"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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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Nothing But The Truth by Avi

A lesson in how political schools can be and how things can spin out of control.

Normally, I do not read Young Adult (YA) literature, but as a teacher I do delve into it from time to time just to see what's out there. In this case, I picked out this book for purely personal reasons.

Nothing But The Truth is all about a misunderstanding and mindless application of a zero tolerance rule in school.

The premise is we have a popular, respected and excellent English teacher (Miss Narwin) and a bright student (Phillip Malloy) who does not really apply himself too much. Malloy has been re-assigned to Narwin's homeroom. His previous homeroom had been rather loosely run, but Miss Narwin expects the rules to be followed and the school's written rule is absolute silence during the playing of the National Anthem. Malloy hums loudly during the Anthem (which causes and is directed to stop - something he was allowed to do in his other homeroom. He does not stop. Why not? He thinks Narwin is a hard-case teacher that is picking on him.

Malloy is removed to the office twice during the week for humming loudly during the anthem. The administrator ignores Malloy's real complaint - he dislikes Narwin for "giving" him bad grades in English class. Those grades are keeping him from joining the track team. Instead, the administrator follows a zero tolerance rule that says if you are sent to the office twice in one week you receive a three day suspension from school.

Soon, Malloy's neighbor, who happens to be running for the school board, picks up on this story and starts to campaign to reform the schools that suspend a boy who wants to display his patriotism by singing the National Anthem. Soon, the story spins out of control, rumors fly, careers are ruined and Malloy and his family have no idea how to deal with the situation.

The Author, Avi
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I would encourage any teacher to read this book as a cautionary tale. I would encourage everyone else to read it as a demonstration of how media tales get a life of their own and the truth is not always brought out. I used to teach in a middle school that was caught up in a milder version of this sort of event. A young thug (a serious bully) was audiotaping classes and editing the tape to make his teachers sound bad. His tape was confiscated and a local TV station was brought in ("Call 6 for Help!") and the overblown reporter told a slanted version of the story in an effort to help this poor disabled child get his audio recorder back from the bully of an assistant principal so that this young scholar could finally take his notes. Except - he was not disabled, he took notes just fine without it and there was no mention of the disruption that occurred while he played his edited versions during class time.

Our situation blew over fairly quickly, but it was intense enough.

So, the long and the short of it is, Nothing But The Truth is a great piece of fiction that explores what happens when politics, media sensationalism, mindless policies and failure to have a face-to-face discussion with all parties involved rips a school apart.

I rate this book 5 stars.

This book can be found on Amazon here: Nothing But The Truth
Reviewed on August 29, 2010.

Avi's website is: http://www.avi-writer.com/index.html

The Poacher's Son (Mike Bowditch #1) (audiobook) by Paul Doiron

7 CDs
8.5 hours
Read by John Bedford Lloyd

The Poacher's Son is the first in a series of books about Mike Bowditch, a rookie Maine Game Warden. Bowditch is settling into his job, losing his long-time girlfriend, dealing with the locals that have bad interactions with the local wildlife and rude out-of-state tourists that flaunt Maine's laws.

Bowditch's life is turned upside down when a local deputy is killed while escorting a timber company executive (who was also killed) away from an unsuccessful attempt to cool local passions about the timber company's long term plans for the area. It seems that the number one suspect is Bowditch's estranged father, a local poacher, hunting guide and bar brawler well-known for his bad attitude and violent nature.

Bowditch is sure his father is innocent. He has no illusions about his father's nature, but he cannot figure out a motive for his father. He gets involved despite repeated warnings from his superiors and soon everything spins out of control.

A great deal of the book consists of flashbacks that give the reader (or in my case, listener) some insight into the relationship between Bowditch and his father. This does help with the climactic final scenes.

The author, Doiron is a Registered Maine Guide, so his descriptions of the landscape and wildlife of Maine are quite compelling - a real plus.

Fans of  C.J. Box's Joe Pickett mysteries will enjoy this one as well.

