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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Phony Marine: A Novel by Jim Lehrer

Published in 2006 by Random House

Jim Lehrer, best known as the host of PBS's NewsHour is also an author of fiction (and a former Marine). In this briskly-paced short book Lehrer introduces us to Hugo Marder, a clothing salesman at a high-end men's store. Hugo has lived an utterly unexceptional life and we join him as he is perusing eBay looking for cuff links to add to his collection. Yes, this is a man who collects cuff links - he is that boring.

The Silver Star
But, that night Hugo notes that someone is selling a Silver Star medal that was awarded to a Marine in Vietnam and he buys it. The Silver Star is only given for bravery in battle. This is no lightweight award and people who have not won it should not wear it. Hugo gets the Silver Star and on a lark he wears it one evening. He enjoys the attention he receives and begins to learn how to act and look more like a former Marine so that he can assume this identity.

Interestingly, along the way Hugo does change. He acts more assertive, he actually lives up to the heroic personae he has assumed - but, does that justify the fraud? Also, what happens if someone discovers what he is doing? Also, who is really what they portray themselves to be? Don't we all put up false fronts from time to time?

This book asks all of these questions and is a surprisingly enjoyable read.

I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars and it can be found on Amazon.com here: The Phony Marine: A Novel.

Reviewed on February 26, 2013.

The Plot Against America: A Novel by Philip Roth

Published in 2004 by Houghton Mifflin

In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth creates an alternate history centered around the presidential election of 1940. FDR doesn't run against Wendell Willkie. Instead, Charles Lindbergh enters the contest at the convention as an anti-war candidate and defeats Roosevelt.

In the real world, Lindbergh was  friendly towards the Nazi regime in Germany and made several public anti-Semitic comments so Roth's little twist to history is not out of line. Also, Lindbergh spoke at several "America First" anti-war rallies in 1940 and 1941. The first part of this book is the strongest. The alternate history moves briskly, the introduction to the Roth family and its main character, Philip (I can only assume that this is intended to be an alternate history autobiography) proceeds well.

Lindbergh speaking at an America First rally 
However, after the part of the book about the family trip to Washington, D.C. The Plot Against America just bogs down. The story moves forwards and backwards, sometimes weeks at a time and Roth seems more concerned about creating a sense of the atmosphere of pre-World War II Newark than he is about telling his story. Recently, I watched To Kill A Mockingbird and it occurred to me that Roth was intentionally attempting to mimic that book's feel, except in Newark, New Jersey. If that was intention, he succeeded, but he also succeeded in derailing his story with endless stories of secret bus trips and horses at orphanages. I am not quite sure what the point of all that was, but I know that I grew weary of it.

The end of the book is a mess. Roth tells the political ending long before he tells what happens to the Roth family and the little Jewish community of Newark. When he tells the ending so early, the drama is ruined, completely ruined. Also, the motivating factor given for Lindbergh's pro-German actions is so far-fetched, so ludicrous that I almost threw this book across the room.

So, I end up giving this book 3 stars. Great start, nicely realized (but oftentimes pointless) description of life in Newark, ridiculous ending.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Plot Against America.

Reviewed on February 26, 2013.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government by P.J. O'Rourke

Originally published in 1991.
I read the 1992 Vintage Books paperback edition.

Dated but still has teeth.

P.J. O'Rourke goes after the ridiculousness that is the federal government with his trademark irreverent style in this 1991 book. Some of the commentary is dated (lots of talk about the forgettable 1988 presidential election with Republican George H.W. Bush going against Democrat Michael Dukakis. Also, the first one I voted in) but some of it is incredibly relevant. For example, the story of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) looking into the mystery of suddenly accelerating Audis 1n 1986 was reminiscent of the same problem with Toyotas that filled the news channels in 2009 and 2010.

Perhaps O'Rourke's most famous line comes from this book: "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys." (pg. xvii in the preface) This sentiment is pretty typical of the book as a whole and one that I generally agree with. O'Rourke talks with former advisors to presidents, shadows a congressman, talks with lobbyists, bureaucrats, policeman, people who live in atrocious government "projects" built for the poor to live in, and more.

P.J. O'Rourke
O'Rourke notes on page 36: "It is a popular delusion that the government wastes vast amounts of money through inefficiency and sloth. Enormous effort and elaborate planning are required to waste this much money." And, O'Rourke proceeds to show the reader how and makes a solid case for a smaller, leaner government. He also explains how it got to be such a mess.

