"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!

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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

WORLD'S TALLEST WOMAN: THE GIANTESS of SHELBYVILLE HIGH by Rita Rose



Published in 2008 by Hawthorne Publishing.

Indiana native Sandy Allen (1955-2008) was the tallest woman in the world at 7 feet 7 inches tall. This book is an entertaining, but fictionalized, version of her years at Shelbyville High School in Shelbyville, Indiana.

Rita Rose wrote the book with the full knowledge of Sandy Allen after having interviewed her towards the end of her life.



Written as a coming of age YA book, the book is centered around Roseann, a high school student who has moved from the north side of Indianapolis to Shelbyville, a small town of less than 20,000 a little more than a half hour's drive from Indianapolis. Roseann is working hard to fit in and eventually finds a spot on the high school newspaper.

She couldn't help but notice Sandy Allen, easily the tallest person she has ever seen at more than 7 feet tall. She is mercilessly teased by a group of boys no matter where she goes and is clearly experiencing some physical issues, despite the fact that she is on the high school basketball team.

Roseann decides to interview Sandy in an attempt to ease the teasing by letting people know more about her. In the process, they become friends and Roseann learns a lot more about Sandy's horribly difficult home life (which she keeps out of the paper, of course).

This was an interesting and quite compelling read. Sandy Allen was a local celebrity at the end of her life, having moved back to Indiana after having made a living making appearances as a Guinness World Record holder so I found this look into her early life interesting. It makes you appreciate her kind nature (everyone that met her always said that she was very nice).

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: WORLD'S TALLEST WOMAN: THE GIANTESS of SHELBYVILLE HIGH by Rita Rose.



Tuesday, August 28, 2018

LORD, SAVE US from YOUR FOLLOWERS: WHY IS the GOSPEL of LOVE DIVIDING AMERICA? by Dan Merchant



Published in 2008 by Thomas Nelson.

Dan Merchant went on a cross-country trip in an effort to discuss why it is that so many people have a negative view of Christians and Christianity. He often dons a set of coveralls covered in religious-themed bumper stickers (both for and against religion) and then engages random people on the street in a short conversation about religion. His goal is to find out why a religion that is supposed to be based on a message of love is dividing people? Isn't that oxymoronic?

Merchant's strength is his congenial nature. He takes criticism very well - he actually listens to the answers he gets to his questions and takes them to heart. The answers are pretty predictable. If Christians came even halfway close to their ideals, it would be a different story. But, the experience of too many people, especially in certain communities, is that Christians do nothing but condemn and maybe even rejoice at their misfortunes as punishments from God. 

Early on in the book (page 14), Merchant makes this point: "To me, the divisions of America, this separateness, isn't getting any of us anywhere. And both sides are making the same mistake: they think the culture war is a winnable war. Some think, eventually, one side will win out over the other."

Merchant talks a lot about being a "red letter" Bible Christian, meaning that he focuses on what Jesus said more than anything else (for those not in the know, many editions of the Bible highlight the spoken words of Jesus in red). I have to say, the older I get, the more I become a "red letter" Bible Christian. He emphasizes this point on page 26 by supposing that Jesus would say that the 10 Commandments are gifts to make the journey of life easier, but the new commandment is to show your love for God by loving His people. Who are His people? Everyone - even the ones you don't like. Especially the ones you don't like.

Merchant interviews several people for this book, including Al Franken (before he became a Senator, let alone before he had to stop being a Senator), Michael Reagan, Rick Santorum and even a few people you've never heard of, like Sister Mary Timothy, a transvestite who dresses like a nun in kabuki-style makeup. Some of those interviews are better than others, some are a bit dated. But, they do illustrate the "culture wars".

I was struck by the two of the last chapters in the book: "The Confessional Booth" and "Grace in Action". The Confessional Booth features an idea from the book Blue like Jazz, sort of a counterculture religious book. Merchant set up a a confessional booth at a Gay Pride celebration - not to hear the sins of the people at the celebration, but to confess the sins of both Christianity and Dan Merchant. Let's face it, if you actually want to talk to the other side of the culture war, you have to come in humility or you will not be heard. This was very powerful. It made tears come to my eyes. Very powerful.

Grace in Action featured stories of people doing simple, human things for "the least of these" that come off as amazing things because we simply don't do the thing that Merchant referred to way back towards the beginning of the book - show our love of God by loving His people.

This book is powerful and is really on inhibited by the fact that it is dated. I would love to see it re-worked with new interviews and takes on more current cultural trends. I'm going to keep it in my library.