Website: http://www.pauldoiron.com/

This audibook can be found on Amazon.com here: The Poacher's Son (Mike Bowditch Mysteries)

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on August 29, 2010.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mad Dogs by James Grady

An interesting ride, but not told as clearly as it could have been.

Published in 2006

The premise of Mad Dogs is a winner - picture an insane asylum just for spies that have been pushed beyond the breaking point. There are victims of torture, people who have compromised cherished values, lost loved ones in the line of duty or have just seen things that no one should have to see.

Now, imagine that 5 of these patients have a doctor that they love - he pushes them, challenges them and makes progress with them. And, he gets murdered right in the room where they do their "group" time, making it look like one of them had done it.

James Grady
So, this group of misfits decides to flee from the frame job and find the root of the conspiracy that killed their doctor. Each of them resurrects their skills and works together to escape, find clues and follow the scant trail back to the source.

Sounds great, right? Kind of like a hard-edged version of the Michael Keaton comedy The Dream Team (1989)

Well, the follow through does not quite live up to the promise of the basic plot line. Grady sort of skips around from person to person in his narration but does so in a herky-jerky fashion so that the reader is left to guess what is going on from time to time. The over-arching plan and motivation of the villain is fairly underwhelming when it is finally exposed.

However, the "buddy movie" and "road trip" feel of the book and the look into the past lives of these former spies is interesting and overcomes those other problems. It was quite fun watching these characters confront their fears, work together and compensate for each others' weaknesses as they tried to clear their names and avenge their friend.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Mad Dogs.

Reviewed on August 24, 2010.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson

A fascinating and enjoyable read

Free: The Future of a Radical Price is an exploration of the future. It is an exploration of how advancements in computer technology, specifically the ultra-cheap price of computerized data storage, has changed the flow of information and data and has changed the rules of data-based business.

Written on computers using free programs, accessing free internet at coffee houses and using as many free sources as possible, such as Wikipedia* and blogs, Anderson discusses the concept of "free" as a business tool from its beginnings to now.

Anderson keeps a light and breezy tone throughout the book, but don't let that lull you into a sense that weighty business concepts are not being discussed. The exploration of "free" starts with marketing ideas such as the ubiquitous "Buy One Get One Free" to ideas such as giving the razor handles away but charging for the blades as he discusses the beginnings of American business institutions such as Gillette and Jell-O.

But, those brick and mortar type businesses are not the focus of the book. He is looking at the information age. Businesses like Amazon.com (free shipping once a strategic price point has been reached, free home pages for reviewers, lots and lots of reviews by regular folks, and not "professionals") and Google (free searches, free document programs, free uploads on video sites, etc.) are thoroughly discussed as are concepts such music piracy.

Chris Anderson
He includes lots of other examples, such as websites that offer free services to all (such as photo uploading or video games) but allow premium (paying) members extra privileges. He also includes in a listing at the end 50 business models based on free (he calls it Freemium) and provides concrete examples of companies that use these models, such as Disney, WordPress and MicroSoft).

*Wikipedia has its flaws (I teach high school history and for 20 minutes in 2005 one of my students listed himself as the first Emperor of Rome, but it was caught, corrected and our school was banned from editing Wikipedia), but it is a tremendous resource and is good for a quick check on facts.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson.

Reviewed on September 5, 2009.

The Sanctuary of Outcasts: A Memoir by Neil White

A profound book. Well-written and tugs at the heart.

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is a memoir of a magazine and newspaper publisher who was sentenced to a minimum security prison for band fraud (he was "kiting" checks to make payroll, grow the business and buy fancy digs for the corporate offices). The prison he was sent to, however, is not your typical prison. Carville serves as both a minimum security prison and the last federal leper colony in the United States.

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is a title with a double-entendre. At one level it is a sanctuary where the outcasts are kept away from the outside. A sanctuary in which the victims of leprosy can receive treatment and not be "different" from everyone else. The author is literally staying in their physical sanctuary. But, in the case of the author, being in The Sanctuary of Outcasts is more than this. He is under the care of the lepers. He learns from them. They teach him humility and taking life as it comes. He learns what is really important and the value of human connection. Calling them his friends would presume too much. They become his mentors by their examples and the few moments of humanity that can be passed between prisoners and patients. He absorbs what they teach with a passion.

