"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, November 27, 2010

Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkein

This one is tricky to review

When reviewing a piece of children's literature, especially a piece by a world-famous author and one that was originally created, not for the general public but to console his young son on the loss of a beloved toy, how can you be fair? Do you let the reputation of the author boost the score? Do you judge this book by the standard of his other books?

J.R.R. Tolkien
Since I have two small children, I decided to judge Roverandom by comparing it to the other children books that I have been reading lately. By that standard, Roverandom comes off as a solid 3 star book. There is little character development - the emphasis is on a fast-moving plot and plenty of inside family references that are covered in the introduction.

This is not a prequel to The Hobbit, but it is a quick, fun read with lots of emphasis on fantasy.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Pocket Roverandom

I rate this one 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on November 27, 2010.

New Threats to Freedom edited by Adam Bellow

Mostly interesting set of essays

The theme of this book is, clearly, threats to our freedom. This can be interpreted as America's freedom, Western freedom in general of the freedom of all people throughout the world. Depending on the reader's sensitivities, some of these freedoms may seem trivial (the freedom of ice cream vendors in New York City to sell their wares near city parks, for example) or may seem monumental (back to those same vendors - can you really ban a licensed business from selling his wares just because you don't want to hear your kids whine all day about ice cream?)

The writing is generally high quality but there are a wide variety of styles, themes and issues that make this an uneven read. For example, Stephen Schwartz's essay "Shariah in the West" is mostly an essay about how Shariah is not a threat, but just a media-hyped bogeyman,  followed by a few paragraphs about how it might still be a threat. The "Illusion of Innocence" by Shelby Steele had a similar feel and the last essay by Dennis Whittle, "Orthodoxy and Freedom in International Aid" was more about bureaucratic intertia than any outright threat.

Adam Bellow,
On the other hand essays such as Greg Lukianoff's "Students Against Liberty?" was very thought-provoking (IUPUI, the University where I earned my Master's gets a mention on page 139, much to my embarrassment). The placement of a very strong essay by Mark Helprin entitled "The Rise of Antireligious Orthodoxy" right before a strong essay on multi-culturalism by Christopher Hitchens (well known for his anti-religious books) makes me smile every time. Hitchins makes a strong point that we should never fail to confuse individual civil rights with "group" rights in our efforts to be a free society.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: New Threats to Freedom

Reviewed on November 27, 2010.

Friday, November 26, 2010

101 Uses for a Jack Russell by Dusan Smetana


A wonderful gift for an owner of Jack Russel Terriers

We just got a Jack Russell Terrier from a pet rescue about three weeks ago. My wife found 101 Uses for a Jack Russell yesterday and the whole family (even the three year old) enjoyed looking through it.

Lovely photos and a sense of humor with the captions, such as "#13 - Someone who takes you on a walk". There's also a lot of captions that get the real characteristics of the breed, such as "#79 - Sentry, "41 - Explorer" and "#35 - Hurdler."

Enjoyable. Great gift for the Jack Russell lover.
I rated this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: 101 Uses for a Jack Russell
Reviewed on July 17, 2009.

The Indy 500: 1956-1965 by Ben Lawrence, W.C. Madden and Christopher Bass

Excellent, for what it is

The "Images of Sports" series is intended to be a scrapbook history of a team, or in this case of an event.

The Indy 500: 1956-1965 is a 127 page book mostly comprised of photographs taken by Ben Lawrence, a photographer for the now-defunct Indianapolis Times from 1956-1965. This book is not a comprehensive history of the Indy 500, but rather a photographic scrapbook, a yearbook, if you will.

In a way, it was also a Golden Era for the Speedway with the new (also now defunct) scoring tower and the arrival of mainstays such as A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones and the Unsers. There are captions for all pictures and a few introductory paragraphs for each new section.

Not only does the reader get pictures from the race but also from the first 500 Festival parades, shots of the fans, candid shots of the drivers, track workers and even celebrities (the Jayne Mansfield shot is something else!). The race is more than just a race, it is an event, the biggest thing that happens in Indiana all year long and the book gives us an idea what it was like 50 years ago.
I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Indy 500: 1956-1965.
Reviewed on July 17, 2009.

