"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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Friday, February 28, 2014

THE MEN WHO UNITED the STATES: AMERICA'S EXPLORERS, INVENTORS, ECCENTRICS and MAVERICKS and the CREATION of ONE NATION, INDIVISIBLE (audiobook) by Simon Winchester



Published in 2013 by Harper Audio
Read by the author, Simon Winchester
Duration: 13 hours, 33 minutes

Simon Winchester's sprawling book, The Men Who United the States, tells a history of the United States organized around five themes: Wood, Earth, Water, Fire and Metal. To be honest, I largely ignored the themes and just enjoyed listening to this magnificent, chaotic, rambling history.



Starting roughly with Lewis and Clark (Winchester backtracks a lot), the story of America is told through the tales of the people that made America a more perfect union through their explorations or their inventions. The reader (or listener if you are enjoying the audiobook) is told about Lewis and Clark and the Pony Express and the invention of the telegraph, the first transcontinental rail line, the exploration of the Grand Canyon, the role of New Harmony (Indiana) in the study of American geography,  a con game involving jewels, how George Washington toured the Frontier before he became president, the Erie Canal, the telephone, Edison vs. Tesla, the first plane to travel across America, television, radio, the internet, modern day nuclear silos, the path of the Mississippi River and so much more that I cannot possibly remember it all.

I listen to audiobooks as I drive and this book was like having a history professor just ramble along with the most interesting stories about American history and the interesting places he has been. Like in a conversation, the story meanders but it flows quite naturally almost all of the time as the author throws in lots of interesting anecdotes about his own experiences, the lives of related historical figures or just something that was odd.

The author, Simon Winchester, narrates his own audiobook. It always concerns me when I see that the author is the reader of his or her own audiobook. Frankly, most authors do not have the voice or the skill to pull it off. Winchester's voice is pleasant  and he succeeds with his narration even though his English accent sometimes made for some interesting pronunciations and served to remind me that he is not an American by birth but by choice (he recently became a Naturalized citizen).

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Men Who United the States

Reviewed on February 28, 2014

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

SURVIVAL of the NICEST: HOW ALTRUISM MADE US HUMAN and WHY IT PAYS to GET ALONG by Stefan Klein



Published in 2014 by The Experiment

German science writer Stefan Klein looks into the concept of altruism vs. egocentrism and the current thinking behind why people act altruistic or egocentric. This has been a popular topic in many news reports as the idea of a "stingy gene" or a "sharing gene" is discussed. 

Of course, the idea of a single stingy or sharing gene is simplistic, but Klein does spend a lot of time discussing altruistic behaviors and egocentric behaviors and why people actually act as altruistic as they do, even going so far as to donate money to people they will never meet in countries they will never go to. Why is that?

Klein reports that the current thinking is that simple Darwinian competition is too simplistic to explain altruistic behavior - giving away resources or time that could be used to raise one's own offspring makes no sense in a simple Darwinian worldview.

But, when you move out a little bit and look at groups of people and see that groups of people who are willing to give to one another and enforce a set of norms that expect a certain amount of fair play and giving to help the entire group have more success than groups that do not than you see that the Darwinian model may yet have some merit - it is not a single person vs. a single person but groups of people vs. groups of people.

Klein compares the behavior of chimpanzees to people, looks into tests of when young children start to display altruism and into experiments involving games that are supposed to test the altruistic nature of people (to be honest, I had a hard time understanding the value of the games, they were rather poorly explained). 

Survival of the Nicest has its interesting moments but vague explanations of the experiments and games and meandering discussions about other animals like vampire bats made the book an up and down read at best. There are some wonderful ideas in this book and a good editing could have knocked off about 50 pages and made it a tighter, more effective read.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.
Reviewed on February 19, 2013.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

RUNAWAY HEART (audiobook) by Stephen J. Cannell



Great Characters, Giant Plot Holes

Published in 2003 by Sound Library (BBC Audiobooks America)
Read by Nick Sullivan
Unabridged
Duration: 11 hours, 47 minutes

Stephen J. Cannell (1941-2010) was best known as a television writer, producer and the creator of such classic shows as the A-Team, The Rockford Files and The Greatest American Hero. But, late in his career Cannell also wrote a lot of novels, mostly action-based mysteries (not all that surprising considering his history in television).

Runaway Heart is, in some ways, a typical Cannell story, but it does have some distinct differences. There are three main characters. The book starts with Herman Stockmire, an overweight, idealistic Los Angeles-based attorney with a bad heart (arrhythmia) who heads up a law firm called The Institute for Planetary Justice. Despite the big name, the Institute consists of Herman and his daughter Susan. Together, they go to court for all sorts of hopeless causes. They have sued mega-corporations, the CIA, the military and almost all for naught. 


Stephen J. Cannell (1941-2010)
The story starts with a lawsuit over genetically modified crops and how they are affecting Monarch butterflies. Herman fares poorly in court (again) and is fined $1 million for wasting everyone's time in court. Of course, Herman and the Institute have no way to pay this off. This is typical of Cannell's TV shows - he loves to write about likable, idealistic losers with real faults.

But, in this case, Herman Stockmire is onto something. He has a friend in San Francisco (from a previous case) who is a highly skilled hacker that succeeds in getting into the deep data files of this agribusiness corporation in order to steal their files and find evidence that they did not properly test their creations to see if they affected species like the Monarch. But, he also finds files associated with DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). This real-life agency helped create the internet, military drones and passive radar (and much, much more). He doesn't know what he is looking at for sure but it seems to him that this agribusiness company is doing some research on genetic modification for DARPA. So, this hacker steals that file as well and that's when things start to get out of control.


Within hours, the hacker is found dead, his body horribly shredded by someone's bare hands - someone with amazing brute strength. His corpse has been claimed from the morgue by the federal government and they are denying that they know anything about it.

Looking for a little help and some information, Susan Stockmire hires Jack Wirta, a former LAPD policeman who has just retired due to severe injuries to his back sustained in the infamous 1997 North Hollywood Bank Shootout. Jack's pain has caused him to become addicted to painkillers. Jack is also a very new Private Investigator - this is his first case and he has no idea what he's going to get into. 

There are a ton of interesting supporting characters throughout. I was kind of bugged by the over-the-top ultra-stereotypical portrayal of the man who operates the gay escort service down the hall from Wirta's new office, but as the book continues on his character displays an immense amount of character and physical bravery. He may be effeminate to the extreme but he knows how to "man up" when he needs to.

My favorite scene was probably the one where the men of a dying Indian nation have a council of war to determine what to do about illicit activities taking place on their reservation. They meet in a Denny's in one of those big corner booths and discuss over tuna salad sandwiches. Not what you expect from a Council of War if you grew up watching westerns like I did!

Nick Sullivan read this book. He is the winner of two Audiofile awards. I found his performance to be up and down. His characterization of Herman Stockmire was low key, but it was just too low key. Herman's bad heart and perpetual exhaustion should be part of the character, but his monotone delivery in court was so boring that I found it unlikely that he would actually perform so poorly in front of a jury. But, the other characters were well done, especially the hacker and the overly-effeminate proprietor of the gay escort service. 

The book is filled with strong characters but has a disjointed plot that is full of gaping holes and strange fits and starts. If that bothers you, this story is going to be torturous to you. For me, I overlooked the plot problems and just went with the story because of the characters. I am docking its final score by one star for those plot problems but that still leaves me with a score of 4 out of 5 stars. 

Reviewed on February 15, 2014.