"We are of opinion that instead of letting books grow moldy behind an iron grating, far from the vulgar gaze, it is better to let them wear out by being read." - Jules Verne
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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Car Talk Classics: The Pinkwater Files (audiobook) by Tom and Ray Maggliozzi

Fun and you just might learn something.

Narrated by Tom and Ray Maggliozzi
Duration: 3.5 hours.
Publisher: HighBridge Audio

Tom and Ray Maggliozzi's car repair show, Car Talk, has been a NPR staple for years now. The show features the two wise-cracking brothers as they field questions about cars and car repairs from all over the country.

This collection features four complete shows from the mid-1990s that featured phone calls from author and NPR commentator Daniel Pinkwater. Pinkwater's sense of humor is different than the Maggliozzi brothers, but they roll with him quite well and those four phone calls are the highlight of the collection. Pinkwater never really has a question for the brothers but instead offers his observations concerning his struggles with getting a car that fits his stocky build, how to know when your dog is going to throw up in your car and the Theory of Displaced Misery (this theory states that a person can only have so much misery in their life and if you buy a French car, the rest of your life will be quite happy).

The rest of the collection is enjoyable as well. This was a welcome respite during a difficult week for me - it was great to know that my extra-long commute was going to be alleviated by the Magglioni brothers' humor (and their car diagnoses are informative as well!)

I rate this collection 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Car Talk Classics: The Pinkwater Files

Reviewed on September 18, 2011

Friday, September 16, 2011

Portrait of a Spy (Gabriel Allon #11)(audiobook) by Daniel Silva

A smart spy thriller

Read by Simon Vance
Duration: 12 hours, 15 minutes

Daniel Silva's Portrait of a Spy features Israeli master spy Gabriel Allon, now semi-retired and living and working in rural England as a restorer of paintings. Europe is suffering a wave a suicide bombings. While in London on business he spots a suicide bomber on his way to blow himself up in a London open-air area of markets and restaurants. He steps in with his weapon but is stopped by UK agents that think that he is the threat and the bomber detonates himself.

Allon is told to walk away but he is haunted by his failure. When he is approached with the chance to infiltrate the financial network of the same terror network he leaps at the chance. This is a joint CIA/Israeli operation and the muddled politics of our current administration (make grand overtures, continue the rendition program, bomb some dictators, not others) are mirrored in this fictional administration. Silva has brought the "Arab spring" in as well so the book has a real current events feel to it.

The plan they develop is just simple enough and just crazy enough to have some sort of chance. Silva does a great job of giving the "feel" of the cities and countrysides that the book travels through - London, Paris, rural France D.C., Dubai, the Empty Quarter. He takes the time to flesh out plenty of supporting characters. But, sometimes the story drags as a result.

Reader Simon Vance does a great job with every character except for Gabriel Allon, who sounds more like a sleepy Alec Guinness than a confident, professional spymaster. I kept imagining him in Jedi robes, rather than carrying a pistol and tracking terrorists.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Portrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva.

Reviewed on September 16, 2011.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Omar Bradley: General At War by Jim DeFelice

Regnery Publishing's newest imprint, Regnery History has found something new to tell about one of the most written-about parts of World War II: D-Day. You may ask yourself, what else can be said about D-Day that hasn't been said? We have had powerful, visceral movies like Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day and Patton and the famed HBO series Band of Brothers. Article after article and book after book have been written about D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and the final days of Nazi Germany but somehow we have failed to have had a serious biography of one of the invasion's central planners and one of the men who engineered the entire campaign from the beaches of Normandy until the defeat of Germany: American 5 star general Omar Bradley.

The problem with Omar Bradley and historians is that he is not Patton. Patton is brash, daring and iconic. Bradley did not chase headlines and did not wear fancy pistols. He was daring, but not as daring as Patton. He knew that he should keep his mouth under control and he was too humble for his own historical reputation. But, one could seriously doubt if Patton could have been the remarkable general he was without the support of Omar Bradley - a man who kept Patton supplied (no small task) and innately understood and supported the battlefield tactics and strategy that Patton espoused so loudly.

Omar Bradley
Jim DeFelice's Omar Bradley: General At War tells the complete story of Bradley's life, from his humble beginnings in rural Missouri through the war and on to being the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after the war, but mostly focuses on the campaigns in North Africa, Sicily (where he worked under Patton) and France (where Patton worked under him). He paints a sympathetic picture of a likable man who never shirked his duty and who pioneered a number of innovations such as a mobile command center (in the back of a truck) and joint land and air operations with coordinated air strikes during the breakout from Normandy.

While DeFelice clearly admires Bradley (Ernie Pyle practically gushed over the man which is about as good of a character reference as you can get in my book), he does not cover up his mistakes and shortcomings. Bradley never concerned himself with the larger world scene (he was shocked when the possibility of a post-war rivalry with the Soviets was pointed out to him). The "bulge" in the Battle of the Bulge happened in his zone due to a calculated risk on his part. But, he was quickly able to adapt himself to the situation and turn a momentary retreat into a larger victory.

In the end, the lesson of Omar Bradley may be that the nice guy, the guy that works hard and does not demand special attention sometimes can win, and win big.

This is a solid entry as Regnery History's first book. It is well-researched and an enjoyable read. If the rest of their catalog is as solid as Omar Bradley: General At War, this will be a welcome addition to the history section of your favorite bookseller. That being said, Regnery History did make a rookie mistake with the maps. They are all located in an appendix at the end of the text and there are simply not enough of them. This book screamed for maps and lots of them and there were just not enough. I have never heard any history lover complain that a book had too many maps.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Omar Bradley: General at War

Reviewed on September 13, 2011.

Note: This book was provided at no charge by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Stealing You Blind: How Government Fat Cats Are Getting Rich Off of You by Iain Murray

Overreach hurts the overall argument

I feel I must establish my bonafides here. I am an Iain Murray fan. I really enjoyed his book The Really Inconvenient Truths (to see my review click here). On my favorite quotes page on this blog, there is an Iain Murray quote (really!). But, while I am a fan, in this book, I think that Murray has made many, many valid points but overreached on others. The over-argument weakens the overall book, in my opinion.

Also, in the interest of making everything clear, I have chosen to be a member of public employee union - the Indiana State Teacher Association (we choose to be a member or not in Indiana). I have actually gone to state level meetings as a representative of my local union and helped to vote in our current president. I have been invited multiple times to attend trainings so that I can become more involved but I have not done so due to family commitments. That being said, I can clearly see that there are tensions between being a political conservative and being a union member. Most people do not realize that the local union is, sadly, often the only counterweight to school administrations that may not act wisely and often offers great advice on issues like consolidations and programs that can be trimmed (I once listened to my union rep explain to my superintendent that if we followed through on the superintendent's planned staff cuts some of our schools would no longer be accredited by the state because we would be in violation of state laws that require schools to offer so many hours of this and that subject per week to maintain accreditation. Should our superintendent have known the law? Sure, but he didn't and this was not the first time, either.) Also, so as not to be accused of being biased towards public employee unions and/or teachers, I will leave those aspects of the book out of this review.

What Stealing You Blind does right:

-The government cannot keep growing indefinitely. All organizations tend to add bureaucracy and government at all levels, from your locals schools to the White House like to add it on even quicker. Throw in the ability to make regulations that have the effect of law and you have a recipe for disaster - an ever-growing bureaucracy creating more rules that need even more personnel to check for compliance....

-Some functions (but not all) can be privatized.

-On page 80, he makes perhaps the most important point in the book: "The key question is...should the federal government really be doing that in the first place?" This, of course, was the central question in the budget debate this summer and we failed to answer that question. It should have been the central point of the book but too often it is not.

-Employees should never use their employers' resources to supplement their on-the-side projects like being a real estate agent.

What he gets wrong:

-Iain Murray continually harps on urban professional firefighters, claiming that volunteer firefighters (mostly rural) are cheaper. Absolutely, they are cheaper and they do a great job. I happen to live in Indianapolis, very close to what used to be the "world's largest volunteer fire department". We used to be volunteer until we could not staff it any longer. Rural volunteer fighters are wonderful for their community (I grew up with one in mine - some of my relatives were volunteer firefighters), but they often arrive after the house is fully engulfed (how can they get there any earlier when they have to drive to the station, suit up and then go to the fire?). If that is our standard, we will lose entire neighborhoods to fire in cities due to the proximity of the homes to one another (like Chicago in 1871). A professional fire department is like car insurance - you hope you'll never need it but you pay for it anyway.

-Sometimes Murray goes for the cheap applause line like on page 21 when he notes that in the 1800s half of Americans lived on the farm and the USDA only had 2,000 employees. Now it has 100,000 employees. He makes it sound like every farmer has his own personal bureaucrat with a secretary watching over him. I can easily imagine him amongst the soybeans sitting at his desk. He fails to note that the USDA has added many, many responsibilities such as administering the school lunch program, the food stamp program, crop insurance, food safety inspections, and more. Should they be doing all of these things? Great question, but he does not ask it, instead he goes for absurd image of this small number of farmers with a large number of bureaucrats watching over them.

-He is fond of comparing public employee salaries to private sector salaries, but he usually does not compare workers of the same skill level. For example, on page 31 he compares the salaries of IRS employees (one would presume that there are a lot of accountants and other people with a high degree of training)  to the average male income in the United States. The numbers are $48,100 for the IRS and $33,161 for the average male.Outrageous, right? But, I looked up his source (it is right here - table 700) and it includes all males age 15 or higher. Yes, that kid at the McDonalds and your grocery store bagger is thrown into the mix as well. I bet they drag the average down, what do you think?)

***UPDATE on 7/21/19: That table from the Census Bureau that I linked to above has moved and I can't find it. Too bad, because it was Murray's source as well - I just typed in the internet address from his endnotes. Here is another table from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2019 that shows income for full time workers. You can see that the 16-24 year olds really drag the average down.

-Sometimes he indulges in a bit of "thesis drift." The book is about how government is stealing you blind through lavish retirement plans and byzantine regulations,  but on occasion he wanders about the private sector taking whacks at different folks. For example, he takes a few whacks at the UAW on pages 121-123 for voting to let a GM factory in Indianapolis (my city) close down rather accepting a deal with a buyer for the plant that included a 50% pay cut. Clearly, the wisdom of choosing to have no job at all rather than a $15.50/hour job in this economy is questionable, but this is not the topic of the book at all - this has nothing to do with public employees or crazy regulation.

I have other examples, but you get the idea. I am not trying to bludgeon Mr. Murray. Like I said, I am a fan and these critiques are offered as a fan that is disappointed in the quality of this work. This book really felt like the extract of a larger, more complicated in-depth book that was going to take a serious look at all of the issues and discuss them thoroughly. If a fan sees that many of the arguments are too often flimsy straw man arguments, will they do anything to inspire new thinking or is it just chum tossed out to churn the waters of the faithful? This book asks some of the right questions, but not enough of them and does not really ask the most important question of all - Should the government be doing these things?

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Stealing You Blind: How Government Fat Cats Are Getting Rich Off of You.

Reviewed on September 3, 2011.

Iron House (audiobook) by John Hart


Not good.

Published by MacMillan Audio in 2011
Read by Scott Sowers
Duration: 15 hours, 6 minutes

Multiple Edgar Award-winning author John Hart delivers a dud with Iron House, a book with too many disparate themes, too many stereotypical storylines and characters that might have been stolen from central casting at any Hollywood B movie and with too much detail about the scenery. Combine it with an overly dramatic reading by Scott Sowers and it makes for an altogether unsatisfying audiobook experience.

In Iron House we have a mafia crime boss on his death bed. His adopted son, Michael, has asked to be released from his obligations to the family business so that he might pursue a normal life with his pregnant girlfriend. But, as everyone knows, you cannot just walk away from the mafia, especially if you are known as the most effective hit man in the organization. So, Michael becomes a target of the organization he helped build. After he kills his adopted father (a mercy killing - he was dying from cancer and had been resuscitated several times against his wishes) the crime family comes after him with guns, bombs and assassination teams.

Michael and his girlfriend Elena go on the run. They head for the home of Michael's brother, a person that Elena has never heard of until the mafia family threatens his life. Micheal reveals that he and his brother Julian grew up in a dystopian orphanage named Iron House in the rural south - a community full of stereotypes such as the hilljack inbred (but very sexy) witch family, rampant mental illness and rich families that use and abuse their neighbors and women who are willing to sell everything, including their bodies and possibly their souls to get out of crushing poverty. Micheal's brother Julian was adopted by a rich senator billionaire (imagine the most stereotypical "southern senator" character you have seen in a movie and you understand this character -distinguished, a serial philanderer, abusive of his power, more concerned about his career than his family, etc.) and his young beautiful wife the very day that Michael ran away from the orphanage.

Every character except Michael is absorbed in their own selfish designs. Orphanage managers are bribed, neighbors steal from one another, sex is used as a weapon by nearly everyone. Even Michael's girlfriend Elena is so concerned about the safety of her unborn child that she argues that Michael should not check on the safety of his own brother because she and the baby are his family now - not his brother. Really? I cannot imagine my wife abandoning my family to mafia killers who will torture people for information.

The mixing of the mafia story with the Southern Gothic theme is, at best, a difficult one. It can be done since both story lines often emphasize family bonds, loyalty and shocking violence but Hart does not handle it well. The scenes with the adopted mother of Julian, Abigail, have stilted, awkward language. There are seemingly endless descriptions of scenery, including roofing tile, reflections of sunlight, telephone poles, floor tile patterns, gates, lawn and trees. Throw in strange phrasing like "he was 4 inches over six feet tall", a saccharine sweet ending and Scott Sowers overly dramatic reading style and you have the makings of an unsatisfactory audiobook experience.

I rate this audiobook 2 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Iron House by John Hart.

Reviewed on September 3, 2011.

Compelling Evidence (Paul Madriani #1) by Steve Martini

Steve Martini

The book that launched the series

Almost 20 years ago, the first book in the Paul Madriani series was released. Over time (and 12 books), it has morphed into less of a legal thriller series into more of an action series with a legal thriller bent to it. But, the first one is a good old-fashioned murder mystery and courtroom drama - and a surprisingly good one for a debut effort.

In Compelling Evidence we are introduced to Paul Madriani, a struggling solo practice attorney who has recently left a big league law firm because he was having an affair with a senior partner's wife. In the office next door is a new friend, Harry Hinds (his law partner in later books). When that same senior partner is found dead, Martini is hired to defend the widow in a wild and wooly murder trial in which everyone seems to have a motive, including Madriani.

This is truly a great legal thriller. It may very well be the best in a very solid series. It has aged very well and is a must-read for fans of the series.

I rate this novel 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Compelling Evidence (Paul Madriani Novels Book 1)

Reviewed on September 3, 2011.