There are times when he fails to make his case. For me, the chapter on agriculture ("Agricultural Policy: How to Tell Your Ass From This Particular Hole in the Ground") was a nice lesson on overlapping government programs that seem absurd. For example, he bemoans the fact that there are so many government interventions that the marketplace is not really a factor in agricultural policy. That is true enough, but he negates his own argument on page 148 when he notes that "Cheap plentiful food is the precondition for human advancement. When there isn't enough food, everybody has to spend all of his time getting fed and nobody has a minute to invent law, architecture or big clubs to hit cave bears on the head with...we wouldn't grow food, we'd be food." O'Rourke seems to miss (or ignore) that the convoluted system of price supports, payments to keep fields idle and grants have the practical result of keeping plenty of extra food being produced and more than enough producers on hand. That way, if there is a massive drought (like the drought of 2012) there is plenty of food to make up for it. Because it is deals with food, the system is rigged to encourage over-production. Could it be more efficient? Sure. Could it be done smarter? Sure. But, O'Rourke fails to make his case that it should not be done at all.

O'Rourke's look into anti-poverty programs demonstrate that they were not working and that poverty is not easily solved and "You can't get rid of poverty by giving people money." (pg. 128, emphasis his) If nothing else, this chapters reveals that O'Rourke is not simply a know-it-all. He knows that he does not know how to "fix" poverty and that government is certainly no doing a good job of it, either.

This is an entertaining read, even if you don't agree with all of his conclusions. I started this book one day when I misplaced the book I had been reading. In just a couple of pages I knew had to finish this one first. Entertaining, often profane, never boring.

I rate this book 5 out of 5 stars and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government.

Reviewed on February 22, 2013.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The American Spirit: Celebrating the Virtues and Values that Make Us Great by Edwin J. Feulner and Brian Tracy

An introduction to Conservatism

Published in 2012 by Thomas Nelson

The American Spirit lists twenty "virtues and values" that serve to introduce the reader to the basics of Conservatism. These virtues and values include Patriotism, Responsibility, Optimism, Honesty, Faith, Tolerance and Open-Mindedness, Idealistic Realism, Problem Solving and Courage.

As I noted above, the book is an introduction to Conservatism. I am a Conservative and have been reading Conservative literature for a long time. The discussion is "bite-sized" rather than far-ranging and deep and is bound to be a little simplistic. For example, during the discussion on education there is praise for the idea of rating schools A-F but no discussion of the criteria that go into rating schools, or even if a central government (in this case a state government) should even be inserting itself into education and giving schools a letter grade. After all, education has long been a traditional function of local government bodies (such as your local school board) and Conservatism tends to favor local control to that of a centralized bureaucracy. Also, there is no discussion of the proper role of the federal government in education. Should the central government be making a single policy for everyone?

Sometimes the author get on a roll in their effusive praise of American that they go a step or two too far. On page 30 the authors assert that "With rare exceptions like the printing press, the greatest innovations, inventions and discoveries in human history have come since the founding of the United States and in the United States." (emphasis mine) Wow. I can name any number of items that are very important to the world that were not invented in America first, such as the automobile, the electric motor, rocket weapons, the radio and jet engines. Now, did America help perfect them or make them commonplace? Sure. But, why the need for exaggeration?

But, most of the book is solid, conservative thought with some great quotes thrown in. The discussion about the debt is relevant and well-done as was the section called The Law. If you are a regular reader of American Spectator or National Review this book will offer nothing new. If you are a newbie to Conservatism it should prove interesting and thought-provoking.

This book was provided to me at no charge by the publisher in exchange for an honest review through the Amazon Vine program.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: The American Spirit: Celebrating the Virtues and Values that Make Us Great.

Reviewed on February 20, 2013.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Supreme Justice: A Novel of Suspense by Phillip Margolin

Originally published in 2010.
Published in 2011 by Harper.

A death row case, the Supreme Court and Homeland Security politics come together in Supreme Justice. The central question of the death row case is does the government have the right to withhold information deemed to be important to national security in a murder trial? In the case featured in the story, Sara Woodruff is a police officer on death row for killing her former lover. She denies any involvement and points the finger at suspected connections with the CIA and Homeland Security. She is sure he was kidnapped from her apartment and executed and the government's refusal to talk is going to cost her her life..

The Supreme Court building
If the story had been told from the point of view of Woodruff's defense team this book may have been quite suspenseful, entertaining and informative. Instead, it is told from the point of view of a set of ongoing Margolin characters: Dana Cutler, Brad Miller and Keith Evans. Miller works at the Supreme Court as a clerk and the justice he clerks for is interested in Woodruff's case. When there is an assassination attempt on the justice, Miller and the justice begin to suspect that there may be something about the Woodruff case that itself that caused the attempt.

