blockade Billy" read by Craig Wasson, the second is "Morality" read by Mare Winningham.

****
"Blockade Billy" is the reminiscences of a retired coach of the fictional New Jersey Titans, an American League baseball team. The coach is being interviewed by a man named "Mr. King." We never hear what Mr. King asks, only the story of a former player named "Blockade Billy" as told by this old coach who lives in a retirement home.

Stephen King is at his descriptive best in this story as he re-creates the world of 1957, when baseball ruled the sports pages. At times, it is like listening to Bob Costas or George Will, both writers who can wax on eloquently about this golden age of baseball (George Will actually gets a not very kind mention by the coach) which is much to King's credit. Due to his reputation as a producer of gore and horror stories, it is easy to forget that King can be a powerful, first rate author.

Blockade Billy is actually Billy Blakely, a catcher that was called up from the Iowa Cornhuskers, the Double A farm team of the New Jersey Titans on an emergency basis. No one expects much from Billy except that he not mess up too bad. Talking with him for even a couple of minutes and you realize that something is not right - no one can figure out of he is simple minded or maybe even crazy. However, when Billy takes the field everyone knows that kid can do it all - he hits, he fields and he even calms the high strung star pitcher - and he does it with confidence. He quickly earns the nickname "Blockade Billy" - the catcher who won't let any player get by him when there is a play at the plate.

But, the head coach starts to believe that Billy is sucking the luck out of the team and when they discover Billy's true story the coach is more correct than he thought...

****
"Morality" has a less detailed plot but it is a detailed study in guilt and what it does to people.

Chad and Nora Callahan are a married couple living in New York City. He is a teacher but can find nothing by substitute teaching work. He is also working on a book about his experiences being a substitute that seems to have some promise. His wife is a nurse who is working with a retired minister named George Winston who has had a stroke. It is steady work but their combined salaries are not quite enough and they are slowly going bankrupt. They are pinning their hopes on Chad's book, if he can find the time to get it done before their finances fail them.

One day Reverend Winston makes a proposition to Nora. He has never committed a major sin and now he is physically unable to do so. He is not interested in a sexual act, but he wonders if she would commit some sort of violent act (nothing permanent - it is a physical assault on a child in a park) on his behalf for $200,000? He figures that this act of "sin by proxy" will actually be doubly sinful since he has corrupted her as well. He preys on her fears of financial loss and on the promise of her husband's book, if he just had the time that the money will provide to finish it.

She decides to do it and discovers that this one act has major, life-changing implications.

I rate the combined set of stories 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 23, 2011.

Quitters, Inc. (audiobook) by Stephen King



My Favorite Stephen King Story

Read by Eric Roberts
Duration: 45 minutes.

It is true that with all of Stephen King's lengthy tales, my favorites are usually the shorter ones and Quitters, Inc. is probably Stephen King's shortest story. It was originally part of his book of short stories Night Shift and was one of three stories in the 1985 movie Cat's Eye.

Stephen King
The premise of the story is really cleverly simple. What if you went to a non-smoking clinic that was run by the mafia? Dick Morrison meets an old friend who has kicked the smoking habit who tells him that if he visits Quitters, Inc. they will get him off cigarettes and change his life for the better. Morrison laughs off the suggestion but eventually does go for an initial consultation out of curiosity about their methods.

I cannot divulge any more about this very short story without introducing spoilers except to say that their methods are anything but AMA approved, but they do work.

The story is read by Academy award nominated actor Eric Roberts. Roberts gives an understated performance, like a man telling a story at the end of a bar after a long night. But, it works perfectly with the characterization of the mobster counselor at Quitters, Inc.

I rate this short story audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found at Amazon.com here: Quitters, Inc.

Reviewed on July 23, 2011.

Friday, July 22, 2011

South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias by Brian C. Anderson



An up and down work

I will admit, the title of South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias got my attention and it was the reason that I picked it up. For the record, I am not a big fan of South Park, but I could see where he might go with it based on my limited exposure to the series (I've seen maybe 10 episodes of the show).

I was not disappointed with the "South Park" section of the book. However, that is only a small section of the book. The first 1/3 or so is your traditional "Look how they are slandering us in the media!" finger-pointing exercise that both Liberals and Conservatives use in their books. While useful for setting up the rest of his book, I could have done without it. I've been there, done that and, frankly, I am tired of it.

The middle part, the part concerning Conservative comedy, such as South Park, Dennis Miller and Colin Quinn was very good. Anderson sets up the jokes so that they usually read as funny as they were when spoken. Actually, Quinn is funnier in the written word (perhaps he should write a book) and Miller is harder to follow because of his offbeat delivery style, but it was still enjoyable.

The last section about conservative students on campus was enjoyable but I kept wondering what this had to do with the revolt against Liberal MEDIA Bias when he kept on referring to the bias of Liberal Professors?

