"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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Monday, December 31, 2018

THE HERITAGE: BLACK ATHLETES, a DIVIDED AMERICA and the POLITICS of PATRIOTISM (audiobook) by Howard Bryant



Published by Beacon Press in May of 2018.
Read by Ron Butler.
Duration: 11 hours, 17 minutes.

Unabridged.

Howard Bryant's The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America and the Politics of Patriotism takes a hard look at athletes, particularly African-American athletes, using their position to make commentary of social issues. Bryant brings a wealth of experience as a sports writer for ESPN.com, ESPN the Magazine and NPR. 


Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Olympics 
Bryant does not come at this topic as a person critical of athletes taking political stances. Rather, he is very much in favor of it since athletes have a very large soapbox that they can climb upon and shout from, if they chose to do so. Some have. Bryant speaks in great detail about Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and especially Muhammad Ali.

Bryant starts, oddly in my mind, with someone who was an athlete (played 15 games in the NFL in the 1920's for teams that no longer exist) but is almost entirely remembered for his singing and acting - Paul Robeson. Robeson was very outspoken (he spoke out so often that he was blacklisted by Hollywood and was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee), which fits the model of person that this book profiles, but he hardly fits the model of a professional athlete that the book is focusing on.

Nonetheless, this is an interesting and thought-provoking book. Bryant's thesis is that the norm has been for Black athletes to stand up for other African Americans, either symbolically like early boxers who literally fought against white men, or by speaking up. This is what Bryant calls "The Heritage".



Colin Kaepernick
For about 25 years, more or less, "The Heritage" went away - from roughly the 1970's through the early 2000's. Bryant insists that it starts with O.J. Simpson and follows right through Michael Jordan. The model is "go along and get rich". Keep the controversies quiet and make as much money as possible. I am sure it is more complicated than that. For example, the large legislative pieces were already passed by the time Simpson made it to the NFL so there were few "official" government policies to protest any longer - at least not like before when there were a smorgasbord of racist policies to protest. But, he makes his point well - where was Michael Jordan, the most famous African American of all (except for Michael Jackson) when the Rodney King beating, for example, took place? Or when a host of other similar racial incidents happened? Nowhere.

This brings us up to Colin Kaepernick. This is, without a doubt, the strongest part of the book. Bryant takes us back through the trauma of 9/11 and reminds the readers that lived through it how shocking it was for all of us and how so many police officers and firefighters died in that attack. He reminds us how sporting events became a way for everyone to share in the loss and honor those that died on that day through flag ceremonies and special songs (Yankee Stadium performs "God Bless America" during the 7th Inning Stretch, for example).

But, soon enough, those special healing moments became part of the routine - a routine paid for by the U.S. military. Those honor guards that present the flag? Paid for by the military 
with taxpayer money (they pay the teams to let them do it). Those special, tearjerker reunion moments where a soldier comes home and his or her child is surprised on the field? Paid for by the military with taxpayer money. Those "shout outs" on the Jumbotron from soldiers in the field that are rooting for the home team? Paid for by the military with taxpayer money. Special "honor the troops" days where dozens of soldiers have seats together at the game and the camera focuses on them a few times and they all wave and say, "Hi Mom!"? Paid for by the military with taxpayer money (it costs more for more camera shots).

These combined to give sporting events a hyper-patriotic, even nationalistic feel that was not there before.

Personal note: I have attended every Indy 500 since 1986. The hyper-patriotic feel has been there throughout that time because the Indy 500 has always been scheduled on Memorial Day Weekend. They have incorporated a playing of Taps, a flyover (they were one of the first to feature a flyover) at least two patriotic songs and had a group of soldiers there representing all of the branches of the military every year. But, when I went to the August 2017 NASCAR Bristol "night" race, it was just as patriotic, including going so far as to feature a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Now, the NFL games are just as reverent as the Indy 500, so much so that the Indy 500 pre-race activities are not nearly as distinctive as they used to be.


So, when Colin Kaepernick decided to protest - in a much less divisive way than Ali (who talked non-stop and even went to jail when he refused to serve in Vietnam, but was publicly mourned when he died) he was excoriated.