Sadly, the book just never seems to take off and too many coincidences start to pile up to make the book a lot less dramatic than it could have been. Rather than building up to the suspected conspiracy, we short-circuit all of that and just start at the top. Throw in a twist that was telegraphed more than 100 pages from the end and a professional woman who does not know how to operate a modern day smart phone (hint: if you take pictures of legal documents that are not supposed to exist, you should e-mail them right away to your partners!) and I just was not impressed as a I have been with other Margolin books.

Not Margolin's best effort.

I rate this book 3 out of 5 stars and it can be found on Amazon.com here: Supreme Justice: A Novel of Suspense.

Reviewed on February 17, 2013.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America's Class War by Joe Bageant

Published in 2007 by Crown Publishers

Just to get it out of the way, Joe Bageant (1946-2011) and I differ politically despite sharing similar roots. We both grew up in rural  America near a working class town. We both were educated in the local public schools and left to go to college and never really went back except to visit (although do I live in a working class neighborhood in the city). Admittedly, his town (Winchester, Virginia) is a little more poor and run down than mine but I may be remembering my home with rose-colored glasses and he may be intentionally focusing on the worst aspects of his.

But, Bageant did return to Winchester. He returned to be a foreign correspondent of sorts. His aim is to explain white working-class America ("...that churchgoing, hunting and fishing Bud Light-drinking, provincial America...the people who cannot, and do not care to, locate Iraq or France on a map - assuming they even own an atlas." [p.2]) to the left-leaning, college-educated urban wine and cheese set.

Bageant's prose is interesting and lively, but prone to exaggeration, much like a liberal version of P.J. O'Rourke or like the overwrought rantings of stand up comics like Dennis Leary or Lewis Black or Dennis Miller. His points are there and based on real situations but he takes liberties to make his point or to get a good punchline so take everything with a grain of salt. For example, he argues that Presidents don't come from modest beginnings in a rather nice rant but since FDR they all have except for JFK and the Bushes (and maybe Carter, but the other two families were far, far richer than his).

And, sometimes his devotion to a certain line of thought leads him to contradictory comments. For example, he deplores the way social security does not take care of widows very well and how it does not pay enough to really take care of a retired worker. But, he rants against any sort of privatization of Social Security over and over again (you may remember that Bush43 tried to reform Social Security right after he re-election) even though the proposed reforms were modeled after programs that let workers pass on the proceeds of their investments to their widowed spouses or even their children.  See page 236-242 for the longest rant on this topic.

Clearly, Bageant does not seem to grasp the religious aspect of Winchester. He does not completely belittle religious belief but he does not understand it. I was struck by an incident early on in the book. He does not grasp the profound generosity of a small congregation of relatively poor people that buys an old pickup truck for a couple that lost theirs to repossession. The congregation has little money and yet they pool what little they have together to  give two of its members an expensive gift (even an old truck costs several hundred dollars). I find that to be a remarkable act of Christian charity. Instead, he dismisses the whole thing with a single comment.

Bageant does a fabulous job of explaining guns, gun rights and notes correctly on page 129 that beginning in the 1960s the left  was "arrogant and insulting because they associated all gun owners with criminals but were politically stupid."

Generally, I found the book to be very entertaining, full of interesting commentary but incorrect in almost all of its conclusions.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Deer Hunting with Jesus.

Reviewed on February 16, 2012.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Rise of the Guardians: Movie Novelization (audiobook) by Stacia Deutsch

Published by Simon and Schuster Audio in 2012
Read by Keith Nobbs
Duration: 2 hours, 33 minutes

Based on the William Joyce book series Guardians of Childhood,
was a very pleasant surprise when we took the kids to go see it a few months ago. I was not expecting much and came away very impressed with a complex story with plenty for adults to think about but light enough for kids to be entertained. It also has a balance of scary and funny and avoids the all too easy bodily function-type jokes.

The premise of the story is that the Guardians are defending the children of the world against an onslaught by the Boogeyman, who goes by the name Pitch Black. Pitch Black revels in causing fear and nightmares and destroying the best aspects of childhood. The Guardians are the Sandman (Guardian of Dreams), the Easter Bunny (Guardian of Hope), Santa Claus (Guardian of Wonder) and the Tooth Fairy (Guardian of Precious Memories). They have been called together by The Man in the Moon. The Man in the Moon has also called Jack Frost to be a Guardian but no one, including Jack, can figure out why. The story is the story of Jack Frost and how he figures out his own past and how he can help The Guardians, if he even wants to help them, that is.

This adaptation is faithful to the movie, even using the best and most memorable lines. This is good, but also a bit disappointing since I was hoping for a bit more background information.

This book is completely appropriate for any child that is old enough to sit and listen to an audiobook.

Keith Nobbs read the audiobook. He did a solid job of covering the wide variety of over-the-top accents that were present in the movie version (American, Russian, English and Australian).  His reading style should be very approachable for younger listeners without being patronizing.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here:  Rise of the Guardians Movie Novelization

Reviewed on February 14, 2013.

Note: This audiobook was provided to me free of charge by the publisher through Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer program in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

American Chronicles: The Vietnam War (audiobook) by NPR

Published in 2013 by HighBridge Audio
Multicast performance
Duration: 3 hours, 40 minutes

NPR has collected 24 stories that were originally broadcast over their radio network concerning the Vietnam War. All of the stories are high quality productions. Some are quite moving. All are informative.

The collection starts with a look at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. followed by a story about a Washington, D.C. anti-war protest that was broadcast on NPR’s very first day (May 3, 1971). As the collection goes along the listener is treated to stories of Red Cross workers, orphans of the war, the analyst that leaked “The Pentagon Papers”, two stories by Walter Cronkite, actual tapes of Lyndon Johnson discussing how to present the war to the American people, the My Lai Massacre, refugees who fled the North Vietnamese conquest of South Vietnam, pilots and sailors that saved those refugees, the Kent State shootings and so much more.

South Vietnamese helicopter being pushed
 off the deck of the USS Okinawa to make
room for incoming refugees during

the evacuation of Saigon
The collection has a weak spot, however. There is little discussion as to the beginnings of the war and almost nothing said about the rationale behind it. There are multiple stories about protesters and not much about why the war started in the first place.

However, the last CD of this three CD set is very moving. It focuses on the end of the war, including audio spliced in from “letters” that were sent home on audiotape describing the chaos of the evacuation of Saigon as the South Vietnam collapsed in the face of the final push by North Vietnam. Some of the stories are depressing. One is a great testament to the U.S. Navy and its commitment to help as many of the refugees as possible. Perhaps the most moving of these audio letters is from the man whose name is the last name on the Vietnam War Memorial – the literal last man to die in the war (and its little side wars in neighboring countries).

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5 and it can be found on Amazon.com here: American Chronicles: The Vietnam War.

Reviewed on February 12, 2013

Note: This audiobook was provided to me free of charge by the publisher through Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer program in exchange for an honest review. 

Two for Texas (audiobook) by James Lee Burke

Read by Will Patton
Published by Simon and Schuster Audio 2013
First published in 1982
Duration: 5 hours, 23 minutes

James Lee Burke is a prolific writer with more than thirty books, most set in New Orleans and Texas.  Two for Texas takes place in both places. Son Holland is the main character. He has been falsely accused of being involved in a crime ring and sentenced to hard time in a Louisiana penal camp by the French gentlemen that control the city.

While in this camp, Holland meets Hugh, a loud-mouthed, opinionated, walleyed older man who engineers a chance to escape to Texas. But, when they escape they end up killing one of the two downright evil French brothers that run the camp. This is 1834 and Texas is a foreign country – technically still a part of Mexico but certainly preparing to rebel and create the Republic of Texas.

Sam Houston (1793-1863)
Hugh and Holland live among Indians, dodge the Mexican Army and flee the posse sent after them from the prison (led by the surviving evil French brother) that is pursuing them. They decide to hide by joining General Sam Houston’s fledgling army as war between Mexico and Texas erupts.

Veteran actor Will Patton did an outstanding job with this book. He covered a wide variety of accents making them all unique. But, his best performance was reserved for the character of Hugh. Hugh’s smart comments, bad attitude and ability to tell the most elaborate lies at the drop of the hat make him a memorable character. Patton’s raspy characterization makes every scene with him pop.

Note: The book’s description on the back of the box claims that Hugh and Holland join the Texas Rangers and fight in the Battle of the Alamo. Rest assured, they do neither.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Two for Texas

Reviewed on February 12, 2013.

Note: This audiobook was provided to me free of charge by the publisher through Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer program in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

North S*A*R: A Novel of Navy Combat Pilots in Vietnam by Gerry Carrol

Published in 1991 by Pocket Books

A-7 Corsair attack bomber during the Vietnam War
This first novel by a high school friend of Tom Clancy concerns two U.S. Navy pilots named Mike Santy and Tim Boyle who are best friends serving during the late stages of the Vietnam War. They serve off of the coast of North Vietnam. Santy is a pilot of an A-7 Corsair attack bomber and regularly flies bombing missions over North Vietnam. Boyle flies a Sikorsky HH-3A Sea King Combat SAR helicopter. His job is to rescue downed pilots, both in the water and in North Vietnam.

The book is a pretty typical war story novel featuring pilots reminding me quite a bit of Stephen Coonts' earlier novel Flight of the Intruder. The story is solid. There is plenty of detail and jargon but not so much that the reader is overwhelmed. The story is paced a bit slow at first, but the end is very strong, assuming that the reader can overlook the overwhelming coincidence the brings the two buddies together at the climax of the story.

Sikorsky HH-3A Sea King Combat SAR helicopter during the
Vietnam War
Tom Clancy put a blurb on the front of this book saying that "this is the best first novel I have ever read." That's an overstatement, considering how many fantastic first novels there have been, such as The Hobbit or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or The Big Sleep or Frankenstein.

So, how do I rate this first novel.

I was going to rate this book 3 stars out of 5 but when I realized that I read through the final big moments of the book and nearly made myself late to work I had to bump it up to 4 stars. After all, it drug me into another world and wouldn't let me go - isn't that what a good book does?

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: North SAR: A Novel of Navy Combat Pilots in Vietnam

Reviewed on February 4, 2013.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity (audiobook) by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

Very Interesting History of the Modern Presidency

Published by Simon and Schuster Audio in 2012
Read by Bob Walter
Duration: 22 hours, 1 minute

Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, both editors at Time, have delivered a very listenable, fascinating look at each American president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. No matter their political persuasion, their life experiences or their qualities as a human being, all 12 of these men share one thing: they were once President. This is an exclusive club and it seems that just about every president has looked to a former president for a shoulder to lean on, advice or even as a personal envoy sent to convey a sense of urgency to the message.

The story is told in a rough chronological order starting with Truman. When Truman was President there was only one other member of the Presidents Club: Herbert Hoover. Yes, the same Hoover that Truman and FDR disparaged for 12 years. However, to his credit, Truman sent out feelers and discovered that Hoover was still willing and able to help. Together, they set up the ground rules for this "club." Hoover was tapped by Truman to help re-organize the Executive Branch and to get food to Europe at the end of World War II (Hoover did this at the end of World War I as well) and to help re-organize the Executive Branch.

Gibbs and Duffy discuss how each President interacted with his predecessor and his successor and even other presidents (for example, Nixon interacted with every President from Truman to Clinton). Gerald Ford had a similar lengthy history. They also discuss how the "Club" grew and shrank over the years. During Bill Clinton's presidency, there were as many as six members (Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush41 and Clinton). At one point in the Nixon years, there was only Nixon.
The current "Presidents Club" membership: George H.W. Bush (41),
Barack Obama, George W. Bush (43),  Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

If you are a political junkie or a fan of modern American history, this anecdote-filled book is a must-read. It gives a different feel for the men, their personalities and their legacies. For example, I was surprised at how often Johnson reached out to Eisenhower for advice and reassurance concerning the Vietnam War.  I was even more surprised at how often Johnson was out hustled politically by Richard Nixon. I know Johnson was a world class politician, but Nixon maneuvered him and manipulated him throughout 1968. Johnson fared no better in his post-Presidential years.

Nixon comes off as talented but very deeply flawed. The authors quote longtime advisor to multiple presidents Brent Scowcroft calling Nixon a "shit" and former President George H. W. Bush (Bush41) referred to him as "first-rate intellect but also a third-rate person." However, you do have to admire how Nixon calculates how to get to the forefront of American politics again and again and again. Reagan comes off surprisingly cold. Carter, as an enigma. Gerald Ford comes off as principled and maybe even heroic for his decision to pardon Nixon and destroy any chance he had to be elected. The Clinton-Bush41 friendship was a joy to learn about and the source of some of the best stories.

Leadership lessons abound in this book. Every president had his own style in office and some even managed to exert a large influence long after they left office. Some Presidents chart the general path and expect their subordinates to follow it. Others are intimately involved in so many decisions that they are spread too thin. Some are charmers. Some intimidate. Some scheme and plan every move. No matter the president, Gibbs and Duffy take the reader behind the scenes and give a sense of the times and the way their administrations worked.

I found this audiobook to be thoroughly enjoyable. Bob Walter's narration was excellent. He varied his rate, read with a lot of emphasis and made a 22 hour long audiobook fly by. I particularly enjoyed his very slight inflections he put in his quotes. For example, his LBJ quotes had a small amount of Texas twang and his Reagan quotes had his characteristic tone to them (If you were alive during the Reagan Administration, think about his famed "Well...").

I rate this audiobook an enthusiastic 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Presidents Club.

Reviewed on February 1, 2013

Note: This audiobook was provided to me free of charge by the publisher through Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer program in exchange for an honest review. I honestly thought this was an exceptional audiobook.