My copy had multiple spelling errors and one mathematical error (he refers to a book written in 1984 that influenced Clinton's signing Welfare Reform into law 22 years later - that makes Clinton President in 2006 - a scary thought indeed!)

Anderson also incorrectly refers to Limbaugh's dittoheads as people who are "ditto-ing" what Limbaugh said. In other words, just agreeing with him. Limbaugh points out in a nearly weekly basis that this is not the origin of the word. It came from the early days of the show when people would call in and say something like, "Wow! I love your show! Where has this been all of my life! Conservative ideas on the radio!" and than the next caller would say the same thing. Eventually, someone got the bright idea to say, "Ditto what the last caller said." The phrase stuck. Knowing the true origin of the word would have made Anderson's thesis all the stronger, since it implies that there were Conservatives waiting for someone to speak to their issues before the "Fairness" doctrine was overturned.

I give this one 3 stars out of 5. Very easy to read, at times very, very funny. Too much re-visiting of old wounds, not enough exploring of new territory.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: South Park Conservatives.

Reviewed on July 28, 2006.

The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life by Michael Gurian

A teacher's review

Michael Gurian
More informative than Boys and Girls Learn Differently, The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life is a fascinating look into the specific reasons why boys are doing so poorly in school nowadays. Very, very awful if you did not know - Boys are the overwhelming majority of special education students, are more likely to drop out, and are much less likely to attend college.

Gurian's strategies to help come off as a bit vague - few concrete solutions are offered. As a teacher, I want to know what a 'boy-friendly' classroom looks like. Precious few good examples are provided. But, enough information is provided to at least alert the teacher that there is a problem and that he or she needs to be on the lookout for struggling boys. I would imagine, like most things in education, the answer is not simple and it requires quite a bit of individualization, which is difficult if, like me, you see upwards of 200 kids in the course of a day.

Lacks the hard edge, though - read as a companion to Christina Hoff Sommers The War Against Boys.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 27, 2006.

State of Fear by Michael Crichton



A wonderful science debate cradled in a hard-to-swallow action story

Michael Crichton (1942-2008)
State of Fear is really two books. One is by Crichton the science essayist. Crichton's scientific comments about the environmentalist movement are most interesting and well-put. This is the only work of fiction that I've read with actual footnotes in it! Crichton throws down the gauntlet in this one and wants you to look into it for yourself. If only Dan Brown had done the same with The DaVinci Code!

Crichton the story-teller is not at his best here. The plot is, for all practical purposes, merely a shallow medium to carry forth Crichton's scientific arguments. It does that but it is not, in and of itself, terribly interesting. If the scientific debates were removed from the book, the action could not carry the book on its own merit.

Read it for the different perspective on global warming, not for the plot. I give the scientific debate (with footnotes) 5 stars, the plot just one star. That's an average of 3 stars.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: State of Fear

Reviewed on July 27, 2006.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Boys and Girls Learn Differently!: A Guide for Teachers and Parents by Michael Gurian

A teacher's review

Michael Gurian
I found Boys and Girls Learn Differently: A Guide for Teachers and Parents to be a useful and fascinating introduction to the general strengths and weaknesses of males and females in the classroom.

Some may laugh or poke fun at the relatively old ideas that Michael Gurian is presenting as new in the areas of male/female brain differences. These may be old ideas in the biology lab, but someone needs to walk over to the schools of education across the country and inform them because the 'tabula rasa' theory (the mind is a blank slate and gender differences are entirely a product of culture, not nature) is alive and still kicking hard.

The only complaint I have is that Gurian refers a lot to seminars and ongoing experiments in school designs that will be helpful in teaching to the strengths and weaknesses of girls and boys. However, he comes up a bit short in providing concrete examples of how to help both boys and girls.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 27, 2006.

The Jester by James Patterson and Andrew Gross



Patterson switches up big time

James Patterson
Known for his murder mysteries, James Patterson and co-author Andrew Gross decided to try something new and have given us The Jester, a fun, fast-paced adventure set in war-torn medieval Europe.

Hugh De Luc is a happily married innkeeper until he heads off to fight in the Crusades. The gruesome fighting and wanton disregard for life change and sicken him so he deserts and heads home only to find his wife taken captive and his infant son dead.

At this point, Patterson is on more familiar ground. Hugh De Luc must find out who did it and try to bring him to justice. Unfortunately, medieval customs and laws interfere with that search. Throw in some religious relics and a menacing group of French knights who believe they are condemned to hell and you have the indgredients for a fine book.

Patterson's descriptions of medieval life ring true, although the ending may not have worked out so well in a real medieval scenario. Nevertheless, it was lots of fun and a big improvement over the Women's Murder Club series.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Jester.

Reviewed on July 16, 2006.