Specific criticisms: Bryant strays from sports into popular entertainment from time to time - but not consistent enough to make it a comparison of how African American athletes, musicians and actors approached race-related controversies, with the exception of Paul Robeson (noted above) but enough to muddy the waters. He even brought up the movie Rocky as being racist because it features a white boxer as the protagonist and a black boxer as the bad guy. There are two problems with this: 1) Apollo Creed is not really a bad guy in any meaningful sense he is overconfident and symbolizes the establishment while Rocky symbolizes the "little guy", but he is remarkable for even giving Rocky the chance to fight in the first place and 2) Rocky was inspired by real-life the story of Chuck Wepner, a journeyman boxer who fought for the title Ali in 1975. When you hear Apollo Creed talk about himself he is clearly imitating Ali's style. Stallone saw the fight and then wrote the screenplay (he even settled a lawsuit with Wepner over using his story).

But, despite those criticisms, this was a remarkable book. Not always a fun book, but remarkable nonetheless and certainly an excellent ending to a solid year of reading.

The book was read by Ron Butler. His voice had a sense of authority and his pacing was excellent. He did a great job, even if he could not pronounce the name of the former baseball Commissioner Bud Selig's name correctly.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: THE HERITAGE: BLACK ATHLETES, a DIVIDED AMERICA and the POLITICS of PATRIOTISM by Howard Bryant.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

CARTHAGE MUST BE DESTROYED: THE RISE and FALL of an ANCIENT CIVILIZATION (audiobook) by Richard Miles



Published in 2011 by Gildan Media, LLC.
Read by Grover Gardner.
Duration: 14 hours, 9 minutes.
Unabridged.


Carthage has forever been relegated to the second fiddle of the Ancient Mediterranean world - the last power to offer the Roman Republic any sort of serious threat. The also-ran that could have been what Rome became...if only.

But, unlike Rome, no one seems to know much about Carthage except for that they were a sea power, they had battle elephants and Hannibal crossed the Alps leading them in a war against Rome.

Dr. Miles' effort is a bit hamstrung from the lack of original sources from Carthage itself - it was looted and destroyed at the end of the Third Punic War. But, he is able to reconstruct a history based on the writings of other countries, including such sources as the Bible, Greek and Roman histories, temples, changes in religious thought architecture and coinage. 


I do appreciate how difficult this must have been, but this book often gets bogged down in multiple long discussions of the coinage (what is on the heads side, what is on the tails side, where the coins were minted, what their exact metallic content was) and other topics that are meant to be supporting of the main story but not the main story itself. I mean, it was like clockwork - 45 minutes has passed, it's time for another extended coinage discussion.

To be frank, the problem with this book is that it simply had no flow. It was often sidetracked into areas that padded its length without adding any additional understanding. It read like an academic text - like one of those textbooks that you HAD to read in school, not like a book that made you want to keep on reading it. I learned a lot, but it was a chore. Too bad, because I picked this one up because I was truly intrigued by the topic.

Award winning audiobook reader Grover Gardner read this audiobook. I generally like Gardner's work, but I was not fond of his folksy style with the academic style of the text. It clearly wasn't a deal breaker since I finished all 14 hours of the book, but I don't think it was a great editorial choice by the producer(s) of the audiobook.

I rate this audiobook 2 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: CARTHAGE MUST BE DESTROYED: THE RISE and FALL of an ANCIENT CIVILIZATION by Richard Miles.

MAKE ME (Jack Reacher #20) (audiobook) by Lee Child



Published in 2015 by Random House Audio.
Read by Dick Hill.

Duration: 14 hours, 3 minutes.
Unabridged.

Photo by DWD
This is the 20th novel-length entry in the Jack Reacher series. But, readers of the series know that the books are not written in any particular order and there are a lot of short stories and novellas in the series as well. If you are trying to read everything in chronological order (from Reacher's point of view), this is entry number 37.

In the middle of the night, Jack Reacher gets off of a train bound for Chicago in an small town in Oklahoma named Mother's Rest. Yes, Mother's Rest. And, no, no one seems to know why it is named that.

He is immediately met by a former FBI agent turned private detective named Michelle Chang. She had initially confused him for an associate of hers that has gone missing in Mother's Rest. Reacher is intrigued by the situation (and the fact that no one in town seems to have any idea where the name came from) and starts to poke around a bit on his own. The reaction he gets convinces him that there is definitely something going on in this little town and it gets deeper and more dangerous than anyone had anticipated...

