"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, December 31, 2011

The Pale Horseman (The Saxon Chronicles Series #2) by Bernard Cornwell

Slow start, sizzling end

Published by HarperCollins in 2006
384 pages

First and foremost - Boo to the publishers of this book for not clearly labeling that this paperback book is part of a trilogy. Sure, it's clear if you carefully look at the extremely long list of Cornwell's books inside the front cover, but I was holding my 15 month old while using my Christmas gift card and I really did not have the luxury of perusing through every page in the book store!

On to the book -
Bernard Cornwell

Despite not having read the first book, Cornwell does an admirable job of catching the reader up to where the action is in book two. However, he then goes meandering a bit. The story sort of sidles along until the Danes invade again and then it's a real action story. Cornwell's battle descriptions are top-notch. Perhaps only topped by Pressfield's Gates of Fire - but not by much.

The Pale Horseman is saddled with one of the most worthless maps I've ever seen in a book. Most of the cities, towns and forts Cornwell mentions are not on the map - perhaps he assumes a strong familiarity with English geography, but that is a rather big assumption for a book sold in the United States. Still, the book is quite enjoyable. I'll be looking for the sequel.

I give this one 4 stars.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Pale Horseman.

Reviewed on January 21, 2007.

Indianapolis Then and Now (Then & Now Series) by Nelson Price


144 pages.

This book is part of a series that looks at cities all over the country. While this book would most likely be of limited interest to non-Hoosiers, I found this book to be riveting. I've lived in Indy for 15 years now and I often visited the city as a child.

The format of the book is side by side photos of an Indianapolis address in the past (from 60 - 150 years ago) and a current photo of the same building. Sometimes the same buildings and landmarks are still in places, other times there are whole new buildings and landscapes.

Part of Indy's canal walk (photo by DWD)

Most striking are the changes in the area around Indy's much lauded canal walk, White River State Park and IUPUI. I was also surprised that the Indianapolis Star building is actually quite old - two beautiful buildings with character were merged into one building and then covered with one of the most boring brick facades I have ever seen on any building anywhere. Too bad.

Strongly recommended for residents of Indianapolis as a unique gift.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Thsi book can be found on Amazon.com here: Indianapolis: Then and Now.

Reviewed on January 6, 2008.

Biggest Brother: The Life Of Major Dick Winters, The Man Who Led The Band of Brothers by Larry Alexander

Published by NAL Hardcover in 2005
320 pages

An enjoyable memoir of  Dick Winters' life, mostly focusing on his time in the military. Dick Winters is one of the main focuses of the splendid HBO mini-series Band of Brothers and the Stephen Ambrose book by the same name. Throughout, Winters gives open and honest assessments of fellow officers and soldiers, and training levels of replacements soldiers and Korean War soldiers.

Dick Winters (1918-2011)

I have not yet read Stephen Ambrose's book Band of Brothers but am a giant fan of the mini-series. Dick Winters re-tells this story with the focus on his own experiences. The Nixon-Winters and Stobel-Winters relationships are explored a bit more in-depth than are presented in the TV program.

The pacing of the non-military aspects of his life is generally very good, with the exception of one page early that goes into too much detail about his family background. This reflects the fact that the author is also a Pennsylanian who is from the same area that Winters grew up in. Those family connections mean something to locals, but I skimmed it and hoped that the rest of the book wasn't going to be like that one. It was not and the rest of the book was really quite good.

A must for World War II devotees and recommended reading for fans of Band of Brothers.

I rate this biography 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Biggest Brother: The Life of Major Dick Winters, The Man Who Led the Band of Brothers.

Reviewed on January 6, 2008.

Mysteries of the Ancient World by National Geographic Society

Okay, but disappointing

Published in 1979 by National Geographic

So, why am I disappointed?

I was hoping for an theme-based work that looked at different mysterious objects, behaviors and cultures of the ancient world across the world and made comparisons and connections between them.

Easter Island
Instead, this book is a series of unrelated articles that have the look and feel of the National Geographic style. Don't get me wrong - I like the National Geographic style but the book as a whole lacks flow and feels more like a copy of the magazine than a special book. It is not an integrated work and leaves out plenty of big mysteries (Great Zimbabwe, Nazca Lines, Petra, the Olmecs) in favor of smaller mysteries such as the Etruscans and Catal Huyuk.