Liberty! The American Revolution DVD

A history teacher's review

When this first came out on PBS I started watching it and never got into the flow of it. I hated the fact that they used actors to play real people rather than using the tried and true (and fantastic) Ken Burns style. Ironically, I absolutely loved the book Liberty ! : The American Revolution by Thomas Fleming by - it is, hands down, the best single-volume comprehensive history of the American Revolution that I have found.
So, I was pretty much bashing the series because it was not something else. So, here I am years later and I decided to give it a second try. I am glad that I did.

Liberty! is much better than I remembered. It is not as good as the book but it the best documentary on the American Revolution I have seen. It is as thorough as one can be in the limited time that this format will allow.

"The Boston Massacre" by Paul Revere
As for the actor thing - this time around I really liked it. The actors are really good and the story is paced very well. The build up to the revolution is logical and shows how the logic of both the British and the American positions and how those positions led to the Revolution.

Liberty! does a good job of going back and forth from the political to the military action in the actual war. The last episode in the series covers the Articles of Confederation and the writing of the Constitution a little too quickly but it makes a good point about how the original argument about the Constitution are still the same argument we are having today - how much power should our national government have?
I rate this DVD set 5 stars out of 5.

This DVD set can be found on Amazon.com here: Liberty!

Reviewed on July 18, 2009.

Too Close to Home by Linwood Barclay

Not as good as other Linwood Barclay books

I am an enthusiastic fan of Never Look Away and Fear the Worst my first two Linwood Barclay books. This book continues in the tradition of many film noir thrillers - the regular guy who gets his whole life overturned by some sort of crime and how he reacts to it. Unfortunately, Too Close to Home was not the equal of those two books.

In Too Close to Home we meet the Cutter family, a mom, dad and a teenage son. The neighbors are brutally murdered one night and the family skeletons start to come out of the closet in a big, big way as the police begin to investigate everyone who even might be connected to the victims.

Linwood Barclay
This was precisely the problem with the book in my opinion. This family has too many skeletons. Every few pages there is a major plot twist with a "sit down, I've got to tell you something" moment.

I am still giving the book 3 stars out of 5 because Barclay makes you want to keep pushing on - even though you know it is just going to get more complicated to the point of being silly.

This book can  be found on Amazon.com here: Too Close to Home.

Reviewed on November 26, 2010.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

God Came Near (Deluxe Edition) by Max Lucado

An enjoyable, short read

I had just ended a book and was casting about for something to read in my big pile of books in the closet. I came up with "God Came Near" more as a "Why not?" choice than anything else. I've seen different versions of this book around for years, but I'd never picked it up.

I soon found myself drawn in. Lucado revels in the "God in the small things moments." He also focuses his readers on Jesus the man - not the movie version of Jesus, the untouchable, above it all Holy Man. Instead, as the title of this book reminds the readers, "God Came Near" - Jesus was God becoming one of us - a walking, talking human being with sore feet, who got thirsty, who took naps and who was known almost exclusively by his first name by everyone, and a fairly common first name, at that. He came as nobody special and became the most written about and talked about figure in history.

I was especially struck by a passage in Chapter 9 that noted that everyone, those for him, those against, the curious, they all felt they could approach him : "There was not one person who was reluctant to approach him for fear of being rejected."

Max Lucado
Lucado wanders around in his discussions. He has a cute and thought-provoking story based on the children's song "This Little Gospel Light of Mine", thoughts about what can weaken faith and the warning signs we should pay attention to, the end of life, the Christian as God's ambassador, and he encourages us to get up from our own failures in our walk of faith by looking at all of the big names in the Bible that failed but got back up and continued their own faith walks.

Mostly, the book works because it comes across as a book written for real people - it approaches the reader in the real world, reminds him or her of the amazing story of the God who came to his people who refused to come to him and, in my case, reminded me of how truly remarkable that is.
I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: God Came Near Deluxe Edition
Reviewed on November 24, 2010.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ancient Enemy (Howard Moon Deer) by Robert Westbrook

Full of gimmicks, but it still works!