There are some things that are quite good about this book. For the first time, Jack Reacher actually has to admit to the reality that he is aging. There is a real detective story here and it is quite interesting. And, there is a look into the dark corners of the internet, which is also interesting. But, there are times when the story seems to be "paint by numbers", especially in the mandatory big fight scene. What would have been a 45 second fight is slowed down and over-analyzed to the point that it gets boring. It goes on and on and on. Also, the ending (no spoilers) was both stomach-turning and unsatisfying.

The audiobook was read by Dick Hill who was, in my mind, one of the best audiobook readers I have ever heard. I say "was" because he has since retired Hill has a special connection with this series and Lee Child's writing style, a topic he brings up in this interview about his retirement. Any problems in this book were not caused by the reader, but rather by the author who just needed to cut a 14 hour book down to a 11 or 12 hour book.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. It was good to keep up with Jack Reacher but this was not up to the usual standards of the series.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: MAKE ME (Jack Reacher #20) by Lee Child.

THE WANTED: AN ELVIS COLE and JOE PIKE NOVEL (Elvis Cole and Joe Pike #17) by Robert Crais



The Elvis Cole novels have been coming out for 30 years and this book would be a fine place for the series to end - not that I want it to end

Originally published in 2017 by G.P. Putnam's Sons

Robert Crais. Photo by Mark Coggins.
The Elvis Cole novels have been coming out for 30 years and this book would be a fine place for the series to end, especially considering the last 20 pages or so. Not that I want it to end - I will read them as long as Robert Crais wants to write them, but this book goes out of its way to include all of the hallmarks of an Elvis Cole novel, almost like it is going down a checklist one last time. Those items include:

1) Joe Pike is there and Joe Pike is scary, full of tech knowledge and lurks in dark places;

2) Elvis' car gets a special mention;
3) Elvis' cat is in several scenes and full of his special "charm";
4) Elvis shows off his culinary skills;
5) Elvis does his martial arts workout;
6) Elvis goes to his office (the early books always featured the office and its special decor);
7) Elvis and Joe reaffirm their bond multiple times;
8) Elvis and...Louisiana (no spoilers).

The book focuses on a case brought to Elvis by a worried mom. Her son is suddenly flush with cash and has a new group of friends that she barely knows but doesn't care for. She asks Elvis to find out what her son is doing. Elvis puts his considerable experience to use and figures it out soon enough. But...what he discovers is not good and he finds out that his client's son is in serious danger. There is a problem though - no can find him and Cole discovers a team of hit men are involved as well.

By far, the most interesting characters in the book are the two hit men (Harvey and Stemms). They function as a mirror image of Pike and Cole - they are just as smart, just as talented and their relationship is just as complicated.

This is a good book, just not a great one. I rate it 4 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: THE WANTED: AN ELVIS COLE and JOE PIKE NOVEL.


Friday, December 21, 2018

ANT-MAN: NATURAL ENEMY (audiobook) by Jason Starr



Published in 2015 by GraphicAudio
Performed by more than 25 voice actors.
Duration: Approximately 5 hours.

Scott Lang, better known to superhero fans as Ant-Man, has moved to New York City with his teenage daughter to take advantage of some job opportunities in the tech field. If you only know Ant-Man from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are a few differences in this book, but nothing that is insurmountable.

Scott Lang's criminal past comes back to haunt him when a former partner in crime breaks out of prison. People connected with his conviction are dying all across the country - and the FBI thinks that Scott Lang is next. Why? Because Lang testified against him in the plea deal that turned him away from a life of crime.

Lang knows that he doesn't really need police protection - after all, he is a superhero. But, he can't tell the FBI that.

Meanwhile, his daughter is having typical "mean girl" problems with a classmate when it occurs to her that she knows where her dad keeps his Ant-Man suit and she has the combination to the lock...

This book was a solid win for GraphicAudio. The last few superhero audiobooks of theirs that I have listened to have been too muddled and too hurried. This one had the pacing down just right and fell right in line with the "feel" of the Ant-Man movies (just set a few years later). It is funny, the characters are likable and the action is quite good. But, the final challenge for Ant-Man and its solution were a bit off for me.