Neil White at Carville Prison
The community that is created in Carville between these two groups that society's outcasts is unique and fragile. The federal prisoners are a volatile group and the leprosy patients are not confined to the facility - they are voluntary residents. This balance between freedom and confinement proves difficult for the government to manage and, in the end, the tenuous relationship ends as the book ends, giving it sort of a fairy tale quality.

A unique book and one of the best that I have read this year.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Sanctuary of Outcasts: A Memoir by Neil White.

Highly recommended.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on September 10, 2009.

On the Wealth of Nations by P.J. O'Rourke

Could have been so much more

As an economics teacher, Adam Smith's An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations has long been on my "to read" list. I downloaded a free copy of it to my Kindle e-reader, but I haven't seriously considered opening it. I've read summaries of his ideas, perused his quotes and espoused his ideas in class, but I have not had the gumption to read 600 pages of 18th century prose.

When I discovered P.J. O'Rourke had written a commentary on the book I was thrilled. I do enjoy most of what O'Rourke writes and I figured his funny, insightful sarcastic take on things should do quite a bit to punch up a nearly 225 year-old economics text.

Let's start with the basics. Adam Smith (1723-1790) was a professor of both Moral Philosophy and Logic at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He wrote two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), usually abbreviated The Wealth of Nations, often considered to be one of the first books on modern economics. Smith argued that freedom, both political and economic, was the ultimate source of happiness because the "invisible hand" of the free market would regulate the market and provide the best living for the most amount of people as possible. It is an interesting coincidence that the American Revolution and The Wealth of Nations both debuted in 1776.

Adam Smith (1723-1790)
I picked up P.J. O'Rourke's commentary on Smith's two books (the title and the cover do not tell the reader, but O'Rourke actually makes commentary on both books - he makes the compelling argument that they are really inter-related) and was expecting big things out of a very small book (242 pages including index, bibliography, endnotes and several pages of selected quotations).

Unfortunately, I did not get very big things. O'Rourke's pizzaz and razmataz, his quick wit and his inclination to make a smart comment about everything - traits that can be very endearing and that I enjoyed very much in his book Peace Kills got in the way big time. For example when discussing Smith's arguments about the value of importing goods and how free trade is a good thing. This is a controversial topic even now, more than 200 years later and O'Rourke adds nothing to it - in fact he hurts the argument by noting: "...imports are Christmas morning; exports are January's MasterCard bill." (p. 24)

P.J. O'Rourke
If O'Rourke would have toned down the comments (Note: not eliminate, just tone down), this book would have been much more useful. As it was, I sometimes felt like I was reading Dave Barry's Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States. The attempt to leaven the dry nature of Smith's original work with jokes failed - I just had to work too hard to separate the facts from the jokes.

Did I learn enough about Smith and his thoughts to avoid that feeling of failure I get when I see The Wealth of Nations on my Kindle? Probably, so the book was not a complete failure. However, I feel like the book was a missed opportunity. The right man was picked to write this book, but he was allowed to play around a little too much.

I rate this book 3 stars.

Reviewed on August 22, 2010.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: On the Wealth of Nations by P.J. O'Rourke.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 (abridged audiobook) by Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson

Abridged Audiobook
5 CDs
Approximately 6 hours.
Read by Kevin T. Collins

I first heard the incredible story of Marcus Luttrell while hearing him tell his story on Glenn Beck's radio show. I'm not a frequent listener of Glenn's show but this story was so compelling I had to hear the whole thing.

Lone Survivor is a much longer version of that story. It includes a long, detailed description of how Navy SEALs train and their "Hell Week" that washes out those who are not truly dedicated to being a SEAL. Luttrell also tells us about his childhood and how he aspired to be a member of a special forces unit as a young man in high school.