Ancient Enemy is part of a series of novels about Howard Moon Deer, a highly-educated Sioux Indian who is living in Northern Arizona and helping Jack Wilbur, a blind ex-police chief from San Francisco run a detective agency near the Pueblo Indians. By the way, Howard Moon Deer knows absolutely nothing about being a detective. They run across a couple of murders involving the Pueblos and an ancient Anasazi town and human remains that may have the key to their disappearance centuries ago. The title refers to the Navajo name for the Anasazi.

My review:

Robert Westbrook
Sound gimmicky? Sound like a bad detective show like Jake and the Fat Man or Remington Steele? Sure it does, but it still works. Mostly it works because Howard Moon Deer is as much of a fish out of water as the reader is. Although he is a Native American, the Sioux are not like the Arizona Indians at all. Plus, he has pretty much abandoned his Indian ancestry in search of a doctorate in literature. So, the characters are interesting, the books stand alone very well since this is my first one but it is the third in the series. The anthropology of the Anasazi and the Pueblos made the book very interesting for me
I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Ancient Enemy.
Reviewed in  February of 2005.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Time to Die: The Untold Story of the Kursk Tragedy by Robert Moore

Fascinating and depressing look into the "new" Russia


The Kursk was the largest, most-powerful nuclear submarine in the Russian fleet. It was one of only a very few of their premier ships - designed before the Soviet collapse and completed by the Russian government. It was larger than anything in the American fleet.

The Kursk
In August of 2000 there was an accident caused by a malfunction in a poorly maintained dummy torpedo during a war games exercise near the Arctic circle. The explosion of the dummy caused the explosion of every non-nuclear piece of ordinance on the sub and it immediately sink to the floor of the ocean 370 feet down. Most of the sailors died right away but about 20 survived in the aft compartments for several days.

The book details the poor quality of Russia's underwater rescue teams (their annual budget for 1999 was $14,000 - their leaders joked about using it to buy a car so they could drive to an underwater rescue site) and their unwillingness to accept Western offers to help until it was too late for their sailors. It also details the trevails of some of the victims' families and the Russian government's clumsy responses to the crisis and their own newly-freed press.

A Time to Die's title comes from a poem written by one of the men from the aft compartment. He gave it to his wife just before he left to participate in the war games.

When there is A Time to Die
Although I try not to think about this,
I would like time to say:
My darling I Love You.

My review:

A Time to Die: The Untold Story of the Kursk Tragedy is a fascinating, yet depressing book. I learned a lot about submarines and underwater rescue but it involved the loss of over 120 men. The look into the new Russia and Vladimir Putin's first crisis as President is worth reading the book in and of itself.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: A Time to Die.

Reviewed in February of 2005.

Green Lantern: Hero's Quest (Justice League of America) (audiobook) by Dennis O'Neil

I have not cared much for Green Lantern,  but I picked this one up on impulse...

6 CDs
7 hours
Voiced by 20 actors

When I was a kid I never cared much for Green Lantern. I liked Superman and Batman and in Marvel I liked Spider-man and the Hulk but the Green Lantern never did it for me. Maybe it was the giant green baseball mitts, pincers and boxing gloves coming out of the ring. Just seemed hoaky, I guess.

Which is all the stranger that I liked the audiobook for Green Lantern: Hero's Quest (Justice League of America). The book features Kyle Rayner, a new Green Lantern whose real life job is that of an artist and his specialty as a Green Lantern seems to be creating artistic even cutesie things with his ring, such as baseball mitts and giant boxing gloves.

Graphic Audio creates yet another adaptation that delivers "A Movie In Your Mind" as promised. I readily admit that I pick these up as less of a comics fan and more of an entertainment fan and I do find this series to be quite entertaining. Voiced by 20 actors, this audiobook reminds me of those old-fashioned radio shows that, if you're lucky, you can hear from time to time even nowadays.

Kyle Rayner is a struggling graphic artist who lives in a junky basement apartment and lives a life that really isn't going anywhere. A slacker might be the best term for him.