I do enjoy GraphicAudio's old-fashioned radio play style. Each character is voiced by a separate actor with sound effects thrown in as well. The actor that played Tony Stark should get a special award for sounding exactly like Robert Downey, Jr.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: ANT-MAN: NATURAL ENEMY (audiobook) by Jason Starr.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

DARK SACRED NIGHT: A BALLARD and BOSCH NOVEL (audiobook) by Michael Connelly



Published by Little, Brown and Company in 2018.
Read by Christine Lakin and Titus Welliver
Duration: 10 hours, 39 minutes.

Unabridged.

Harry Bosch is now long-retired from LAPD, but he continues his work as an unpaid reserve officer with the tiny San Fernando police department (see this linked video to see the author explain the situation). He is investigating a cold case murder of the leader of a gang based in San Fernando. Bosch is determined to solve it, even if most people would just let it go because of who was killed. His motto is "Everyone Counts or Nobody Counts" - even gang leaders.

But, he is also working on another, more personal case. In a previous book, Bosch broke up a prescription drug ring and met an addict who fell into addiction because she was self-medicating to kill the pain of her daughter's murder.

Meanwhile, LAPD Detective Renee Ballard continues her work as an overnight detective - part of the "Late Show". She finds Harry Bosch doing some unauthorized digging through LAPD filing cabinets looking for anything that can help. The case intrigues Ballard and she and Bosch decide to join forces.

But, as often happens, there is more to this case than anyone imagined. Mistakes will be made and some lines will be crossed that shouldn't be crossed...

I very much like the fact that Michael Connelly is letting Harry Bosch age. There are good and bad things to that - Bosch has tons of experience and knowledge, but he is losing a step. Ballard is an interesting character (much better in this book than in her first one) and she and Bosch make an interesting pairing. They are very similar people, despite their obvious differences.

The audiobook is read by Christine Lakin and Titus Welliver. Welliver plays Bosch in the Amazon TV show based on the Bosch novels and has been reading the Bosch audiobook as of late. In this book, he reads the chapters that are primarily Bosch-based and Lakin reads the chapters that primarily feature Ballard. The last chapter features a back and forth between the two readers that I liked a lot.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: DARK SACRED NIGHT: A BALLARD and BOSCH NOVEL by Michael Connelly.


Friday, December 14, 2018

A LIFE of JESUS by Shusaku Endo. Translated by Richard A. Schuchert



First published in 1973.


Denial of Peter by Rembrandt (1606-1669)
Shusaku Endo was a rare thing - a Christian from Japan. He also grew up mostly away from Japan (in China) and spent a considerable amount of his young adult life in France. When he was in Japan, he was different because of his religion. When he was in France, he was different because of his ethnicity.

This re-telling of the Jesus' life emphasizes this idea of being an outsider. Jesus is never want people want him to be. John the Baptist's followers want him to continue to teach like John the Baptist. His early followers want him to perform miracles all of the time. His later followers want him to overthrow the king and drive out the Romans. Meanwhile, Jesus is teaching lessons about love and forgiveness that no one seems to want to hear.

Endo's Jesus is a melancholy man - who wouldn't be when your main message is ignored and everyone wants to you be something you can't be?

Endo chooses to pass over most of the miracle stories of Jesus because he wrote this book for a Japanese audience and he is convinced that his native countrymen will not accept those stories and will reject the entire message because of them. This has been a point of contention with some critics.

Endo also makes some assumptions that are interesting, but not necessarily in the Gospels. For example, he writes an interesting take on the story of Peter denying Jesus three times on the night that Jesus was betrayed by Judas. He looks at a few facts and makes a compelling (albeit completely circumstantial) argument that Peter didn't just deny Jesus, he went to the Temple leaders and made a deal with them that saved the lives of the disciples if they promised to only take Jesus. In effect, this makes them every bit as guilty as Judas and also makes them the very first people that were saved due Jesus' death on the cross. It has a compelling sense of completion and does explain why the disciples were not rounded up in the days following the crucifixion.

An interesting take on Jesus. Well worth the time to read it. 

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: A LIFE of JESUS by Shusaku Endo.