The Pilots by James Spencer

An excellent book of vignettes about World War II's Pacific Theater

Consolidated B-24D Liberator
The Pilots consists of a series of short stories, mostly about American pilots of B-24s in the Pacific Theater in World War II. The stories are all related to one another but any one of them is also a stand-alone story on its own (in fact, the author notes in the back note that 5 of the stories were previously published independent of one another in magazines). The dust jacket liner notes call it a novel-in-stories.

Spencer's book consists of 15 vignettes about the lives of two pilots. The first one is about their childhood. It is by far the weakest of the stories. It has the least to do with the war, but it is a decent little story about the Great Depression. The rest of them give us a little taste of the action in the air over the Pacific but also a sense of life back on base and on the atmosphere of the pilots on leave in Australia.

The book is a breeze to read and quite enjoyable. As a memoir in fiction, one can assume that some of it really happened to Spencer, some of it is based on things he heard about and some of it he just made up. Either way, I enjoyed it.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 10, 2006.

The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958 by Herbert M. Kliebard



Bias holds the score down for this book

John Dewey (1859-1952)
The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958 by Kliebard is a classic in the world of college textbooks about American educational history and curriculum. However, if I might be so bold to say so, it is not a classic due to its own strength but rather to the paucity of books that cover this topic.

I have no problem with Kliebard's choice of years to write about (1893-1958) since they are the years when debate over what should be the proper curriculum in America's schools was at its most fierce, beginning with the Committee of Ten report in the 1890s, he documents several movements and ends with the federal government assuming more control over education right after the Sputnik incident caused the American government to doubt the quality of teaching science and math students were receiving.

Kliebard is a professor of education. This shows when he tells this story to his readers. Although he knows his material backwards and forwards, he clearly is an apologist for John Dewey and he has little tolerance for any other education movement. He openly mocks many of them as tools for social control by the ruling class. Other times he pulls out sexist and racist quotes that are intended to excite the reader into disliking educational movements. While it is a dependable (but cheap) tactic to score a few points in a debate, it is a very poor way to write history. It also distorts the true study of some of these movements.

Any history student can tell you that America in the late 1800s and early 1900s was a racist and sexist place. It serves no purpose to drag those facts into the discussions of the policy debates of the time. Rather, it clouds the issue behind the offending words and phrases. This book was the source of much discussion in my graduate level class I am taking and many of the students become upset with the words and phrases of certain educational movements and then utterly dismiss their main ideas. Thus, the true study of the philosophies of curriculum becomes obscured in the name of partisanship.

The only exception to these tactics is John Dewey. Kliebard admits in one of his prefaces (he has included each preface from each of his 3 editions of his book in this edition) that he is a big fan of Dewey. Unfortunately, Kliebard does not make it entirely clear why. He talks about Dewey's University School and some of the innovations in rather vague terms. Many other times in the book he points out that Dewey is incorrectly interpreted by other movements who claim Dewey as one of their own, but he does little to explain why this well-written, widely-published educational philosopher could not clearly lay out a plan that would not be misinterpreted by so many. Mr. Kliebard, if Dewey was so great why couldn't he more clearly express himself, especially when it came to curriculum for the secondary level?

So, this book gets a grade of 3 stars. He loses points for being biased in his reporting of history. He gets extra credit for being one of the few to document this facet of American history in a fairly reader-friendly format.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958.

Reviewed on July 9, 2006.

1421: The Year China Discovered America DVD

Surprisingly well-balanced approach to a controversial theory 

Zheng He (1371-1433)
I fully expected this DVD to be a whole-hearted film adaptation of the book without any criticism of the central thesis. If you are not aware of the thesis, British naval officer Gavin Menzies proposes that the gigantic Chinese "Star Fleet" not only explored the Indian Ocean and the coasts of Africa, India and Arabia, but also went around South Africa, into the Atlantic and eventually landed in the Caribbean, North America and South America. Menzies asserts that they went around Tierra Del Fuego, entered the Pacific and eventually returned to China, thus being the first the circumnavigate the globe.

The DVD is very sketchy about the latter half of this trip (The Pacific Ocean leg). The first hour does a strong job of explaining why you may have never heard of Zheng He or his fleet. It also tells about the voyages that historians are confident that Zheng He completed. This lasts about an hour.

The second half of the DVD focuses on the suggestion that Xheng He went to the Americas. Menzies lays out his case and the casual observer comes away convinced.

Then, the experts are brought out and Menzies solid case becomes more of an interesting speculation, which is really where this belongs. Under close scrutiny, this fun bit of theory develops a lot of holes (including New World and Old World diseases, a topic not even mentioned by the experts but that occurred to me).

It turns out that Menzies has very little solid data to hold up his proposal. That being said, it should not be entirely dismissed. I encourage Menzies to address the shortcomings that were brought up and make the necessary adjustments to his thesis. Will he? I certainly hope so.

I rate this DVD 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on May 29, 2008.