"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!

Visit DWD's Reviews of Books, Audiobooks, Music and Video new sister blog: DWD's Reviews of Tech, Gadgets and Gizmos!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A CALL to ACTION: WOMEN, RELIGION, VIOLENCE, and POWER (audiobook) by Jimmy Carter



Published in 2014 by Simon and Schuster (AUDIOWORKS)
Read by the author, Jimmy Carter
Duration: 6 hours, 33 minutes

Jimmy Carter and I have a strange relationship. Don't get me wrong, the 39th President and I have never met and are not likely to. I think that his presidency was, on balance, a well-intentioned mess and his post-Presidential career has been a mix of amazing achievements (Habitat for Humanity, for example) combined with annoying commentary and self-intervention into areas where he was not invited (ask Bill Clinton what he thinks of Carter's self-appointed mission to North Korea during the Clinton Administration).

This book only re-affirms my impressions of Jimmy Carter. I admire his religious faith and his intimate knowledge of the scriptures. I also admire his willingness to learn about other faiths and the fact that he teaches in his church's Sunday school. His work through the Carter Center has also been a mixed bag of amazing work against poverty and disease and less-than-helpful self-insertion into international politics. 

As Carter describes it early in his book, A Call to Action was written because so many people asked him to use his position to call attention to the how religion was being used against women around the world. 

The book also looks at the economic and political status of women and often ties religious views into how women and doing economically and politically. This is mostly a look at Christianity and Islam with some commentary on Judaism but almost none on Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism or any of the other faiths of the world.

Carter is especially critical of Christian denominations that do not allow women to be pastors or priests. He lays down his arguments here quite well, which is appropriate since he publicly broke with the Southern Baptists over this topic in 2000 and has laid out his reasoning for doing so many times. 


Former President Jimmy Carter signing A CALL TO ACTION
in April of 2014. Photo by Mark Turner
He is less critical of the Islamic world. Don't get me wrong, he is critical, but spends much less time on the topic than he does in criticizing Christianity. He dismisses a lot of the more obvious things like burkas, not letting women go to school and not letting women receive medical treatment as local tradition. This is true, but it is tradition bolstered by certain verses in the Koran or by attitudes that draw on those verses for strength. 

This leads to the heart of my strange relationship with Jimmy Carter. It is not that he did not have a point about any of this stuff, it is that he points his finger at America and the West for so long in comparison to the other religions and countries.  He gushes over the improvement of the conditions for women in China in a section that focuses on China and brushes over the one child policy, forced abortions (he addresses the forced abortions at the end of the book but only as part of a larger movement) and the number of girls in orphanages. He focuses on the positives and brushes over the negative. When discussing America, he brushes over our positives and focuses on the negatives. Note, I am not saying we are perfect, I am saying his focus is often out of balance. 

The book was read by Jimmy Carter. At first, I thought that this was an odd choice considering his age (he was 89 when this book was released). His weaker voice has only deepened his accent and it does take a few minutes to get used to it. But, in the end, Carter's unique voice, especially if you remember his presidency, was the only one that could read this audiobook - his style is all over the text and you would have been imagining it being read in his voice anyway. At times, his emphasis on certain words while reading express his feelings more than the words themselves would have. Every time he says the phrase "female genital cutting" he practically spits out the word "cutting" - his distaste is obvious.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on May 31, 2014.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

THE GREAT UPHEAVAL: AMERICA and the BIRTH of the MODERN WORLD (audiobook) by Jay Winik



Disappointing

Published by HarperAudio in 2007
Read by Sam Tsoutsouvas
Duration: 12 hours, 56 minutes

Jay Winik's April 1865 is one of my favorite Civil War histories - it holds a very safe place on a shelf that has to be purged on a regular basis to make room for new books because it is a brilliant history. 

Before I go on with this review I must note that I listened to the abridged audiobook version of this book (so far as I can determine, there is no unabridged version). Despite the abridgment, this book still clocks in at nearly 13 hours. Some of my criticisms are undoubtedly due to the abridgment.

Winik's thesis in this book is that the time period from 1788 to 1800 was a time of revolutionary ardor and that most of the great European powers were affected. Victor Hugo wrote: “One can resist the invasion of armies; one cannot resist the invasion of ideas.” Winik looks at how the ideas of America's Founding Fathers and the French philosophes affected three countries: The United States, France and Russia.

