"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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Tuesday, February 25, 2020


Originally published in 2002.

As the title states, Clint Johnson has found 50 people from the Civil War (25 from each side) who played an important role, but are generally speaking, not big names. So, you won't find Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, William T. Sherman or Stonewall Jackson in this book, except in passing. All of those men would have admitted that they didn't win (or lose) the war by themselves. It was a big war and it involved literally millions of people inside and outside of the military and even outside of the government. Some of those were very helpful and are labeled as "bull's-eyes". Some people, though, got in the way more than they helped. They are the "misfires".

Some of the misfires and bull's-eyes that Johnson lists are clearly misfires or bull's-eyes. For example, the first person listed in the book is Union Major William F. Barry. He misidentified Confederate troops at a critical moment in the First Battle of Bull Run as Union troops and stopped Union artillery from potentially breaking the Confederate line and wiping out Stonewall Jackson's unit before they made the stand that gave Jackson his famous nickname.

Captain Sally Tompkins (1833-1916)
Others are a judgment call. Lew Wallace is called a bull's-eye, but he could have just as easily have been called a misfire for his bungled march during the Battle of Shiloh. For the record, I agree with Johnson's anlaysis, but Ulysses S. Grant never thought much of Wallace's military ability after Shiloh.

The story of Captain Sally Tompkins was an eye-opener to me. Sally Tompkins ran a hospital out of her own home in Richmond and had an incredible success rate - the lowest mortality rate in any hospital in the war on either side. Jefferson Davis made a rule that all hospitals had to be ran by a military officer (because there were some pretty bad private operators). But, Jefferson Davis wanted to make sure that Tompkins' hospital stayed open so he made her a captain in the Confederate Army - possibly the first female officer in any American army. For the record, she served without pay and refused a pension after the war. Personally, I was amazed that Jefferson Davis could be that flexible in his thinking - he was not known for that quality. I was also pleased to read that Tompkins treated all wounded equally in her hospital - Union or Confederate. She even treated African-American Union soldiers, which was enough of an oddity that people commented on it.

I am an avid reader of Civil War histories and I only knew and could identify about 20 of these people (meaning I could make a good guess as to why they were listed in this book) before reading this book.

I have only three complaints.

1) The book is heavily biased towards the Eastern Theater of War.

 2) There is a slight anti-Lincoln bias present in the book. Not the biggest deal, since the book is about the smaller players in the war.

3) The biggest complaint I have is that there are times when a person was listed because they got into a professional squabble with another person and forgot the larger picture. Then, a few profiles later, the squabble was presented a second time because it was a profile of the other guy in the fight. For example, there were two discussions about the creation of the C.S.S. Virginia, the first Confederate ironclad ship. Two men were sure they were responsible (Porter and Brooke) and the reader gets to read the story twice, with a slightly different take the second time.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: BULL'S-EYES and MISFIRES: 50 PEOPLE WHOSE OBSCURE EFFORTS SHAPED the AMERICAN CIVIL WAR by Clint Johnson.

Monday, February 24, 2020

LIVE LONG and...WHAT I LEARNED ALONG the WAY (audiobook) by William Shatner and David Fisher

Published by Macmillan Audion in 2018.
Read by the author, William Shatner.
Duration: 5 hours, 11 minutes.

William Shatner gets personal in this look back at his life. He offers advice, although to be fair you have to know his first piece of advice - don't take his advice. Why not? Because his life is his life and you are you and the situations are different.

That being said, he does offer one really good piece of advice - say "yes" to new opportunities.

Besides the advice, he fills the book with stories of his life and discussions of situations he faced and how he dealt with them. He is brutally honest about his childhood and his lifelong inability to make real friends. Leonard Nimoy was one of his few friends, but at the end of his life Nimoy had refused to talk with him for five years.

Sometimes he drifts into sort "old man" ramblings about life in general and repeats himself, but most of the book is quite interesting. Say what you want about William Shatner - he's never boring for very long. His stories of his career right after the cancellation of Star Trek tell something about how badly he wanted to be an actor. His story of his drive from New York City to Chicago in a blizzard is worth the price of the book all by itself, in my opinion.

Shatner read this audibook himself. Did you expect anything less?

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: LIVE LONG and...WHAT I LEARNED ALONG the WAY (audiobook) by William Shatner.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

ME, the MOB and the MUSIC: ONE HELLUVA RIDE with TOMMY JAMES and the SHONDELLS (audiobook) by Tommy James and Martin Fitzpatrick

Published by Tantor Audio in 2010.
Read by David Colacci.
Duration: 7 hours, 51 minutes.

I heard about this book in a memorable interview with Tommy James on the old Dennis Miller radio show when this book came out nearly 10 years ago. It was one of the best radio interviews I have ever heard and I am not even a giant Tommy James and the Shondells fan.

So, when I came across the audiobook I knew I had to listen to it - and I was not disappointed.

For those not familiar with Tommy James, he is responsible for the songs "Hanky Panky", "Mony Mony" and "I Think We're Alone Now". He had two #1 hits and 14 Top 40 hits overall.

He started his music career as a middle school kid in Niles, Michigan performing in bars and fraternity houses and pretending to be old enough to be in bars and fraternity houses. They did a lot of work in South Bend and Lake County in Indiana and eventually got regular work in Chicago. They even released the song "Hanky Panky" and got a local exposure.

And then it all dried up.

Tommy James almost took a job as a store manager but decided to give music one more try. It wasn't going well when James got a call from Pittsburgh saying that "Hanky Panky" was the hottest thing going in that market and he had to come out right away.

He did and went on to become one of the best-selling musicians of his time. The book's title refers to his time with Roulette Records in New York City. Roulette had national reach and extensive mafia connections and that's when things started to get weird...

It's a fascinating look at the music scene of 50 years ago. I really enjoyed it. The reader, David Colacci, was fantastic.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: ME, the MOB and the MUSIC: ONE HELLUVA RIDE with TOMMY JAMES and the SHONDELLS by Tommy James and Martin Fitzpatrick.

DESTINY DISRUPTED: A HISTORY of the WORLD through ISLAMIC EYES (audiobook) by Tamim Ansary

Published in 2009 by Blackstone Audio.
Read by the author, Tamim Ansary
Duration: 17 hours, 28 minutes.

Tamim Ansary has done something that is very hard to do - he has written a long history of a complicated topic without making it boring and after more than 17 hours of discussion, he left me wishing that it was even longer.

Ansary makes the observation that most histories that people in the West (Western Europe and the Americas) read are written from a Western perspective. That makes sense. But, the history of the world is not just the history of Western Civilization. There are multiple civilizations on the planet. Mesoamerica (the Mayas, Aztecs, Toltecs, etc.) is a separate civilization. China is the historic center of another civilization. So is India. And between the West and India and China is another one. Westerners usually refer to it as the Middle East. This book is a history of that civilization from the beginning of recorded history (empires like Bablyon) to 9/11 and the fallout from that terrorist act.

The strength of this book is that it lets the reader see history from another perspective. For example, the Crusades loom large in European history, but they were mostly an irritant to Muslims of the day since Ghenghis Khan was threatening them from Central Asia at the same time. Compared to Ghenghis Khan, the Crusaders were not an existential threat to their civilization. To make an analogy from American history, the Battle of Lexington and Concord looms large in American history textbooks as "The Short Heard 'Round the World", but most English school children have never heard of it.

The audiobook is read by the author and he does a great job. The book is written in approachable, every day language, literally designed to be an introduction to the history of this civilization. He reminds readers of key concepts throughout, showing how older ways of doing things applied to new situations and were adapted. Ansary's reading is excellent.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. I highly recommended this audiobook. It can be found on Amazon.com here: DESTINY DISRUPTED: A HISTORY of the WORLD through ISLAMIC EYES by Tamim Ansary.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

LOST HORIZON by James Hilton

Originally published in 1933.

The dust jacket from the original
hardcover printing in 1933.
Lost Horizon was the first novel published under the label Pocket Books (Pocket Book #1) and was one of the best-selling novels of the 20th century. My copy of this book was published in 1966 and it says it is part of the 62nd printing by Pocket Books.

The story starts in Afghanistan where a local rebellion has caused the British government to evacuate all 80 of the white residents via airplane. The last airplane out is a high performance luxury airplane carrying just 4 passengers. Turns out, their pilot is a hijacker armed with a pistol and he takes them far off course into modern-day Tibet. They have a very rough landing on a high mountain glacier and the hijacker dies.

The four survivors start to walk across the glacier but are soon discovered by a party from a nearby monastery called Shangri-La. They are escorted back the monastery and settle in for a long wait for the next supply party to work it's way up to the monastery. But, that's not a problem because this monastery is on the edge of a hidden lush and beautiful valley full of people that seems to have been forgotten by time.

And that's not all this valley is hiding.

I am rating this book 3 stars out of 5. Despite it's tremendous reputation, I found it to be quite slow and more than a little anti-climactic. I found the introduction to the novel in the inside of the front cover to be more interesting than the actual novel. For example, the name Shangri-La was entirely made up for this book and has since entered the English language as another word for a remote, exotic, earthly paradise.

Multiple editions of this novel can be found on Amazon.com here: Lost Horizon by James Hilton.

I did like this quote from the book: "People make mistakes in life through believing too much, but they have a damned dull time if they believe too little."

Monday, February 17, 2020


Published in 2014 by Blackstone Audio.
Read by Pam Ward.
Duration: 5 hours, 12 minutes.

Sgt. Stubby wearing his medal vest (left), marching in a parade (upper
right) and wearing his special gas mask (lower right).
During the quick basic training for American forces heading for France in World War I, a stray dog found its way into a Connecticut National Guard training camp at Yale University. The unit was sprawled all over the campus and this Boston Terrier mix wandered around making friends all over. His friendly nature guaranteed a lot of table scraps. He marched with the men, learned the commands and blended in as well as a dog can. Somewhere along the way, someone taught him how to salute and hold the salute until it was returned.

When it came time to board a ship and head to France, the soldier that he spent the most time with, Corporal James Robert Conroy, hid him under his coat as others provided a distraction. Once aboard, Stubby ensured he got to stay with his friends by saluting any superior officer that questioned his presence and all resistance melted away.

Stubby stayed with his friends in France. He served several months in the trenches, participated in 17 battles, was wounded by a German hand grenade, was wounded by German poison gas, helped locate wounded soldiers in the "no man's land" between the trenches, single-handedly captured a German spy (he grabbed his pants with his mouth and made a ruckus until human soldiers came) and won admirers everywhere he went.

The title of this book exaggerates the importance of Sgt. Stubby to the war effort. He was immensely important to Conroy and their circle of friends, but the title makes it sound like Sgt. Stubby turned the tide of the war or something.

The book is equal parts a biography of Sgt. Stubby and a history of the era in which he lived. It's also a pretty serviceable history of World War I and includes discussions of movements in American history like the suffragette movement, the anti-alcohol campaigns that resulted in Prohibition and the rise of the FBI.

The audiobook was extremely well read by Pam Ward. I hope to come across other audiobooks read by her.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: SERGEANT STUBBY: HOW a STRAY DOG and HIS BEST FRIEND HELP WIN WORLD WAR I and STOLE the HEART of a NATION.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

THE OPTIMIST (audiobook) by Roy Schreiber

Published by Author's Republic in 2019.
Multicast performance.
Duration: 1 hour, 11 minutes.

This audiobook is a mixed bag. So, I will start with the positive side.

The multicast performance in this audiobook is really, really good. The voice actors perform it like an old-fashioned radio play and they are excellent. It even has sound effects that are timed right, set to the right sound level and are not obnoxious.

The story is another matter. It starts out with one plot (two university professors trying to grow the size of the practically nonexistent faculty labor union at a small private university in Indiana), drifts into a second story line and finally moves into a third, rather bizarre story thread that doesn't even come close to addressing the original conflict in this 71 minute story. This audiobook just slides around like a nervous six year old tells a story to a bunch of adults at a family get-together.

I rate this audiobook 2 stars out of 5. It gets 2 stars because I really liked the work of the team that put together the audiobook.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: The Optimist by Roy Schreiber.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

JUST MERCY: A STORY of JUSTICE and REDEMPTION (audiobook) by Bryan Stevenson

Published in 2014 by Random House Audio
Read by the author, Bryan Stevenson.
Duration: 11 hours, 11 minutes

"...if he just had the money for a decent lawyer."

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who has spent his entire career working with people who have been wrongfully convicted and unfairly sentenced. He works through the Equal Justice Initiative with a lot of death row inmates in Alabama. He has succeeded in getting over 100 re-trials and/or re-sentencing hearings for people on death row. He has had multiple convictions completely overturned.

Stevenson does a lot of work in Alabama because Alabama doesn't do much to subsidize the defense in death row cases. How much does the state spend for the entire case, including appeals?

Just $1,000.

Some counties help with that amount, but more than 70% of Alabama's death row inmates were represented by $1,000 lawyers. Considering that the average cost of a simple will is $375, you can see that a $1,000 worth of death row defense won't get much. The author says it won't even pay for the photocopying costs associated with a death row defense, let alone DNA tests, expert testimony, hiring investigators and other costs. In one of his cases, he freed a man because he was able to demonstrate that the bullet that killed the victim could not have been fired from the supposed "murder weapon" owned by the defendant - it wouldn't have fit in the gun. That is super-basic expert testimony that should have been presented at the original trial.

Stevenson tells the stories of many of his clients as the book moves along, but the thread that ties it together is the story of Walter McMillian. McMillian was convicted of murdering a teenage girl based on flimsy testimony and even flimsier circumstantial evidence. It is the attorney's most famous case and it does give the reader a good idea about the length of time it takes to straighten out one of these incorrect verdicts.

Stevenson also makes a compelling argument that there is a great deal of racial bias in these cases. The sentences for black defendants are often longer, more likely to go to Death Row and are less likely to have an adequate defense. Younger black defendants are much more likely to get moved to adult court than white ones.

My advice if you are poor and/or black is to never get arrested for anything in Alabama.

This book is an important read. Stevenson's writing style is very to the fact - very much in line with someone that writes a lot of legalese all day. He avoids technical terms in this book, but it is often a "just the facts" style of writing. 

That said, this book 
can be inspiring and Stevenson paints a compelling picture. There was one point in the story that I was so frustrated with what was going on that I was physically angry. At another point just a few minutes later, the situation resolved itself in such a profoundly moving way that it brought tears to my eyes. The topic is so engrossing that artistic flourishes are not required.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: J