Marcus Luttrell
The bulk of the book is about "Operation Redwing" - an attempt to kill or capture a Taliban leader that remains unnamed in the book (he uses a false name for this man throughout the book). The operation consists of inserting 4 SEALs in open mountain territory in Afghanistan to observe a remote village where this leader may or may not be staying.

Operation Redwing has difficulties from the beginning, including a lack of cover to hide behind while observing the village and extremely steep terrain. Not long into the operation 3 Afghan goatherders stumple upon the 4 SEALs and nearly 100 Taliban soldiers start to hunt the 4 SEALs.

Luttrell's tale of how his comrades died one by one in an intense running firefight is gripping and awe-inspiring. Eventually, Luttrell is the last one alive, although he is also shot in the leg and suffers from any number of cuts, bruises and a broken nose. He uses every trick he learned in survival training and a few that he learned as avid hunter back in Texas and is eventually rescued by an anti-Taliban village that risks the lives of the entire village by daring to take him in.

The insignia of the Navy SEALs
Unlike another autobiographical tale of our current wars that I've recently read, Joker One, the strength of this book is not its writing. It is co-written by Patrick Robinson who lets Luttrell's voice come through loud and clear. If you are easily offended by liberal use of swear words as adjectives, this will not be the book for you. However, having known a few soldiers over the years I found it lent a good deal of authenticity to let Luttrell describe the battle as he normally would.

No, the strength of the book is the power of the story itself. The decision to spare the lives of the goatherders (who presumably left the SEALs and immediately informed the Taliban), the vicious firefight, the loss of Luttrell's companions, the story of the village that rescued him, the pain his family went through when they believed he had also been killed... The story is so strong that it demands and deserves to be heard, even if its prose is not Pulitzer Prize material.

Highly recommended.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Lone Survivor

Reviewed August 21, 2010.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Look Again (audiobook) by Lisa Scottoline

Interesting premise but it often ends up being a glorified romance novel

Published by MacMillan Audio in 2009
Read by Mary Stuart Masterson
Duration: 9 hours, 27 minutes

In a planned departure from her normal books featuring female attorneys, Lisa Scottoline brings us the story of a single mother reporter (Ellen) and her adopted son. At the beginning of Look Again Ellen glances at one of those "Have you seen this child?" cards that come in the mail and she notes that the child looks just like her adopted son, Will.

A little digging by Ellen uncovers several clues that her son may indeed be a missing child, which leads us to the key point of tension in the book: If it turned out your child was actually someone else's child, would you tell and lose the child or would you stay quiet and leave another parent in pain?

Narrator Mary Stuart Masterson
I have been a big fan of Scottoline's work since I discovered Everywhere That Mary Went when I worked at a book store nearly 15 years ago. However, for me there was too much romance novel stuff that padded the book and slowed down and diluted the tension. Couple that with a plot hole at the end that is big enough to drive a truck through and I ended up a bit disappointed. It's pretty good but not as good as her others.

The audiobook is read by veteran Hollywood actress Mary Stuart Masterson. Masterson does a great job with the accents and voices, especially the voice of 3 year old Will. It lasts 10 hours and comes on 8 CDs.

At the end of the last CD is an enjoyable 10-15 minute interview with Scottoline.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Look Again by Lisa Scottoline.

Reviewed on September 17, 2009.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Tenth Justice by Brad Meltzer

I thoroughly enjoyed this audiobook

The Supreme Court building
The Tenth Justice is an interesting little morality play set at the Supreme Court. What do you do if you accidentally leak information about a supreme court case and someone uses that inside information to make a fortune? What do you do if they come back and threaten to expose your slip-up unless you provide more information?

In my opinion, Meltzer's character does the wrong thing but that is what makes the story so interesting.

Meltzer's dialogue works so well with Thomas Gibson's performance that it sounds as if they were in the room copying down the natural flow of the characters' conversations as they were spoken. Truly, they were very fun to listen to.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: The Tenth Justice by Brad Meltzer. 