In 1788, those three countries had almost nothing in common. The United States was small, almost inconsequential to European politics and in the middle of implementing a new Constitution. Mostly, it was a curiosity. France was the most powerful, most important country in Europe and quite possibly the world. Russia was a massive, largely mysterious backwater that hovered on the fringe of the European political scene.

The execution of Louis XVI (1754-1793) on January 21, 1793
Winik presents three different models of how various countries dealt with the new "invasion of ideas." Russia, in the person of Catherine the Great, entertained them on a philosophical level, but on a practical level she smashed them and dug them out by the root. The French King Louis XVI attempted to compromise with them but, in the end, he could not compromise enough to please Revolutionary France and it cost him his life. Worse, the country spun out of control and began to consume itself. The United States institutionalized the conflict between change and tradition by creating political parties and a system of government that allowed give and take without permitting everything to spin out of control (although the Whiskey Rebellion came close to doing just that - Winik discusses the Rebellion in detail but never says why the Western farmers were so upset about the tax on Whiskey. The answer - they had to convert their corn into whiskey to transport it out to sell. It taxed them but not farmers in the East who could sell regular corn).

John Paul Jones (1745-1792)
For me, the greatest weakness of this book is the inclusion of Russia. The discussion about the Russo-Turkish War (1787-1792) was not particularly interesting (I had to turn it off while I was driving because I found myself so bored with the topic that I began to nod off), with the exception of the brief mention of John Paul Jones.  Catherine the Great's reaction to the implementation of the revolutionary ideas of the time was no different than that of almost all dictators of almost all times and all places - she perceived a threat and she destroyed it as thoroughly as she could. In this book she serves as the opposite example of what happened to Louis XVI. As such, she really was superfluous - she was the norm and could have been described in just a few paragraphs or even sentences (for example, "While Catherine the Great loved to read and discuss these new revolutionary ideas, she never tried to negotiate with those who would take away her power as absolute monarch in the name of those new ideas like Louis XVI did. Instead, she engaged those revolutionaries with military power and hunted them down until they were utterly destroyed, much like successful tyrants like Augustus Caesar, Stalin and Kim Jong Il have done throughout history.")

On the other hand, I found the descriptions of the French Revolution to be fascinating. Winik included the grim details, a decision I agree with because those details demonstrate the degree to which the crowds were moved to act. For example, the simple fact that the crowds taunted the Marie Antoinette with the severed head of one of her friends (after they had its hair made up nice) shows that the French Revolution was out of control. Fortunately, the largest portion of the abridged audiobook deals with the French Revolution. The American Revolution section is also very strong.

The narrator of this audiobook was Sam Tsoutsouvas. He is an experienced audiobook reader and his command of French came in very handy when he read the occasional French word or phrase that pops up in this book. On top of that, when the crowd yelled, he would actually yell too which makes the descriptions even more powerful. His greatest strength, though, is the sense of gravitas he gives to everything he reads. If he read my grocery list it would sound as though the security of the nation depended on the purchase of a 2 liter bottle of Coke Zero and a box of Cheerios.

However, when coupled with Winik's often overwritten text this sense of gravitas becomes overwhelming. Winik has invested in a thesaurus and truly loves using it. He repeats himself in long strings of sentences. He loves to restate things with very similar words. He is verbose, wordy, repetitious and long-winded (yes, I did that on purpose). Winik invests a lot into injecting false drama into the story by asking dramatic questions such as, "What would happen next?" and listing a series of adjectives and using this kind format (sorry, I could not write one down - I listen while I drive and it did not seem prudent): "Coca-Cola. Is it brown? Is it fizzy? Is it wet? It is all of that - and more!"

He also likes to describe things and then use this ending to the description to inject doubt: "If - and it was a big if..." and "Yet - and it was a big yet..." and my favorite "But - and it was a big but..." Yes, he actually made the audiobook reader read the phrase "it was a big butt."

So, match this dramatic reader with an overly dramatic writing style and this book approaches parody in its audiobook form. Maybe this sentence is the epitome of the problem: "A bodyguard, a mere boy, was ruthlessly murdered and dragged into the courtyard half dead, becoming little more than a bleeding trophy." Indeed, the murdered boy was half dead.

