"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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Sunday, October 30, 2016

THE BEST of WAIT WAIT...DON´T TELL ME! (audiobook) by NPR



Published by HighBridge Company/NPR in 2008.
Multiple Performers
Duration: 2 hours, 11 minutes.

If you are familiar with the NPR radio show Wait Wait...Don´t Tell Me then you know what this collection is all about. Clever people playing silly games with news stories. This collection comes from 2006-2008 so the news is a little old. But, then again, you don´t listen to this show for the news - you listen to it for the funny takes on the news by the guests and the panel.

Guests include Michael Moore (note: I am not a big fan of Michael Moore but he was very funny), Ted Koppel, Drew Carey and NBA star Chris Paul. Besides the guests, there is just a lot of silly news and even better commentary on it.

Regular panelist Paula Poundstone was hilarious as was P.J. O´Rourke, Roy Blount Jr, Mo Rocca and Tom Bodett.

If you love this radio show, this is a must-listen.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: The Best of Wait Wait...Don´t Tell Me.

Friday, October 21, 2016

THE FATEFUL LIGHTNING: A NOVEL of the CIVIL WAR (Book #4 of 4) (audiobook) by Jeff Shaara



Published in 2015 by Random House Audio
Read by Paul Michael
Duration: 25 hours, 30 minutes
Unabridged

The fourth book in what started out as a trilogy, The Fateful Lightning concludes Jeff Shaara's story of the Civil War's Western Theater with Sherman's March to the Sea and the eventual surrender of the Joseph E. Johnston's army in North Carolina. 

But, the story is more than that. It is also the story of newly freed slaves discovering what freedom truly means. It is the story of a way of life being destroyed and the hope that a new, more equitable society can rise up in its place. It is the story of a legendary commander whose self-doubts constantly plague him. It is the story of an army that knows deep down that it is going to lose but still tries to survive - for pride if for no other reason. 


Confederate Lt. General William J. Hardee
(1815-1873)
The story focuses on two generals - Union General William T. Sherman and Confederate General William J. Hardee. Hardee is trying to cobble together a little army made up of regulars and state militia in order to stop Sherman's advance. Hardee is greatly outnumbered and he has no idea where Sherman is going. Hardee literally wrote the book on tactics that both sides used, but Hardee was clueless as to how he should proceed because Sherman's March to the Sea was an unprecedented move. Hardee couldn't attack Sherman's supply lines because Sherman had no supply lines. Sherman kept his ultimate goal secret and made it look like he had multiple destinations. Hardee had to keep his small army thinly spread out just so that he could offer a token defense.

Once Hardee retreats into the Carolinas, Sherman's goal become obvious but by this point it doesn't matter - the Confederacy is collapsing all around...

********

The finale of this series is a definite improvement over the tedious second and third installments. The first book was excellent and this one was quite good. The tendency to get into the heads of the characters and repeat trains of thought was limited when compared to the middle two books.

I am a serious student of the Civil War and I was pleased to learn so much about General Hardee. Most books mention that he wrote the Army's book on tactics and that's about it. He was quite interesting.

Shaara's choice to make a main character out of Franklin, a slave freed by the arrival of Sherman's army, was interesting. The character has little to do with the actual military and could have easily been left out. But, Franklin's discoveries about what freedom really means away from the plantation make the reality of the changes brought by Sherman much more vivid.

The combination of scenes involving Lincoln and Lincoln's assassination are powerful. Some very strong writing.

The audiobook was read by Paul Michael. I do believe that he read for the entire series (I listened to volumes 2, 3 and 4) and his voice characterizations are consistent all of the way across the series. He is so good that you recognize voices without having to be told which character is speaking.

But, for all of his voice talents, Paul Michael is an exceedingly slow reader. His Southern drawls are magnificently slow. For the first time in my life I sped up the playback of the text (I listened to a digital file). I had to speed it up to play 20% faster just to make the characters speak at a tolerable level.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

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

Thursday, October 20, 2016

TAINTED by SUSPICION: THE SECRET DEALS and ELECTORAL CHAOS of DISPUTED PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS by Fred Lucas



Published in May of 2016

The 2016 Presidential election cycle has been wild, to say the least. An rookie politician with a unstoppable mouth and a veteran politician with a long, checkered past are an unlikely pairing. Throw in a couple of strong third party candidates and the fact that these are the two most hated candidates in a generation and you may very well have an election in which no one wins a majority of the votes in the electoral college.

What would happen in no one actually wins, or if it is too close to call?



Aaron Burr (1756-1836)
Veteran White House correspondent Fred Lucas gives us some insight as he tells the story of six troubled Presidential elections: 1800, 1824, 1876, 1888, 1960 and 2000.