Reviewed on October 15, 2004.

Star Witness (abridged audiobook) by Lia Matera

Good, simple story about a law case (in which the defendant says he didn't do it because he was being abducted and probed by aliens at the time).

Read by Alexa Bauer
Approximately 3 hours

I'm reviewing Star Witness as an audiobook - more on that below.

Lia Matera
Part of my positive reaction to this book, I am sure is a negative reaction I've recently had to several books on tape that I've listened to lately. Some have tried too hard to be overly-complicated. Some have injected way too much romance, so much that you forget it was supposed to be a legal thriller with a bit of romance, not a romance with a bit of legal thriller. However, this story is a no-frills, just-the-facts-ma'am legal story - thank goodness!

Now, this is not to say that it is not entertaining and the facts are not truly bizarre.

Lia Matera's book is set in California and involves a man who is arrested for vehicular manslaughter, but he claims he can't have done it since he was being probed by aliens in their spaceship at the time. Matera neither ridicules nor endorses the concept of alien abduction, much to her credit.

The audiobook version was performed by Alexa Bauer and she did an absolutely wonderful job. Kudos all around!

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Star Witness by Lia Matera. 

Reviewed on October 15, 2004.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

I was not expecting much, but it got to me in a big way. I laughed, I cried, I told my wife she should read it.

Everyone said The Last Lecture was fantastic. There were news programs about Randy Pausch and his Last Lecture. There's a billboard sponsored by the Foundation for a Better Life near my local library that extols his positive virtues ("Wrote a book on living while he was dying").

But, I refused to read the book. Why? I guess I am just stubborn. A friend of mine had the book on her table and I asked her if it was any good. Yes - she plowed through it in no time and she's really not a reader. She lent it to me and I was off.

Even then, I let it sit for a couple of weeks. But, once I got into it I was absorbed into it. It is a well-written, laugh-out-loud funny, big-tears-rolling-down-your-face sad, happy, poignant and sweet book. I called my friend when I was done and told her she should have told me that I was going to cry at the end of this book. She said, "I told you!" "Yeah, but I didn't know you meant it!"

Randy Pausch delivering his
last lecture on September 18, 2007
In case you are curious, the title of the book comes from a tradition at Carnegie Mellon University in which professors give a simulated last lecture - a lecture that would try to impart the wisdom they have gleaned to others if this were the last lecture they were to give in their life. For Pausch, this happened to be true. He makes the most of it.

I cannot recommend this book enough.

You can see his actual last lecture here on youtube: the last lecture.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

Reviewed on August 15, 2010.

Amberville by Tim Davys

The hardest thing about this book is describing it to other people.

I was telling my wife about Amberville. I told her I was reading a book about stuffed animals (her face softened) and I said but it's not a "nice" book. One of the animals used to be a gofer for the mafia, one's a thug enforcer, one's a backstabber and one is a pill-popping male prostitute that specializes in S&M sex-for-hire.

She got a confused look on her face and asked why the author used stuffed animals? Well, he had to because these stuffed animals are all delivered by way of truck and when they die they are all hauled out of the city by truck as well and the big bad mobster dove has found out he's on a fabled list of stuffed animals that are to be hauled away and he wants four stuffed animals to reunite to find the list and save his life - or else.

At that point she waved me off and changed the subject.

Throw in a bit of insanity on the part of one character, some bribery, jealousy, lots of lies, a rat Queen who lives in a garbage dump and a church called the Sagrada Bastante (Spanish for sacred enough) and you have a mix that creates a powerful new world - I found myself reading as much to explore this world as to find out what was going to happen next in the plot.

How do you classify this book? Is it sci-fi? Fantasy? Noir? Thriller? Mystery? Yes to all of those.

Davys (a pseudonynm) has written another book called Lanceheim: A Novel about another neighborhood in the city of stuffed animals, Mollisan Town. There are four neighborhoods so I can imagine he (or she) will write four book in total. Good. This is an interesting addition to anyone's library.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Amberville by Tim Davys.