In the end, I was reminded of other stories more than I was the Green Lantern I remember (and disliked) from my childhood. Kyle is handed a Green Lantern ring by an alien and given precious little instruction, which reminded me of the TV show The Greatest American Hero as Kyle Rayner bumbles around and tries to figure out his powers.

As the story progresses we see a lot of themes discussed in the Star Trek shows and movies, including aliens interfering in other cultures (the Prime Directive) and the theme of being forced to live in a lavish prison - no matter how nice it is, it is still a prison ("The Menagerie" in the original series).  There is also the idea explored with Captain Kirk in Star Trek: Generations - the hero retiring to a perfect paradise and then being called back to fight once again.

This is not a perfect book. It gets fairly bogged down a little past the halfway point with large sections of the book describing space travel and seemingly endless discussion of physics and philosophy. A philosophical point raised by the Oans is never resolved satisfactorily - if life is evolved randomly,does it actually have value? The book seems to say that it does have value because the Green Lantern values it - but since he is evolved too, does his opinion count for anything?

Green Lantern purists seem to hate the book, but I enjoyed it. Not the best, but well done nonetheless.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Green Lantern: Hero's Quest (Justice League of America)

Reviewed on November 20, 2010.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Why the Left Hates America: Exposing the Lies That Have Obscured Our Nation's Greatness by Daniel J. Flynn

A quick and thought-provoking read

The thesis of Why the Left Hates America: Exposing the Lies That Have Obscured Our Nation's Greatness, an exceedingly-well footnoted book, is that some on the ultra-left of the American political scene have pet theories that they espouse and that they hate it when facts do not bear out their theories. Among these are what Flynn calls "The Five Big Lies".

The Five Big Lies are:

1. American women live under a patriarchy.

2. America is the World's leading threat to the environment.

3. America is a racist nation.

4. The US is an imperial power.

5. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.

Daniel J. Flynn
Flynn quotes his opponents extensively and then rebuts their arguments with his own extensive research from a wide variery of sources (he has over 500 end-notes, often with commentary - not a small task).

Flynn does not claim that the US is perfect in any of the above 5 areas. Far from it. He just submits that some on the left have given themselves over to hyperbole and unfairly characterized America and Americans.

Who is the Left that he is disputing? Not any of the normal run-of-the-mill politicians in the Democratic Party (the one that is the "left" in normal political terms for those political novices out there), but rather the ultra-left, such as Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Ted Turner, Stokely Carmichael, Cornel West, Patricia Ireland to name a few. I was put in mind of an ultra-feminist  that taught my English 101 class at Indiana University. The poetry and essays and short story assignments were all about sexism and racism. I was told to write what I thought, but the only time I got above a "C" was when I wrote what she thought.

Anyway, this is a quick and thought-provoking read that has the added bonus of being very enjoyable to read.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Why the Left Hates America: Exposing the Lies That Have Obscured Our Nation's Greatness

Flynn's website is: http://www.flynnfiles.com/

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed in February of 2005.

What Mama Taught Me: The Seven Core Values of Life by Tony Brown

Tony - where's your editorial staff when you need them?

Honestly, I like Tony Brown. I enjoyed his PBS show. I used to listen to him on the radio when I could on WLS in Chicago. But, his books are not nearly as good as I know they can be!

What Mama Taught Me: The Seven Core Values of Life deals with his "Mama", a woman who took him in when he was a baby and his mother was neglecting him. She was not a blood relative, just a woman who saw a baby starving to death due to neglect. He lived with her until her death when he was 12. This book is an attempt on his part to honor her and the simple wisdom she taught him.

The Seven Core Values are:

1. Reality: The Value of Being Yourself.

2. Knowledge: The Value of understanding your purpose

3. Race: The Value of honoring your humanity (In this case, the only race his Mama was worried about was worried about was the human race)

4. History: The value of investing in the future

5. Truth: the value of being true to yourself

6. Patience: the value of "Keeping the faith"

7. Love: the value of living joyfully.

Tony Brown
As in his other book, Black Lies, White Lies: The Truth According to Tony Brown, Brown repeats himself a lot. He quotes a passage from Hamlet 3 times (part of the "to thine ownself be true" speech) as part of his multiple descriptions of his high school English teacher. He lifts two pages from his other book concerning a story about a YMCA opening in his hometown. He says the same thing, over and over, repitiously, a lot. He repeats himself. Yes, indeed, he seems to say something and then say it again. Repititive, he is.