Once again, I must point out that I did listen to the audiobook and it was abridged so some of the problems may have occurred because the abridgment. 


I rate this audiobook 3 out of 5 stars.
Reviewed on May 24, 2014. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

ORBIT (audiobook) by John J. Nance



Published by Brilliance Audio in 2006
Read by the author, John J. Nance
Duration: approximately 6 hours.

This near future science fiction book is actually a ¨near past¨ book now. Written in 2006 but set in 2009 (why would Nance set the date so close to the date he published it? I just ignored the date and went on).  

 The premise of the book is that private, simplified space shuttles are regularly flying back and forth to the international space station, to put satellites into orbit and to take space tourists for a day trip into space and back. Kip Dawson, a salesman, has won a trip to space - the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. His wife, however, is sure that this trip will result in disaster and has told Kip that if he goes she is leaving with the kids and going back to live with her father.

Kip decides to go anyway, figuring he will make up with his wife when he comes back. But, when a tiny meteor passes through the shuttle, destroying the radios and drilling a hole right through the head of the pilot Kip realizes that he has to bring the shuttle down all by himself with no outside help or just stay in orbit and die. Turn out his wife was right after all.

John J. Nance, the author, read this audiobook himself. I was a bit leery about this and was not encouraged when I first heard Nance. But, he grows on you and by the end of the story I was riveted (sorry, no details - I want to avoid spoilers).

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here:Orbit: A Novel

Reviewed on May 18, 2014.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

GETTYSBURG: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL by C.M. Butzer



Sometimes Brilliant, Sometimes Lacking and Sometimes Just Plain Wrong

Published in December of 2008 by HarperCollins

This is the 65th review of a book that is somehow connected to the Civil War that I have written. I am also a teacher of American history. I only mention this so that the reader knows that I do not come to my critiques of this book lightly.

Butzer has attempted to do something that would be tough no matter who the author is - tell the entire story of Gettysburg in just 80 pages of a graphic novel. By the entire story, I mean why the war was going on in the first place, the status of both sides when the battle started, the battle itself and dealing with the dead, the wounded and the dignitaries that came to nose around afterwards. It also includes the decision to make a special cemetery at Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address and a discussion of the famed speech, plus additional comments and a bibliography.

If I were asked to do this is two typewritten pages I would find it to be a difficult challenge, so I do appreciate the task faced by Butzer.

Butzer's treatment of the Gettysburg Address is brilliantly conceived and wonderfully demonstrates the power of the little speech to the crowd at the cemetery and the power of the speech as it has resonated down through time.

He also does a great job of talking about how difficult it was to deal with so many dead and wounded once the armies had moved on. The awful nature of Civil War surgery is shown (including a pile of amputated limbs).

 However, his focus was just wrong in so many ways and there are at least two factual errors. The battle itself gets just 9 pages out of the 80 - the little skirmish in Gettysburg itself that started the battle gets two complete pages! If you are uninformed as to the particulars of the Battle of Gettysburg, this book will do little to inform you. But, there is a great deal of, in my opinion, wasted space dedicated to Lincoln's trip to Gettysburg and the build up to the dedication ceremony. 

On pages 22 and 23 Pickett's Charge is drawn in one epic sweep, but the dimensions are wrong (the length of the charge is dramatically shrunken) and the height and angle of Cemetery Ridge is greatly exaggerated. It is a low rise, not the steep angle shown in the book. It looks like Pickett is leading a charge up the dam of a man-made lake, not up the gentle heights of Cemetery Ridge. This distinction makes Lee's decision to attack the Union line directly look like less of a calculated risk and more like a cruel suicidal attack on an impregnable position.


The Evergreen Cemetery Gatehouse
On page 38 workers are building the gatehouse to the cemetery in order to prepare for the ceremony. He also alludes to this in his notes at the end of the book. But, this gatehouse was built before the war (its cornerstone was laid in 1855 and it was used as Union General O.O. Howard's headquarters during the battle) as a part of Evergreen Cemetery, not the national cemetery. When I first visited Gettysburg, I also assumed that the gatehouse went with the National Cemetery.