Reviewed on August 15, 2010.

The Great American Gun Debate: Essays on Firearms & Violence by Gary Kleck, John K. Lattimer and Don B. Kates

I liked this book a lot except...

...the last 1/3 of it got bogged down in too much technical detail and repeated information that had been previously stated. That is too bad because the first 2/3 was well-written and informative.

The Great American Gun Debate: Essays on Firearms and Violence really is an interesting book - one that should burst some bubbles of the anti-gun crowd. The writers painstakingly analyze the statistics and the motivations of some of America's biggest gun control lobbies, including the Centers for Disease Control (did you know that they use bogus data to label handguns as a public health threat? They quote FBI data that literally does not exist - they cite the document but it does not have the statistics that they use as a justification to lobby against guns. The document doesn't even report that type of statistic!)

Don't let my comments about the last 1/3 of the book deter you from reading the rest of it - it really was worth the time and effort and firmly completed my swing from being anti-gun to being anti-gun control.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Great American Gun Debate: Essays on Firearms and Violence.

Reviewed on October 15, 2004.

Bad Business by Robert B. Parker

This is a typical Spenser book...

..which I happen to like. I think I've read them all and usually I am pleased. Bad Business was a keeper.
Robert B. Parker

Oh, to be sure, there's the required comments about Spenser and Susan's relationship and why they don't want to get married. There's the required comments about Spenser and Hawk's relationship and how they'd die for each other, etc. There's the required comments about Spenser's checkered career in law enforcement. It's a formula to be sure, but I like the formula.

Spenser's comments and observations are pure gold and the case was interesting because it (sort of) explains what happened to Enron.

I guess I'm over the fact that Spenser never ages (Parker must have been hearing comments because he includes a NY Times review that excuses this fact inside the dust cover at the beginning of the synopsis) - it doesn't bother me with James Bond, why should it bother me with Spenser?

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

You can find a copy of this book on Amazon.com here: Bad Business.

Reviewed on October 15, 2004.

Rebel Moon by Bruce Bethke

  I was real happy until I got to the end -or maybe it wasn't?

Rebel Moon is a fast-paced, fun sci-fi book. Set in 2069, the various colonies of the moon have revolted against the United Nations and declared their independence. The UN is not happy and responds by sending in peacekeepers to pacify things. A small, professional armed force augmented by volunteer militia fend off the UN and German forces (the world may be dominated by the UN but some individual countries still pursue their own agendas).

This is a non-techno space romp. There's enough science to please most sci-fi fans but it as kept simple as we are introduced to the fighting styles of the future through the eyes of a computer geek militia member. The politics of the day are murky enough to seem plausible.

I would have easily have rated this book a '4 stars' or, perhaps, even a '5 stars' if the ending had not been so terribly abrupt. Will there be a sequel. Did he just run out of time or space? Who knows, but it left a curious taste in my mouth.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here: Rebel Moon

Dirt (Stone Barrington) by Stuart Woods

Man oh man! Is this the same guy that wrote "Chiefs"?

Originally published in 1996.

I ask the question because Chiefs was an absolutely fantastic novel. One of my favorites. This story is easy to read, quick-moving and entertaining but, for me, ultimately it is disappointing because I know that he could do sooooooo much better. If you've never read Stuart Woods, read Chiefs and maybe you'd be better off just walking away.

So, why am I irritated? The characters are two-dimensional cutouts of what we might suspect the rich and the famous are really like. They reminded me of unpleasant parodies of the Howells from Gilligan's Island. Woods can do so much more.

To be fair, I guess I'm really irritated to see a man who showed so much early promise resort to being a hack writer, pounding out the same story time after time. I tolerate, in fact, I revel in it when it comes to Robert B. Parker. But in the case of Stuart Woods - what an incredible waste of writing talent!

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Dirt by Stuart Woods.

Reviewed on October 14, 2004.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religion by Stephen L. Carter

A thoughtful look at the poo-pooing of religion by secular American society

I found The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religion while reading another book by Stephen L. Carter, one that I did not care for, Jericho's Fall. However, I am glad I read Jericho's Fall because I found this book listed on a page of the author's other works.

Read the discussion boards on popular blogs, newspaper pages and any other site that attracts people from all walks of life and you will find a strong anti-religious bias. In fact, there is a rather insulting review of this book that does much the same on Amazon.com. Carter takes a look at this relatively new fact of American life - the secularization of everything and the expectation that religious people treat "God as a hobby" and the expectation of people not to use their religious beliefs as a framework for their lives. Fear of someone "imposing" one's religion on another rules all.

Carter explores the history of this movement, looks at legal cases that have run roughshod over religion and discusses the irony of the fact that Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement was based on religious arguments against discrimination and highlighted the main strength of autonomous religion in a pluralistic society: it can serve as a counterweight to government. In more common terms, it can "speak truth to power."
Carter is far from advocating theistic government (he is, in my opinion, very liberal politically), he is merely pointing out that religion cannot be a tool of the state - they have different goals. He warns that "nearly everyone seems to operate with the general presumption that the government can and should regulate in whatever areas suit its constituents' fancy - unless opponents can interpose a claim of constitutional right. And as federal constitutional rights go, the right to exercise religion freely is quite near the bottom of the totem pole."(p. 138)

The only problem with this book is that it is dated. There are many, many references to the 1992 Republican Convention (one that I vaguely remember for a particularly vitriolic speech by Patrick Buchanan) which was the last big national event that involved religion and politics. I would love for Stephen L. Carter to re-write this book and include recent events such as the Jeremiah Wright controversy, the Schiavo case, Islam in America and so much more.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Culture of Disbelief.

Reviewed on September 19, 2009.

Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War by Jeffrey A. Lockwood

Interesting topic but a chore to read in many places

As a history teacher, I was excited to see a whole new take on warfare so I eagerly snatched up Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War.

However, as good as the information in the book is, it is a difficult read. There's a lot of repetition in the first part of the book and it just bogs down in the sections on World War II, Korea and the Cold War. A good co-author would have been my recommendation.

The best two sections are the ones on the American Civil War and the last chapters on the dangers we face nowadays from the prospect of insect-based terrorism. They are shorter and move along nicely.

Lockwood admits that he is not a professional historian in his introduction on page X and at times it shows. He is probably the only person to have ever asserted in print that General Henry Halleck was a good field commander after he asssumed command from Grant after the Battle of Shiloh. He assumes Halleck made the connection between mosquitoes and malaria (most assumed malaria came from things such as "swamp vapors") and let the mosquitoes force Beauregard to retreat.

Vigo County, Indiana,
home of Terre Haute and
a World War II defense plant.
Named for a true hero of the
Revolutionary War,
Francis Vigo.
In another chapter he made the mistake of "creating" an entire new county in Indiana on page 147 (he mislabels Vigo County as Terre Haute County). I would have let it slide and not even have mentioned it but he is so snide and so specific for so many pages about where the defense plant was and how foolish it was to build it near a population center (Terre Haute) that I was shocked that he made the simple mistake of getting the name of the county wrong.

Perhaps the biggest frustration for me was his constant pointing out that the United States captured and used the scientists involved in Japan's large-scale insect/biological warfare unit. He acts as though this were unique and not just part of the larger pattern that played out after the war. The West and the Soviets both used captured Axis power scientists after the war in their rocket, nuclear and biological programs. Not a pretty thought, but nothing unique, either.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Six-Legged Soldiers.

Reviewed on September 19, 2009.

Stitches: A Memoir by David Small

A sad, engrossing read

I hated the first 20 pages of Stitches: A Memoir. It seemed like another self-pitying artistic look at a pseudo-dysfunctional family and I'm just a little tired of that right now.


the story develops a bit more and pretty soon I was totally absorbed. I read it in two sittings for a total time of less than an hour, despite its 300+ page length. The story pulls you in. I was amazed at the literal insanity of Small's maternal family. It is also the autobiographical struggle of David Small dealing with his own struggles with mental instability.

The stitches referred to in the title are stitches that David Small has to have after a radical surgery on his neck. He had suffered from a growth in his neck for years before his parents decided to have it investigated, an inexcusable act considering that his father worked at a hospital as a radiologist.

Small's artwork catches and defines the mood so well. There are many pages with no text at all but nothing but artwork that conveys the story with body language, a raised eyebrow, raindrops or an odd angle.

Not only that but Small catches the accent of his family from southern Indiana dead on accurate in his writing. I'm a native of southern Indiana and I appreciated his effort to catch the distinctive twang and drawl.

From comments I've read, some sources are promoting this book as a children's book. It is not. Sure, it's written by a children's author and it has pictures but I wouldn't go younger than high school with this one.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Stitches: A Memoir by David Small.

Reviewed on September 21, 2009.

Chasing the Bear: A Young Spenser Novel by Robert B. Parker

I enjoyed it but would a young adult who has never heard of the Spenser books?

I've read just about everything Robert B. Parker has written. I'm a huge fan of the Spenser series and I really did enjoy Chasing the Bear: A Young Spenser Novel, a look at the frequently alluded to but never before fleshed out childhood of Spenser in "West Flub-dub", somewhere out west.

Fans of the series will enjoy it. It consists of Spenser and Susan talking about Spenser's childhood (with plenty of psycho-analysis thrown in) interspersed with flashbacks to Spenser as a young man in a series of "coming-of-age" stories).

Robert B. Parker
Will Young Adult (YA) readers care? The weakness of the book for YA's is the modern talk between Spenser and Susan. New readers will wonder who they are and not get the references to Spenser's hyper-developed sense of self - Parker spent years developing these characters. The regular reader will have no problem with these conversations, but people who are new to the series may not know what they are referring to in most of the conversations. Of course, the flashback format is precisely what makes the book work for frequent readers of the Spenser series.

Bottom line:

Spenser fans should read this one. New readers will probably be confused.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Chasing the Bear: A Young Spenser Novel by Robert B. Parker.

Reviewed on September 23, 2009.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon by David Michaels

I read Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon as the literary equivalent of a one night stand - nothing serious, no commitments. This is not deep literature that requires a set of Cliff's Notes. I was looking for a change of pace.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon fit the bill perfectly. Spotty character development, sci-fi weapons, lots of talk about honor and commitment (that works until it gets too syrupy towards the end). All of the good guys have big square jaws (or are pretty tomboys) and have wonderful biographies - a walking recruiting poster. The bad guys carry fetish swords and use prostitutes and plan to hijack China's foreign policy as part of their ill-defined personal vendettas.

Clunky writing and two-dimensional characters abound. But, the action scenes are intense and flow nicely. It is what it is - action-adventure writing without much else.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon.

Reviewed on September 27, 2009.

Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire Warning: Churchill's First Year as Prime Minister by John R. Lukacs

A speech, little noted at the time, becomes a powerful gift to the ages

One of Churchill's most famous phrases comes from one of his shortest speeches - his first speech as Prime Minister delivered in Parliament as German forces were literally destroying the French army. The first paragraphs are administrative, describing his assembled government.

The last paragraph is gold, pure gold.

Churchill flashing his
famed "V" for victory.
Churchill lays out his war aims and makes it clear that it will be hard, "an ordeal of the most grievous kind." He identifies the Nazis as "a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime" and notes the policy as victory no matter the cost because "without victory, there is no survival." He bids any and all allies to come join Britain.

There, in a few powerful sentences written by Churchill himself (oh, if only that were done nowadays...), is a summary of the situation, the goals and a strategy to win.

Unfortunately, it was not broadcast live and only edited snippets were broadcast over the BBC.

Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire Warning: Churchill's First Year as Prime Minister is a short (147 pages), well-written history of the Churchill's war years. The focus, as the title implies, is his first few days as Prime Minister, but he follows through to the end of the war.

Nicely done.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed October 9, 2009.