"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, August 25, 2012

The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible (audiobook) by Matti Friedman

This story comes to life in the audiobook.

Published by Highbridge in 2012.
Performed by Simon Vance.
Duration: 7 hours, 27 minutes.

"The story of this book...should come as no surprise to any who have read it."

I'm going to be brutally honest here. I picked up this audiobook on a lark. I thought it sounded like it was going to be interesting but I have a little pile of audiobooks and this one was quickly heading to the bottom of the pile because I was having a serious case of buyer's remorse. It looked like a tedious bit of history and I was imagining a dry, boring lecture about an old book. I literally decided to listen to it just to get it out of the pile so I wouldn't have to dread listening to it any longer.

Happily, I was very wrong about this book.

In its roughest outline this is indeed a book about a very old book but it is much more than that. The story of the Aleppo Codex is told by Matti Friedman, an Israeli journalist through a variety of angles. Sometimes it is a mystery. Sometimes it is told as oral history. Sometimes the Codex itself is the prism used to look at Jewish history under colonial European rule or under Muslim rule in Medieval times or to look at the centrality of the Hebrew Bible, especially the Torah (the first five books) to the Jewish people throughout history.

A page from the Aleppo Codex
The Aleppo Codex is the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible that was written by hand. It is not fancy, but it is precise and neat and it was created a thousand years ago. Over the centuries it has traveled here and there, surviving  the sack of Jerusalem in one of the Crusades, re-surfacing in Egypt to be consulted by the famed Jewish scholar Maimonides and eventually working its way to the Jewish community in Aleppo, Syria.  The Aleppo Jews treasured it and locked it away until an anti-Israeli riot broke out in Aleppo in 1947 and the Codex was scattered around the ruins of the synagogue in which it was stored. By the late 1950s the Codex was working its way to Israel and eventually to the Shrine of the Book where it sits on display.

Except, of course, for the fact that is not really there - at least not all of it.  Somehow, about 40% of this ancient manuscript is missing. Friedman starts investigating and finds a lot more questions than answers. People refuse to answer his questions and even threaten him with legal action. Some who have also investigated the mystery have quit in frustration. One may have been murdered to keep the secret.

Friedman peppers his story with interesting people including an old spy, a cantankerous collector, smugglers and refugees. We see the peaceful little world of the Aleppo Jews, the difficult opening days of the state of Israel and ride along with anthropologists fast on the heels of Israeli troops in desperate house to house fighting who are looking for Jewish historical treasures in order to rescue them - even in the middle of a battlefield!

The book was brilliantly read by Simon Vance. His voice lends the whole story an air of gravitas and when combined with Friedman's descriptions created the perfect combination to make a book about a very old book come to life and become a book about betrayal, danger, intrigue, greed, justice, cover-ups and the survival of a nation.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Aleppo Codex.

Reviewed on August 24, 2012.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay

Great Escapist Fiction.

Published in 2012 by NAL (New American Library)

Linwood Barclay. I came across him almost by accident about 3 years ago and he is one of my favorite authors to go looking for. He doesn't write series (at least not anymore) so you can just jump in and go for a ride. His books feature regular guys who get stuck in an extraordinary circumstance not of their making.

Linwood Barclay
In Trust Your Eyes two grown brothers are re-united due to the death of their father. One of the brothers (Ray) is  a political cartoonist. The other, Thomas, has some sort of schizophrenia that keeps him housebound. To be honest, he seemed more autistic to me (as a teacher I have ran across enough students on the autistic spectrum to readily identify the behaviors) but that is neither here nor there. Thomas has an obsession - maps. He hangs them on the wall, he studies them, he memorizes them and he cruises the internet everyday looking at Whirl360, a website that is a lot like Google Maps Street View. He cruises up and down street after street, memorizing them. He has hardly traveled anywhere but he can describe in detail how to get to the nearest bakery from just about any hotel in America. Here's the kicker - Thomas cruises the internet to look at Whirl360 because he believes that former President Bill Clinton has asked him to do it on behalf of the CIA just in case the internet crashes and their agents need to use him as a map resource.