With each election Lucas describes the political environment of the time, the major players in the election and the reasons why it became a disputed election. He details how it finally worked out and then offers informed speculation as to what would have happened if the other guy had won.

Most of the stories are quite interesting. Even the "what-ifs" are pretty good, with the exception of the "what-if" for Aaron Burr because it just went on for too long. Political junkies will note the definite lean to the right for the discussion of the JFK/Nixon and Bush/Gore elections. It is there, but it is also not inaccurate, in my opinion.

For fans of Presidential politics, this is a must-read. For those that are just curious about what how convoluted American politics can get, this is a worthy introduction.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.


This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Tainted by Suspicion.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

CANCEL MY SUBSCRIPTION: THE WORST of NPR: MOE MOSKOWITZ and the PUNSTERS PERFORM the FUNNIEST SONGS and NONSENSE that NPR HAS to OFFER (audiobook) by Moe Moskowitz and the Punsters



Originally published by Phoenix Books in April of 2001
Re-published in 2016
Multicast performance
Duration: 1 hour, 6 minutes

Moe Moskowitz used to be a semi-regular feature on NPR in the morning. He is a character created by author and high school English teacher Robert Kaplow.

NPR is not known for its humor. In fact, I listened to one of their compilation CDs that was supposed to be funny and found it to be even less funny than the normal types of stories that NPR covers during a normal morning. Great news stories but, aside from the weekend stuff, they're not particularly funny.



Robert Kaplow. Photo by Lynn Lauber
Moe Moskowitz must have been like the proverbial bull in the China shop when his bits were played. He is quick, clever and non-stop. His attention ranges all over the place. He sings, he pitches new product ideas, he pitches new story ideas, he parodies everything from Alvin and the Chipmunks to Cokie Roberts. 

The collection is sort of a recounting the amazing career of Moskowitz. The style is very much in the style of Spike Jones and the City Slickers, a group that was pretty much the Weird Al Yankovic of the 1940s and 1950s.

Was it funny? For NPR this is a knee-slapper. I found it to be amusing with just a couple of truly funny moments. I listened, enjoyed it well enough but I have no plans to go back and listen again. Lots of parody songs, lots of clever lines but nothing that really nailed it for me.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.


This collection can be found on Amazon.com here: Cancel My Subscription: The Worst of NPR.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

THE CROSSING (Harry Bosch #20) (audiobook) by Michael Connelly



Published in November of 2015 by Hachette Audio
Read by Titus Welliver
Duration: 9 hours, 24 minutes
Unabridged

In The Crossing Harry Bosch is newly retired from LAPD - a forced retirement due to a suspension due to a rules infraction. Harry's past caught up to him - too many people in too many important places are tired of Harry's "screw protocol - I'm going to solve this case" attitude.

So, Harry is now unemployed. He's suing the department. He's restoring an old motorcycle - a project that he's been looking forward to for a long time. And, he is miserable. 

Titus Welliver, the narrator of this audiobook, portraying
Harry Bosch in Amazon Video's 
series Bosch.
His goal has always been to solve murders. It's practically his reason for his existence. Now, he has no more murders to solve because he is off the force.

Along comes his half brother, Mickey, the defense attorney, also known as "the Lincoln Lawyer" with a proposal. He wants him to do a little work on a murder case as an investigator for the defense because his regular investigator was hurt in a suspicious motorcycle accident. Normally, Harry would have nothing to do with a defense lawyer. In his mind, they get murderers off the hook and he'd be a traitor to everything he worked for his entire career.


But, against his better instincts he agrees to look at the file. And, once he starts digging into the case he notices a few loose ends. And, he can't help pulling on those loose ends, even if it means he has to cross over to the other side...

Just to be fair, I have enjoyed every Harry Bosch novel but one. Quite simply, I am a fan of the series and of the author. This book is a solid addition to the series. I enjoyed the procedural part of the story and the internal struggles of Bosch as he struggles with the concept of crossing over to the defense (thus, the title). But, in the end, the resolution of the case was not as clear as the characters in the story believe it to be. 


Titus Welliver, the actor who portrays Harry Bosch on the Amazon Video television series. He does a great job. He totally gets Bosch's grumpy side.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5. 


This audiobook can be purchased on Amazon.com here: The Crossing.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

DAVID and GOLIATH: UNDERDOGS, MISFITS, and the ART of BATTLING GIANTS (audiobook) by Malcolm Gladwell



Published by Hachette Audio in October of 2013.
Read by the author, Malcolm Gladwell.

Duration: 7 hours
Unabridged

Malcolm Gladwell has made his reputation by writing insightful articles in which you thoroughly learn about one thing but also how it applies to a larger concept.  Usually, there's a little light science involved and, if nothing else, the reader (or in my case, the listener) feels like he or she learned a little bit and heard an interesting story.