Note: this book was written to be a companion piece for a documentary that I have not seen.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. Very powerful at times, but also dated. Also, there are some slow parts.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: LORD, SAVE US from YOUR FOLLOWERS: WHY IS the GOSPEL of LOVE DIVIDING AMERICA? by Dan Merchant.

Monday, August 20, 2018

HERE IS WHERE: DISCOVERING AMERICA'S FORGOTTEN HISTORY (audiobook) by Andrew Carroll



Published by Random House Audio in 2013.
Read by the author, Andrew Carroll.
Duration: 14 hours, 2 minutes.
Unabridged

Why are some things remembered in our shared historical memory and others are not? Why do we commemorate some things but others are only remembered by a few hard-core local historians?

Andrew Carroll compiled a list of historical locations that he felt have been overlooked. Inspired by the little known-but-true story of how Abraham Lincoln's son was saved from being pushed off of New Jersey train platform by John Wilkes Booth's brother one year before Lincoln's assassination, Carroll decided to hit the road and look at similar locations all over the United States. 


Among the locations he found were the home of a house slave that ran away from President George Washington. Even though she ended up dying in poverty in a rough cabin, she was still an inspiration. When asked if she would have been better off living in the relative comfort of working in the Mount Vernon plantation home, she said she would prefer to be poor and free. 

Carroll also found the birthplace of the man who created a great deal of the vaccinations that the world uses today and had a hand in literally saving millions of lives. And, on the other side of that coin, he tracked down the probable origins of the "Spanish Influenza" (in the American West, not in Spain).

How about the location of the earliest DNA samples in North America that re-wrote the history books? The site of a million graves on a New York City's Hart Island that serves as a giant Potter's Field? The place where the first two-stage rockets were built and fired? Or the place where the modern elevator was built? Carroll talks about all of these and even more.

Some of the locations aren't particularly historical in my mind, but this was an interesting, rambling look at obscure history that often tied in to the some of the biggest historical events of the last two hundred years. Carroll looks into why some of them are forgotten. Many times it is because they are embarrassing, such as Washington's runaway slave or the hospital in California that sterilized more people than any other hospital in the country as part of a pre-World War II eugenics movement. Other times there is no particular reason why they are forgotten - they just get lost in the shuffle of history.

Carroll ends the book with a roundabout reminder that our own lives are filled with personal histories of our friends, neighbors and relatives that we should not let get lost like those other stories have.

I listened to this book as an audiobook. It was read by the author, a fact that I didn't know until I began writing this review. I think that says all you need to know about his performance - he was so solid that I had no idea that a professional reader was not reading the book.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. This book can be found on Amazon.com here: HERE IS WHERE: DISCOVERING AMERICA'S FORGOTTEN HISTORY by Andrew Carroll.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

SQUEEZED: WHY OUR FAMILIES CAN'T AFFORD AMERICA (audiobook) by Alissa Quart



Published by HarperAudio in June of 2018.
Read by Carly Robins.
Duration: 8 hours, 52 minutes.

Unabridged.

The premise of this book is that middle class Americans are feeling "squeezed" economically because...they are.

I heard an interview with this author on NPR and I was intrigued so I decided to check out her book.

Quart lists several factors, some more plausible than others. She is very big on the concept that the "caring careers" are under-paid due to latent sexism, since the majority of the people in those careers are female. These careers include nurses, daycare personnel and teachers.

She correctly notes that raising children is expensive and daycare is a big part of that. A great deal of the book is spent on this topic, including alternative arrangements to traditional daycare, experiments in state-funded pre-school and the struggles of single parents having to work and pay for daycare. 


The author, Alissa Quart
She calls into question the idea that everyone should attend college to move up in the world. In some states, the majority of people who graduate from law school never actually practice law - because there are simply too many graduates. Some people try to re-boot their professional lives by getting re-trained only to find out that the re-training was expensive and practically worthless. 

The book begins with a look at several adjunct professors who eke out a living teaching at several colleges with class-by-class contracts. These are non-tenure track jobs and there is no way an adjunct lecturer could make a decent living, even while teaching a full load of classes. The days when one could get their PhD and get a decent job teaching at a university are mostly gone - in some schools a majority of the classes are taught by adjuncts with their class-by-class contracts.

In the middle, she looks at public education, specifically New York City's system. This is a long, convoluted mess of a section, much like New York's schools. The reason I say that it is a mess is that New York's system in unlike any other system in the country so almost nothing that she notes about their system corresponds to the schools systems the vast majority of Americans experience. More about this down below.

