"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, December 30, 2017

CALAMITIES and CATASTROPHES: THE TEN ABSOLUTELY WORST YEARS in HISTORY by Derek Wilson



Published in 2015 by Marble Arch Press

Going into this book, I knew that I would have a bone to pick with almost every one of the author's choices. After all, there are 5,000 years of recorded history and every last one of them is filled with tragedy. How can you pick and choose the actual worst 10 years?

Wilson, a British historian, focuses in this book on a Western point of view and the earliest date is 541 A.D. So, if you are making a pitch for the 10 worst years in the West in the last 1500 years, his choices are pretty solid.

The years he picks are:

541-542: The first outbreak of the Bubonic Plague weakens the nascent Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire, killing millions.


1241-1242: The Mongols invade Eastern Europe.

1572: The Spanish Inquisition and everything that came with it.

1631-1632: The worst year of the Thirty Years War.

1709: The Great Freeze

1848: The "Year of Revolutions" in Europe

1865-1866: The assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the failure of the United States to follow through properly with Reconstruction after the Civil War. Also, the rise of terror groups like the KKK.

1942-1943: He almost exclusively focuses on the Russian front - the bloodbaths around Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad.



Robert Kennedy (1925-1968)
1968: The Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, protests around the world.

1994: The Rwandan genocide. There is a lot of focus on how and why the Western powers just watched it happen.

Sometimes, Wilson has a nice turn of phrase in his writing. I especially liked this line from page 151: "Over the centuries, whatever game Europe's nations played, the weakest hand always seemed to be dealt to Poland."

But, there were lots of typos, a weird use of texting-style writing on page 122 and several errors with commas that made me have to re-read passages just to figure out if what Wilson had written was what he really meant to say. Other times, there are factual errors (that may have been editing errors - as I just noted, editing was a real issue in this book). The most egregious error was actually a double error in the same paragraph on page 227. Wilson notes:

 "By the end of 1967 the war had cost the lives of almost 16,000 combat troops and was gobbling up more than $2-3 million per month. What made matters worse was that America's youth had no way of avoiding military service because conscription (the 'draft') still existed."

First: a quick internet search says the Department of Defense spend $168 billion between 1965 and 1972 on military operations in Vietnam. I am sure he meant to say $2-3 billion, not million.

Secondly, there were ways to avoid the draft. Let's look at three recent American presidents. Bill Clinton chose the most popular way to avoid the draft - he went to college. It was no guarantee, but it was a good bet. Many universities grew during the Vietnam War due to increased demand. George W. Bush joined the Air National Guard. Also, it was no guarantee not be sent to Vietnam, but it was not likely. Donald Trump claimed disability (bone spurs in his feet).

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5. The limited focus on the West while claiming to be about all of history was a disappointment. The atrocious editing was also a concern.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: CALAMITIES and CATASTROPHES: THE TEN ABSOLUTELY WORST YEARS in HISTORY by Derek Wilson.

FAMOUS LATIN-AMERICAN LIBERATORS by Bernadine Bailey



Published in 1960 by Dodd, Mead and Company 
Part of the "Famous Biographies for Young People" series

In the 1950s and 1960s, it was common for the children's section of the library to have scads of biographies like this one. Most of them were about 100 pages of a simple biography of a single person, featuring a lot about that person's childhood. They must have been effective because I remember enthusiastically plowing through them and learning about Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln and other historical figures. Now, I am a history teacher.

This series is a variation on that theme. Rather than a single biography, it features approximately 12 page biographies (they vary in length) starting with a line drawing. All of the biographies are very readable, if not particularly compelling. But, in the days before the internet, books like this were gold if you were a young scholar assigned a write a report about a historical figure.

Other books in this extensive series include: Famous American Poets, Famous Pioneers for Young People, Famous Engineers and Famous Modern American Women Writers.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: FAMOUS LATIN-AMERICAN LIBERATORS by Bernadine Bailey.

Friday, December 29, 2017

BRAVE COMPANIONS: PORTRAITS in HISTORY (audiobook) by David MCCullough



Originally published in hardback book form in 1991.
Published by Simon and Schuster Audio.
Read by the author, David McCullough
Duration: 11 hours, 19 minutes
Unabridged

David McCullough
Brave Companions: Portraits in History is a collection of previously published articles and speeches. It's a smattering of this and that - sometimes it's about art, sometimes about scientists, sometimes about politicians and sometimes it's just some musings from McCullough about history. It doesn't matter, almost all of it is interesting and well-told. McCullough understands the value of telling history as a story - as always he is very approachable.

My favorite entry was the story of the railroad that preceded the Panama Canal. It was an amazing story of the power of human will against nature.

McCullough reads this audiobook, which is great because McCullough has a fantastic speaking voice and is well known for his voice work. I envy both his writing ability and his talents as a speaker.

My favorite quote from the book is from President Harry S. Truman: "The only new thing in the world is the history you don't know."


I rate this collection 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Brave Companions: Portraits in History by David McCullough

A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE BOOK that INSPIRED the HILARIOUS CLASSIC FILM (audiobook) by Jean Shepherd



Published by Listening Library in 2004.
Read by Dick Cavett
Duration: 3 hours, 36 minutes.
Unabridged

Jean Shepherd (1921-1999)
A lot of people aren't aware that the plot for the classic Christmas movie A Christmas Story was not written as a coherent novel but was actually a collection of short stories that the author had written about his childhood in northwestern Indiana during the Great Depression over the years that were then skillfully edited into a movie.

These stories don't follow the plot of the movie exactly, but all of the high points are here, including the infamous lamp, the bully, the BB gun, the visit to Santa and the Bumpus hounds. 


Interestingly, this audiobook was not read by Jean Shepherd, who was a professional radio personality and told most of these stories over the air (he is also the narrator in the movie). Instead, it is read by television host Dick Cavett. At first, I was disappointed but Cavett did a great job. This audiobook was a lot of fun.

5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE BOOK that INSPIRED the HILARIOUS CLASSIC FILM (audiobook) by Jean Shepherd.

FROM a BUICK 8 (audiobook) by Stephen King



Published by Simon and Schuster Audio in 2002
Read by James Rebhorn, Bruce Davison, Becky Ann Baker, Peter Gerety, Fred Sanders, Stephen Tobolowsky
Duration: 13 hours, 21 minutes
Unabridged

Troop D is the name for the troopers in a Pennsylvania State Police post in western Pennsylvania. They are a close-knit bunch, as you would expect. But, it's not just because of their shared struggles as police officers - they share a secret and it's hidden in a shed behind their post station.

In that shed is a 1953 Buick Roadmaster - but it's not any kind of Buick that was ever built in Detroit. It was left behind at a gas station when its driver stepped out of the car, told the attendant that the oil level was fine, headed towards the bathroom and then literally disappeared.

The car is weird. In fact, it really isn't a car. It can't actually drive. It's almost like someone who didn't understand the mechanics behind a car tried to build one. But, that's not the problem - the problem is that it pulses - it pulses deep sounds that people hear on a subconscious level and it calls them...

From a Buick 8 is, mostly, a series of stories told to the son of a deceased state trooper about his dad's investigations into the car. In that sense, it is a lot of sitting around on the "smoker's bench" behind the station looking at the shed across the parking lot and talking. The stories are strange and rather repetitive, but King's strength in developing believable characters shines throughout.

The audio version was read by 6 different voice actors, each taking a turn (or several turns) at telling stories about the car. They do a great job, as they should since each of them are actors that you recognize from television and movies, even if you don't actually know their names. I really liked that fact that the voice of the original driver of the car sounded exactly like that of Flagg from the audio version of The Eyes of the Dragon.

However, the book suffered from way too much mood-setting and philosophizing and not enough actual action. It isn't until the listener is more than 10 hours into the book that the story actually gets some real "current day" action. I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: From a Buick 8 by Stephen King

Thursday, December 28, 2017

DAD IS FAT (audiobook) by Jim Gaffigan



Published in 2013 by Random House Audio
Read by the author, Jim Gaffigan
Duration: 5 hours, 26 minutes
Unabridged

Despite the title, stand up comic Jim Gaffigan's first book is not about weight or food. No, Dad Is Fat is about being a parent and raising 5 little kids in a small New York City apartment.

Jim Gaffigan
If you are not a parent, there is probably not much about this book that would appeal to you. This is a point that Gaffigan makes at the beginning of the book in a story early on about when he and his wife traveled with parents of a new baby. True, those parents were obsessive to the extreme, but just about any parent could look at that extreme and think to themselves, "Yeah. That's nutty...but it's not crazy nutty.

For me, the best part was when Jim talked about his own parents and growing up in northern Indiana. His impersonation of his father and his constant throat clearing (something that Jim never points out but always does) was funny and ending up being thoughtful and poignant.

This is not nearly as good a book as his second book, Food: A Love Story. But, it wasn't bad. I would give it 3.5 stars. 