In this case, the premise is that in the David vs. Goliath stories, the underdog is not always as much of an underdog as it seems. He starts with the original David vs. Goliath story - the one in the Old Testament of the Bible and explains that Goliath clearly had size and strength going for him but those weren't all-pervading advantages. Goliath was strong and large but his strength made him reliant on the sword and close-in fighting. If an enemy got close to him and if Goliath got hold of him, Goliath would win. But, David was quick, small and used a sling. One commentator he quotes compares a skilled sling-user to a person using a pistol. David stands back, takes his shot, knocks down Goliath and then Goliath's strengths are all weaknesses. His size and armor makes it hard for him to get up. David rushes in and finishes Goliath.

Malcolm Gladwell in 2014.
Photo by Kris Krug.
Gladwell takes the lessons of the original story ("There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem.") and applies them to other situations. Some of them are natural fits (the entertaining and inspiring story of the girl's basketball team with not a lot of talent but a whole lot of grit and the willingness to play full court defense), some not so much (education, learning disabilities, family tragedies).

But, even if the theme is imperfect throughout the book, the book itself is interesting throughout. His commentary on education and class size was interesting to this public school teacher. The conventional wisdom is that smaller is better, and it is to the point of diminishing returns. But, there is a competing conventional wisdom that says "class size does not matter." In my school system one of our assistant superintendents was fond of quoting that as she advocated for ever larger class sizes as a way to save money. It turns out they are both right. Too small (maybe 10 or 12) and the class dynamic gets weird, something I already knew from experience. Too large and the class gets unwieldy and the class dynamic changes from interactivity to college large class lecture format (near 40). I have had classes that large as well. They are tiring and the grading gets overwhelming. Plus, no one gets any sort of attention except for the troublemakers.


There's a lot of ground covered in just 7 hours and I found the whole book very entertaining. He talks about everything from the London Blitz to serial killers to the Civil Rights struggles in Birmingham in the 1960s to Leukemia. It's all interesting and I felt as though I were listening to a knowledgeable friend ramble on about vaguely related but highly interesting topics. Gladwell does a great job at narration.

The commentary about the perceived legitimacy of police forces in comparison with the British in Northern Ireland and the NYPD in a troubled neighborhood makes that section a must-read when thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States right now. 


Highly recommended.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

EMBATTLED REBEL: JEFFERSON DAVIS as COMMANDER in CHIEF by James M. McPherson



Published in 2014 by Penguin Press

Famed Civil War historian James M. McPherson aims to fill in an historical gap by providing a biography of Jefferson Davis's Civil War years. He notes in his opening that it is natural to make comparisons between Lincoln and Davis but those comparisons are often lopsided due to a lack of information. There are enough different Lincoln biographies to easily fill a truck. But, Davis is often a caricature - a difficult man who thought he could be general and commander-in-chief due to previous military experience - a man who refused to remove his friends from important military posts and also a man who carried a grudge.

That thumbnail sketch is largely true, but also incomplete. Thanks to the mass of information on Lincoln we are able to detect a sense of nuance.  A lot of source material on Davis never survived the Fall of Richmond. Even worse, many people who worked with him were unwilling to talk about it after the war - they just wanted to get on with their lives and put the war behind them. Even worse, others defended their own reputations by degrading his.

Jefferson Davis (1808-1889)

McPherson's biography of Davis pales in comparison to Doris Kearn Goodwin's work about the Lincoln Administration, Team of Rivals. Even so, this is a solid attempt to fill this glaring hole.

Even though this book mostly reinforces the stereotype view of Davis, it does provide a look into how hard it really was to be the President of the Confederate States of America. He was outgunned from the start and stayed that way throughout the war. It was very rare to have a Confederate force actually larger than the Union force it faced it battle.

But, just as it there was a shortage of men and supplies, there really was a shortage of top level officers. A truism often bandied about by Civil War devotees is that the Union had more soldiers but the Confederacy had better officers. It started out that way but battlefield deaths (Albert Sidney Johnston and "Stonewall" Jackson, to name two of the biggest losses) and difficult personalities combined against the Confederacy to even out things.  Davis is often criticized for holding on to officers like Braxton Bragg for too long but he really didn't have a lot of men with the expertise to manage an entire army. Take a look at the example of John Bell Hood - an aggressive Corps Commander who was promoted and went on to ruin an entire army in just a few months.


There really is not much new here, but it does the reader the service of collecting the information that would be scattered across a larger history of the war and consolidates it into one very readable, if smallish, book.