She also briefly mentions, almost as an aside, the decline of unions. She never mentions the role of immigration in lowering overall salaries. It makes basic economic sense - the larger the supply of workers, the less employers have to pay because there are more applicants for every job.


The last portion of the book looks at the role of technology in "squeezing" the middle class. She quotes a report from Ball State University that says that most job losses have not come from moving facilities to foreign countries, but instead have come from technology taking over jobs. Hospitals are looking at robots to deliver medicine and other items. There is a very real possibility that long haul trucks will be automated in the future as well. Just yesterday, I was in a McDonald's that installed a series of touch screen kiosks to replace their cashiers (I didn't use them, though. I didn't even notice them until after I already was eating at my table).

Her final answer is a Universal Basic Income (UBI). This is the idea that the government makes sure every individual and every family has at least so much money. Here's a link to explain it better: UBI. I'm not going to try to explain it in more detail because I don't think it is even a realistic proposal.

There may well be a great book out there about the middle class being "squeezed", but I think this one falls short. She misses too many things, such as our collective failure to promote the trades in schools. Electricians, plumbers and auto mechanics make pretty good money. Maybe some of the re-training money she discussed in the book would have been better spent learning how to install HVAC systems. You might say, "What if he really wants to study French poetry because he wants to do what he loves?" Quart thoroughly trashes that concept as a tool used by management to stop people from complaining if their pay isn't high enough.

As I noted before, way too much of this book is rooted in the New York City experience - their schools, their rents, their pre-school program and more. While I freely admit, NYC is America's biggest and most important city, it is not remotely close to the experience of most Americans. There are roughly 9 million New Yorkers and roughly 325 million Americans. You do the math.

The audiobook was read by Carly Robins. She did a great job of reading the book, including the nice touch of throwing in a little bit of accent during a Dolly Parton quote.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: SQUEEZED: WHY OUR FAMILIES CAN'T AFFORD AMERICA by Alissa Quart.

DRIVING MISS NORMA: ONE FAMILY'S JOURNEY SAYING "YES" to LIVING (audiobook) by Tim Bauerschmidt and Ramie Liddle



Published by HarperAudio in 2017
Read by Christopher Grove and Nan McNamara
Duration: 7 hours, 30 minutes
Unabridged.

Norma and Leo were together for 67 years, happily married in Michigan. Sure, they were slowing down, but they were still living on their own and doing it well. Then, Leo go very sick and ended up dying two weeks later in a hospice. While Leo was dying, Norma discovered that she had a cancerous mass on her uterus. At 90 years old, this surgery would be very tough on Norma. At best, there would be a long, tough recovery period after surgery. At worst, the surgery could have fatal complications, all the more likely due to Norma's age.

Norma's son and daughter-in-law had been living the RV lifestyle for several years and, after a long discussion with Norma's doctors, Norma decided to join them rather than seek medical treatment. The doctors predicted that probably would live less than a year without the surgery. She decided to forego the treatment and use her remaining months to see the world.

So, they traded in the old RV camper and got a new one to better accommodate Norma. Then, they hit the road and headed west, seeing great sights, like Yellowstone, and cheesy ones, like the Corn Palace. Norma basically hadn't traveled since World War II so she was interested in seeing any and all of the United States.

Norma's daughter-in-law, Ramie Liddle, had a habit of keeping a travel blog to share her adventures with her friends. She kept up the habit on this trip, but thanks to the power of Facebook (and its share feature), soon she had thousands of followers and the regular media started to note this story of the little old lady that decided to embrace what she had left of life rather than fight a messy fight to add a few more painful months. Soon enough, Norma became a minor celebrity and found herself invited to suites at the Atlanta Falcons game, riding in parades and being invited to events all over the country and the world. 

Sadly, Norma's health did decline as she was heading out west for the second time. She lived for more than a year before she declined, which was longer than her doctors had predicted. She passed away in Washington state, only wanting to be remembered as "a nice person".

In many ways, this is an inspiring book. I was struck by the fact that she is such a standout for simply choosing to enjoy what was rest of her already long life.

The book was written by Norma's son and daughter-in-law. Rather than working together on the text, they took turns telling their story. The audiobook follows this format with Christopher Grove reading Tim Bauerschmidt's text and Nan McNamara reading for Ramie Liddle. That was a nice touch.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: DRIVING MISS NORMA: ONE FAMILY'S JOURNEY SAYING "YES" to LIVING by Tim Bauerschmidt and Ramie Liddle.



