"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, July 31, 2010

Train of Life

Entertaining, Thought-Provoking, Funny and Sad

This is a World War II Jewish Holocaust comedy, if you can believe it. It is in French w/subtitles and it concerns a little Jewish village that knows the Nazis are coming to deport their village. Everyone is panic-stricken until the village idiot has a brilliant idea - the village should get a train and "deport" themselves all of the way to Palestine. The movie is all about their purchase of a dilapidated old train, its refurbishment into a Nazi-style train and their escape across Europe and the chase by the Nazis.

Along the way, there are all kinds of humorous encounters with Nazis, the French Resistance, Gypsies and Communists. Parts of it are "Keystone cops" and parts of it are "Monty Python-esque".

I will not tell you how it ends, because the ending packs a powerful emotional punch. However, I do wholeheartedly recommend the movie.

I rate this movie 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed August 7, 2004.

Slow Burn (Leo Waterman Mysteries) by G.M. Ford

Good but had such potential to be better

G.M. Ford
I was told that this book was a disappointment. I have to agree and disagree. It is a good book - it really does approach the level of being a great farce of a detective novel. The client is outrageous and the people he investigates are larger than life throughout the story. At times, Waterman is the only sane man in the room. It makes it a fun ride - but I finished the book pleased but quite sure that it could have been even more if Ford had pushed a bit more. I would have liked for him to have met other bizarre personages that were attending the food show, but the climactic scene at the steakhouse with the helicopter and the barbecue was certainly odd and funny enough in its own right.

Like all of the Waterman novels, it may behoove the reader to jot down some notes as you go along because the author does little to remind the reader who the characters are as the story progresses. The murder victim is introduced and not mentioned again until he is killed about 100 pages later. I had to think hard about who this guy was and why it was important to the story that he was dead.

I would recommend reading the other Waterman books (Who In Hell is Wanda Fuca?, Cast in Stone, The Bum's Rush) before reading this one.

I give this book a "4 stars" out of 5 - fun but I'm struck by the unrealized potential.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Slow Burn.

Reviewed on August 4, 2004.

U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton

By my count, this is the 21st book in the Kinsey Millhone series. I have read most of them over the years - some are good, some are great and one or two have been duds. U is for Undertow is a strong one. A very solid story, although not a very difficult mystery.

Sue Grafton has kept Kinsey Millhone in the year about twenty years ago in the past. An author has to make several choices as he continues to write about a character over the years. James Bond never ages> Robert B. Parker's Spenser moved forward in time but never seemed to age. He was a Korean War vet (making him at least around 75 years old in his last book) and he still got into fistfights and chased bad guys all over the place. Tony Hillerman aged Joe Leaphorn and just moved on to the younger generation when it was time for action.

The storyline of U is for Undertow most resembled an extended episode of the CBS police drama Cold Case and is different than the rest of her books. Kinsey is asked to investigate a 20 year old kidnapping and the reader flashes back and forth from the 1960s to 1988 until it becomes painfully obvious who the bad guys are and why they did what they did. At that point, we have a little drama while Kinsey cleans up the loose ends and the book ends.

I make it sound simple, but it was a good read - one of the best of the series. The flashbacks worked. The characters were very interesting and it was well done.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: U Is for Undertow.

Reviewed on July 31, 2010.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Muslims in America: A Short History by Edward E. Curtis IV

   A Short, Solid History

Muslims in America is the "first single-author history of Muslims in America from colonial times to the present", which is what the back cover proclaims. I have no reason to doubt that this sad statement is true and for that reason this book is a welcome addition to the shelf of any serious student of American history.

That being said, this book is not perfect. Since it tries to cover the entire spread of American history the first pages are about isolated Muslim individuals that were brought over as slaves, continued to follow their faith and were noted for doing so. It turns out that only a few people fit all those criteria so we end up with extended biographies of these people. This is not bad, per se, but it does make the last half of the book seemed rushed in comparison. The slow, extended style is put aside for a quicker, less detailed style.

That less detailed style in the latter half of the book was frustrating for me. I am not a Muslim but I am fairly well read on the religion. I can speak intelligently on the main teachings of mainstream Islam, but I will not claim to be an expert on the topic. Groups like the Nation of Islam fascinate me precisely because some of their teachings have differed radically from any other teachings in the "mainstream" , especially with the Nation of Islam's heavy emphasis on race and different stories about how each racial group was formed. I would have appreciated more discussion of how Muslims outside of the Nation of Islam view the Nation of Islam and their teachings, and vice-versa. I would have also enjoyed a more robust discussion of the origins of these "non-traditional" Muslim groups - which Muslim traditions did they draw from, which did they modify, etc.?
Edward E. Curtis IV

What the book does well is detail how Muslim slaves came into America (although actual numbers will have to remain guesswork) and tell how some completely maintained their faith while others saved just parts of it. Curtis also examines the multiple waves of Muslim immigration that have come into the United States. It is tempting to think that this is a relatively new phenomenon, but it is not. I was especially fascintated by the Muslim settlers in rural North Dakota. Can you imagine a place you would be less likely to find a mosque than in rural North Dakota in the 1880s?

Of course 9/11 and the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq need to be addressed and Curtis covers them well. He includes a fatwa against terrorism on pages 117-8. He also chronicles the challenges of being Muslim in America in a post-9/11 world and some data on Muslim Americans opinions.

I give this book a four star rating, ignoring the preface, which I will comment on below:

For me the entire book was marred by an unfortunate Preface that was intended to show the level of misunderstanding that the greater American public has about Islam. The controversy cited was the installation of footbaths at the new billion dollar Indianapolis International Airport. These baths cost about $2,000 and Curtis comments on those that protested against it. He notes one pastor was against it because it would forward "Islam's desired goal, which is to thrust the entire world under one single Islamic caliphate under sharia law." (p. x) I do not know about this pastor, but I did pay particular attention to these protests because I live near the airport and I live near the Halal markets and coffee houses these taxi drivers frequent on West Washington Street - their cabs are a constant part of the landscape of my neighborhood.

It seemed to me that most of the protesters were upset that the government was paying to install foot baths to facilitate one religion's practices (although it was noted that anyone can use them, will they? What other group engages in ritual footbathing?). Indiana has gone through a whole round of lawsuits to prevent prayers at graduations and to remove 10 Commandment displays on public grounds that were installed at no public expense. To many, it seemed mighty two-faced to have a government entity (the Airport Authority) play favorites by accomodating the wishes of one religion while other branches of government frustrate the wishes of others.

Curtis goes on to make comments about the pastor and how his deep prejudices would impair his ability to see his Muslim friends as people or even really knowing them - an ironic comment. Curtis shows his own prejudices in this snarky comment that is so unlike the rest of the book.

This whole preface left a bad taste in my mouth. It really is a pretty good book, but I had to force myself to look past this unfortunate part of the introduction.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Muslims in America: A Short History (Religion in American Life)

Reviewed on March 12, 2010.

Daytona: From the Birth of Speed to the Death of the Man In Black by Ed Hinton

Great book but there are a few errors...

The title basically says it all. This fascinating book uses Daytona International Speedway and the old racing surface of Daytona Beach itself as its lens to focus on the world of NASCAR. Hinton has been a beat reporter covering NASCAR since the mid-1970s and knows all of the old stories and Hinton is able to package them so that the reader is reading one little vignette after another until the history of Daytona is told.

I was reading another book when I picked up this one (a Christmas gift that I hadn't really paid a lot of attention to) and began thumbing through it. I couldn't put it down! It is well-written and at times it is laugh out loud funny, especially if you are a NASCAR fan and are familiar with the older, retired drivers.

However, a couple of disturbing, trivial factual errors throw a negative light on the book as a whole. Two that I noted were Hinton's assertion that no rookie has won the Indy 500 since the 1926 race (in case you're wondering, Daytona Beach used to be used as a high-speed test site, much like Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah is used today and the 1926 winner died making such a high-speed run). I knew that his assertion was wrong since I witnessed rookies win the 2000 race (Juan Montoya) and the 2001 race (Helio Castroneves) - both were well-before publishing time for his book. Besides that, 2 minutes on Google told me there were two others - the 1927 and 1966 winners.

The Dukes of Hazzard  
in a car chase
Willy T. Ribbs
Secondly, he makes the assertion that California driver Willy T. Ribbs was encouraged by the example set by "The Dukes of Hazzard" to get drunk and play chasing games with the police in downtown Charlotte, NC in May of 1978. Since I spent a great deal of my own childhood watching the Dukes, I thought that that seemed a bit early. Sure enough, two more minutes on Google told me that the show premiered in January of 1979, so it really had no part in Ribbs' ill-conceived misadventures. Oddly enough, Ribbs' trip to the drunk tank gave Dale Earnhardt the chance to take his car - his first chance to drive a good car in the Winston Cup Series and this opportunity eventually led him to the career that made him a household name.

Despite these errors the book was a hoot to read and I'm sure I'll be lending it to every NASCAR fan I know.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Daytona: From the Birth of Speed to the Death of the Man in Black.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on July 26, 2004.

Understanding the Koran: A Quick Christian Guide to the Muslim Holy Book by Mateen Elass

Informative, fair and well-written

Short summary:

Mateen Elass is uniquely qualified to write such a book. His father was a Muslim. He was raised in Saudi Arabia. He is now a Presbyterian minister in the United States. His short, 10 chapter book introduces the reader to the Koran by telling its history and the common touchpoints that it shares with the Bible, Christian tradition and Jewish tradition. Elass also introduces the reader to the proper handling of the Koran and has a balanced discussion on the role of Jihad in Islam, as defined in the Koran. An optional Bible study is located at the back of the book with lots of questions designed for group discussion.

My review:

An absolutely excellent book! The reader is not required to be a Christian to understand the book - but a working knowledge of Christian tradition and the Bible would help. Mateen Elass has produced a wonderful introduction to Islam and the Koran. He is respectful of Islam throughout the book, but it is clear that he is writing from the Christian perspective.

I have but one complaint: he has excellent commentary in his endnotes that complement the text. Unfortunately, I discovered this about halfway through the book. I wish it had been footnotes instead.

I'll be on the lookout for another book by Elass. Might I suggest a book on Islam itself? Or, perhaps Muslim customs and holidays?

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Understanding the Koran.

Reviewed on July 21, 2004.

Red, White & Liberal: How Left Is Right & Right Is Wrong by Alan Colmes

Uneven and the use of e-mails gets annoying

The first 60 pages or so of the book were so unfocused that I could not grasp where Colmes was heading or what he was trying to do. The only real thing he seemed to be doing was showing how unhinged some of the people who e-mailed him really are (lots of people have wished him ill for his points of view) and he uses these nutjobs as a brush to paint conservatives as a group as downright mean - in fact that is the title of one of his chapters. (despite his own admission that people fire off e-mails without thinking and say things that they would most likely never say to someone's face)

Finally, Colmes gets focused and the last 2/3 of his book is a decent read - even though he keeps the e-mail theme going and it really loses its effectiveness. His political commentary is full of the same type of political cheap shots that he accuses the Right of using, such as:

-Colmes has a little chart showing the political spectrum from left to right. He shows it going like this:

Communism Socialism Liberalism Conservatism Fascism Totalitarianism

And then he makes a big deal about how American conservatives are closer to totalitarianism than Liberals are. Come on. Was the USSR anything other than a totalitarian state?

-Colmes digs out specific comments from some Conservatives to show they are all racists (he likes Trent Lott, especially). I can do the same thing with Bill Clinton who once commented to the NAACP that if such and such bill were passed into law they could succeed like "regular people."

-Colmes blames Bush for the malnutrition rampant among Afghanistan's children and the and the fact that one-fourth of Afghan children don't live to reach the age of 5. The publishing date of this UNICEF report? October 2001. Yes, I'm sure Bush caused all of this, despite the fact that the Taliban controlled Afghanistan when the stats were compiled.

Alan Colmes
-He claims that the Conservatives do all of the nasty smear ads. His proof - Willie Horton. He ignores the "Bush is Hitler" ads posted by moveon.org and two awful NAACP ads in the 2000 election. One stated electing Bush will just result in more murders of black men - it featured a pickup truck dragging a logging chain and the daughter of the man who was killed by dragging in Texas (the perpetrators are now in prison for the rest of their lives). Another ad against John Ashcroft said that a vote for a Republican is a vote for more black churches to be burnt down.

I could go on (really - I have more than a dozen similar things, but I can't really imagine who'd want to read them all.)

Colmes has a quirky sense of humor and he makes frequent comments that sometimes make the reader nearly laugh out loud. He also does something interesting - he includes a chapter about where he thinks Conservatives are right and Liberals are wrong. Topics include race reparations and securing our border.

So, all in all, I give this book "3 stars" out of 5 - the choice of using the e-mails actually hurts the book. The unfocused first quarter of the book was frustrating. The cheap shots were annoying, but to be expected - this is not the first book of this type that I've read. All of the political commentary books do it.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Red, White and Liberal.

Reviewed on July 20, 2004.

Never Again?:The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism by Abraham H. Foxman

Powerful, important but not perfect. Also - test yourself!

Summary of the book:

Foxman uses the common comment that the world has learned its lesson during World War II and will "never again" let hate do what it did to the Jews in World War II. He uses a question mark because he points to some rather depressing trends in this well-researched book that mark a rise of anti-semitism throughout the world, even in Japan. (reviewers note: How many Jews actually live in Japan? How many Japanese actually know what the Jewish religion is? I'm assuming this is just a nutball group that hates just about everybody and just threw the Jews in too).

Foxman is the head of the Anti-Defamation League, a group based in New York City that monitors Anti-Semitic activity throughout the world.

My review:

Foxman is a bit too sensitive (something that he admits he is trying to avoid), but he's right,there are terribly disturbing anti-Semitic trends, especially in his chapter 7 concerning very popular Muslim beliefs concerning Jews (he quotes opinion polls and continuing attacks that come from mainstream Muslim newspapers. Unfortunately, from an editing standpoint, he ends up with Chapter 8 - a chapter about anti-Semitism in Hollywood and popular entertainment. It is by far his weakest chapter, a point he virtually concedes because this is where he makes his comments about not wanting to appear too sensitive.

Foxman has an anti-Semitism quiz developed by the Anti-Defamation League. He says you qualify as "most" Anti-Semitic if you agree with six or more of the following:

1) Jews stick together more than other Americans.

2) Jews always like to be at the head of things.

3) Jews are more loyal to Israel than America.

4) Jews have too much power in the U.S. today.

5) Jews have too much control and influence on Wall Street.

6) Jews have too much power in the business world.

7) Jews have a lot of irritating faults.

8) Jews are more willing than others to use shady practices to get what they want.

9) Jewish businesspeople are so shrewd that others don't have a fair chance at competition.

10) Jews don't care what happens to anyone but their own kind.

11) Jews are not just as honest as other businesspeople.

I scored a zero out of 11 on this test. However, Foxman would still consider me an anti-Semite. He has 2 long chapters on Jewish-Christian relations (one for Catholics worldwide and one for American Protestants) and since I am a Christian that believes that Christ is the only way to heaven, I am an anti-Semite.

Oh, well. No matter Foxman's opinion, I will continue to consider myself not anti-Semitic, especially in light of some of the absolutely ignorant comments coming from some of my rural Indiana students. I do believe that I am the only one that has ever confronted some of them. Here's what they were doing: they were using the word Jew and Jewish as an insult term - meaning stupid. So, when someone would say something stupid some others would say, "That's so Jewish!" or "You're such a Jew!". So, anyway, I'd boot their asses out to the hall so fast that their heads would spin and we would have a lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ong talk. I can tolerate a lot of ignorant things but racism is not one of them. I've had this conversation about 5 times in the last two years, but not for the last 5 or 6 months. Maybe it has stopped or maybe it has just stopped around me.

To sum up: This book receives a "4 stars". It would have received a higher grade except for the relatively weak chapter at the end that takes away a lot of its punch. Still, it is an important book.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Never Again?

Reviewed on July 18, 2004.

Joan of Arc DVD

Historical problems - but great acting.

The movie makes some cheap, ineffective attempts to give the Joan of Arc story a bit more punch - including a "prophecy" from Merlin and the mischaracterization of the 100 Years' War as a War for France's freedom from Britain.

However, there is some good acting in this movie, especially from Peter O'Toole - he brings humanity to a character that could have easily been a one-dimensional, generic bad guy.

Is it a great movie? no

Is it entertaining? Yes - and you get the bonus of watching a real pro like O'Toole show you how its done.

I rate this movie 4 stars out of 5.

This movie can be found on Amazon.com here: Joan of Arc.

Reviewed on July 15, 2004.

Stalking the Angel (Elvis Cole) (audiobook) by Robert Crais

Elvis Cole #2

Published by Brilliance Audio
Read by Patrick G. Lawlor
Duration: 6 hours, 52 minutes

Synopsis: Elvis Cole and his partner Joe Pike are hired by a Los Angeles businessman to find a missing ancient copy of the Hagakure, a book that details Bushido, or the way of the Samurai. Along the way, they discover hidden family secrets, connection to the Yakuza (Japan's ultra-violent mafia) and deal with a kidnapping and modern followers of the Bushido.

Robert Crais
Written in 1989, Stalking the Angel is an early Elvis Cole book. Crais is still doing a bit of casting about to find his rhythm with the characters of Joe Pike, Elvis and even his irascible cat. The plot doesn't flow as well as later books but it still a very nice listen.

It is narrated by Patrick G. Lawlor who does a solid job of catching Cole's wisecracking side but overall does not catch on to Elvis as well as the narrators of his later books do.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Stalking the Angel.

Reviewed on March 16, 2010.

The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 by Evan Thomas

Well done

Before this book, I had not had the pleasure of reading one of Evan Thomas' books. I picked this one up despite the fawning comments by Thomas in June 2009 ("I mean in a way Obama's standing above the country, above - above the world, he's sort of God.") My original thoughts were if this guy can't be any more unbiased in his observations than that, do I really want to read his stab at history?

Well, I am happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised. This is a solid history that is told well. The book flows along nicely and the reader is both entertained and informed.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) 
with his men in Cuba
The book's focus is the build-up of public support for the Spanish-American War (1898). As the title notes, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst are the main subjects in the book but other people round out the story, including Harvard professor and philosopher William James (Pragmatism and Other Writings ), his brother and fellow author Henry James (Henry James: Complete Stories, 1892-1898), Speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Read, various surviving family members of deceased Civil War hero Robert Gould Shaw (Glory ) and great-grandson and grandson of presidents, Henry Adams (The Education of Henry Adams).

The War Lovers gives the reader a vivid portrait of life among the Eastern Elite in the late 19th century - a world so far removed from my experience that I may have well as been reading about a foreign country. But, in a way, the book was full of plenty of people that I have been reading about all of my life. Thomas takes those empty names and fleshes them out with personality, histories and makes them become much more real. On top of that, it is an entertaining read!

Highly recommended.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5 stars and it can be found on Amazon.com here: The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 by Evan Thomas.

Reviewed on March 18, 2010.

Ten Stupid Things That Keep Churches from Growing: How Leaders Can Overcome Costly Mistakes by Geoff Surratt

 Geoff Surratt's Ten Stupid Things That Keep Churches From Growing is an entertaining and informative read. Like I noted in the title, I am not a pastor (but I have been an active church member nearly all of my life), but I still found the book quite enjoyable.

Surratt's 10 things are:

* Trying to do it all
* Establishing the Wrong Role for the Pastor's Family
* Providing a Second-Rate Worship Experience
* Settling for Low Quality Children's Ministry
* Promoting Talent over Integrity
* Clinging to a Bad Location
* Copying Another Successful Church
* Favoring Discipline over Reconciliation
* Mixing Ministry and Business
* Letting Committees Steer the Ship

Surratt does come at things from a non-denominational perspective so some of these items were not particularly applicable to my Missouri Synod Lutheran church, but most were. I was able to note that our church does most of these things well, including just moving out of a bad location (too small) and not letting the pastors do it all.

Surratt fills his chapter with real-life examples of what not to do, including lots of his own (self-described) stupid mistakes. At the end of every chapter he interviews another successful pastor about the issues he just wrote about and gets a slightly different perspective. Surratt's humor carries the book and saves this from being a drudge of a to-do list and makes it a joy. For example where he is commenting on his lack of ability to counsel parishioners with their personal problems: "My natural response when people tell me their personal problems is, 'Wow, what are you going to do about that?' You'd be surprised at how few people find solace or direction in that kind of advice."

It's not all fun and games though. Surratt has some especially profound thoughts on seeing church as a family (kind of choked me up as I was listening to it using the Kindle text-to-speech mode while walking the dog - enough so that I read it to my wife when I got back from the walk).

Good, informative read. Deceptively light-hearted - you'll laugh and you'll think at the same time.

This book can be found on Amazon here: 
Ten Stupid Things That Keep Churches from Growing: How Leaders Can Overcome Costly Mistakes

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on March 19, 2010.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

One of the most interesting and profound books I've read this year.

Published in 2008.

Please pardon a little bit of blogging tossed in with a little bit of book reviewing - it's not my normal style.

I am a high school teacher and we are, as a school, busily studying the racial achievement gap that exists on all (if not all, it is almost, almost, almost all) standardized tests across the country. Currently, I am bucking my school system by insisting it is not a racial gap but rather a failure of the culture of the school to attune itself to the culture of our African-American and Hispanic students. A cultural gap, as it were.

To me this is no simple issue of semantics - if the gaps are cultural they can be overcome by re-tooling and learning new strategies. If the gaps in achievement truly are racial - based on inherited characteristics from our genetic code, well, what's the point of trying, really? (To be honest, I think they are using race as a simplistic code word for culture, but this is dangerous game to play, in my opinion).

Malcolm Gladwell
Anyway, Malcolm Gladwell backs up my arguments in chapters 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 with interesting analyses that shed light on the importance of learned culture on success and behaviors. I recommended this book to a member of the leadership team that is leading these discussions and he was intrigued enough to pick up the book and start reading.

The other way that this book was meaningful was its emphasis on the role of practice in achieving success. 10,000 hours - the magic number when it takes to become a Mozart or The Beatles or Bill Gates or Michael Jordan. Note the emphasis on the individual here - you too can be a master of your chosen field with just enough practice! Sort of democratizing isn't it? This is blended together with cultural legacies in Chapter 9 to show how culture can encourage that sense of purpose in an individual.

Anyway, I have a student teacher who will be a very good teacher one day and I spoke with her about the value of practice and experience. She won't be a master teacher in her first year, but those hours in the classroom will add up and she will be one day. Well, it sounds less profound here, written down. Believe me, it was inspiring when I spoke about it.

So, in short, this is a heckuva interesting book. I devoured it. It gave me a lot to ruminate about.

Highly recommended.

I rated this book 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Outliers: The Story of Success. 

Reviewed on March 19, 2010.

More Blood, More Sweat and Another Cup of Tea by Tom Reynolds

An interesting look at the experiences of a London paramedic

Tom Reynolds (a pseudonym) is the writer of a blog about his experiences as a paramedic in London. There are 212 entries that read like they were lifted from his blog, perhaps given a little editing and some re-arranging and then printed. If you like the television show Cops than this format may be of particular interest to you.

There are things to be gleaned from the book:

You learn that a blanket is the most important tool in an ambulance.

You learn that, like on the show COPS, alcohol creates a lot of trouble.

You learn that Britain's NHS is seriously overburdened. Reynolds discusses hospitals filled to capacity, ambulance services that make people wait for over an hour (not always but it does happen), hospitals without basic supplies like pillows and blankets, a boy with a history of collapsing waiting for weeks for an MRI scan (I have had two on an emergency basis in the last 3 years for one I had to wait 15 minutes and for the other I had to wait 45 minutes).

You also learn that some people are just nasty. Here's a quote from Reynolds. He is calling his dispatcher: " ' Control, I need to return to station to clean out the back of our motor - we've just transported one of our 'local legends'. Is there any infection control policy for patients who are infested with insects?'


Gritty, disconnected, worth the read.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: More Blood, More Sweat and Another Cup of Tea by Tom Reynolds.

Reviewed on March 22, 2010.

Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany: June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945 (audiobook) by Stephen Ambrose

Beautifully told - in all of its splendor and horror

5 CDs
5 Hours
Also includes a tiny 6 panel map of the war zones.

Stephen Ambrose
Cotter Smith masterfully narrates a wonderful re-telling of Ambrose's favorite topic - the Western European theater of World War II. Citizen Soldiers would serve as a fantastic introduction to this topic, but also is told well enough that someone who has read it all before, like me, found it interesting, informative and entertaining.

Ambrose spices up the story with a lot of stories about regular soldiers at the front. We learn about the challenges, the humor, and the horrors of the fight. Some are soldiers you've never heard of, others are more famous such as Kurt Vonnegut ( Slaughterhouse-five ) and Jimmy Stewart ( Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ). Some stories make you laugh out loud, the Vonnegut Christmas story was so sad that I turned off the CD player and drove the rest of the way home in silence because it just didn't seem right to go on.

Highly recommended.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Citizen Soldiers.

Reviewed on March 24, 2010.

Mary S. Peake, The Colored Teacher at Fortress Monroe (a Kindle book) by Rev. Lewis C. Lockwood

More interesting as a piece of history than as a piece of literature

This kindle "book" was most likely published as a missionary pamphlet during the American Civil War (1862). The author describes himself as the "first missionary to the freedmen at Fortress Monroe" in Virginia and was published by the American Tract Society. It originally had 64 pages (the Kindle edition that I read has accidentally transcribed the page numbers into the text).

Mary S. Peake
This tract is akin to those late night TV commercials that Sally Struthers used to do (and now done by a gentleman with a beard) but with a much more low key appeal - in fact there is no direct appeal for money. It is an update on the success that these missionaries have had in reaching out with the gospel and education to the newly freed slaves. It is also includes a story that is intended to pull at the heartstrings - the story of Mary S. Peake, a moderately well educated lady of mixed racial heritage that taught the young newly freed slaves in Hampton, Virginia.

The text provides an interesting overview of the experiences of the slaves and their masters as the Union armies approached and an idealized version of the experiences of those slaves after they were freed.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Mary S. Peake, The Colored Teacher at Fortress Monroe by Rev. Lewis C. Lockwood.

Reviewed on March 30, 2010.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Ancient Greece by Eric D. Nelson

The problem is that this book is trying to be two things at once - a resource book to be used as a quick reference (When was Alexander the Great born? What did the Epicureans believe?) or is it a basic history of the Ancient Greeks? Other books in the series that I have reviewed, such as The Complete Idiot's Guide to World Religions were clearly meant to be a quick reference guide.

King Pyrrhus (319/318 BC–272 BC)
So, as a history, this is sort of a frustrating read. The story of the Ancient Greeks is told in fits and starts. As a quick reference, it is good. The facts are solid and told in an understandable, interesting manner. I wasn't using it as a quick reference, rather I was reviewing the topic so as to be better prepared for the next time I teach ancient history. You can never tell what interesting tidbits you can pick up to spice up your presentations - even from the most basic of sources. For example, I learned that King Pyrrhus - the king that inspired the term "Pyrrhic victory" was killed by a woman that threw a pot out of her window during a street battle (although further research shows that some claim he was only stunned by a roofing tile and this allowed him to be killed by a soldier. Either way, it's a good story).

So, as a narrative history - this is a 3 star book. As a reference, it is a 5 star book. So, split the difference and call it 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on March 30, 2010.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Ancient Greece by Eric D. Nelson.

Patriot Pirates: The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution (audiobook) by Robert H. Patton

A tedious listen.

Published by Tantor Audio in 2008.
Duration: 10 hours, 25 minutes.

Read by Alan Sklar.

I am an avid reader of history. I also enjoy listening to histories as part of my daily commute. I thought Patriot Pirates would be a fantastic diversion since I knew relatively little about the naval history of the Revolutionary War besides the story of Bonhomme Richard and the fact that the Continental Congress authorized the use of privateers.

Unfortunately, Patton's dry, overly wordy text coupled with Alan Sklar's (the narrator) ironic, almost mocking tone made me both both bored and irritated at the same time. If it can be said in 50 words, Patton uses 500. He tells the same stories over and over again. After listening to 5 of 9 discs I refused to force myself to slog through another chapter - partially because it was so poorly narrated, partially because I was becoming a public safety hazard - I was literally nodding off. I listen to CDs to make my drive more interesting but there was nothing there to keep my attention.

Patton freely admits that he is not really a devotee of the Revolutionary War which may have contributed to the dry tone of the book. The battle scenes are described to great effect but the rest of it is just not told in an interesting way. I have no problem with the facts presented, but this book is even less interesting than the history textbooks that this history teacher despises.

I rated this audiobook 1 star out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Patriot Pirates: The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution.

Reviewed on April 13, 2010.

The Third Rail by Michael Harvey

A Solid Crime Story

Originally Published in 2010.

The Third Rail is the third book in a series about Michael Kelly, a hard-boiled former cop turned private detective. Lots of action and lots of tension build throughout the book as Kelly investigates a series of seemingly random attacks on Chicago's famed Elevated Train system.
Photo by Kelly Martin

For me, this was a welcome change of pace from the seemingly endless books about crime in NYC and LA, cities that I know only from television. I am a Midwesterner and I am familiar with the Windy City so I had no problems envisioning the neighborhoods and the city skyline.

That being said, the plot was not terribly original (the TV show Castle ran a similar premise as an episode while I was reading this book) and the old saw with the Catholic Church being corrupt and more worried about PR than anything else has been played too often as of late.

Chapter 26 features an especially clever point of view on victims of a shooting on Lake Shore Drive - it's rare when someone has a new way of looking at things in an overcrowded genre such as the crime novel.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: The Third Rail by Michael Harvey

Reviewed on April 21, 2010.

Neil Young's Greendale by Josh Dysart and Cliff Chiang

Unfocused, does not really stand alone from the album

I'd never heard of Neil Young's Greendale album before I picked up this graphic novel, but I decided the premise was interesting enough that I gave it a chance.

"Greendale" might be your cup of tea if you like your reading material to touch upon tons of ideas but develop none of them. This book is a coming-of-age, anti-war, anti-importing-oil, anti-drilling-for-more-American-oil-so-we-don't-have-to-import-it, anti-big-electricity, anti-media, super-hero book in which our heroine uses some of her powers to control people's minds (?) and change their opinions about all of these topics by speaking a bunch of platitudes at the end of the book while the devil character (who wanders in and out of the book and is making deals with the Bush 43 Administration and big energy on his cell phone) is beaten. I'm not really if she uses her super powers to control peoples minds, but they do point out that herd animals follow her naturally (sheep, caribou, cattle) and the only way her sophomoric rantings at the end of the book (chock full of meaningless phrases like "We are breathing in new ideas, the collective progressive tendency of the nation is becoming stronger!") would not have had an effect on anyone unless she backed them up with her power to control herds of animals.

None of these themes is explored in very much depth. I suppose the book is really about the women in the Green family of Greendale, California. Nature-based superpowers are inherited by the women in the Green family but the book doesn't look into (in any detail) what these women have done with those powers. The powers are clearly nature-based but are they guardians of nature? Do they use their powers to thwart development, aid it or are they neutral towards it? Why does the boyfriend turn into some sort of goat-thing? Why do some of the women become deformed while others look normal?

There were so many interesting stories that could have been told here. Instead, they have decided to tell them all at once and in so doing, they have told none of them at all.

I rated this book 2 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Neil Young's Greendale.

Reviewed on April 24, 2010.

Split Image by Robert B. Parker

A good ending to both series.

Jesse Stone #9
Sunny Randall #7

Robert B. Parker couldn't have scripted a better ending to the Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall series if he had tried. Sadly, there will be no more of this series due to the death of Robert B. Parker but, happily, both end on a strong note.

"Split Image" is really two books wrapped up in one. There is a small Sunny Randall mystery that is semi-independent of the main investigative line of Paradise Police Chief Jesse Stone. Both are good and throw in the interactions between Randall and Stone you have the makings of a strong addition to both series. I won't go into plot details here, but I can say that I do recommend this one for followers of either series.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Split Image.

Reviwed on April 26, 2010.

The Economics of Food: How Feeding and Fueling the Planet Affects Food Prices by Patrick Westhoff

I picked this book up because I am a resident of Indiana and biofuels are alternately hailed as a boon for local farmers, a green energy source, a creator of new jobs and a step towards energy independence or they are decried as stupidly burning our food in our gas tanks and a massive waste of money - cutting off our nose to spite our faces.

What's the good news?

This is truly a comprehensive introduction to topic of biofuels vs. affordable food. It is chock full of graphs, well-documented and is written in clear, easy to understand language.

What's the bad news?

It reads with all of the excitement of an introductory level college economics text, which is fitting since the publisher of this book is FT Press, an imprint of educational textbook giant Pearson.

The other real problem is that if you are looking for an answer to the biofuel dilemma, it is not here. What you learn is that the relationship between the food prices and biofuels is amazingly complicated. Government supports, tariffs, rising incomes in China and India, speculation, the value of the dollar and the weather all have an effect food prices and even if someone were able to program a computer model with all of these variables included they still wouldn't be able to truly demonstrate to what extent the diversion of grains to biofuels affects the price of food.

So, the book familiarizes the reader with the issues, but doesn't really supply any answers nor much excitement.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5 and it can be found here: The Economics of Food: How Feeding and Fueling the Planet Affects Food Prices.

Reviewed on April 26, 2010.

The Smalcald Articles by Martin Luther (Kindle version)

A 1921 translation of an important piece of Reformation theology

The Smalcald Articles were designed to be be a presentation of the basics of Lutheran theology that was to be presented at a Council of the Church in Mantua in 1537 - a Lutheran/Catholic discussion about what Lutherans and Catholics believed. As Luther notes in his brief introduction these articles laid out "what we could accept or yield, and what we could not." (location 2) They are named for the Smalcald (Schmalkaldic) League - a union of Lutheran cities and territories that opposed the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor.

The Council never happened and the league never adopted the Smalcald Articles as an official statement of faith because of Luther's strident, I would even say enthusiastic, attacks on some core matters of Catholic faith, especially the office of the Pope.

The Smalcald Articles were incorporated into the Book of Concord and are considered traditional standard Lutheran doctrine.

The Smalcald Articles are a lively presentation of the basics of Lutheranism. In reality, one would get the same information if you read Martin Luther's Small Catechism but it would not be presented in Luther's best argumentative style. Luther often knew no restraint when it came to arguing the points of Christian faith. He follows his arguments to their logical conclusions and is quite ruthless, devestatingly effective and fantastically politically incorrect in passages that condemn the office of the Pope, ultimately concluding that the position of Pope is that of Antichrist (locations 225-268). One can see why the Smalcald League wanted to tone down the rhetoric for the purposes of discussion.

However, Luther's rawboned, no-holds-barred, street fighter style of argument is really the star here. Luther had precious little patience for those that were, in his view, perverting the teachings of Christianity in order to follow the traditions and practices of human institutions. While Luther's Small Catechism patiently lays out the teachings of Lutheranism in an easy to digest format, the Smalcald Articles are a whirlwind, alternately attacking and defending (even his defenses are mostly attacks) highlighting Luther's early training as a lawyer (and what a great modern-day criminal lawyer he would have been!) with elaborate arguments that show little mercy to any that would interfere with the work of God amongst his people.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: The Smalcald Articles.

Reviewed on April 30, 2010.