Topics include:

-The Etruscans
-Ice age cave paintings
-Stonehenge and related Megaliths
-Minoan civilization
-Mycenaean civilization
-Catal Huyuk and Jericho
-Easter Island and the South Pacific Ocean
-Ancient Egypt
-Ancient India

I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Mysteries of the Ancient World.

Reviewed January 8, 2008

Great Maps of the Civil War: Pivotal Battles and Campaigns Featuring 32 Removable Maps (Museum in a Book) by William J. Miller

A beautiful book. Recommended for map lovers and hard-core Civil War buffs.

Published by Rutledge Hill Press (Thomas Nelson)
48 pages 

Thomas Nelson's Rutledge Hill Press publishing division has created a lovely book that tells a simple narrative of the Civil War focusing on the importance of maps in the war and the men who made them.

The cover of the book is designed to look like a leather bound canvas portfolio, much like a mapmaker's sketchbook of the era. The text of the book is beautifully printed on high quality paper. I appreciated the fact that the publishers included lots of pictures of everyday soldiers - not just the same old posed shots of the generals and politicians.

Lincoln and McClellan after Antietam

There are 32 removable maps included as well. The removable maps are stored in between the pages. The publisher has printed on only one side of the thick paper pages and then glued the blank sides together on the edges to make an envelope of sorts between the pages. The maps are securely stored so there is no chance of accidentally losing a map.

I would not recommend this book as an introduction to the topic of the Civil War since it does precious little to introduce the issues that caused the war or Reconstruction. However, it is an attractive volume that would be welcome in the collection of any Civil War buff.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Great Maps of the Civil War.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on January 10, 2008.

Life in a Nutshell: A Nutty Look at Life, Marriage, TV, and Dogs by Dick Wolfsie

Pleasant musings from the mind of Wolfsie

Published in 2001 by Guilde Press of Indiana.
189 pages.

Dick Wolfsie is a local TV morning show personality in Indianapolis. He specializes in finding the offbeat and showing it to everyone with a camera and an interview. He used to share this responsibility with his lovable dog Barney, a runaway beagle that he found one day. Unfortunately, Barney is no longer with us.
Dick Wolfsie

Dick Wolfsie's writings are mostly light-hearted humourous musings about life. Many are re-prints from a column he writes.

While I rarely laughed out loud at his commentary, I did find it amusing and enjoyed myself. Recomended for that middle-aged dad that's hard to buy for.

I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Reviewed on January 17, 2008.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Life in a Nutshell.

Indiana Curiosities: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities, and Other Offbeat Stuff by Dick Wolfsie

Wolfsie's lighthearted, witty style is perfect for this topic

Published in 2003 by Globe Pequot
306 pages

Dick Wolfsie
Indianapolis TV personality Dick Wolfsie is well-known in Central Indiana for finding fun, interesting human-interest segments for his station's morning show. Wolfsie continues this theme by digging up oddities from all over the Hoosier state that would interest any traveler who wants to stray from the beaten path. Wolfsie provides a description of the curiosity, organized by region and alphabetized by the town in which it is located. The book covers five regions and includes a map of that region that labels every town mentioned in that section of the book, no matter how small the town.

Examples include the RV museum in Elkhart, a jar museum in Muncie and the site of John Dillinger's first official crime in Mooresville.

Wolfsie includes addresses, phone numbers, websites, e-mail addresses and contact names (some are only available through appointments). Rough directions from Indianapolis are included.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Indiana Curiosities.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on January 28, 2008.

Hostage (audiobook) by Robert Crais


Published in 2008 by Brilliance Audio
Read by James Daniels
Duration: 9 hours, 33 minutes.

I must be out of the loop - I am a Crais fan but have never seen this book before nor was I aware that it had been made into movie until I wrote this review.

