"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!

Monday, January 28, 2019

BEING THERE by Jerzy Kosinski



Originally published in 1970.

I did not know this was a novel until just a few months ago when I found my copy of this book in a thrift shop. I was familiar with the 1979 movie starring Peter Sellers in an Academy Award-nominated performance, but had no idea it was originally a book.

A little research has told me that this book has a troubled history. The author, Jerzy Kosinski, plagiarized the book. The original book was a Polish author from the 1920's and 1930's named Tadeusz Dolega-Mostowicz.  He died at the beginning of World War II while fighting the Soviet Union during the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland in 1939. His book was called The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma


Being There follows the adventures of Chance, an uneducated gardener who works for an elderly rich man. Chance is probably on the autistic spectrum and has grown up in the rich man's household. He knows nothing about the outside world except for what he has seen on television. However, he has an intuitive understanding of gardening and nature.

When the old man dies, Chance is evicted from his home by the estate's lawyers and heads out into the wide open world for the first time in his life with a suitcase full of fine suits taken from the rich man's closet. When he is struck by a car, he tells the car's owners that he is Chance the gardener, but they think his name is Chauncey Gardner and assume he is a rich businessman on a trip based on his clothing and his suitcase.

When asked anything, Chauncey can only answer with what he knows - gardening. His observations on the comings and going of the seasons and how they relate to the relative health of his garden are interpreted as sophisticated commentary on politics and economics and soon he is catapulted to the heights of politics.

The movie is pretty faithful to the book. I always think of Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardiner when a new politician breaks onto the scene and people throw their support behind him or her based on a few words and the assumption that they share a similar world view. I think our last two presidents made a lot of political hay out of this phenomenon.

This is a short book with a powerful lesson about confirmation bias (hearing what you want to hear when confronted with new information so that it confirms what you already believe).

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: BEING THERE by Jerzy Kosinski.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

MOSBY: GRAY GHOST of the CONFEDERACY by Jonathan Daniels



Published in 1959 by J.B. Lippincott Company.

Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby (1833-1916)
Back in the 1950's and 1960's several publishing houses put out series of biographies aimed at upper elementary students. The most famous of these was Random House's Landmark Series. They were small hardback books with thick pages and lots of line drawings. They were long on action and short on analysis.

This book is similar in every way to that series except that it was printed by the J.B. Lippincott Company.

There is literally nothing about John Mosby's childhood in this biography, which is a little odd since there was a similar series at the same time, with the same physical format called Childhood of Famous Americans published by Bobbs-Merrill.

John Mosby was a Confederate cavalry officer in the Civil War who became a Partisan Ranger. Partisan Rangers were irregular forces, not really part of the armies they supported and able to take shares of any spoils of war that they captured. This book does not discuss any of the moral issues of recruiting an army that fought for spoils (much like the Confederacy's privateer navy), but it makes it clear that Mosby did not take any shares of goods captured.

As I stated above, this book is long on action and short on analysis. There is perhaps one sentence about slavery (Mosby was against it). There are also only five pages about Mosby's life after he put away his uniform. But, there are lots of stories of horses racing down back roads and fighting Union soldiers. They are not organized particularly well, which makes it sort of a confusing to tell if the stories were all part of certain campaigns or were all separate incidents.

This book was aimed at 10-12 year olds, an age group that particularly values fast-moving stories with lots of action over analysis and an over-arching cohesive story, so with that in mind, it hits the spot. If this book were an adult's only introduction to John Mosby, it would be deficient.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5, mostly for the confusing way he told about his campaigns. It can be found on Amazon.com here: MOSBY: GRAY GHOST of the CONFEDERACY by Jonathan Daniels.

Here is a link to another book I have reviewed on John Mosby (with way too many details, ironically): Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby by James A. Ramage

Friday, January 25, 2019

THE YEAR of FEAR: MACHINE GUN KELLY and the MANHUNT THAT CHANGED the NATION (audiobook) by Joe Urschel



Published in 2015 by Macmillan Audio.
Read by Jeremy Bobb.
Duration: 9 hours, 4 minutes.
Unabridged.

George "Machine Gun Kelly" Barnes (1895-1954)
 and his wife Kathryn (1904-1985)
In the early years of the Great Depression, kidnapping became a fairly common crime, especially in the Midwest. It was viewed by some as a safer alternative to bank robberies, especially since unsuspecting victims were often not armed.

The most famous kidnapping of the era was the Lindbergh baby case. It ended tragically, but did result in a Federal anti-kidnapping law. That law got its first test when George "Machine Gun Kelly" Barnes and his wife Kathryn planned the kidnapping of oil tycoon Charles F. Urschel (no relation to the author of this book, but he admits to initially researching the topic due to the victim having the same last name as his). Urschel was taken from his home in Oklahoma to a farm in Texas. The moment they crossed the border, the kidnapping became a federal crime.