Like his last book ('Black Lies, White Lies), this book is in serious need of an editor. He seems to have written the chapters seperately, without regard to what he had previously written. I like the sentiments and ideas expressed, but, man, it was sometimes tiring to read them.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: What Mama Taught Me: The Seven Core Values of Life

Reviewed in February of 2005.

The Woman in the Cloak by Pamela Hill

St. Margaret of Castello


The Woman in the Cloak is a novelization of an actual historical figure, St. Margaret of Castelo. She was born a blind, hunchbacked dwarf with a withered leg. Despite these infirmities, and the rejection by her parents, she never feels cursed by God. Rather, she spends most of her relatively short life helping the poor of the small city of Castello. She lives with the beggars and the working poor, offering her help as a midwife, a free nanny and someone who is willing to go beg for food for the destitute.

Margaret joins an order of Nuns, but they are not very serious about their vows and she is soon expelled as a troublemaker. So, she joins the Order of Penance of St. Dominic, a mostly male Order. There, she returns to her work on the streets. Eventually, her health fails her and she dies of a hacking, bloody cough.

Up to this point, I found this story interesting and moving - here's a lady with the deck stacked against her in so many ways but she still finds a way to help others and give her life great purpose. However, the book veers into a part of Catholic theology that I am very uncomfortable with (probably due to a lack of proper understanding on my part) which is the act of praying to saints for healing. Margaret's bones become a sort of holy icon - pray to it or touch it and you'll be healed.

Nevertheless, it is an interesting read. I'll knock down the grade a bit for stilted conversation. The change in spelling in Margaret's name (Margheret to Margaret) without any explanation is also troubling.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Woman in the Cloak

Reviewed in February of 2005.

Civil War and Reconstruction: An Eyewitness History by Joe H. Kirchberger

Very good work marred by sloppy editing.

Civil War and Reconstruction: An Eyewitness History is a pretty good history of the Civil War. It has good pictures and an easy to read narrative of the war. It also has a lengthy appendix that includes many of the relevant historical documents, such as the Constitutions of the USA and the Confederacy, Lincoln and Jefferson's inaugural addresses, the Gettysburg Address, short biographies of the major personalities of the era and battlefield maps.

Confederate General James Ewell Brown
"Jeb" Stuart (1833-64)
At the end of each chapter, there is a lengthy section of quotes from participants and commentators of the day. This interesting addition makes the narrative read much quicker, but allows the reader to look at the topic in more detail if he/she chooses.

Unfortunately, there are some errors in the book due to poor editing. Two, in particular, bugged me. I used this book to look for info on the battle of Gettysyburg and I was unable to find it. Its in there, but the chapter it is included in is mistitled. It is entitled: "Closing the Ring: The East: November 1863-March 1865." It should be November 1862. My difficulties arose from the date of the Gettysburg Battle which is included in the chapter- July 1863.

The second error came when the Grant's forces in Kentucky were called the Eastern army, rather than Northern or Union. Some might say, but were they Easterners in a Union army in Kentucky? No, they were mostly from Illinois - out West in the 1860s.

So, I will keep this book as a reference, due to its fantastic appendices, but I will lower its grade due to sloppy editing.
I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Civil War and Reconstruction: An Eyewitness History.
Reviewed on February 11, 2005.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cadillac Jukebox (Dave Robicheaux mysteries) by James Lee Burke

Atmosphere fails to carry the day...

Cadillac Jukebox is part of a series of books written about an ex-New Orleans cop named Dave Robicheaux and his trials and tribulations. This book continues some of the same themes that characterize the series as a whole, such as racism, race relations, the difficulties of being a cop while also being father and husband.

James Lee Burke
I love the setting and the details Burke puts in his books about New Orleans and the whole Bayou scene. He shows us the seemy side of New Orleans (which is not too hard to do - if you've ever been there you know what I mean. Not that every other city is problem-free, its just that New Orleans seamy side is very public - hey, its one of the attractions). Burke has a great ear for accents, and this makes parts of his books fun to read. However, his books can be depressing. No one rides off happily in the sunset.