One day, while Thomas is using Whirl360 to look at New York City he happens to look up and see something odd. Whirl360 is fictional but is based on Google Maps Street View which creates a virtual street view of the address you are looking for. That virtual view is created by putting together a series of pictures taken by cars that have an odd contraption on their roof that take a lot of high quality photos as they drive up and down the street. Google has a lot of fans that peruse the sight looking for strange things such as kids ramping dirt bikes or police officers writing tickets. In this case, the camera caught something very odd in a third story window. Thomas thinks it looks a face inside a plastic bag being choked to death. The only problem is that Thomas' behavior is so strange and he is so socially inept that no one believes him or even begins to understand what he is talking about.

That is until, one day, he shows the picture to Ray and then convinces Ray to go to the building to investigate when he is New York City on business. Then, everything falls apart very quickly...

What Linwood Barclay has done here is what he does best - put a regular guy in the midst of a criminal conspiracy that threatens to undo everything he knows and may even kill him. It is entertaining, a breeze to read and offers some great escapism.

I rate Trust Your Eyes 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Trust Your Eyes.

Reviewed on August 19, 2012.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Black List (audiobook) (Scot Harvath #11) by Brad Thor

A question of who will find whom first. 

Published by Simon and Schuster Audio in 2012.
Read by Armand Schultz
Duration: 12 hours, 3 minutes.

Brad Thor changes things up a bit for his long-running character Scot Harvath in this installment. Usually, Harvath is out in the world at large fighting international terrorists. Harvath's unique talents and dogged determination make him a very powerful weapon in the world of counter-terrorism.

In Black List, Harvath and a member of the Athena team (the all female Delta Force-type unit) are attacked when entering a safe house in Paris, France. She dies and Harvath barely escapes. He uses his extensive contacts to work his way to safety and try to figure out how the safe house was compromised. As he tries to re-connect to his employer it dawns on him that his entire network of operatives is under attack - and this time the enemy is not a terrorist network. This time, the enemy is an American enemy and Harvath is coming home to find this enemy and get his revenge.

At the same time, Harvath's boss, Reed Carlton, whose operation was attacked, has survived and is using an even older network of contacts (think old-fashioned blind drops and chalk marks) to hide and begin to do some hunting of his own.

Of course, Carlton and Harvath are being actively pursued by someone with a lot of technical resources and as they find more and more clues and  the breadth of the threat becomes more apparent it becomes a question of who will find whom first.

I enjoyed the action but I really enjoyed the use of technology in the book. Thor tells the readers in the first line of the book: "All of the technology contained in this novel is based upon systems currently being deployed, or i n the final stages of development, by the United States government and its partners." As computer memory becomes cheaper and smaller groups intelligence gathering becomes very thorough. If the government records and saves almost everything, well, than it will be harder to miss something (so long as you can sift through it all).

Most interesting to me was one leg of Horvath's search was done completely with online tools that we all have access to - a search engine, Facebook and an online map. Very clever and pretty scary to think that we leave all of these digital clues to our own lives all over the internet.

Armand Schultz read the book. I enjoyed his voice characterization with the exception of the Scot Harvath character (the main one, unfortunately). He did so much else well. For example, his Spanish was correctly pronounced, he recognized the differences between the Mexican and the Spanish accents and his characters were easy to distinguish.

However, I am only giving this book 4 stars rather than 5. There are some tiresome cliches, such as finding one of the bad guys in a sexually compromised position with a dominatrix. This is the second time I have ran across that one in a bestseller in the last month. Also, there are two graphic torture scenes administered by the good guys. If that sort of thing turns your stomach, you are hereby warned.

The audiobook includes a half hour conversation between Brad Thor and the reader, Armand Schulz. They discuss how they do their different jobs, motivations, difficulties and how to balance work with family time.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Black List.

Reviewed on August 15, 2012.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas by Jonah Goldberg

A Worthy (and Very Different) Follow-Up to Goldberg's Liberal Fascism

Published by Sentinel HC in 2012.

Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism is one of the most profound political books that I have read in my entire life. It changed my view of politics and made me focus a lot of thinking that I had been doing about the actions of government in our daily lives.

So, four years later, I was pleased to hear that Goldberg had written another book. The Tyranny of Cliches is not as serious as Liberal Fascism, but it does a worthy job of going after lazy thinking in our political discourse.

The book goes after shorthand, cliched arguments that people use to try to win (or not lose) political arguments. Take the phrase "Violence never solved anything." This is said by any number of people to protest a war or people having guns or things of that nature. I have a personal history of that story. I used to teach in a small high school with a very liberal English teacher who used her class time to pontificate her views on a regular basis. In this case, it was the run-up to the War in Iraq and she put a handmade poster on her door with the question, "What problem has violence ever solved?" So, I made up a series of post-it-note answers and stuck them all over the poster with notes like "Violence by the British Navy stopped the slave trade" and "Violence ended the Holocaust" and the like. The poster came down after one day, but not before the students had seen that there were responses to glib philosophy like hers (she is now retired, thank goodness).

Jonah Goldberg
The lesson here is not that violence is the answer to all things, but that sometimes violent action is the answer - life is too complicated to let bumper sticker reasoning rule (and the debate over the Iraq War should not have been framed in the idea that Violence is never the answer but, rather, is it the answer here).

Another lesson is not to just let someone spout out some well-worn piece of pseudo-wisdom as though it were real wisdom. Sometimes there is "strength in diversity," sometimes there is not (Woe to the NBA team that goes with the strategy of fielding a team with radically diverse heights and skill levels).

But, it is clear that just as one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter and it equally clear that as we all slide down the Slippery Slope into Social Darwinism, Understanding, Dissent (the highest form of patriotism according to some), Social Justice and the Living Constitution will help us grow into a world with No Labels, Understanding and experience Unity and an end to Dogma.

If the above paragraph was a bunch of gibberish feel-good phrases to you, read this book.  If the above paragraph made sense to you, please don't, you are hopeless.

Goldberg goes after these snippets of wisdom and points out that they often sound profound but need to be exposed as shorthand for lazy thinking. It is a interesting and entertaining reading with a lot of humor (how many references to The Princess Bride can you squeeze into a book, Mr. Goldberg?) that made me laugh and think, often at the same time.

My favorite cliche was the cliche of "understanding." It usually goes something like this: "If we only made the effort to understand each other a little more we would have less violence, wars, racism, sexism, etc." Goldberg points out that the worst wars are civil wars precisely because they know each other so well. In the United States the North and the South understood each other quite well and went about killing one another by the thousands for four years. How about Rwanda? The Hutu killed more than half-a-million of their Tutsi neighbors in the course of 100 days. Or, in the case of ideology, the Libertarians have a special dislike of Conservatives (because they are so close to being Libertarian but do not cross over). I was reminded of this special moment from Cheers in which Woody discovers his new bride is a different kind of Lutheran than he is (and the antipathy is that real, even though they are very close. I would suggest that it is precisely because they are so close) :

A great read.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Tyranny of Cliches.

Reviewed on August 12, 2012.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

NPR Road Trips: Fairs and Festivals (audiobook)

Lots of Fun

Published by HighBridge in 2012.
Duration: about 1 hour.

My family and I are avid fans of fairs and festivals. We like to wander around and experience the hullabaloo of all of the people, the noises of the midway, the incessant sales pitches of the guys trying to sell replacement windows or guttering and, of course, the animals.

2012 Indiana State Fair Midway. Photo by DWD.
We just attended the Indiana State fair last weekend and spent an astounding 13 hours wandering around the giant circle of the fair (it is built around a one mile dirt track) seeing everything from Star Wars Stormtroopers to a petting zoo filled with week-old calves to a giant carving made of cheese (still being carved as we watched!). I learned about $261,000 John Deere Tractors, heard an acoustic blues band, bought a wallet and saw a clown marching band performance - all before we hit the midway!

So, when I found this little audiobook of stories collected from NPR over the years about fairs and festivals I knew this was right up my alley. There are 18 little stories here that originally broadcast on the air from 1999 to 2011. Most are two to five minutes long, the longest being a little over ten minutes.

Fairs and festivals in Texas, Minnesota, Ohio, Iowa, Tennessee, New York, Alaska, West Virginia and more are discussed. Garrison Keillor leads off with a philosophic look at fairs and why we love them and why were are in such a hurry to get out of there when you have seen enough for one day. And, of course, he discusses the phenomenon of "food on a stick."

Other topics include the sounds of the fair, displays of various and odd collections, a "husband-calling" contest, a cornbread festival, a music festival, a butter carver and a wood chopping festival. There are stories about the other side of the fair as well. We learn about the freak show, how to make the perfect carnival pitch, how to get racing pigs to race and the story behind some the folks that make the glorious fair food.

As with all compilations, some entries are better than others, but even the weaker ones were strong in this collection.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: NPR Road Trips: Fairs and Festivals.

Reviewed on July 8, 2012.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Lew Wallace: Boy Writer by Martha E. Schaaf

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Published in 1961 by The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc
Intended for upper elementary students.

Thirty-five years ago books like Lew Wallace: Boy Writer filled my library's book shelves in Hope, Indiana and I went through them like a hot knife through butter. I am sure they are a big reason why I enjoy history so much today. I remember enthusiastically reading about the adventures of young Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln and even about Martha Washington and other "yucky" girls as I worked my way down the shelf.

Union Major General Lew Wallace (1827-1905)
I have next to my computer a 1961 hardback copy of Lew Wallace: Boy Writer, part of the Childhood of Famous Americans series. I note this only because Patria Press out of Indianapolis is re-publishing the series, which is a good thing in my mind.

As suggested by the series title Lew Wallace: Boy Writer focuses on the childhood of future the Civil War general, territorial governor of New Mexico (during the days of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War) and author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ. It features young Lew Wallace who hates school but loves to read and explore. His father was the sixth governor of Indiana.  Young Lew Wallace had access to the state's library and quickly fell in love with books.

The details of Wallace's adult life are not left out or just glossed over as an afterthought, but the main focus is on Wallace's childhood. This is a very simple read and for me, an enjoyable reminder of my own childhood.

These books can be found on Amazon.com here and here.

I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Reviewed on August 2, 2012.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan: The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate by Rick Bowers

A Dual Biography of Sorts

Published by National Geographic in 2012.
Note: This is a YA book aimed at 5th graders and above. This adult enjoyed the book also.

From time to time the dual biography comes back into vogue. Dual biographies are a great way to compare and contrast two people's lives and, in this case, this style is used to compare and contrast two different organizations: The Ku Klux Klan and Superman, Inc. and see how these two radically different groups interacted.

There is, of course, so such thing as Superman, Inc. - I made that up. Superman is owned by D.C. Comics, but there are people who make all sorts of decisions on how to present Superman. What will he stand for and stand against? What will the next comic be like? How about the next movie? Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan tells the story of the creation of Superman (and the two young Jewish boys from Ohio who created him) and how Superman quickly caught on once a publisher finally took him on in 1938.

By 1946 Superman was an established fixture in American culture. His comics had been sent all over the  world courtesy of American soldiers in World War II, the character was in newspapers, comic books and even had a daily radio show. The producers of the radio show decided, in the aftermath of World War II and Holocaust that Superman would take a stand against racism.

This was a risk because racism was still a very popular concept, as demonstrated by the other part of the book in which Bowers details the history of the Ku Klux Klan and describes its many manifestations over the years. The producers of the Superman  radio show decided to not have Superman take on the Klan directly. Instead, they create a new hate group called The Clan of the Fiery Cross. This fictional group is modeled on the Klan itself, helped by an double agent insider who was writing a series of articles on how the Klan is organized and makes money.

The trick in writing the radio show was not to make it too preachy. But, if you go too light on the message it may be missed altogether. Plus, this was a change in Superman's style. Everyone is against bank robbers, spies and organized criminals. Would this adventure with a message turn away young listeners?

The radio show aired sixteen 15-minute episodes in June of 1946 that were very well received, by its young audience, media sources and other groups across the country. Ratings actually increased during this storyline.  Bowers is quick to point out that this one little radio show did not end the Ku Klux Klan (although the Klan called for boycotts that just did not materialize), but it was important because it showed a superhero standing  with regular folks against a hate group and it was a financial and critical success. In a way, this was a stand that asked who was more American, Superman or the Ku Klux Klan?

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Superman Versus the Ku Klux Clan.

Reviewed on August 1, 2012.