So, sometimes brilliant, sometimes lacking and sometimes just plain wrong, I rate this graphic novel 3 stars out of 5.

This graphic novel can be found on Amazon.com here: Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel

Reviewed on May 17, 2014

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

THE GREAT SECRET (Stories from the Golden Age) by L. Ron Hubbard






Re-published in 2008 by Galaxy Press

Before L. Ron Hubbard became famous for Scientology and ultimately made Tom Cruise's life a perennial target for the tabloids he wrote a whole bunch of short stories for the pulp magazines from 1936 to 1950. Galaxy Press has been re-releasing them in small collections as paperbacks and audiobooks. This collection consists of four short stories.
File:L. Ron Hubbard in 1950.jpg
L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986) in 1950

The first story is "The Great Secret" which was originally published in Science Fiction Stories in April of 1943. It is an okay story about a man who is willing to give anything to find out what the secret of a great, lost civilization was.

Story number two is "Space Can" - the best story in the bunch. Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in July of 1942 it features a fight between two space fleets and the hand-to-hand combat that ensues.

"The Beast" is a forgettable safari tale based on Venus rather than Africa. But, it is filled with submissive natives and a great foreign hunter just in case you like to ponder how racist a story can be without actually involving human beings being oppressed. Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in July of 1942.

"The Slaver" (Astounding Science Fiction, June 1942) would have been a good novel if it had been extended but it is an unsatisfying short story. It features an alien race capturing humans and using them as slaves after the humans lost an interstellar war.

The "Stories from the Golden Age" collection is an admirable attempt to preserve stories from the age of pulp fiction but this particular book is mostly not worth the effort. 

Reviewed on May 13, 2014
I rate this collection 2 stars out of 5.

Monday, May 12, 2014

NPR AMERICAN CHRONICLES: WORLD WAR I (audiobook) by NPR



Multicast performance
Duration: 3 hours, 25 minutes

National Public Radio (NPR) has gone through its archives and pulled out almost thirty stories about World War I in honor of the 100th anniversary of the start of the war. The stories range from interviews with soldiers to interviews with historians and authors. 
File:Eddie Rickenbacker.gif
World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker in his Spad
plane in October of 1918.

Topics include a look at pre-World War I Europe, a look at the creator of the Sopwith Camel, discussions of several battles, hand-created masks for men whose faces were damaged in the war, a mini-biography of America's famed flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, a look at the post-war Bonus Army and audio visits to several World War I museums, including one that recognizes Herbert Hoover's efforts to feed Belgium during the war (mostly forgotten in America).

The audio quality of all of these stories is excellent since they were all originally broadcast on the NPR network. They are told in a logical manner and make for an interesting look at this oft-overlooked war.

Reviewed on May 12, 2014
I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

THE GREAT DIVORCE (audiobook) by C.S. Lewis



Originally Published in 1944-1945
Published by HarperAudio
Read by Robert Whitfield
Duration: about 3 hours.

First published as a newspaper serial in 1944-45, The Great Divorce is a fictional look at heaven and hell. The story is not so subtly built to be a vehicle for Lewis to discuss his major themes, including God's forgiveness, the pride of men and women who chose to remain in hell rather than accept heaven and the respect and power accorded to those with strong faith in heaven. 


C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)
This short book (160 pages in print, 3 hours as an audiobook) starts with the narrator riding a bus away from a disagreeable grey suburban town. The town is not really a bad place but its residents are all difficult in some way and they squabble and then move away from each other. 

Later, the reader learns that the grey town is purgatory or hell, depending on the person. From time to time a free bus comes to the town and its residents can ride to a new place, which turns out to be the outskirts of heaven. The people from the bus get out and are greeted from people they knew from earth but are now residents of heaven. They are implored to give up the things that are keeping them from heaven so that the can stay. Some do. Most don't.

The narrator visits different conversations and Lewis uses these as a chance to give some common arguments as to why the resident of hell should not have to repent. Some are funny (the nagging housewife is actually hilarious) and some are pathetic. 

I grew rather tired of the stilted back and forth format, found the descriptions of the residents of heaven off-putting and I think the whole story comes off as very heavy handed. Robert Whitfield's narration was strong and the variety of voices and accents were commendable but the book rated a mere 3 stars from me.

Reviewed on May 7, 2014.