Robert Crais

Nevertheless, despite my previous ignorance I found this book to be thoroughly enjoyable. More than that, I found it to be riveting, fascinating and I enjoyed Crais's ability to turn a cops and robber story into something more. James Daniels's brilliant narration is perfect for this text - every character has his own distinct voice. Daniels puts the right edge in his voice, be it the menacing quality of some of the characters or the panicky threats of others as they scream at the hostage negotiators. This is an audiobook done right!

The plot revolves around 3 guys who rob a small town gas station and then while attempting to flee run into a gated community and take a family hostage inside their own home. The SWAT team shows up and surrounds the house. We discover the small town police chief is actually a former big city hostage negotiator who is not sure if he can deal with another high pressure situation.  But, that may be the least of the criminals' problems - father of the family is actually a mafia accountant and the mob knows that if the police storm the house they will discover enough mafia secrets to take down their organization and they will do anything to prevent that...

5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Hostage by Robert Crais.

Toward the Light of Liberty: The Struggles for Freedom and Rights That Made the Modern Western World by A.C. Grayling

Strong, flawed, important work with a valuable, urgent message

Published in 2007 by Walker and Company
288 pages.

 I had to pick up this book as soon as I stumbled upon it. One of the themes in my history classes is the expansion of freedom in the West following the same general timeline that Grayling follows. Who doesn't like to have his own thoughts echoed by a major English philosopher?

John Locke (1632-1704)


I do recommend this book - it is a readable, admirable attempt at covering a vast, important topic. Grayling covers John Locke especially well (although he disposes with the views of Hobbes rather quickly by asserting that people are not necessarily nasty and brutal with one another).

Grayling's most important message is quite simple: the rights that we have are the product of a lot of time and a lot of struggles and they should be cherished and well-guarded. When the reader has completed this book it should be quite clear that this inheritance is too valuable to be squandered.

To his credit, Grayling does not treat Marx and Engels as if they were true prophets. Rather, he successfully counters their arguments and, unlike many academics, expresses no sympathy with their devotees in the USSR - tyranny is tyranny, no matter its political leanings with Mr. Grayling.


Grayling has intended this book to be an answer to 19th century English historian Lord Acton's incomplete "History of Liberty" - a work that is friendly to the role of religion in Liberty and Freedom in the West. Grayling is most definitely not agreeable to that point. It is too bad that this bias runs throughout the book. This work is strong in so many ways, but this attitude is over-emphasized

Grayling begins with Martin Luther and the Reformation. The longest argument that Grayling makes is against the uniform power of the Catholic church during those dangerous times, especially the Inquisition. Grayling overplays his hand by painting all religions with the taint of the Inquisition over and over throughout the book. At one point (p. 234) he even argues that religious people are not good citizens because their loyalties are divided between the "secular state" and their religion. Too my mind, his argument comes dangerously close to swinging to becoming zealous opposite of the Inquisition - an anti-religious inquisition, if you will.

The book gets bogged down for about 20 pages in a detailed look at the labor movement in England in the 1800s. I am not quite sure why he focused this intently on reciting this story because it stands in stark contrast to the philosophical and idea-centered writing that fills the rest of the book. My advice - skim and move on to the meatier portions that follow.

Grayling includes photos in the center of the book. Oddly they include photos of Martin Luther King, anti-segregation protestors in both America and South Africa and Algerians being hassled by French troops in the 1950s - these topics are not actually addressed in the book.

A pet peeve - Grayling has lots of end notes - many of them with comments. Why not make them footnotes so the reader does not have to flip to the back so often?

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Toward the Light of Liberty: The Struggles for Freedom and Rights that Made the Modern Western World.

Reviewed on January 30, 2008.

Palestine: The Special Edition (graphic novel) by Joe Sacco

An important piece of "comic book journalism"

Published in 2007 by Fantagraphics books.
320 pages.

Joe Sacco headed off to to the Palestinian refugee camps with a few bucks in his pocket, a sketchpad, a little training in how to draw comic books, a rarely used camera (film was too expensive) and a curious mind. Sacco interviewed Palestinians and asked them about all sorts of aspects of their lives: jobs, the intifada, women's rights, Land for Peace, and much more. Sacco turned those interviews into this graphic novel (although Sacco does not like that term much - instead he prefers "comic book journalist").