Saturday, August 18, 2018

WHY WE DON'T SUCK: AND HOW ALL of US NEED to STOP BEING SUCH PARTISAN LITTLE BITCHES (audiobook) by Denis Leary



Published by Random House Audio in November of 2017.
Read by the author, Denis Leary.
Duration: 6 hours, 36 minutes.
Unabridged.

This sequel to his 2008 book, Why We Suck: A Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid, is an up and down work and not quite as good as his earlier effort.

Why We Don't Suck starts out very strong, with Denis Leary lashing out at both of the main candidates in the 2016 Presidential Election and their uncritical supporters. The book slows down as Leary tells the story of 11 Americans that inspire him. 


After that, the book nearly grinds to a halt as Leary sort of meanders about being critical of a number of things. He settles on religion for a while, gets into a convoluted discussion of cursing and also launches into an extended bit that starts as a riff off of President Trump's featuring Twitter feeds but devolves into "What if...?" Twitter feeds of past Presidents and, sadly, expands to include other world leaders, including Idi Amin. Really? An Idi Amin joke in 2017? He's only been out of power since 1979!

Happily, the book picks up towards the end. Leary writes about his own struggles meeting celebrities that are bigger than him, such as Paul McCartney and David Bowie. But, his funniest stories involve Keith Richards, simply because of their surreal nature. He also has several funny stories of being mistaken for other celebrities, including Willem Defoe, Kevin Bacon, Jon Bon Jovi and, oddly enough, Ellen DeGeneres.

What does any of the previous two paragraphs have to do with why America doesn't suck? I don't know - and, really, that's the problem with the book. It suffers from serious thesis drift until the end of the book when Leary expresses a serious amount of admiration for Millennials.

In short, due to the up and down nature of the book, I rate it 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Why We Don't Suck: And How ALl of Us Need to Stop Being Such Partisan Little Bitches by Denis Leary

Saturday, August 11, 2018

THE VICTORS: EISENHOWER and HIS BOYS: THE MEN of WORLD WAR II (abridged audiobook) by Stephen E. Ambrose



Originally published by Simon and Schuster Audio in 1998.
Read by Cotter Smith.
Duration: 4 hours, 20 minutes.
Abridged.


General Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower (1890-1969)
I don't know how many books historian Stephen E. Ambrose (1936-2002) wrote about the D-Day Invasion, but they all a little different and they are all quite enjoyable to read. Ambrose is perhaps most famous for writing the history that inspired HBO's excellent Band of Brothers, which was also based on the same theme.

Ambrose had a gift for writing histories that were informative, entertaining and, at times, quite moving and this one was no exception. The focus was on the D-Day invasion, the immediate aftermath, the Battle of the Bulge and the final push into Germany. There is no discussion of how the war started and little of how it ended, but almost everyone who would read this book knows all of that anyway.

The audiobook was read by Cotter Smith who did a nice job.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: THE VICTORS: EISENHOWER and HIS BOYS: THE MEN of WORLD WAR II (abridged).

FREAK the MIGHTY by Rodman Philbrick



Originally Published in 1993.

A lonely gentle giant named Max and his tiny Kevin, nicknamed "Freak", become neighbors and eventually the best of friends in this "coming of age" story.

Max lives in the basement of his grandparents' house. His grandparents are raising him because his father, Killer Kane, killed his mother. Other kids taunt Max because of this. Max just goes through the motions at school.

One day, Max meets Kevin (Freak). Kevin has Morquio Syndrome which has caused him to be very small. But, Kevin is also very bright and very willing to engage the world. Max, despite his large size, would prefer to be ignored by everyone. Kevin begins taking Max on so-called quests - basically they are exploring the neighborhood but Kevin makes them sound so much more interesting once he describes these trips in his own imaginative style.

Max carries Freak on his shoulders as they travel, an arrangement that works out well for both of them. Freak can travel more freely on Max's shoulders and Max discovers that he is not nearly as dimwitted as he thought he was - you can't be slow in the head and keep up with Freak. Freak says that the two of them, when combined, are a new thing called "Freak the Mighty".

There are two issues these young friends have to deal with, however - Freak's failing health and the legacy of Killer Kane in Max's life...

My daughter read this book in her sixth grade class (the whole class read it together) so I decided to read it as well. It's a good story, even if it is a little cliche, but it still gets you in the end ("right in the feels" as a former high school student of mine would say). There is a sequel, but I doubt I'll read it - I liked the way things were left at the end of this story.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick.