"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, May 28, 2011

The Profession: A Thriller by Steven Pressfield

A cautionary tale buried inside some first-rate action.

The Profession is a near-future sci-fi action-adventure tale with a great deal of political analysis and some history tossed in as well.

Set in the year 2032, the world has become a different place, but not at all unrecognizable. The chaos in the Middle East still reigns supreme on the international scene because oil is still king ($8/gallon gasoline is threatening to collapse America's economy). Iran and Iraq are still fighting, terrorism still exist, the oil states in the Middle East are, at the same time, both strong and unstable. The United States is in the middle of an election that seems to be addressing none of the real issues that the country faces and none of the candidates inspire anyone to anything but changing the channel of the television when they appear.

Steven Pressfield
America is still acting as the world's de facto policeman, although this role is enhanced by a new creation - the private, mercenary armies that have their roots in the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars with groups like Blackwater - former special forces soldiers recruited to join private armies with the promise of much more money and many less restrictions. These private armies are no longer just support for official armies. No, they are real and complete armies with contracted air support, ships, tanks and lots of high-talent soldiers to operate everything. While they still cannot stand toe-to-toe with a large country's military, they are much more nimble and able to react with greater speed.

The technology of the world of 2032 is recognizable as well - the high explosives are a bit more explosive but in the world of war it is still machine guns, helicopters, missiles and drones.

Suddenly, in the midst of this chaos comes the head of Force Insertion, the largest mercenary company in the world, James Salter.  Salter is a former MacArthur-like Marine General who was removed from office for overstepping his bounds. In a bold political move that is reminiscent of Alcibiades and Julius and August Caesar, he offers a solution to all of the world's problems - give him the legal authority to be dictator of the United States (a legal possibility thanks to a series of bad laws passed after another 9/11 type of attack) and he will dispense with all of the arguing and just do what needs to be done.

The story is told from the point of view of Gilbert "Gent" Gentilhomme, a mercenary who knew Salter from their days in the Marines - the man who Salter treats like a son, and also the man who has a few misgivings about the whole thing.

This book can be read on multiple levels - as a cautionary tale, as a shoot-em-up, as a political thriller, or as a primer on how history can repeat itself.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Profession: A Thriller by Steven Pressfield.

Reviewed on May 28, 2011.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

My Indiana: 101 Places to See by Earl L. Conn

Probably the best travel book about Indiana.

West Baden Springs at Christmastime. Photo by DWD.
The Indiana Historical Society's My Indiana: 101 Places to See is a colorful, informative guide to touring the state of Indiana. Every one of the 101 sites gets two pages, including at least two color photos (some have as many as four), a multi-paragraph, well-written description of the place and a section called "If You Go" that includes direction, phone numbers, websites, hours of operation and fees.

The choices are all solid and are spaced throughout the state. But, I could easily come up with 101 more places to go and see so hopefully the author is considering another volume. (Update: The author has created a book called My Indiana: 101 More Places to See)

Two notes of correction:

1) the entry for West Baden Springs (pp. 200-1) is out of date (thankfully). What was just an abandoned hulk of a ruined hotel (impressive even with pealing paint and no prospects for large-scale repair when this book was written) has become a 5 star resort and casino. I saw the atrium pictured on page 201 during the Christmas season and it is now a breathtaking spectacle that caused my 3 & 8 year old daughters to suck in their breaths and quietly say, "Wow!" (see picture above). They were inspired play princess in the castle for 20 minutes while my wife and I looked around and spoke with a very nice concierge about the building.

2) #29 is the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana. What was once the largest privately held museum of Lincoln memorabilia is now closed. The entire collection is now in the hands of the Indiana State Museum in White River Park in downtown Indianapolis (see #39 for White River Park). You may ask, "Why Lincoln? Isn't he from Illinois?" Well, sort of. He grew up in Indiana. He lived in Indiana from age 7 to age 21 (see location #90 for his boyhood home).

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: My Indiana: 101 Places to See.

Reviewed on February 15, 2009.

What Your Parents Never Told You About Being A Mom Or Dad by Stan and Jan Berenstain


I found this 3 1/2 hour audiobook and figured I'd come across a hidden gem. A book about kids by the Berenstains! Who would know more than those folks that have created books, videos, a TV show with lots of wholesome values and fun?

What Your Parents Never Told You About Being A Mom Or Dad is full of wholesome values. It offers practical advice on raising kids and a bit of an introduction to the Berenstain's experiences in raising a family.


It's a tedious listen. Extraordinarily tedious. After the general introduction (20 minutes or so) the book gets bogged down in attempts at pithy humor, quips and puns than just don't work. I forced myself to listen to an hour and a half of the meat of this book and finally couldn't go any longer.

While full of good advice, I have to give any book that I cannot finish a one star. This thing should have been edited down to about one hour and it would have had much more impact.

Narrated by C.J. Critt and Robert Sevra who did the best the could with what they had to work with. 

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: What Your Parents Never Told You about Being a Mom or Dad

Reviewed on February 20, 2009.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Mind Slash Matter (audiobook) by Edward Wellen

Truly Unique Mystery

Duration: 3 hours, 1 minute

Mind Slash Matter is a unique entry into the world of mystery thrillers. The hero is a 2-time Oscar-winning screenwriter, Rush Lightbody, who is now a shell of his former self due to Alzheimer's. However, he is able to function due to a wonderful computer that he pre-programmed before the Alzheimer's set in that interacts with him by way of speakers, microphones, videocameras and pagers. Thus, Rush Lightbody is able to convince the outside world that he is still okay by way of a series prompts and firm instructions that come from the computer.

Rene Auberjonois
At times, it is reminiscent of Peter Sellers' movie Being There in that the people Lightbody interacts with over-interpret his incorrect responses as exceedingly wise responses. Often funny, often sad, this book causes the reader to enter the mind of an Alzheimers victim and get a taste of that alternate reality. It never degrades Alzheimers victims or goes for the cheap jokes.

The technology is a bit dated, due to the book having been written in 1995, the author was merely guessing as to the nature of computer technology in the future. Cell phones have basically replaced pagers and at one point Lightbody re-programs the computer in just a few minutes - an impossibility, as is Artificial Intelligence thus far. However, suspend the techno-geek part of your personality and this is a magnificent audiobook experience.

Rene Auberjonois (From TV's Benson and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) does an absolutely wonderful job of reading this novel. He does several characters perfectly, including an aging blonde-bombshell B-Movie actress - his characterization of her was so good that I had to pick up the box and see if there was an actress playing her part. Wonderful job! Seriously, one of the best jobs of reading an audiobook  that I've heard.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Mind Slash Matter

Reviewed on February 13, 2006.

Cell by Stephen King

I have not read a Stephen King book since Insomnia...

...because I was so disappointed in that book. So, it's been 12 or 13 years since I've even picked up a Stephen King book. I thought it was time to try again.

So, what was the verdict?

Enjoyable read. At times, I could not put it down.

Stephen King
No one writes gore better than King. He adds detail that makes you feel like you were there. King's easy reading style sucks the reader right in and the reader wants to know what is going to happen next. Uncharacteristically, King fails to do much in the area of character development, outside of the main character of Clay. Too bad.

One cannot help but to compare Cell to The Stand. It would be unfair to say that Cell is a mini-Stand. The over-arching themes of good vs. evil are not present. The character development is, by comparison, non-existent. Cell is not as good, but not as much of a time investment, either.

The plotline is rather straightforward - a "pulse" goes through every active cell phone in the world at the same time that pretty much fries the brain of the user and turns them in all into super-enraged zombie-like creatures that attack everyone that was not affected by the pulse. They are not zombies as in they are undead, but rather they function at that level. King tells us the story of some of the survivors.

So - to sum it all up. Cell is good, not as good as King at his best, but definitely worth a look.

I give it 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Cell by Stephen King. 

Reviewed on February 8, 2006.

White Cargo by Stuart Woods

Engrossing - pulled me right in

There are two Stuart Woods out there, at least in my mind. There's the early Stuart Woods that wrote great books like Chiefs and there's the Stone Barrister-writing Stuart Woods that just writes a formula plot, mail it in and collects a check.

In White Cargo, a wealthy American, Wendell Catledge, is yachting off of the coast of Colombia when he is attacked by pirates and his wife and daughter are kidnapped and end up in the underworld of the narco-traffickers. Catledge goes underground to find his family in Colombia.

White Cargo is definitely an early Stuart Woods book! I found myself pulled into this plot and I just had to know what happened next, despite the fact that the violence and sexual exploitation was a bit too extreme for my tastes. The ending was fairly hokey but the overall strength of the rest of the book more than makes up for that.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: White Cargo by Stuart Woods.

Reviewed on January 14, 2006.

Life's Little Annoyances: True Tales of People Who Just Can't Take It Anymore by Ian Urbina

(Too) Quick and Fun!

Like others who have reviewed Life's Little Annoyances: True Tales of People Who Just Can't Take It Anymore, I first learned about it by way of a piece about it on CNN and I am glad that I asked for it for Christmas.

Full of short vignettes (1-3 pages) about the inanities of modern life and some people's amusing ways of dealing with it, this is the perfect bathroom book, if you know what I mean.

My favorites include:

*the man who dealt with the 'adult' bookstore in his community by giving every customer he saw as he drove by a friendly honk on the horn in an attempt to make the customers wonder if someone they actually knew really saw them patronizing a porn shop.

Ian Urbina
*the man who mailed all kinds of things to the credit card companies in those nifty return envelopes that they include with their offers, including their shredded offers, other junk mail and even strips of metal!

*the guy who has a website that demonstrates the proper way to park a car. He puts business cards with the web address on the windshields of bad parkers.

My only complaint is that the book is just too short. It's great fun, but it's too short.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found here: Life's Little Annoyances: True Tales of People Who Just Can't Take It Anymore.

Reviewed on January 14, 2006.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hornet Flight by Ken Follet

Sure it's formulaic but it works!

Ken Follett
Ken Follett's Hornet Flight is a rousing World War II adventure full of all of the characters you'd expect in a film noire spy thriller about the Nazis. We have the plucky Englishwoman, spunky high school kids, brave soldiers and a scarred-up German officer who wears the jackboots and everything.

You know how it's going to end even before you start thanks to too much information on the description page but it's still a rollicking fun ride. It hit me just right during these blase winter days.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Hornet Flight.

Reviewed on February 21, 2009.

Beyond Belief to Convictions (audiobook) by Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler

Disappointed in the abridged audiobook

I've seen Josh McDowell speak many times and I know that he can be a strong speaker and I do wish that he had read this book. This book has strong attributes, but when combined with the reader (Greg Wheatley) it can be tedious.

The audiobook seems poorly put together at times but I suppose that is due to a poor abridgement.

The reader is very poor, which is surprising since the cover notes note that he has a wealth of radio experience. He fails to do basic things like pause. For example, most readers would read like this:

Chapter One
It was a dark and stormy night...

This book is more like this (in a monotone):


Other negatives:

McDowell includes a fictional story of friends at college that are struggling with their faith. Those stories are stilted and read like they were written for ...well, like they were written for a Sunday school book. The people don't talk like kids (I teach high school and those kids spoke more like 60 year olds than teenagers) and the reactions of some are so emotionally secure that it seemed fakey.

Following the climax of the fictional story came a sermon that was not all that hot either. Perhaps it was the reader, but it didn't do much for me.

What was good:

McDowell tells a lot of his personal story in here. If he'd have ditched the fictional people and told more about himself it would have been so much more powerful because his story is compelling and touching.

The ending is very strong with a good dose of Christian apologetics concerning the crucifixion.

Another reviewer on Amazon.com noted that there is another version of this book read by McDowell himself. Search that one out if you have to have this book in audio format.

I rate this audiobook 2 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Beyond Belief to Convictions.

Reviewed on March 10, 2009.

Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers by Carl J. Richard

Great book even though it was not quite what I thought it was.

So, if it was not quite what I thought it was, what is it?