Joe Sacco (self-portrait)
There is no traditional narrative to this book. Sacco does not turn these interviews into a large over-arching history of the Palestininan people. Instead, it is like reading a series of illustrated interviews. This gives the reader the feeling that he or she is there sitting right there with Sacco talking and drinking green tea in the camps. In a way, the story would be better if he had tried to make an illustrated history, but, in the end, I think this is a more powerful presentation. Imagine "based on real events" movie vs. a documentary and you get the idea.

Sacco occasional touches on the topic of who is right and who is wrong in this book. It does carry a pro-Palestinian slant (it was designed to be that way - I have no idea where Sacco's real sympathies lie), but it does not hammer on those issues.

Not a fun book, but an important one. Strongly recommended for anyone interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no matter which side you come down on.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Palestine: The Special Edition

Reviewed on February 2, 2008.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Ten Big Ones (Stephanie Plum #10) by Janet Evanovich (audiobook)

Published by MacMillan Audio
Narrated by C.J. Critt
Duration: about 8 hours.

Ten Big Ones features Stephanie Plum and Lula going up against 1) a soccer mom who raids potato chip trucks and 2) a psychopathic street gang member. Stephanie's endless on-again-off-again relationship with Morelli continues its strange path - but the twists and turns seem forced this time. Too bad, I was such an enthusiastic supporter of the early books in the series - but the newer ones just don't have it.

In fact, the whole franchise seems tired. Lula and Stephanie's banter. Stephanie's sister and her fiance. Grandma. Morelli. Ranger. It has a warmed over feeling.

I found Stephanie's total lack of awareness of street gangs (and their propensity to violence) in her hometown is silly, especially considering that she admits to having caught some of these gang members in the past. She didn't notice the graffiti? The outfits? Doesn't she listen to the news?

My unabridged audio version was read by C.J. Critt. Critt did an okay job, but not a great job. Too many of the lines were read as though they were one-liners - too many punchlines that just hung there because they really weren't terribly funny. She is not the reader of the Audible.com or CD versions of the book.

This was a solid two-star read for me except for the last scene - it made me laugh out loud and that's worth a star to make it a total of 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Ten Big Ones.

Reviewed on February 16, 2008.

Glacial Period (Louvre) (graphic novel) by Nicolas de Crecy

"Glacial Period" comes up short despite self-proclaimed greatness.

Published in 2007 by NBM Publishing.
80 pages.

So, what do you get when a hotshot graphic novelist teams up with the Louvre to showcase their works of art with a twist?

Well, you get a short sci-fi book that has a solid start but a contrived, odd end. In short, this is a half-hour read for most and the story was not all that great. It wasn't bad, but it just doesn't live up the self-promotional hype that fills the inside flaps of the front and back covers - such as "Here are the most intelligent comics the world has to offer" and claims that the other is a "mad genius" and his artwork is "breathtaking."

Not really. This one is too sketchy (not the art style, the plot) to be considered great by this reader.

I rate this graphic novel 2 stars out of 5.

This graphic novel can be found on Amazon.com here: Glacial Period

Reviewed on February 7, 2008.

Ending Slavery: How We Free Today's Slaves by Kevin Bales

An Important Book

Published in 2007 by University of California Press.
274 pages.

So, who is surprised to hear that there are still slaves in this modern world in such places as India, Burma, Brazil, Haiti, Maryland and San Diego? What - Maryland? San Diego? Sadly, yes. Approximately 27 million of them around the world.

This well-researched, easy-to-read, hopeful book details several individual examples of slavery, how slaves are captured nowadays, the jobs they typically do, what to look for, how to combat slavery and long-term solutions.

Ocassionally repetitive, but it will definitely make you think.

Pet peeve: Bales includes lots of endnotes with commentary. This necessitated my having to flip back and forth from the text to endnotes. Please authors - if you are going to make comments in your endnotes, make them footnotes!

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Ending Slavery: How We Free Today's Slaves.

Reviewed on February 16, 2008.

Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge by Cheech Marin

A great collection, a terrific exhibition

Published in 2002 by Bullfinch.
160 pages

I caught this exhibition at the Indiana State Museum while it was on a nationwide tour. It was so interesting that I took full advantage of my museum membership and came back and saw it several times while it was here in Indianapolis. I picked up the book as the exhibit was winding down but only recently read the well-written introductory essays that make up the first 35 pages or so of the book.

Cheech Marin has created a high-quality full color text of this travelling show which is mostly comprised of pieces from his own personal collection. Marin's taste tends to run towards political art, but there is plenty that speaks of life for artists who are both Chicano and American, as the exhibition title (also the book title) imply.

Artists that grabbed my attention include:

Carlos Almaraz - his car crash paintings were gigantic attention getters in the gallaries. His other works are great as well.

David Botello - his Monet-like style is fascinating.

One of the best paintings may well be "Janine at 39, Mother of Twins" by Margaret Garcia. Cheech Marin's comment on page 67 hits it on the head: "If there is a visual definition of the lushness, the strength, and the beauty of women, this painting is it."

Cesar Martinez's "Hombre que le Gustan las Mujeres (The Man who Loves Women)" is funny and a sadly realistic portrayal of the ways that men see women.

Patssi Valdez's "Room on the Verge"
Patssi Valdez was the painter that stole the show in Indianapolis, at least from the comments I heard. Her pictures are so bright and have the power to make the viewer feel as though he or she is being drawn in to the canvas, especially with works like "Room on the Verge." Another painting of hers graces the cover of the book.

I did not care for the works of a couple of established artists: Gronk and Mel Casas. The Casas pieces in this show seemed less like a work of art and more like very large, not very clever political cartoons. That being said, it was entirely appropriate to include their works considering their standing in the Chicano art movement.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge.

Reviewed on February 17, 2008

Stranger in Paradise by Robert B. Parker

I think I've read this one before...

Published in 2008 by Putnam
304 pages

I am a gigantic fan of Robert B. Parker. I've read all of the Spenser books, the Stone books and the Randall books. And I'm slowly "re-reading" the Spenser books as audiobooks.

It is not lightly that I give this book two stars.

Robert B. Parker 
The Stone novels were always different than the Spenser / Sunny Randall novels. Spenser and Sunny always have that buddy network to fall back on (especially Hawk and Spike, respectively) Jesse has always been alone, except for his on-again off-again ex-wife, who actually makes his sense of being alone even stronger.

That whole formula is thrown out. Instead, we have a combination of a re-make of Spenser's April Kyle and Paul Giacomin stories told under Jesse Stone this time around. This time around we now have Amber.

Rather than Spenser's Hawk (a mysterious, unstoppable African-American who operates on the wrong side of the law that the ladies find irresistible and shares witty racial banter with Spenser) we now have Stone's Crow (a mysterious, unstoppable Native American who operates on the wrong side of the law that the ladies find irresistible and shares witty racial banter with Stone). Hawk. Crow. C'mon!

Parker often recycles previous plots (how can he not - he's written so many books!) but this was just too much for me. The story is easy to read, interesting and enjoyable, but it has too many recycled features for my taste.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Stranger in Paradise.

Reviewed on February 20, 2008.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

The book that turned into a phenomenon.

Published 2007 by Scholastic.
533 pages.
Text and illustrations by Brian Selznick

The Invention of Hugo Cabret was a gift to my daughter by her great aunt way back when she was in 3rd grade. She was at a critical time when some of her friends were losing interest in books (how sad to throw away such a powerful thing as reading for pleasure) and her great aunt stepped in in a big way with this book. The sheer magnitude of the thing made her eyes open wide and she looked at her great aunt dubiously as if to say, "Can I read anything this big?" Of course, she read it - that night. And, she got up again and read it again at 4 o'clock in the morning. She was so thrilled that she could read something with this much heft that she has never shrunk from another book again. And, she has read it at least once a year (if not more) since then.

So, because of my daughter I loved this book even before I read it. But, what did I think about it?

I enjoyed it. The pictures are great and they tell the story well. The writing is also good. It is simply told but not a simple story. I very much enjoyed both parts of the story. I appreciated the respect paid to old movies, to history in general and the honor given to people who are very talented with their hands. It does a great job of creating a whole new world and putting the reader right into it.

Very loosely inspired by real events, the plot involves an orphan named Hugo who lives in the Paris train depot and works as the keeper of the clocks. All of the clocks are powered by springs and have to be turned to keep running on time. Hugo is an orphan and his uncle was the keeper of the clocks and gets a room to stay in at the depot as a part of his pay. However, his uncle has now passed away and Hugo keeps the clocks running as though he is still alive just so he can have a place to live. Hugo is also afraid that he will lose an automatos (robot-like machines that look like people powered by gears) that his father was restoring at the time of his death. He has been stealing gears from a toymaker/seller in the depot to work on his automaton and at the beginning of the story he gets caught and everything looks like it will fall apart for Hugo...

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Reviewed on December 30, 2011.

Blaze by Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

Blaze is Stephen King's twist on Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men."

Hardcover edition - published June 2007 by Scribner.
285 pages.

Stephen King and DWD's Reviews have had an "on again off again" relationship. 25 years ago I read everything the man wrote and very much enjoyed it. It is one of my favorite books. But somewhere around Insomnia I got very tired of the Stephen King train and I got off for about 15 years. I picked up Cell at the library and I enjoyed it. Since then, I've done a little more Stephen King reading (and audiobooks) but not a lot. I've missed a lot of his books and will slowly work my way through many of them. I always enjoyed his Bachman books - Thinner and The Running Man have stayed with me for decades (especially The Running Man - King predicted reality television even better than he would have imagined way back when) so I picked this one up at a local bookstore and decided to give King another whirl.

Stephen King
Blaze can be summed up in just one phrase: "What if George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men moved from the Steinbeck novel to a Stephen King novel?" Of course, this world will be even darker than Steinbeck's world (which was dark enough) and our two main characters are not goodhearted day laborers, one worldly and one mentally retarded, trying to make their way through the world, they are con men and car thieves trying to make that one big score.

Bachman/King's book is much more detailed that Steinbeck's tiny classic, but it is every bit as interesting. This is an enjoyable, yet sad book that goes into the detail of Blaze's life (Blaze is the nickname for the Lennie character) and his attempt to follow through with a rather complicated kidnapping of a baby even though George died several months earlier. Blaze hears the voice of George in what I would assume is a personification of Blaze's own thoughts. Or, since this is Stephen King, it could be a ghost of George. It is never made clear.

It is an engrossing book that has the reader ironically pulling for a kidnapper. It is also a story of multiple "What ifs...?" at several points in Blaze's life. King is at his character-creating best in Blaze (I think that he gets overlooked for his ability to create rich and full characters) and when the book ends by a river in an homage to the ending of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. King acknowledges the inspiration in an entertaining introduction ("...kinda of hard to miss," he notes on page 4) and he also includes a short story first published in 2006 called Memory at the end of Blaze.

I rate this novel 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Blaze by Richard Bachman (Stephen King).

Reviewed on December 30, 2011.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

If You Want To Walk On Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat by John Ortberg

A Great Bible Study

Published 2001 by Zondervan
220 pages.
10 chapters with a Preface.

John Ortberg does not specialize in deep, seminary-level Bible studies. He is perfectly able to operate at that level, I am sure, but that is not the way to reach the common man or woman and this is a Bible study aimed at the regular church-going Christian that feels like he or she should be doing more (whatever that may be) and trusting in God for help in doing whatever that "more" is. The inspiration for the book comes from the story of Jesus walking on water and Peter being so inspired by the sight of it that he leaps out of the boat to join Jesus...for a few steps, anyway.

Jesus walking on water from the 
Codex Egberti (10th century)
For those that are concerned about this being a book about works-righteousness, Ortberg is not teaching that. He is teaching that God has called you to work in his Kingdom and Christians need to take a risk and step out in faith to do whatever it is they are called to do.

Ortberg's strength is solid, interesting, often funny writing with a point. He does not waste many words - he gets to his point without bludgeoning or badgering his readers. Each chapter includes review and discussion questions. There is also a workbook and a DVD - both are designed for small group studies and are helpful to create meaningful discussions (I did participate in just such a study).

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat

Reviewed on December 29, 2011.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Odyssey of the Gods: The History of Extraterrestrial Contact in Ancient Greece (audiobook) by Erich Von Däniken

More of the same from Von Däniken, but it is still interesting and entertaining.

Read by William Dufris
Duration: 7.5 hours
Published in October of 2011 by Tantor Audio

Erich Von Däniken’s bestselling 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? helped to popularize what is now known as the “ancient astronaut” theory. This theory was featured in the 1970s NBC documentary In Search Of Ancient Astronauts and has even made it to Hollywood with the X-Files and the latest installment of the Indiana Jones movies. In short, the theory is that humanity, thousands of years ago, was visited by aliens who built gigantic structures such as the pyramids and Stonehenge and were mistaken for gods by our ancestors. They are the inspiration behind much of the ancient mythology around the world and the fantastic beasts included in many of those myths are actually the result of genetic experimentation.

Von Däniken looks at three tales of ancient Greece and applies his broader ideas to those tales. The three tales are: 1) Jason and the Argonauts; 2) The Iliad/The Odyssey; 3) Atlantis. A great of deal of time in this audiobook is spent simply reciting these stories (easily one-third of the audiobook) and then stopping from time to time to offer insight based on his theories and fitting them back into his larger theory by noting how some aspects of the stories are similar to other tales from other ancient cultures, such as the Assyrians, ancient India, ancient Israel and even the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas.

As one can imagine, Von Däniken offers an interesting perspective on these stories. All of the creatures and heroes are the result of alien/human crossbreeding or genetic manipulation. Von Däniken allows no room for exaggeration – every tale is taken at face value, especially if it has great detail. He asserts that unnecessary detail in a story makes it less likely to be fiction (because no one would waste their time in creating it), which prompted me to wonder if he had ever read anything about the immense amount of unpublished extra details that J.R.R. Tolkein created just to lay down the backstory for his tales of Middle Earth.

Nonetheless, I did not listen to Von Däniken’s Odyssey of the Gods to look for a fight. As a history teacher, I truly enjoy a multitude of perspectives on history. I really do not take his entire theory seriously but he does, up to a certain point, have a valid question: how did our ancestors build giant pyramids and cities and create entire mythologies when they were literally just a few generations from being unorganized farming villages? It is a giant leap to go from simple farmers to highly organized priesthoods, advanced mathematics and the ability to build with multi-ton stones hauled from far away quarries and right now history has only the vaguest of answers as to how this happened. Throw in historical quirks like the Piri Reis map and the geometric web pattern that he claims covers all of the holy sites of ancient Greece and you have some good reasons to at least give Von Däniken a chance to lay out his theory.

Von Däniken is featured in an audiobook-exclusive interview after the book. His rather strong Swiss-German accent does nothing to hide his enthusiasm and infectious nature  – you just have to like him no matter what you think of his ideas. It is also obvious that the reader, William Dufris, strived to catch that aspect of his voice while reading the book. He did a remarkable job of reading the book and making it seem less like a textbook and more like an exceptionally well-presented seminar.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Odyssey of the Gods.

Reviewed on November 22, 2011.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Micro: A Novel (audiobook) by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston

Although it is a collaboration, it reads remarkably like a typical Crichton novel

Published 2011 by Harper Audio
Read by John Bedford Lloyd
Duration: 14 hours

Michael Crichton died in 2008 and left Micro as an unfinished manuscript. I have no idea how much of this book is actually Crichton's and how much belongs to Richard Preston. To me it felt like a typical Crichton novel.

Micheal Crichton (1942-2008)
A typical Crichton novel for me is a mixed bag. It has grand themes - truly big, big ideas with foundations in real science. Grand themes about the dangers of too much innovation without enough ethical considerations, lots of Gee Whiz stuff (think of the movie Jurassic Park where the paleontologists are mesmerized when they first see the dinosaurs) and laughable plot lines with sketch characters (the worst for me was State of Fear in which the big menacing bad guys were wedging themselves into Toyota Priuses as they stalked their opponents - yes, the Prius, the ultimate pursuit car!).

This book has all of that in spades.

The plot revolves around NanoGen, a Hawaiian start up company that has figured out (or stolen) how to shrink full-sized objects down to a very, very small size. People are about one half of an inch tall when they are shrunk. NanoGen claims to be using the technology to thoroughly search the Hawaiian rain forest for biological discoveries that  could be used to help create medicines. Their plan is to search the micro-world bit by bit (literally square foot by square foot) in tiny detail so that even creatures that cannot be seen with the naked eye can be harvested and investigated for possible uses in a bio-technology laboratory.

But, the bad guy in charge of the project also wants to use these tiny robots as weapons and has made plans to corrupt the original vision of NanoGen's founders. So, murder and mayhem result and soon enough we are following a group of college graduate students who have been shrunken and dumped into the rain forest in an attempt to get rid of even more witnesses (why weren't they immediately squished and flushed down the toilet? The bad guy is so over-the-top in his sadism that he wants to prolong their punishment, which of course eventually backfires.).

So, when our seven college graduate students are dumped in the rain forest (in the micro world as Crichton/Preston usually refer to it) we have several scenes that are reminiscent of Jurassic Park, except we don't have T. Rex and Velociraptors. Rather, we have centipedes, spiders, wasps and ants - all armored and all very dangerous to very tiny people. This part of the book is by far the best - the descriptions of the bugs, their habits, their defenses and their weapons are all fascinating. If it weren't for these details I would have to rate this novel poorly, but the descriptions are entertaining in and of themselves.

John Bedford Lloyd's narration of the book was solid but really did little to enhance or detract from the book.  His voices were solid. To be fair, most of the plot was inane, so it was not like he was working with a literary classic. His deep voice did add a lot to the menacing descriptions of the bugs.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Micro: A Novel.

Reviewed on December 27, 2011.

Bully! The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt by Rick Marschall

Easily the best biography I read this year.

Published in 2011 by Regnery History.

Bully! The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt is exactly the kind of book that will ensure that printed books will always have a place, no matter how many e-readers are sold. This is an absolutely beautiful book. It has a satisfying heft, it is printed on high quality paper (think coffee table book quality) and is chock full of political cartoons from an era when many political cartoons would have been full color and the size of an entire newspaper page. This book inspires the reader to flip through the pages, browse a bit, admire the art and do a little reading.

A larger, better reproduction of this cartoon appears in the book. 
I included it as a sample of the beautiful artwork.
Fortunately, Rick Marschall's text is every bit as accessible and enjoyable as the cartoons he has chosen to illustrate the hyperactive, hyper-productive, hyper-successful life of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. Marschall covers it all rom his very early entry to the world of politics (much of this was addressed in political cartoons as well), to his ranching days, his work in the Navy Department, to the Battle of San Juan Hill, his political climb from Governor of New York to Vice President to the Presidency. Not only that, we are treated to his trip to Africa, a European tour, the rain forests of Brazil, the Bull Moose Party controversy and, most of all, his vitality. Roosevelt was a force of nature. All of it was delicious material for the nation's prolific newspapers and their cartoonists and the story is much enriched by their inclusion. It gives the reader a great feel for how Roosevelt was actually viewed by the American public.

This book has completely reformed me from my wayward and youthful outlook on Theodore Roosevelt, a point of view discussed by the author on pages 400 and 401 in the "Acknowledgements" section. He notes that Roosevelt has become symbolic of all that is considered evil today on many of America's college campuses: "Hence, he became a virtual devil in much of academia, especially contrasted to Woodrow Wilson, who was painted as a dreamy internationalist and idealist who, if he had not been thwarted by Neanderthals at home and abroad, would have delivered heaven on earth." That was how I was taught. I was sure that Wilson was not what he had at first seemed (the more I learn, the more I am repulsed) but now I see TR in a new light as well.

My next book on the to-be-read pile was also a biography. Out of fairness to that biography, I am going to have to put it back into the pile and read something else in a different genre- this biography is so strong that I am quite sure that the other one will suffer unfairly in comparison.

I rate this biography 5 stars out of 5.

This book is available on Amazon.com here: Bully! The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt.

Reviewed on December 27, 2011.