Machine Gun Kelly started out his career as a bootlegger, but his new wife Kathryn wanted more for him. She bought him his machine gun at a pawn shop and made him practice with it. She gave him his nickname and bragged to everyone that he was so adept with his machine gun that he could spell his own name out as he fired it. With that, a relative small-timer acquired a catchy name and a reputation that would eventually secure him a place in the public's imagination.

The Urschel kidnapping became the first major case of the fledgling FBI (it wasn't even called the FBI yet) and it's new director, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover's men cracked the case fairly quickly (Urschel was a tremendous help - he worked very hard to remember everything that he could while he was kidnapped and even participated in a raid) and conducted a nation-wide manhunt for Machine Gun Kelly and his wife. When Kelly surrendered it was widely reported that he shouted, "Don't shoot, G-Men! Don't shoot, G-Men!" and forever gave FBI agents that nickname.

Kelly left another legacy as well. The federal government felt that some of their prisons were vulnerable to super-criminals like Kelly and Al Capone so they were moved to the newly built prison on Alcatraz Island near San Francisco that was designed to be escape-proof. Kelly was among the first prisoners moved there and spent 17 years there.

This audiobook was read by Jeremy Bobb. He did a very good job, including making special voices for some people, such as Machine Gun Kelly. However, the book was written in an uneven manner. The first half of the book includes a fascinating look at the crime wave that gripped the Midwest in those days. The tale of the Urschel kidnapping is told so well that it felt like I was listening to a crime novel more than a history. But, the story becomes tedious when re-telling the cross-country trips of Machine Gun Kelly and his wife Kathryn. Even worse, the story of the trial had too much cutting and pasting of trial transcripts. There was a lot of overblown grandstanding on the part of the prosecutor and it was often a challenge to listen to.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. The first half is excellent. I trudged through the post-kidnapping part of the book just to see how it ended.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: THE YEAR of FEAR: MACHINE GUN KELLY and the MANHUNT THAT CHANGED the NATION.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

WALKING the AMERICAS: 1,800 MILES, EIGHT COUNTRIES, and ONE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY from MEXICO to COLOMBIA (audiobook) by Levison Wood



Published by Tantor Audio in 2018.
Read by Barnaby Edwards.

Duration: 8 hours, 34 minutes.
Unabridged.

The author, Levison Wood
Levison Wood is a British explorer/journalist. He has gone on two other hiking expeditions (one to walk the length of the Nile, the other to walk the length of the Himalayas) before this one. He was joined by a Mexican photographer friend from Merida, in the Yucatan Peninsula. Together, they started walking south to Belize, then on to Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and finally Colombia.

Along the way, they encounter hidden Mayan ruins, a city overwhelmed by drug gangs, poverty, the aftermath of a hurricane, welcoming people, a few unfriendly people, Native Indians, a horrible rainstorm, mansions, a couple of difficult horses and the remains of a lost colony founded by Scotland in the 1700's.

This was a surprisingly short book considering it spans eight countries. It was an entertaining book with some poignant moments, but not the deepest read. Sometimes Wood is too quick to characterize whole countries as having good or bad character (not a fan of Guatemala, but he really likes neighboring Honduras). It is a fun story of two friends going on an adventure.

I really enjoyed Barnaby Edwards' reading, despite his horrendous pronunciation of Spanish throughout.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: WALKING the AMERICAS: 1,800 MILES, EIGHT COUNTRIES, and ONE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY from MEXICO to COLOMBIA.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

THE GENIUS PLAGUE (audiobook) by David Walton



Published by Blackstone Audio in 2017.
Read by Nick Thurston
Duration: 14 hours, 34 minutes.
Unabridged.

Paul Johns is an explorer specializing in fungus works his way out of the Amazon rain forest back to civilization and comes home to the United States with a horrible fungal infection. A person traveling with him has the same infection but she passes away.

Neil Johns is Paul's brother and a brand-new employee of the National Security Agency (NSA), specializing in code-breaking and seeing patterns where no one else can. He begins to notice some strange things about Paul and some strange activity deep in the rain forest that Paul just came from...

This book is a great science-based action thriller, much like the late Michael Crichton used to specialize in. It makes you think, it shows you a different way at looking at intelligence and is a heck of a romp. Throw in the likable and believable characters and some moments of real humor and the whole combination is really quite good.

Nick Thurston takes this great book and runs with it and makes it even better as the reader of the audiobook. I took a chance with this audiobook based on a Goodreads recommendation and I glad to say that it turned out to be a great thriller.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: The Genius Plague by David Walton.

Monday, January 21, 2019

EDUCATED: A MEMOIR by Tara Westover



Published in 2018.

The author, Tara Westover, in 2014.
This memoir was one of the most celebrated books of 2018 and for good reason.

This is not a fun story to read, but it is absolutely engrossing. The writer has an extraordinary ability to write description - both of the physical environment and of emotional pain and confusion.

Tara Westover grew up in rural Idaho on a mountain near a small town. Her father refused to send his children to school, at least not consistently, because school was a plot by the government (and later, the Illuminati). Tara did not have a birth certificate until she was 9 years old and is still not entirely certain of her exact birth date. He also refused any sort of modern medical care or medication or vaccinations for the same reasons. And, he refused to get driver's licenses and have car insurance and to even wear seat belts because those were also a plot. Their home was stocked with weapons, food and fuel for a future Armageddon. Her mother was a midwife and created home remedies for families that couldn't afford modern medical care or refused modern it like her father.

The family was Mormon - but this wasn't Mormonism that most Mormons would recognize. It was an amalgamation of paranoia, fear, anger, ignorance and the need to dominate and control on the part of her father and one of her older brothers. Paranoia reigned in the house. The government was out to get everyone. Practitioners of more permissive strains of Mormonism were accomplices. Family members and friends were constantly being judged if they were loyal to the family or not - and loyalty was more important than anything. An abusive, explosive brother was protected because he was loyal to the family, even if he was beating and threatening other people in the family.
The family business was construction and "scrapping" (recovering scrap metal and salvaging usable parts from cars) - a business made all the more dangerous by lackadaisical safety precautions and improper equipment and training.  

Tara Westover was the youngest child and had never been to school. But, she decided she wanted out and knew from the experience of one of her older brothers that going to college might do that. She studied on her own, sought help when needed and did well enough on the ACT to enter into Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. 


Educated is, I think, properly understood as the horrible tension between the education she learned on her mountain in Idaho and the education she received at BYU, Cambridge and Harvard as she worked her way towards a PhD. It is the tension between multiple interpretations of the truth and the lenses we use to perceive that truth.

This is not a fun read. As I noted above, it is an engrossing read, but oftentimes it is a distressing read.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

WAYNE of GOTHAM (audiobook) by Tracy Hickman



Published by GraphicAudio in 2013.
Multicast Performance.
Duration: Approximately 6 hours.
Unabridged

GraphicAudio has been adapting novels into audiobooks that are performed by 20+ people like an old-fashioned radio play for years. In this case, they have adapted a novel by veteran fantasy/sci-fi writer Tracy Hickman. Hickman doesn't usually write about DC Comics characters, his reputation was made writing books related to the Dungeons and Dragons universe. That being said, the if you are going to make that move, going from knights in shining armor in big castles to the Dark Knight in Wayne Manor is a logical move.

The idea behind the book is a good one - Batman is getting threats and clues relating to his parents and family secrets that would be best kept secret.  The fact that Batman, not his alter ego Bruce Wayne, is getting these threats is significant because it shows that the unknown person knows his secret identity.

While Batman is trying to work this out, it becomes clear that a new villain has arrived in Gotham and this villain has the ability to implant memories into his/her victims and some of those victims are other super villains and they are being made to act on this unknown person's behalf.

More disturbing, Commissioner Gordon has been compromised and Alfred has become shifty and secretive and sometimes confrontational with Bruce Wayne. Batman may be truly alone on this one...

The premise behind this audiobook is solid and some of its luster may have been lost in the adaptation - I don't know because I have not read the original book. For example (*****spoiler alert - skip to the next paragraph), the Commissioner Gordon angle comes up and then just goes away when Batman and Gordon decide that Gordon just has to get over it - and he does.

There are some real strengths however to this book. It makes a nod towards the almost every incarnation of Batman - Adam West's Batman, the 1980's and 1990's movies and the Dark Knight series (it was written before the Justice League movies came out).

 If you are a fan of Batman, certainly give it a listen. It features an aging Batman who knows that he has limitations. It develops a great origin story for Batman's parents and Alfred's father. The lengthy Joker scene is quite good (the actor who portrays Joker is excellent) and even has some comic elements.  But, it is a hit and miss story with lots of description of the various Batmobiles and Batman's suit technology but not enough of the plot where it really counts. 


The idea is strong, but some scenes are fleshed out and some are just left vague, leaving this listener with the feeling that this was a good story, but it could have been so much better. If you are a fan of Batman, certainly give it a listen.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: 
WAYNE of GOTHAM (audiobook) by Tracy Hickman.

Friday, January 11, 2019

A PEOPLE'S HISTORY of the UNITED STATES by Howard Zinn



Originally published in 1980 by HarperCollins. Multiple updated editions have been printed.

Howard Zinn's (1922-2010) A People's History of the United States is perhaps the most famous and most controversial history book in publication today. 

I read this book because the former governor of my home state of Indiana and current President of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, repeatedly criticized it and actually advocated blocking its use in public schools in Indiana, including Indiana University. Governor Daniels used to be a frequent guest on a local newstalk radio station in Indianapolis and this book came up enough times in the conversations that I became aware of it. Before that I had never heard of it - but he certainly put it on my radar. That's not really what he had intended, I am sure.

I found my copy of A People's History of the United States in a local thrift shop on a half price day, which made this book a true bargain at $1. I decided that, as a good and loyal American I absolutely had to read the book that my state government's former chief executive had decided was "truly execrable" and should be removed from all classrooms and see for myself if he was right.

Zinn has a theme that he hits consistently throughout his book and it is that the "haves" are continually using and abusing the "have-nots" throughout American history although, sometimes, the "haves" give in a bit and let some of the "have-nots" get a little more because it ensures their survival at the top. He argues that this was the case during the American Revolution. He would have been a big promoter of the idea of the 1% vs. the 99% that has come into vogue lately.

He also argues that the elites stoke class envy and racial animosities to create internal rivalries among the lower classes so that they fight among themselves and fail to see who their true enemy is. Throughout the entire book, the details change but this is the basic story.

As a history book, this book succeeds fabulously at hitting that one note over and over and over and over ad nauseam. Is he right? Sure - to a point he is right throughout the book. For example, he is right that the founders envisioned limited participation from the common man in the early American republic. But, other arguments sound hollow. 


For example, on page 37 of my 1990 edition he argues that racial animosities were practically created by the elites as a way to control the slaves. It is a clever argument and it is the culmination of a long argument that he had been making in the previous pages concerning the presence of anti-miscegenation laws in the new world. His presumption that, if left to themselves, the lower classes would have not had any racial issues because the passing of these laws shows that the elites were bothered by interracial romance and conspired to stop it before the lower class united and overthrew them. This sounds too organized for my tastes. Also, I have less faith in human nature than Zinn does - the same base thoughts that he despises in the upper class exist across all of the classes.

Strengths:

-The discussion of Andrew Jackson and Indian Removal.


-The discussion of the labor movement during the Gilded Age/Robber Baron era was particularly well-written and flowed well.

-He covers the governmental overreach during World War I well.

Weaknesses:


-He wrote this book as an antidote to the "hero" version of history - the version that teaches about George Washington's battlefield exploits but overlooks the fact that he held slaves. Sadly, in his zeal to set the record straight, he often overlooks the good (or even great) points about heroes that he is out to debunk. 

-The Andrew Jackson section says literally nothing about Jackson's strongest political fight - his fight against the National Bank. I would have appreciated a look at how the defeat of this bank and the subsequent "panic" (economic recession/depression) affected regular Americans.

-Sadly, he often ignores the "people" and creates a new set of heroes to replace the ones he has debunked. But, he does little to debunk his new heroes so the reader is left with, essentially, the same problem. Also, this does not make it a true "people's" history since people like Frederick Douglass and Emma Goldman are so extraordinary that they are, by definition, not stand-ins for the "everyman".

-The sections on the Vietnam War and the 1970's suffer from just being written too close to when the book was originally printed (1980). I think he was so close to the events that he had a hard time determining what was truly important and what was trivia. This made the book bog down with things like his stories of community newspapers printed on ditto machines as a sign that media was changing. When compared to the tsunami of change that the internet brought to media just a few years later, these little stories are quaint and irrelevant. 

-During the Cold War sections, it never addresses what the other side in this Cold War was doing and at least acknowledging that America and its allies had reasons to be wary of the USSR and its allies.

************

As I stated above, Zinn hits one note throughout the book. This note does appear in most mainstream history books, but not in great quantity. So, the book has value in that it does bring that part of American to the forefront. But, since it does not waver from its obsessive focus, it becomes a tool of limited value. To quote Abraham Maslow: 
  "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

Now, to go back to the beginning of my review - would I outlaw this book from being used in a classroom? No, of course not. But, I do not think it should be the only text used in a class. Individual chapters are sold as smaller books and I think that would be appropriate. If it were a year-long class I might have students read the whole thing so long as they were reading lots of other works.

I don't see what the big fuss is on either side, to be honest.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: 
A People's History of the United States.