Greeks and Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers is a very succinct, well-written and entertaining history of the Ancient Greeks and the Romans with a little commentary at the end of each section about how these histories influenced the Founding Fathers. For example, he has seven pages on a history of the Spartans (probably the best short explanation of the Spartans I have ever read) and two pages about the lessons learned. There are 13 pages on the Persian Wars and just one page about the lesson learned.
"Declaration of Independence" by John Trumbull

This book does fill a serious gap in our education nowadays. Unfortunately, in the world of education, it is not uncommon to think of Western history as not important to our lives ("Hey! Ho! Western culture's got to go!" - Stanford protesters in 1988). But, this book demonstrates that the Greek and Romans histories were the foundational documents for the American experiment in self-government. They provided the examples of what worked, what did not work and the pitfalls and dangers of the operation of a republic. Sadly, you will find much more in modern textbooks about the supposedly extensive influence of the Iroquois Confederacy on the Founding Fathers than you will find about the extensive and pervasive influences of Cicero, Cato, the experiences of Athens and the Roman Republic.

The author, Richard, notes in his last sentence: "Perhaps it is time to learn whatever lessons the ancients can teach the twenty-first century." (p. 181)

Amen to that.

This quick and delightful read is highly recommended.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Greeks and Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers

Reviewed on March 10, 2009.

Don't Look Twice: A Novel (Ty Hauck #2) by Andrew Gross

Much like his mentor, Gross provides a readable, entertaining read

Andrew Gross
Much like his mentor James Patterson, Andrew Gross has written a readable crime novel with plenty of twists and turns, lots of personal stuff thrown in and written in a pleasant, accessible style.

Don't Look Twice: A Novel is the second in a series about Ty Hauck but you do not have to have read the first to follow what's going on in this installment. The story is chock full of short chapters and the trail is complicated, but not impossibly so.

My one pet peeve is the Spanish in the book. It only appears on two pages in my Advance Reader's Edition but it is awful. "Victor no es aqui" is not proper or even remotely adequate Spanish. This is Spanish One material. It sounds like something from a translator website. C'mon now, Mr. Gross. There are millions of native speakers throughout the country. Find one and have him or her vet your Spanish in the future. It should have been "Victor no está aquí."

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Don't Look Twice.

Reviewed on March 10, 2009.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Creed (mp3 track) by Rich Mullins

One of the most beautiful songs, let alone Christian songs I've ever heard

Creed is a simple re-tooling of the Apostle's Creed by Rich Mullins into a song. The changes to the creed are minor.

What makes the song so beautiful is Mullins' use of the hammer dulcimer, a wonderful stringed percussion instrument. The music comes out as both wonderfully delicate yet as powerful as any strong drum introduction to any '80s Hair Band metal hit.

Rich Mullins (1955-1997)
I am not a big fan of Contemporary Christian music as a whole. I do not dislike it, but there's precious little that I've heard that is worth my hearing a second time. This song has stayed with me for a long time.

The lyrics as I stated, are based on the Apostle's Creed but the chorus is his and states a powerful concept that struck me as profound when I heard it a decade ago and still strikes me today:

And I believe what I believe
Is what makes me what I am
I did not make it, no it is making me
It is the very truth of God and not
The invention of any man

"I did not make it, no it is making me." Isn't that how all of us should be as we travel through this world on our journey of faith?

I rate this mp3 track 5 stars out of 5. I can be found on Amazon.com here: Creed by Rich Mullins.

Reviewed on March 14, 2009.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Journal of a UFO Investigator (audiobook) by David Halperin

If this were baseball, Halperin would be swinging for the fence, but coming up short.

Published by Blackstone Audio in 2011.
Read by Sean Runnette.
Duration: 10 hours, 36 minutes.


David Halperin's Journal of a UFO Investigator is a semi-autobiographical novel. It ties together UFOs, death, growing up, family dynamics and religion in general (and Judaism in particular) in the story of Daniel Shapiro, a schoolboy growing up in the 60s in far suburban Philadelphia. Halperin is a former professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill with a special focus on Judaism and what he calls "religious traditions of heavenly ascent." Already an established author of non-fictional academic works, this is Halperin's first novel. 

Danny Shapiro's world is crashing down around him. His mother is slowly dying from heart disease. His father does not understand him. He is Jewish in the heavily Christian suburbs and, as he gets older, this is becoming much more of an issue. He cannot date the girl he wants to date because she is not Jewish and it would crush his already weak mother. His family is Jewish but does not attend services so Danny does not feel the comfort of ancient traditions. Danny is alienated, to say the least. His one and only outlet is his journal of his experiences with UFOs and UFO research. 

Danny's journal is not necessarily written in chronological order and the reader will suffer quite a bit of early confusion in trying to figure out what stories are journal entries and what stories are taking place outside of the journal. We also find out that Danny's journal is not necessarily factual -- Danny is using it as an escape from the pain and confusion of his real life. He blends his fantasies and his reality together so well that they are hard for the reader to distinguish. 

Halperin also blends together traditional UFO stories with religious imagery from several religious traditions, although mostly from Judaism. We have traditional UFO stories such as flying discs, the Men in Black and probings from aliens. Halperin blends them together, with references to so many other authors and religious traditions that I often felt like I was being left out unless I scribbled down some notes and went to do some research. 

The audiobook was read by Sean Runnette. Runnette has a soothing, clear voice. However, there are many times when the voices are not differentiated enough and I had a tough time figuring out who was supposed to be speaking unless it specifically said who was saying each line. 

The most obvious comparison that I can make with this book is the classic Kurt Vonnegut book, Slaughterhouse-Five. It shares many themes, the same sort of loose structure, especially the nonlinear style. But Vonnegut is the master of dark humor. His tension and dark mood are often punctuated by tension-releasing humor, which allows the tension to build anew. Halperin just hits the same note throughout: "We pick our demons and build our own worlds around them." We limit ourselves, it does not matter if it is by race, class, religion or with conspiracies and UFOs -- we all do it. It is a worthy point but the follow through comes up short. 

I rate this audiobook 2 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Journal of a UFO Investigator.

Note: I was sent a free sample of this audiobook to review in exchange for an honest review.

Reviewed on May 7, 2011.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession and the President's War Powers by James F. Simon

An interesting head-to-head biography about two gentlemen who went head-to-head quite often during the Civil War.

James F. Simon's Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney shines an interesting light on two overlooked aspects of 19th century American history.

The first overlooked aspect is the Supreme Court, specifically the person of Roger Taney (pronounced Tawney), the Chief Justice most famous for what may be known for all time as his single worst legal opinion, and one of the most controversial and ill-considered opinions of all time - Dred Scott.

Roger Taney  
Simon tells the story of Taney's life, including his surprisingly liberal views on slavery and his legal defense of blacks who were seized illegally to be sold into slavery, the fact that he freed most of his family's slaves and even provided a modest pension for the elderly ones. Taney even defended an the rights of an abolitionist preacher to preach his message in Maryland. However, it seems that those opinions all changed once slavery became THE issue of the 1840s and 1850s. His views seem to have hardened in response to outside pressure on the institution of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln 
I must admit that I was not well-informed about Taney - for me he was the man who is most famous for the line about African-Americans in which he says that they were "so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."  Of course, it turns out that Taney's political life was much more than just that one line that appears in all of the history books and I did learn a lot about Taney's life and the intricate politics of the era - more than a reader normally gets: Jackson, Calhoun, Webster, Clay and finally Lincoln. Taney bridges all of these figures, was seen as a moderating presence for most of that time and really gets the short-shrift historically due to the abusive excesses of the Dred Scott decision.

Lincoln, on the other hand, is, seemingly, the subject of a new biography every week. What has not been written about Lincoln? In this case, there is nothing new, but the focus on his administration's interactions with the Taney Court is interesting and thought-provoking.

This is a good, small dual biography of two of the towering political figures of their time. Not so much detail that the general history reader is bored, not so little that the serious reader of history is turned off.

I rate this biography 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney.