This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

FIRE in the WATER by James Alexander Thom



Published in 2015 by Blue River Press

Not many people know about the horrible story of the Sultana, a paddlewheel steamboat that sank into the Mississippi River in April of 1865. It is the worst maritime disaster in American history but was largely overshadowed by the events surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and his dramatic funeral train tour from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois. The Sultana was grossly overcrowded. It was designed to carry 376 passengers, but it was carrying 2,155 passengers when three of its boilers exploded in the early morning hours of April 27, 1865.  Most of its passengers were survivors of the infamous Andersonville prisoner of war camp that were being shipped home. 

This book is technically a sequel to Saint Patrick's Battalion. It continues the story of a boy who traveled with an American army during the Mexican War. In Fire in the Water, that boy has grown up and become a famous war correspondent. He is traveling to Springfield with his newlywed wife to cover Lincoln's funeral. Along the way, he interviews as many of the former prisoners of war to work on a story about Andersonville.

This book starts out too slowly, but the last 50 pages or so are full of the kind of magic that James Alexander Thom can bring to historical fiction. 

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Fire in the Water by James Alexander Thom.

JOSEPH ANTON: A MEMOIR (audiobook) by Salman Rushdie



Published in 2012 by Random House Audio
Duration: 26 hours, 59 minutes
Read by Sam Dastor
Unabridged

For most people, Salman Rushdie is, and will always be, that author that the Iranians tried to have killed all of those years ago. I freely admit that this is an accurate description of me. Although I am an avid reader, this is the first Salman Rushdie book that I have even contemplated reading. 
Salman Rushdie. Photo by Andrew Lih.

Rushdie narrates this autobiography in the third person, which is a little weird and gave me the impression that he is trying to distance himself a bit from his own story.

The biggest chunk of Joseph Anton tells about how Rushdie dealt with the fatwa, or ruling against him and his book The Satanic Verses by the leader of the Iranian Revolution himself, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini ruled that the author, the publishers and the editors of the book should die for blasphemy and that anyone who died in an attempt to kill them would be considered a martyr. This caused Rushdie to go into hiding and be officially under police protection provided by the British government. Joseph Anton became his code name.

Rushdie the "icon" - the man who came to symbolize the intolerance of government-sponsored religion and offered a real-life preview to the dangers of radical Islam - and Rushdie the actual man are quite different people. I admire iconic Rushdie, but everyday life Rushdie is hard to like sometimes. Rushdie is often brutally honest about his friends and colleagues and their shortcomings - as he saw them. I can only imagine that many of his friends read this book and were horrified at how they were portrayed.

The book ends with a moving account of the 9/11 attacks on New York City, his adopted hometown. It makes a elegant bookend to a book that basically is about Islamic terror aimed at one person that morphs into terror aimed at an entire city.

The reader, Sam Dastor, was excellent. Interestingly, he is also the reader of the audiobook version of The Satanic Verses.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. Way too long and too many uncomfortable comments about the author's supposed friends.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

WHAT IF? SERIOUS SCIENTIFIC ANSWERS to ABSURD HYPOTHETICAL QUESTIONS (audiobook) by Randall Munroe



Published by Blackstone Audio in 2014
Read by Wil Wheaton
Duration: 6 hours, 36 minutes
Unabridged

Randall Munroe is the illustrator of the web-based comic strip xkcd. On his website, he has a place where people can leave "What if..." science-based questions and he tries to answer them. Why would they leave science questions on a comic strip website? Well, it turns out that Munroe is also a physicist - with a sense of humor.


The author, Randall Munroe
Munroe has collected the best questions and put them into a book. Questions include things like what would happen if the earth kept growing and when would you notice a change in gravity? What would happen if you fired in an arrow in a zero-gravity environment? How does all of the computing power of all of humanity stack up against all of the actual computers? What would happen if you opened up a giant drain in the lowest part of the ocean and drained it all away? And more.

Many of the questions are interesting and some of the explanations are really interesting. But, many of the explanations go on too long for my tastes. The author takes the answer and extends it on too long - many times he goes beyond the scope of the question and expands it to the point where the results end up in the destruction of the earth and/or the death of all of humanity. It was cute at first but after a while I began to roll my eyes when I saw it coming. There were times when I got tired of the length of the answer and just forwarded on to the next question.

Wil Wheaton read the audiobook version and did a stellar job like he usually does. He captured the attitude of the author perfectly.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5 - too many answers that were just too detailed and too long.


This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: WHAT IF? SERIOUS SCIENTIFIC ANSWERS to ABSURD HYPOTHETICAL QUESTIONS.