"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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Wednesday, March 25, 2020


Published in 1973.

In 1973, undoubtedly to prepare for the upcoming 1976 bicentennial of the American Declaration of Independence, BBC reporter and author Alistair Cooke released a book and a television mini-series telling the history of the United States to the U.K. The book and the series came to America as well with the book selling nearly 2 million copies. This massive "coffee table" type book has 393 pages and weighs in at 3 pounds, 9 ounces (compare that to a random paperback book I weighed at just 5 ounces).

Photo by Lewis Hine
Cooke presents a straight-forward history of America, skimming over lots of details but getting the highlights. This has to be the case when you cover more than nearly 500 years of history in less than 400 pages. He focuses half of the book on the exploration/colonial/Revolutionary War/Constitutional era and it is by far the strongest part of the book.

This book is filled with beautiful, sometimes profound photographs. On pages 312-313 there is a two page spread of a lynching. Cooke claims that "no one knows who took this picture, or exactly when." (p. 311)   It was taken by Lawrence Beitler in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930. Beitler sold this photo for 10 days straight to sell as souvenirs of the lynching. Here is a link to a great book on the topic: 
A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in the Heartland by James H. Madison. Here is a link to the Wikipedia page on this lynching: Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.

The photograph of the girl working in a clothing factory in North Carolina is another great photograph in book full of great paintings and photographs. I have included it in this review.

It is very readable, but clearly a product of its time, and Cooke is a reporter, not an historian. The book has a bit of a racist feel to it. For example, when discussing where the United States lays on the globe (not too hot, not too cold), he notes: "...the United States spans the limits of the climates that white men can live and work in." Cooke mostly skips over the Native American civilizations that inhabited the Americas before Columbus. He spends almost as much time discussing entertaining but mostly nonsensical theories about the Phoenicians settling in the Americas as he does the actual Native American civilizations themselves. Cooke's reasoning is that he is covering a history of the United States itself, so Native Americans get the short end of the stick, except as an impediment to American expansion for the first 2/3 of the book.

Cooke does a similarly poor job dealing with African Americans, a group that he cringingly calls "the blacks" throughout. 
He does, however, clearly observe (in a clunky manner) that slavery and the continuing racial prejudice against African Americans is an ongoing open sore and has never been dealt with properly.

Final rating - 4 stars out of 5, keeping in mind that this history book is clearly old enough to be an historical artifact itself.

It can be found on Amazon.com here: 

Monday, March 23, 2020


Published by Penguin Audio in 2019.
Read by Will Damron.
Duration: 10 hours, 17 minutes.

David Epstein presents a strong argument that lateral thinkers (people that know a little about a lot of things) are stronger members of a team than the experts that know a whole lot about a narrow subject.

He also argues that people who pick a specialty later in life have a wider perspective on things and can bring fresh ideas into a stale discussion.

I literally have no problems with anything he says in this book, but I did find the book to be poorly put together. It just rambles along from one (usually, but not always) interesting topic to another and makes all of them about 30% too long. 

So, I am going to rate this book 3 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: RANGE: WHY GENERALISTS TRIUMPH in a SPECIALIZED WORLD

Sunday, March 15, 2020


Published by Blackstone Audio in 2016.
Read by Andrew Elden.
Duration: 7 hours, 44 minutes.

Keystone Pipeline construction in South Dakota
In 2012, Ken Ilgunas embarked on a 1,900 mile hike from the beginning of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in Alberta, Canada to its terminus on the Gulf Coast of Texas.  He did this because he is opposed to the pipeline and is very concerned about the expanded use of fossil fuels, the environmental damage caused by the mining of oil sands and the potential for spillage from the pipeline. Along the way, he blogs about his experiences with his iPad in the hopes of creating a little buzz about the topic.

He was inspired to do this by a series of conversations he and a friend had during a stint in the kitchen at a Prudhoe Bay oil drilling site. They were going to hike the entire length together, but his friend begged off and fell into a support role, occasionally mailing him food and replacement pieces of equipment and boots (he went through 3 pairs of boots on this hike).

Ilgunas got off to a late start and began hiking as Canada was going into winter, meaning that he faced cold weather and snow almost all of the way through his hike. He tried to follow the path of the pipeline as much as possible in order to save time and to cut back on the amount of miles he would have to walk. The pipeline starts out with a south-east direction and he often walked along its proposed path through pastures and empty fields for miles. The new pipeline will follow a smaller pipeline route that currently exists in many places so it was pretty easy to follow. Other times, he stuck to the roads, especially when the pipeline takes a more due south path in the United States. That is because most roads in Plains states run north-south or east-west, like a giant checkerboard.

He meets a lot of animal life, including moose, coyotes, lots of dogs and cows. Lots and lots and lots of cows. He almost gets killed in a cattle stampede at one point.

Different states have different personalities, it seems. In Canada (yes, I know Canada is not an American state, but just go with it), no one seems to care where he walks. Montana and South Dakota have lots of no trespassing signs, but no one really seems to care much. Ilgunas becomes a mini-celebrity in Nebraska, despite a rough start where he is escorted out of the county (well, almost all of the way) by a deputy on the orders of the sheriff. Those few miles are the only part he didn't walk. He attends an anti-pipeline rally, gets a few local media interviews and for the rest of his hike in Nebraska he is welcomed as the "guy who is hiking the pipeline".

In Kansas, however, his celebrity status evaporates and he gets consistently hassled by the police. He is asked for his ID in Kansas more than he is on the rest of his trip combined.  Oklahoma depresses Ilgunas. It has a massive pipeline junction -  a place that should be well off since everyone says pipelines bring jobs. In his mind, it is the saddest town on his whole hike. 

Along the hike he usually avoids discussions of the topic of global warming since this is a very conservative area that doesn't buy into that theory. As he hikes, he is consistently told that the pipeline will create lots and lots of jobs, but he literally doesn't meet a single employee except at the very end and at the very beginning. But, people across Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas swear that it will create jobs all along the way.

Ilgunas doesn't really have an answer to the problem of petroleum's ubiquitous role in our society. His tent, his hiking poles, his shoes, and his iPad all have plastic made from petroleum in them. Nor does he address how radically more expensive energy will affect the poor. He talks about how the Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted by its use to make farming on the Great Plains possible. But, he doesn't talk about how that food would be replaced if we didn't farm on the Great Plains.

It's not that I necessarily disagree with any of his points, but the lack of answers, or even suggestions, by Ilgunas is frustrating.

The area he hikes through is certainly part of the Bible belt and Ilgunas finds his anti-Christian bias challenged by the number of people who offer to help him. He points out that only one person evangelized him (a creepy minister in Oklahoma), but the other people of faith shared their food, their homes, their electricity to charge his devices, their wi-fi and their time because they genuinely loved helping others. Ilgunas would arrive in town and search up the local pastor for help in finding a place to pitch his tent. Often, they offered spare rooms, floor space in the church and even once in a loft area in the sanctuary. This made a much more profound impact than the perfunctory hardball Christian sales pitch he received from the minister in Oklahoma.

Andrew Elden read this book and did quite a good job.

When I started listening to this book, I quickly tired of Ilgunas' writing style, which really should be described as an over-writing style. He over-described everything and really tried too hard to create a mood for every scene. Either I got used to it, or he cut back on it. It's not a perfect book, but I do give this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: TRESPASSING ACROSS AMERICA: ONE MAN'S EPIC, NEVER-DONE-BEFORE (and SORT of ILLEGAL) HIKE ACROSS the HEARTLAND  by Ken Ilgunas.


Saturday, March 14, 2020


Originally published in 2001.

The greatest argument among people who study the Civil War isn't who was the best general or what would have happened if Lincoln hadn't have been assassinated or even what would have happened if the Union had lost at Gettysburg.

No, the greatest argument is this: What caused the Civil War?

For the better part of the last century, the argument has been that the Confederacy seceded in order to protect "their rights". The counter-argument has always been to protect "the right to do what?"

For me, the answer has always been a simple one - they fought for their right to own people and to keep African Americans at the bottom of the heap in Southern society. For the Confederate States of America, slavery was the reason to fight. For the Union army, maintaining the Union, with or without slavery, was the reason to fight - a goal claimed many times by Lincoln himself. 

There will be arguments that claim that Confederate states seceded over differences in culture and differences in attitude and the disagreement over federal tax policy. If you think so, I encourage you to read the Ordinances of Secession (basically Declarations of Independence) from Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia. They are full of all sorts of reasons to secede, but they keep coming back to slavery-related issues. These are wonderful resources because they are frozen in time, before the loss of the war by the Confederacy. Many post-Civil War authors who fought for the South obscure the importance of slavery, perhaps realizing it was a great moral wrong, or perhaps simply being cognizant that slavery had become politically incorrect and it would hurt their overall argument. Let's face it - many Union soldiers became proud of their role in ending slavery long after the war ended, being indifferent to or even mildly pro-slavery during the war.

 Several of the seceding states did more than issue their own Declarations of Independence. Some of these states sent out ambassadors from their newly independent states to try to convince the other slave states to join them. They were generally referred to as Southern Secession Commissioners. The title of this book, Apostles of Disunion refers to them. The Apostles of Jesus were sent out to teach about Jesus. These apostles were sent out by several secessionist states to to convince the other slave states to join them. Just the fact that they were only sent to slave states should serve as a major clue as to what caused the Civil War.

The texts of their letters and speeches make it very clear that their main arguments were these: fear of the abolition of slavery by "Black Republicans", fear of slave revolt, the loss of the investment of money in their slaves, fear of former slaves having the power to vote and the fear of race mixing. William L. Harris, the Commissioner from Mississippi sent to reach out to the state of Georgia said on December, 17, 1860: "Mississippi is firmly convinced that there us but one alternative: This new union with Lincoln Black Republicans and free negroes, without slavery; or, slavery under old constitutional bond of union, without Lincoln Black Republicans, or free negroes either, to molest us. If we take the former, then submission to negro equality is our fate." (p. 87)

He followed up with a comment about how Mississippi would "...rather see the last of her race, men, women and children, immolated in one common funeral pile, than see them subjected to the degradation of civil, political and social equality with the negro race." (p. 89)

Stephen F. Hale (1816-1862. He served Alabama
as a Secession Commissioner and as a Lt. Colonel
in the 11th Alabama. He died of wounds sustained
during the Battle of Gaines' Mill in 1862.
Hale County, Alabama is named for him.
Stephen F. Hale of Alabama sent a letter to the Governor of Kentucky to convince him to push for secession. In the letter he calls Lincoln's election "...nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this new theory of government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassination and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans."

He continued: "What Southern man, be he a slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters in the not distant future associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white stripped by the heaven-daring had of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed?" (p. 98)

The author of Apostles of Disunion included plenty of similar quotes throughout the book and also includes the entire text of the Harris speech and the Hale letter. He found snippets of speeches and letters from the other Commissioners in newspaper articles and journals and found similar comments to the ones in the complete texts. Combine these texts with ambassadors hand-picked by the newly-seceded states and the Ordinances of Secession and you have the answer to why the Civil War started.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: APOSTLES of DISUNION: SOUTHERN SECESSION COMMISSIONERS and the CAUSES of the CIVIL WAR (A NATION DIVIDED: STUDIES in the CIVIL WAR ERA by Charles B. Dew.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

STARSHIP TROOPERS (audiobook) by Robert A. Heinlein

Originally published in 1959.
Audiobook published in 1998 by Blackstone Audio.
Read by Lloyd James.
Duration: 9 hours, 52 minutes.

Winner of the Hugo Award for best sci-fi novel of 1960.

Way back when - when I was in high school and Ronald Reagan was President, I used to read a lot of Robert A. Heinlein. Now, as an adult, I find myself all over the place with my ratings of Heinlein, mostly average. With this book, I will have two 5 star ratings, two 3 star ratings and two 2 star ratings. That makes a very mediocre rating of 3.333 out of 5. That would be a C+ on a grading scale and I agree with that assessment.

This book marks the transition in Heinlein's professional career from writing science fiction for kids and young adults to writing for adults. This book was originally supposed to be for kids but the original publisher rejected it so Heinlein shopped it around, found a new publisher and never wrote for kids again.

The book Starship Troopers is a rare book in my opinion. It is a book where the movie is absolutely better than the book, even though the movie is clearly only loosely inspired by the movie. Some sources say the movie was written and the title of the book was attached to it after the fact, and even if that is true, the movie is still better than this book.

What's wrong with the book?

-The ratio of literal fascist political lecture by classroom teachers to actual battle action in a book called Starship Troopers is about 2:1. It could just as easily have been called Starship Fascist Lectures.  The lectures go on and on about how democracy was a doomed system and the only way to lead a people was by a system led by people who had served in the military. Throw in a half hour discussion of the proper way to raise children with the threat of a good old fashioned public flogging and you've got the makings of a real disappointment. 

-More than one-third of the book is about basic training. How far they ran, what they ate, where they slept and more for several hours. Sadly, two of the better characters in the book are Johnny Rico's drills sergeant and his captain.

-There was nearly as much in the book about the how the officer's dining room worked on ship as there was actual military action. Just so you know, the army sits on one end of the table, the navy on the other and they sit by descending order with the most junior officers meeting in the middle. Don't give a crap? Neither did I, but Heinlein goes on and on about it like it's extremely important. Maybe it should have been called Starship Dinners.

The audibook was read by Lloyd James. He was fine, but the audio production was sometimes clumsily edited. There were times when you could hear the recording equipment being turned on and off and there were clunky edits where the Lloyd James had gone back and re-read part but it was much quieter and not as crisp sounding as the rest of the book.

I rate this audiobook 2 stars out of 5. The final (and very short) fight scene saves it from being a complete 1 star fiasco. This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein.

Monday, March 9, 2020


Originally printed in 2001.

One of my favorite people in history is Levi Coffin. I have visited the Levi Coffin House (an official Historic Site maintained by the state of Indiana) so many times that it feels like I am making a semi-annual pilgrimage when I go.  The thing is, I find myself inspired every time I visit - both as a history lover, a champion of individual rights and as a Christian.

Levi Coffin was an instrumental figure in the Underground Railroad and the abolition movement. He was not simply  a theoretical supporter of the movement that wrote letters and collected donations. He helped more than a thousand slaves escape, many of them spending time in his own home. His home in Indiana was even modified so that he could hide ten or more people at a time, if necessary.

Here is a picture that I took of a great quote from Levi Coffin that is on the wall of the visitors center at his house in Fountain City: 

This short book tells an interesting story of his life from his beginnings in North Carolina to Indiana and finally on to Cincinnati. During his entire life, even as a young man still living at home in North Carolina, he helped slaves escape. He viewed it as his responsibility as a Christian.

But, he even went further than that. He and wife operated a store in Cincinnati that sold goods that were completely free of slave labor, pioneering a concept that many think as a modern incarnation with things like conflict-free diamonds.

During the Civil War, he and his wife opened their home up as a hospital for wounded soldiers, helped find work and schooling for newly freed slaves and helped feed the non-stop flood of refugees streaming away from their masters.

After the war, he continued his efforts for the Freedmen until he finally was too old to do anything any longer.

This book is very approachable and quite an enjoyable read. I am in the midst of a book purge, but this book is staying on my shelf.

I rate this simple book 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: LEVI COFFIN, QUAKER: BREAKING the BONDS of SLAVERY in OHIO and INDIANA by Mary Ann Yannessa.

Friday, March 6, 2020

DRUNKEN FIREWORKS (audiobook) by Stephen King

Published in 2015 by Simon and Schuster Audio
Read by Tim Sample.
Duration: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Stephen King uses the voice talents of Tim Sample, a humorist that specializes in talking about Maine. Fans of Stephen King know that the prolific author loves to set his stories in his home state of Maine. This one is set on the corner of a lake surrounded by vacation homes.

Two families are part of a year-after-year fireworks contest. One is a family from Rhode Island. The other is an older mom and son who grew up in the area and bought their dream home on the lake. They don't know each other well, but their sense of pride get in the way as their desire to "one up" each other gets more and more ridiculous as the years go along.

The folksy manner of the narrator makes this predictable story a lot of fun. It is the perfect matching of author and narrator.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Drunken Fireworks by Stephen King.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

SLEEPING GIANTS (Themis Files #1) (audiobook) by Sylvain Neuvel

Published in 2016 by Random House Audio.
Multicast performance.
Duration: 8 hours, 28 minutes.

One of my favorite audiobook bloggers wrote a gushing review of this entire trilogy. It was such an enthusiastic review that I almost got all 3 books in the trilogy based on his word alone.

I am glad I didn't.

******Warning: Spoiler Alert*******

The chosen ones get to suit up and use the mighty morphin powerbot
in this audiobook.

The book is derivative of two other works of science fiction - and they're not the finest bits of sci-fi. Imagine a mash-up of The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Pacific Rim and you've pretty much got this book.

It is like Pacific Rim in that you've got a giant robot weapon that has to be operated by two people at the same time to work. It's like Power Rangers in that certain people have been randomly "chosen" to operate this robot and possibly defend the earth from alien attack.

**********Spoilers continue*********

The alien threat never materializes and there's an awful lot of weird Cold War politics going back and forth as the United States literally violates the air space of every country on the planet in its quest to find all of the parts of this gigantic mighty morphin powerbot. 

Most of the book, however, doesn't include any action at all. The book is designed to be read as a series of government reports and interviews read and heard one after another to tell the story. Imagine all of the action of reading a report or listening a government after action interview and you get the idea.

This is not to say that this book has nothing going for it, but it is too slow, too unrealistic.

On top of that, I really hated the voice of the unnamed character that I called "The Interrogator". He over-enunciated everything and interrupted constantly. It was the part as written, but the actor just botched all of the interruptions. They didn't sound natural - they sounded like when a bad high school actor reads an interruption in an under-rehearsed play.

**********Even more SPOILERS********

And, worst of all - the book isn't even internally consistent. If one character puts on the helmet to interface with the robot, all of her bodily injuries are immediately and painfully healed. When the male robot operator is horribly injured, no one even discusses using the magical healing helmet. No one tries using her character on him. Not once.

I rate this audiobook 2 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: SLEEPING GIANTS (Themis Files #1) (audiobook) by Sylvain Neuvel.