I rate this history 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Embattled Rebel.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

THE TIME of OUR LIVES: A CONVERSATION about AMERICA (audiobook) by Tom Brokaw



Published in 2011 by Random House Audio
Read by the author, Tom Brokaw
Duration: 7 hours, 8 minutes
Unabridged

I picked up this audiobook in the hopes that former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw would be offering some in-depth analysis on a wide range of issues. After all, the cover promises to look at "Who we are, where we've been and where we need to go now to recapture the American Dream."

Instead, we get a lot of amiable reminiscing about Brokaw's family, his early career, and a bit of of a slanted history lesson with every chapter with some half-hearted advice that is based on discussion with industry leaders.


That is the essence of the problem Brokaw is a top-level journalist. He is a journalist emeritus - respected and admired for what he used to do but he is not doing the gritty stuff any more. He hobnobs and socializes with elites. If he wants to talk about some new trend in computers he can literally call Bill Gates and get his take.

But, here's the problem. Gates is no longer street-level. He's up in the clouds and he doesn't see everything any more. To make a comparison to a war situation, Brokaw is talking to the officers in their cushy offices far from the front and not talking to the people in the trenches. His sources are important people but they no longer know the realities of the daily grind. Brokaw is quoting CEOs about what is going on and not talking to the people doing the actual work.

It was most glaringly obvious in his discussions about education. He comes back to the topic time after time and his all sorts of "insights" that tell me he is talking to school corporation superintendents and not to actual classroom teachers (like me - this is my 27th year in the classroom).

For example, he refers to "charter schools" as a help to public schools. Almost no public school teacher or leader sees them that way. They see schools that are allowed to pick and choose who can attend, avoid rules that hamstring public schools (couldn't we help the public schools by removing those rules for everybody?) and hire unlicensed staff who get to become teachers with just a couple of weeks of training. A head of a school system might say that he welcomes the competition, but that's just a politician talking.

At one point Brokaw muses that maybe public schools would be better if they could use the methods that the Marines use in basic training to teach students. Sure, Tom, that would be great. Only take in the ones that make the cut (there are no physically disabled or mentally disabled Marines) and throw out anyone that won't get with the program. Tom - those are the methods that the most egregious charter schools use.


My least favorite quote from the book - I literally pulled over to write this one down because I was listening while driving: "Business is the consumer of the product that schools produce and academics have lost the sense of that." No, Tom. students are the consumer of the product that schools produce. Students are educated. Schools serve the students. Students are not boxed up and shipped out to corporations like so many gears. Students choose their own lives and a well-rounded education helps that process.

Brokaw's breathless announcement to teachers that students can use their cell phones to cheat on tests was too much for me. He was in the midst of a mini-rant about the uses of technology in the classroom and sounded like he just discovered something that we've all been missing. I laughed out loud and the gall of a man to tell professional educators something that we have been fighting on a daily basis for more than 5 years by the time this book was written. It's like he's the only one that figured this out.

But, what is really the most unforgivable thing about this book is that it has no zip. It is the audio version of an oatmeal breakfast with a few interesting stories sprinkled in. Hearing Tom Brokaw talk about bad traffic in Los Angeles and how his old house has been bought and re-modeled is not interesting listening. I was expecting something with some real analysis and some novel suggestions. What we ended up with is sweet family stories, advice to eat at home more instead of at a restaurant so you can save your money for a rainy day and the perspectives of other people who are not longer in the day-to-day grind of trying to "recapture the American Dream."

I rate this audiobook 2 stars out of 5. I was so glad to be done with it.

The Time of Our Lives can be found on Amazon.com at this link.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

SPECIAL AGENT CHRISTIE LOVELACE: VILLAGE of IDIOTS by Gene Penny



Published by Eugene Penny in May of 2016.
Duration: 5 hours, 58 minutes.
Unabridged.
Read by Rebecca Roberts.

This audiobook features FBI Special Agent Christie Lovelace, a plucky, sarcastic, foul-mouthed who investigates offbeat cases. Think X-Files, but with a much more gross, much more weird take.

Lovelace has been sent to Danbury, Texas to investigate a charge of corruption. It seems that the whole town is being controlled by one man and a person may have died.

But, once Lovelace arrives, after a frustrating series of humorous personal disasters, she discovers that the body has disappeared from the morgue. When she goes to the jail to follow a lead the stench of feces is overpowering...


Plus, people keep hinting about the dead coming back to life.

It's going to be a strange Monday.

My thoughts:

For me, this book was a little too gross and a little too interested in being weird for the sake of weirdness for my taste. Too many oddball characters in one place. I like Christie Lovelace and I liked the general concept. But, I felt like the story just got lost in its own shenanigans. 


The story was read by Rebecca Roberts. She did a good job with a wide variety of voices. She made a lot of very different characterizations and showed a lot of range.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Special Agent Christie Lovelace: Village of Idiots.

Note: I received a free copy of this audiobook in exchange for an honest review.