Reviewed on May 15, 2011.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Dove and Sword: A Novel of Joan of Arc by Nancy Garden

Joan of Arc (1412-1431)

I am always in a quest to find a sizable number of historical fiction titles to use in my class. I bought this book in the hope of adding it to my classroom collection, and I will do just that. However, I also was hoping to be able to enthusiastically recommend it, as I have been able to do for many other titles. That I cannot do.

I have no problem with the historical details of the book. Rather, I was unimpressed with the writing. It tended to drag and be a bit repetitive. Reluctant readers will be turned off.

I was also expecting more about Joan of Arc. Instead, we are treated to a fictional female friend named Gabrielle who wants to be a midwife and doctor that follows Joan to the battlefield (the Dove, to Joan's sword - thus the title).

So, it joins my collection, but I will only be recommending it to those specifically interested in Joan of Arc, rather than as a general recommendation.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Dove and Sword: A Novel of Joan of Arc.

Reviewed on January 11, 2006.

Spectator Sport by James Alexander Thom

One of James Alexander Thom's first published books - shows his potential and rookie problems.

James Alexander Thom
James Alexander Thom is one of my favorite authors. In my classroom I have had two of his books on my shelves and kids come to me looking for something to read I recommend those books first due to the power of the storytelling. Those that accept my recommendations concerning his books are never disappointed. Great stuff!

While most of his books concern the frontier days of America's old Northwest Territory (Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, etc.), Spectator Sport concerns itself with the rain-shortened and deadly 1973 Indy 500. The race took part over the course of 3 days and was finally called after a little more than 300 miles due to rain and the fact that only 9 of the 33 starters were still on the track. Thom was at the race and the events inspired him to write this book and explore the motivations of race fans, violence on television and the news and voyeurism of all sorts.

This book however does not qualify as great - it is too up and down and inconsistent.

First - what is done well:

-Thom accurately portrays the way the 'Snake Pit' of the Indy 500 used to be - the dirt, the beer, the hedonism.

-Thom accurately captures the feel of the 500 just before the race starts. The tension, the anticipation, the pomp and ritual.

-Thom's descriptions of the Speedway and its environs are dead-on. Especially the traffic and the insanity of the some of the police who are directing it.

What does not work so well:

-Too many characters - especially the boy from Kokomo who has to see the race no matter what. The girls who break out from the Indiana Girls' School (Indiana's prison for teenaged girls)and party in the infield are interesting but also fail to advance the story.

-Thom's theme is that sex, violence and power are all inter-related. The fighter pilot war hero and the soft-porn movie starlet, and the 500 festival princess who poses naked for the camera are all supposed to tie in with the race and the mayhem that occurred on the track, in the stands (debris and fuel were sprayed all over one section of the stands) and in the infield. However, I thought that Thom failed to connect all of these dots and the story gets too off-target. Too many themes means that he hits none of them well. It would have been better to have made two books - one exploring the violence of auto racing and the motivations of the racers and the fans, the other exploring sexuality, power and fidelity.

Fans of the 500 will appreciate:

-Transcripts of the race thrown into the text to tell the reader how far along the race is. These are actually transcribed from "The Voice of the 500" Sid Collins' personal tapes and include ads, Sid Collins and other local (Indy area) broadcasters such as Mike Ahern.

-Local sites such as the Indiana Girls' School, The Coke Lot, The Snake Pit and a local west side bakery that just has to be Long's Bakery.

Bottom line: The book has lots of faults, shows his great promise as an author but really does not quite deliver. Hardcore fans of the Indy 500 will certainly appreciate it.

**On a different note, why do they use a modern era Indy Car on the cover photo rather than a car from the '73 race?

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Spectator Sport

Reviewed on January 4, 2006.

The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men by Christina Hoff Sommers

This teacher comments: One of the best non-fiction books I've read all year!

I graduated from Indiana University in 1990 - just as the 'girls are fragile' movement was gaining momentum. I was taught the 'facts' that Sommers refers to in numerous in-services (for all of you non-teachers, many teacher in-services are attempts at teacher training in which a speaker comes and entertains or horrifies us with a speech that usually has little or no practical value - when I taught in the inner city it was usually the horrifying type: "these kids are all failing and blah-blah percent of them will end up dead or in jail and it's all because you didn't teach them how to multiply fractions or diagram a sentence correctly!").