This particular book concerns a white man jailed in the 1990s for the murder of an NAACP leader in the 1960s. He claims he did not do it, but the man running for governor made his reputation proving he did. Dave R. happens to know both men and gets dragged into the controversy against his better judgement...

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5. Great atmosphere, unnecessary plot twists.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Cadillac Jukebox (Dave Robicheaux mysteries) by James Lee Burke.

Reviewed February 11, 2005.

Between Two Fires: American Indians in the Civil War by Laurence M. Hauptman

Well-researched and thorough

As the title clearly tells us, Between Two Fires: American Indians in the Civil War is (primarily) about the contributions of the American Indian to the American Civil War. It starts the reader with some of the early atrocities and misunderstandings that have characterized Indian and White interactions throughout American history. Some are the same things you will read about in any decent high school history text, and some are new for those that are not Indian history "buffs", such as myself. For example, I was not aware of the cruel and deliberate destruction of the Indian populations in California during the Gold Rush of 1849 until I read about it here.

The book discusses Indian participation on both sides of the war and their various motivations for joining in the fight. These motivations range from genuine patriotism to wanting to suck up to the government (be it Union or Confederate) for favors to wanting a steady, if small income to just wanting to get involved in the biggest thing that was going to happen to this generation of Americans.

General Grant's staff. Ely Parker is on the far left.
Among the more interesting vignettes are the story of how the Eastern Band of the Cherokees (if you have been to the Smoky Mountain Nat'l Park you've heard of them) earned their land through service to the CSA, the biography of Colonel Ely Parker, the Indian who drafted Lee's surrender for his friend U.S. Grant and the Battle of the Crater. This Battle in the Petersburg siege had 3 different groups of Indians fighting (one on the side of the CSA, two on the USA) along with Blacks and Whites. It was probably the most integrated battle the U.S. fought until the Korean War, when Truman desegregated the armed forces.

This is one of the most heavily referenced books I've ever read. There are 53 pages of end notes and 42 pages of bibliography for a 192 page book! If you are ever looking for a great source of information for a paper or research project on the Civil War, I'd recommend starting with this list.

Final Grade: 4 stars out of 5 (good writing style, occasionally too in-depth and bordering on trivia).

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Between Two Fires: American Indians in the Civil War by Laurence M. Hauptman.

Reviewed on February 11, 2005

Before and After: A Novel by Rosellen Brown

A welcome twist to the crime novel.

The setting is small town New Hampshire. The secret girlfriend of high school student Jacob Reiser is found dead in the snow and all of the clues point to Jacob.

Before and After is a crime novel with a big twist. Rather than following a policeman or the fleeing criminal, it follows the family of the accused and what they go through. The book's title refers to life before and after the crime and how the seemingly perfect family is ripped apart.
Rosellen Brown

It is told in the first person from the perspectives of mom, dad and sister (interestingly, never from Jacob's point of view). The brother and son they thought they knew is now a stranger.

At times, this book is an emotionally abusive roller coaster, but it would be an interesting read for a discussion group concerning the reactions of the family, especially the father and his criminal acts to cover up evidence and his obsession to help his son.

I'll give this book a 4 stars out of 5 for finding an interesting way to add a welcome twist to the crime novel.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Before and After: A Novel by Rosellen Brown.

Reviewed on February 11, 2005.

Crazies to the Left of Me, Wimps to the Right: How One Side Lost Its Mind and the Other Lost Its Nerve (audiobook) by Bernard Goldberg

Published by HarperAudio in 2007.
Narrated by the author, Bernard Goldberg
Duration: 7 hours, 27 minutes.

Bernard Goldberg, who used to work at CBS news until two opinion pieces that he wrote for the Wall Street Journal nearly 10 years ago made him a persona non grata. What was in these two opinion pieces that caused Dan Rather to say he would never forgive Goldberg and Goldberg's boss to accuse him of "disloyalty"?  He said that CBS and the other major media outlets are biased towards the political left in their reporting. Not the kind of bias that involves meetings and sercret cabals. Instead, it is a sort of groupthink. The sort that never even considers asking the questions that the people with a more conservative worldview would ask. So, most of this bias is from a series of "sins of omission" (to borrow a phrase) rather than an overt plot. As a result, Goldberg wrote his book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News.

Bernard Goldberg

In Crazies to the Left of Me, Wimps to the Right: How One Side Lost Its Mind and the Other Lost Its Nerve Goldberg goes after both the Left and the Right with thoughtful criticism. Goldberg narrates the audiobook version himself (and does a great job, too) and throws in plenty of humor, irony and satire to leaven the heavy doses of criticism. As he implies in the title, many on the left have gone right off of the edge and many on the right have forgotten their roots and have lost the intestinal fortitude to stand up for what they claim to believe in.

Written in 2006 and 2007, some parts of the book are a bit dated (the discussion of race and politics, for example, seems quaint without reference to Barack Obama), but it is clear that Goldberg predicted the electoral disaster that hit the Republicans in 2008 and he seems downright prophetic when he predicts that frustration with "wimpy" Republicans will cause people to look for other political voices. Clearly, the Tea Party movement was the expression of that frustration.

The heart of the book feels like a series of columns that were re-worked for the book, which is fine because Bernard is a good writer, he organized them nicely by topic and he edited them to aviod repeating himself.

Topics include:

A personal history;

A history of the Conservative movement, including the warts;

The NAACP and George W. Bush;

Ann Coulter (not as a "wimp on the right" but as someone who needs to tone herself down);

Alec Baldwin (actually not about Alec as a crazy man of politics but as a man who could step out and ask for an end of the name-calling since he's been a victim of it himself);

Barry Goldwater;

Religion in politics on the Right and the Left;

Mel Gibson (he makes a good point, but it seems dated with Mel's new outbursts);

Jack Henry Abbot;

A brilliant satire about the coarsening of TV's "family hour";

race-based preferences in hiring and college admissions;

anti-Semitism among the liberal elite on America's college campuses;

Congressional earmark spending;

TSA profiling;

Terrorism by radical Muslims (including a brilliant point about not trying to "understand" terrorists any more than he would try to "understand" the white men who participated in 1950s lynchings;

9/11 Truthers;

The New York Times and CBS News;

Tony Blair;

and just a little too much about Israel (I didn't disagree with it, it just was a bit too much on one topic).

All in all, an entertaining and well thought-out look at America's political culture.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Crazies to the Left of Me, Wimps to the Right: How One Side Lost Its Mind and the Other Lost Its Nerve.

Reviewed on November 13, 2010.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Wild Justice (Amanda Jaffe #1) by Phillip Margolin

Finally, Margolin is back on his game!

I've read Margolin's books since I came across The Burning Man but I've been sorely disappointed by many one of them since because they have never approached the power or the storytelling of that book.

Phillip Margolin
While Wild Justice is very much different than The Burning Man, it is a great page turner. I found the story to be inventive, if not twisted. Although, I figured out who the killer was with about 100 pages to go, there were so many plot twists that I doubted my conclusion several times. The ending was tension-filled and full of poetic justice. I'll be reading more.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Wild Justice (Amanda Jaffe #1) by Phillip Margolin.

Reviewed on October 26, 2004.

Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs (audiobook) by Dave Barry

Funny, but the book on tape format begged the question - "why not include parts of the actual songs?"

Published by HighBridge in 1999.
Read by Mike Dodge.
Duration: 1 hour, 30 minutes.


Yes, I realize it would be a publishing nightmare - trying to convince someone to let you use their song just so you could make fun of it, but it would have been so much more effective!

Dave Barry
Oh well, what might have been!

Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs really is a funny book. Dave's quirky sense of humor was effective, as always. I thoroughly enjoyed Dave's list of bad songs and his analytical dissection of the lyrics, especially when I also intensely disliked the song. However, I liked it even more when I actually loved the song ('American Pie' comes to mind)!

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on October 20, 2004.

Desperate Measures by David Morrell

Once you get past the first 35 pages, its quite a ride!