Anyway, I did buy into some of the stuff about girls being fragile and being overrun in the classroom. I have heard the statistics Sommers skewers so completely and thoroughly and I swallowed many of them hook, line and sinker because it was early in my career and as a young person I foolishly believed that if a Harvard PhD researched the facts they must be right. As a more jaded professional, I appreciate Sommers' meticulously end noted work.
Hoff Sommers

In The War Against Boys she embarrasses the 'fragile girl' theorists by burying their under-researched (and sometimes un-researched) theories in a blizzard of relavent studies and facts from responsible and trusted sources (for example, I've had the '4 million women die from physical abuse from a man' stat thrown at me in a diversity seminar. Yes, verbally thrown at me - as if I were the man who personally beat them all to death! Well, if it happens again, I'm armed with the REAL facts from the Centers for Disease Control, thanks to Sommers).

Sommers overwhelmingly makes the point that our 'touchy-feely' self-esteem oriented schools are a great big turn-off to most of the boys. (in my experience as a high school teacher, the girls don't buy into it much either). Schools are not designed for most boys, especially as we take away physical activities and recesses. Male boisterousness is seen as wrong - a mental disorder and/or a sign of ADHD. Boys have to be medicated specifically for their built-in attributes that they possess as boys.

Special interest groups such as NOW and the ACLU will fight for the rights of women since they are oppressed, despite the fact that their grades are better, they are much less likely to be in special education classes (4-1 ratio of boys to girls), girls are more likely to go to college (55-60% of college students are female) and boys are much more likely to be punished in school than are girls.

As I read The War Against Boys (while enjoying the first few days of my Christmas Break from school) I found myself resolved to take a look at how boys are treated in my class and in my school. I also found myself thinking of ways I can provide the specific needs of young men that Sommers' experts identify. I'll refer back to those recommendations often and make a few changes in my classroom and lobby for changes in the school.

***This is a must-read for any serious-minded and open-minded educational professional.

On a lighter note, why do publishers insist on using end notes when footnotes are so much easier for the reader to access. Sommers' research was overwhelming - she should have proudly showcased it through the use of footnotes.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The War Against Boys.

Reviewed on December 26, 2005.

Note: this review generated a lot of discussion over the years on my original Amazon.com review of the book. Click here to see the comments. Most comments are thoughtful, although one is bizarre.

The Bold West: Edition 4 (audiobook) by Steve Frazee, Zane Grey and T.T. Flynn

Up and down quality.

So, here's the scoop on the audiobook The Bold West: Edition 4.
Zane Grey (1872-1939)

There are 3 unabridged stories read by three different readers. The stories are:

'Death Rides This Trail' by Steve Frazee. It is the longest and definitely the best of the three stories. It concerns a family of settlers and the struggles they have after the father is killed in a senseless gunfight. Good character development and an entertaining story. Often funny and often sad. It was originally published in 1953. I give this story 4 out of 5 stars.

'Yaqui' by Zane Grey. Originally published in 1920, this is the story of Yaqui, the young chief of the Yaqui Indians of Western Mexico. The Yaqui were hunted down and killed or moved to the Yucatan Peninsula to be enslaved in the Sisal plantations to make rope. This is the worst story of the three by far. The writing was stilted and overly formal and the reader was the worst of the three. The 'gotcha' moment at the end seemed more like a bad 'Twilight Zone' idea. to tell you the truth, it seemed like Mr. Grey had two short stories that he couldn't finish so he stuck them both together just to get them both finished. I give it 1 star out of 5.

'Back Trail' by T.T. Flynn. Originally published in 1949, this is the story of a love triangle involving a cowboy, a rancher and a young woman who manages the local hotel. It is also a story of personal redemption through a change of heart. This story had the most potential, but it was skimpily written so it was hard to fathom the relationship between all of the members of this love triangle. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

So, 4 stars + 1 star + 3 stars = 8 stars. Divide 8 stars over three stories and you get 2.66, or 3 stars.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: The Bold West: Edition 4.

Reviewed on December 16, 2005

Small Vices by Robert B. Parker

One of the best books in the Spenser series.

This is my second reading of Small Vices. I'd read it before, years ago, and all I remembered was that this is the one in which Spenser gets himself shot and very nearly killed. (The beauty, I guess, of having so many Spenser novels is that it is hard to keep them all straight so I can go back and re-read them like they're new every few years).

Robert B. Parker 
If you are familiar with Spenser, most of your favorite characters see some action in this outing. If you are not familiar with Spenser, this may be a good one to start with, although I would recommend some of the older ones to begin.

The never-aging Spenser lives through an entire year of his life in this one, but don't worry, he still doesn't age. Neither do Hawk or Susan. They're like James Bond in that respect. It used to bug me but I know that I don't want to read about Hawk and Spenser's adventures in a nursing home.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Small Vices.

Reviewed on December 8, 2005.

The Adjustment Bureau (audiobook) by Philip K. Dick

The original short story that the movie is based on.

Length: 58 minutes (1 CD)
Read by Phil Gigante

Originally written in 1954 and titled The Adjustment Team, this audiobook was  renamed so that it can be tied in with the movie that is very loosely based on this short story by famed science fiction writer Philip K. Dick.

The one hour length and subject matter put me in mind of an episode of the Twilight Zone - one of the really good ones where we find out the world does not work quite the way we thought it did.

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)
The premise of the short story is that real estate agent Ed Fletcher is not where he is supposed to be when the adjustment team comes to adjust his office. Instead, due to a bureaucratic mix-up on the supernatural level, Ed comes in to work a few minutes late and finds an adjustment team at work. The team has frozen the regular world and drained it of all of its life while they make adjustments to all the things and inhabitants. This is just regular maintenance and no one notices it - except for Ed who walked right into the middle of it, much to everyone's surprise.

This is a great little science fiction story - fun, freaky and a little thought-provoking.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook short story can be found on Amazon.com here: The Adjustment Bureau

Reviewed on May 11, 2011.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis' most famous work of fiction.

If you are familiar with Lewis non-fiction writings (Mere Christianity, etc.) were all that Lewis had written he would have left a wonderful legacy. However, Lewis has a large library of fictional works as well.
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is my only my second piece of Lewis fiction (the other being The Screwtape Letters) and I found it to be a quick, enjoyable read. The characters are likeable but not particularly well-developed, but that is understandable considering that he intended it to be a fairy tale. How much character development is there in a fairy tale?

Christian themes are very strong throughout the book, but the story can be read without any previous study into Christianity. If you are unsure of the themes or want to make sure that you are not missing any, I would recommend that you pick up any of the half-dozen or more companion study guides that Amazon offers.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause by Jeff Shaara


The Glorious Cause is the second in Shaara's two volume piece historical fiction concerning the Revolutionary War. Rise to Rebellion was the first, and I believe the superior of the two, but The Glorious Cause is an excellent novel as well.

Rise to Rebellion is the superior of the two novels due to the changes of heart that the readers sees in John Adams and Benjamin Franklin concerning the issue of independence from England. The Glorious Cause has little of that type deep soul-searching. However, it is a fantastic portrayal of the difficulties encountered by the Continental Army and George Washington, in particular.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
If I were to have my druthers, I would have preferred that Shaara had broken the second 600+ page novel into two novels  to make it a trilogy and expanded them both by delving more into the politics of the day and the difficulties of fighting a war with the governmental structures and restrictions that the Contintenal Congress was hampered with.

In addition, more battles and fronts could have been explored, such as the ill-fated American invasion of Canada and Benedict Arnold's naval adventures on Lake Champlain.

That being said, these are still a highly recommended novels - either for the American Revolution novice or the enthusiast.

Well done, Mr. Shaara.

I rate these books 5 stars out of 5.

These two books can be found on Amazon here: Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause.

Reviewed on December 23, 2005.