Desperate Measures begins with newspaper reporter Matt Pittman, the protagonist, who is literally preparing to kill himself with his pistol out of grief for his son that has died from cancer when the phone rings.

Pittman decides to answer it because he wants to make sure that he exits this life without owing anything to anyone. It is his best friend and his boss who covered for him innumerable times when his son was sick. He asks for one more favor and Pittman reluctantly goes back on the job for one more story.

It was at this point in the book that I was about ready to close it up and start another book because the whole "I'm going to kill myself" angle was getting very, very old. I realize that Morrell was writing out of the pain of losing his own son to cancer, but the book was rapidly losing interest for me.

David Morrell
Suddenly, the pace of the book changed and Pittman's research into a well-connected diplomat leads to murder, mayhem and a multi-state manhunt for Pittman. From about page 35 on the book is a roller-coaster of a ride, very reminescent of The Fugitive. It is well worth the read - despite the fact that you have to slog through the first 35 pages.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Desperate Measures by David Morrell.

Reviewed on October 20, 2004.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Twilight of the Gods: The Mayan Calender and the Return of the Extraterrestrials by Erich von Daniken

Enthusiastic but disjointed

Erich von Daniken is most famous for his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods in which he put forth the theory that civilization was brought to earth by alien space travellers that taught some humans their ways and this is the source of the world's major religions and brought mankind from the caveman era to civilization in places such as Egypt. He believes that this truth is documented in the art and writings of the ancient civilizations. The 1970s documentary In Search of Ancient Astronauts. Just to be fair to those that read this review, I do not espouse von Daniken's beliefs, but I do find him to be interesting and I enjoy reading about the connections that he sees.

Pumu Punku
In  Twilight of the Gods: The Mayan Calender and the Return of the Extraterrestrials von Daniken expounds upon his theory with a bit with more examples of items that should pique the interest of those that endorse von Danikens assertions. Although the title implies this is a exhaustive look at the Mayan Calender and the popular belief that it says the world will end on December 23, 2012, von Daniken does not even address the Mayans until he is two-thirds of the way through the book. Most of his book concerns a pre-Incan site in Bolivia called Puma Punku and the amazing buildings and stonework there.

I do have some argument with von Daniken's history of the Maya. He leads his readers to believe that the Maya were a very healthy civilization before the Spanish began to push into their territory after conquering the Aztecs in 1521. In reality, the classic Maya, the ones that von Daniken is referring to in his book, had collapsed more than 500 years earlier. The Maya that the Spanish conquered were a shell of the classic Maya with a lot of outside influence (if not outright occupation) by such groups as the Toltecs.

Von Daniken implies that the Maya were the earliest civilizations in the area and there is no way that they could have observed some of the older astrological phenomena that they record. He fails to note that the "source" culture for the region is believed to be the Olmec, who existed nearly 2000 years before the Classic Maya.

Interestingly, von Daniken is very derisive of evolution (not of changes in species but in the idea of all life coming from some sort of primordial goo). He uses terminology that reminds me very much of Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis books. However, von Daniken espouses a theory (I think he does anyway, he throws around a lot of theories at the end of the book) called Panspermia that teaches that an umknown life form shot out its DNA all over the universe, much like one would scatter seeds out of an airplane. Most of it was unsuccessful, but in some places life took hold.

Erich von Daniken
Von Daniken is interesting, as always. However, he is in serious need of an editor to keep him on the topic at hand.  I have already mentioned the complete lack of mention of the Maya in the first half of the book, despite the title. Von Daniken discusses everything from Bolivia's archaeological community to Hitler to climate change in his most disciplined section of the book, the first half.

In the last half of the book he seems to toss out random thoughts about the Mayan predictions about the end of time and then moves on to comment on long distance space travel, alien visitors to Tibet, how ideas spread, SETI, warp drives, the astronomers of the Catholic Church and electrons, among other things, in a conclusion that is most unsatisfying.

Is the book entertaining?

Yes, but it could have been much better organized.

Is there food for thought here?

Sure, but to extend the metaphor, if von Daniken were a chef, this would be a very sloppy, half-considered meal indeed.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on November 8, 2010.

Also mentioned in this review: