Saturday, December 07, 2019

Review: Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier: The Penguin Library of American Indian History

Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier: The Penguin Library of American Indian History Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier: The Penguin Library of American Indian History by Timothy J. Shannon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An informative history of the Iroquois's complex relationships with the British(later Americans) and French in the 17th and 18th centuries. At times, I got bogged down in names, dates, and some of the finer details (a function, for me, of listening rather than reading) but the general account was worth it. Granted some of this is limited by the available sources, but I would have liked more about the Iroquois and their relationship to their indigenous neighbors. Most of this history is about the diplomacy with the European powers.

The history here is fascinating and nuanced. The author balances things well; and anyone coming in with a view that the Europeans were simply and only just imperialistic, racist land grabbers or that the Iroquois were innocent noble savages that were exploited will be disabused of these notions. The Europeans were often that but not only or always that. Along with the cynical treaties merely meant to push the Iroquois off their land, there were sincere efforts at relationship building that were successful and long-lasting. And the Iroquois were far from innocent dupes being played and exploited. They were quite astute and played the French and British off each to great effect. And the Iroquois were sometimes intentionally party to the exploitation of other native nations by the Europeans. History is always a lot more complicated and lot more interesting than what we learned in school.

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Review: Eight Million Ways to Die

Eight Million Ways to Die Eight Million Ways to Die by John K. Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A classic detective noir retold in graphic novel form. I haven't read the original, but the graphic presentation was excellent. It helped to set the mood and setting; it captured the tension felt by Scudder and his relationship to alcohol. The story was well-plotted and interesting; though the resolution came rather quickly. I wish there were more graphic novel adaptations like this.

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Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Review: Robert B. Parker's Angel Eyes

Robert B. Parker's Angel Eyes Robert B. Parker's Angel Eyes by Ace Atkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really do miss Robert Parker. Nevertheless, Atkins does a great job at capturing Parker's style, the feel of a Spenser novel, and the underlying morality of it. He even gets close to Spenser's wit--though it's not quite as snappy or droll as Parker's dialogue.

Atkins had some fun with this one. He always does some call-backs to earlier Parker novels, but this one had several laugh-out-loud references. One was a hilarious and not-so-subtle dig (maybe?) at the new Wahlberg Netflix series. Another was a completely out of the blue and unprecedented Joe Pike sighting. There was also another not-so-subtle dig at Robert Kraft (which as a Pats fan I found less amusing).

If you miss Spenser and want to spend time in that world, Atkins provides a reasonable simulacrum of it. There is always something a little off, but it is still a good read.

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Monday, November 25, 2019

Review: Ancient Civilizations of North America

Ancient Civilizations of North America Ancient Civilizations of North America by Edwin Barnhart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Barnhart is a great lecturer; and I enjoyed listening to him. The history was very interesting, and I learned a lot. I liked the structure of the lecture of the series, as he moved through the different regions and their history.

I did tend to get lost and daydream as he got into the details of pottery shards, ancient middens, and other archaeological particulars.

As with many teaching company courses, the first half/third of the series was the best. (not sure why that is, but it is very common.) In this case, the latter half was dealing less and less with ancient civilizations and more with pre-contact cultures of the 13th and 14th centuries. Still important, interesting stuff, but not what I was expecting.

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Review: If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir

If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir by Ilana Kurshan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve long had a fantasy of reading and studying the Talmud. I’m intrigued by the history of it; the philosophy and theology that it contains, its structure and methodology, and its centrality to Jewish thought. But it’s such a huge challenge. Never mind language, but the very structure and methodology that fascinates me is one of the significant hurdles to overcome. And then its sheer length. It’s long. Really long. It’s a serious commitment; one that would absorb almost all my time.

But then, in Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All The Seas Were Ink, I learned about Daf Yomi. A project by which one reads one page of Talmud every day, completing the whole Talmud in seven and half years. Still a long time and a commitment, but this made it seem more feasible. I started to look into a bit more after starting her book. A new cycle starts in January. Maybe I could do this.

But, by the end of Kurshan’s book, I’m over it (mostly). I realized through Kurshan’s discussion of her daily reading, ironically, that I don’t want to read the whole Talmud. I’m interested in reading parts and pieces, or reading about parts and pieces. But the whole thing? Every day for seven and half years? That’s a lot of discussion of religious minutiae that holds no interest to me.

The memoir itself is interesting. To be honest, I didn’t love it. There were some beautiful parts; some poignant moments, aspects that prompted self-reflection. But overall, I didn’t connect with Kurshan. I am not sure why: maybe her intensity, her idealistic romanticism, or something else. But whatever it was, she always felt somewhat distant to me—even as she shared intimate aspects of her life.

The book started strong. I was pulled in by the idea of using the reading of Talmud daily to give herself structure and direction as she rebuilt her life. But there were a few things as the book went on that helped to create some of that distance I mentioned above. One, there was a lot of coincidence between the daily study and things in her life. On one hand, that’s kind of the point of the book. Moreover, who doesn’t have that experience of reading about something and then seeing that something everywhere? But on the other hand, after a while, it felt a little inauthentic.

Two, she seemed to be running out of interesting things to say by the end. As her life gets back on track and things are going well, it’s just not as interesting from a story point of view. And at this point, it becomes a lot of being thankful for her blessings and tying this into her study of Talmud. On personal level, that’s great. But as reader, it doesn’t make for great reading.

I did appreciate reading Kurshan’s point of view. Though far more religious and traditional than I could or would ever be, she was not orthodox or dogmatic. She bristled at the sexism in the tradition. She had difficulty with traditional prayer. At the same time, I think some of her more overt religiousness contributed to my felt distance from her. I would have also liked more of daily Israeli life. And more than just Jerusalem. She seemed to live in a somewhat religious bubble in Jerusalem and I didn’t get a sense of the much broader picture of life in Israel.

The book is at its most interesting when Kurshan weaves together ideas from the Talmud and how it helped her to think about her life. While I complained above that there were a lot of coincidences between her life and study, it didn’t bother me when she used this to show how this affected her thoughts and actions. It was more the hokey way she sometimes used the coincidences to introduce or set up the chapter. That’s when it felt forced and inauthentic.

I’m glad to have read it. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it. It gave me some insight and inspired some reflection, but also left me with the feeling that something was missing or incomplete.

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Sunday, October 13, 2019

Review: Loyalty

Loyalty Loyalty by Ingrid Thoft
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is a lot to like here. The main character, Fina, is solid. She's not all the way hard-boiled or all that original; but she's tough, smart, and a wise-cracker. The setting is Boston--always a plus, though there wasn't that much Boston in it. It could have been Philly for all you knew. The story moves along and though not terribly original, it wasn't totally obvious.

The writing itself was not strong. Plenty of cliches and too much telling instead of showing. The secondary characters were also a bit 'standard-issue' and stereotypical of the genre.

Fina is strong enough that I'd be willing to give #2 a try; though in the summer. This is definitely more of a beach/summer read. It's fun, it moves and entertains, but not much more than that.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Review: Thrawn: Alliances

Thrawn: Alliances Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An ambitious book with some great ideas that ultimately doesn’t come together as tightly as one would like. Still, I enjoyed it. Thrawn is a great character, one of my favorite Star Wars characters. The setting of the book both in the midst of the Clone Wars and also in the time period before the Battle of Yavin, and going back and forth between these throughout the book was a great choice on how to tell the story. The parallels between the interactions of Anakin and Thrawn and then Vader and Thrawn were fun to play with. And then also seeing Vader react to and struggle with the memories of his old self was a neat spin (Anytime we can get inside that helmet and see what Vader is thinking is fun).

But the plots in both story lines tended more towards the convoluted. This is in part because in order for Thrawn to do his thing, a lot of pieces need to be moving in the background and everyone else has to be seemingly unaware of these. But with two story lines and all that intrigue, it was just a bit too much. I was also a bit let down on how the stories ultimately came together.

Another weakness is that Vader and Thrawn’s interactions got a little tiresome and predictable. And man did I forget how whiny Anakin could be.

That said, the story adds interesting elements to the Star Wars universe: in particular some new aspects of the Force. And, did I mention Thrawn?

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Sunday, September 01, 2019

Review: The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians

The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians by Naomi Schaefer Riley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fascinating and disturbing book. Riley details the terrible ways in which the policies of the US and the Canada continue to screw over the indigenous peoples of North America. She focuses on property rights issues, education, child welfare, and criminal issues. Many of the current policies in place in these areas, often well-intentioned, have exacerbated previous injustices or created new ones. Too many of the anecdotes Riley reports are terrible and horrifying. Others are frustrating and maddening. This book will make you sad and angry.

Riley does discuss some proposals for possible solutions, but not in any detail (and its not always clear these proposals are much better). This is a weakness, but not a damning one. I took the point of the book as more diagnosis than treatment. Most people, like myself, are ignorant of most of these policies and laws that are doing real damage and injustice, and so this is more about shining sunlight on these.

(Note on the audio: this was mixed. The reader was good, but there were issues with sound quality. At times the voice sounded too mechanical or too flat. It seemed to be that the equalizer settings were changing throughout, creating varying quality.)

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Saturday, August 31, 2019

Review: Trail of Lightning

Trail of Lightning Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rebecca Roanhorse crafts a wonderfully imaginative and unique post-apocalyptic tale. The Navajo (Dine) creation stories (much like many other Mesoamerican/native American myths), our current world, the fifth, is the result of a cycle of creation and destruction. Roanhorse continues this cycle with destruction of the fifth world in the near future. Arising from the destroyed fifth world, the Sixth World makes real the gods and legends of the Dine. Roanhorse plays with these stories and legends in delightful and frightening ways.

The former Navajo Nation reservation survived the destruction of the fifth world and become a distinct political unit: Dinetah. We are not told much about the world outside of the Dinetah—there are mentions of the Exalted Mormon Kingdom in parts of what was Utah and Arizona. But that’s it. Nevertheless, there are some hints that in other parts of the world that have survived the old gods, the gods of indigenous people have also become real as well. Hopefully we learn a bit more in later Sixth World novels.

The lead character, Maggie Hoskie, is a bad-ass with some incredible clan powers (another feature of the sixth world) that allow her to hunt and kill the dangerous monsters of Dine legend that now terrorize her people. She connects up with Kai, a medicine man with his own incredible powers. Together they discover some disturbing facts about these monsters and where they are coming from. (No spoilers, nothing here that is not on the book jacket.)

I really enjoyed the novel. It does just enough world-building and background without detracting from the pace and action of the main story. The characters: from the humans to the gods are well developed and interesting. I love the way Roanhorse plays with the mythology. It gives the world she is creating a refreshing feel and provides a rich well on which to draw. There is more to this world to explore; more stories to tell.

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Saturday, August 24, 2019

Review: Washington: A Life

Washington: A Life Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fantastic and thorough biography. Chernow gives the full picture of Washington-at least as full as one can get in a biography.

Chernow doesn't shy away from the warts, mistakes, and errors of Washington's life, but the core greatest of the man shines through. Washington's biggest mistake, like all to many of his contemporaries, was slavery. One can't help but wonder how history would have been different if Washington was able to overcome this. Of all the founders, he probably had the best chance of pushing for emancipation. Both because of his southern standing but also the widely recognized strength of his moral character, he might have been to pull together a coalition that could have brought an end to slavery. He seems like he got close to trying this at times, but the imagination was lacking or the pressing needs of the present blinded him. Washington clearly understand the contradictions of slavery with the founding principles in the Declaration and Constitution for which he was fighting as first a general and then a president. As well, he seemed to see the weakness of the economic argument for slavery: rather than enriching him and the other southerners, it was bankrupting many of them and more of a drain then an economic gain. And yet, for all his moral wisdom and tactical brilliance, he tragically couldn't imagine a way forward and out of slavery.

It still astounds me that Washington walks away from power. It's now part of the American Mythos but we all know that Washington could have been king, but retires instead. And really, he doesn't even seem tempted. That's all the more amazing. This moral fortitude and his shepherding of the US in its early years certainly makes him as one of history's greats.

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Review: Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages

Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages by Robert Garland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I hate to admit it but I was a bit underwhelmed by this course. It's hard to put my finger on why. I certainly learned some things, but it wasn't the course I was expecting. I would have liked more in depth focus on the historical development and operations of the democracy. Garland obviously covers that, but I still walked away feeling like it wasn't enough of the focus. Though I appreciate the attempt to connect this to contemporary times, the manner that Garland did this sometimes was off-putting and distracting. As a philosopher, I was hoping for much more on the philosophical foundations of the democracy. Again, Garland covers that but not sufficiently.

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Review: An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic

An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Part literary criticism, part biography, and part memoir, this book weaves together a touching and wonderful story. On the surface, it is a story of a father attending his son’s seminar on the Odyssey. Making use of the very ring structure that Mendelsohn is lecturing his students about, he presents his interpretation of the Odyssey and how to study it, explores his relationship with his father, and tells the story of his father’s life. This mirroring of the structure of Odyssey is tightly done: it is not forced. Mendelsohn doesn’t call attention to what he’s doing, but he’s not burying it either.

As college professor, I enjoyed the retelling of the classroom settings and the interactions of the students. As a lover of the classics, I appreciated the insight into the Odyssey. As a father and a son, I found the story deeply touching. My relationship with my father is not at all like his—but the deeper idea of coming to see your father as person and seeing him (or trying to at least) for real is true for all fathers and sons (and as Mendelsohn shows us, is part of the theme of the Odyssey).

Mendelson is courageously honest about the portrayal of himself. Although at times he comes off as a rather stereotypical haughty professor of classics, he doesn’t shy away from highlighting his own failures to connect to his father; the ways in which he missed opportunities to see his father. In this way, the book can be sad. And yet, for all these failures, there is a connection made; their relationship is transformed, and I think, father and son do come to know each other better.

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Thursday, August 01, 2019

Review: The New Girl

The New Girl The New Girl by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As with most spy thrillers, it is very hard to give a review without spoilers. I’ve tried to avoid any direct spoilers, but there are aspects that might be given away by what I say. So be warned.

The worst part about a Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novel is that it comes to an end. The New Girl is just as fun, exciting, moving, and thought-provoking as the previous 18. It’s hard to top the early novels, but this is up there.

I do so wish Gabriel Allon (GA) was real. Maybe there are people like him and they are so good at what they do, we don’t hear about them and the problems they prevent. But it’s also a bit like hoping Batman was real. No one person is capable of this – and even if they were it is probably not a good idea to have them doing these things in the way they are done in the stories. It works in Batman and GA because we know, because they are the protagonists of the story, that they are good guys. In real life, without an omniscient narrator, we cannot know that.

The best part about The New Girl was the relationship that develops between GA and Khalid. They are, understandably, skeptical and weary of each other at first, but through the events of the story they seem to learn to trust each other and develop what seems like it could be a deep and long friendship – though the way the story unfolds that may not turn out to be the case.

At this point, 19 books in, we don’t get a lot of character development from the main cast. And there is very little of that. Keller, Mihkail, Seymour, Gabriel are who they are. So you need the new characters to drive that aspect. Silva always does a great job at this, both with new protagonists and the antagonists. Sarah’s story arc is interesting – not so much specifically for the plot of The New Girl, but across the several books she has been in. I think there are some exciting things Silva could (and will) do with this character in future novels (which is part of why she was in The New Girl – as set up for the future).

Silva also usually does a great job of humanizing his antagonists. They are rarely mindless fanatics: they have motivations that might have started out reasonable enough, but have gone deeply astray. Part of what he does well with this is that it is not a matter of some hackneyed, lazy moral grayness, where the good guys are a little bad, and the bad guys are a bit good. It’s more that Silva shows us these are human beings that have a complex history and that they have made (often bad) choices that have brought them to this point. We don’t sympathize with them, but we understand them. They are not merely monsters. However, some of the main antagonists in the New Girl come off a bit shallow. They are either just the tools of some mostly off-stage actor directing them (I’m trying not to spoil things) or they are motivated in fairly basic ways (sex and/or power). Nevertheless, I suppose there is some truth in that—but it does take away slightly from the drama.

There are several surprising elements to this story—I can’t discuss them without spoiling them, but I will say Silva allows the story to unfold without introducing any dues ex machinas. I sort of expected a few or at least Silva to pull back. So I’m glad he had the storytelling integrity to go forward with it.

There were several moments in the story related specifically to Israel that, although they are not essential to plot, I found quite moving; even got choked up a bit.

I enjoy how Silva weaves in current real world events – though I do have to be careful not to confuse Silva’s world for the real one!

I am not sure what I think of the ending. It’ll take some time to process it. Partly, I’m not sure what precisely happened. Time will tell.

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Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Review: Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel

Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel by Matti Friedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On the surface, this concise book is a thrilling untold history of Israel’s first spies. It is in some ways a tale out of a Daniel Silva Gabriel Allon novel. As the title tells us, these were spies of no country: they become spies and operated before the state came into existence. Friedman focuses primarily on four men of the Arab Section. They were recruited to be spies because they could pass as Arabs: they knew the language, the customs, the way of life, in a way only a local could.

And this gets to the second layer. These four men were born and raised in the Arab world: they were from Syria, Yemen, and Jerusalem. They were not from Warsaw or Minsk. The Mizrahi, Jews of the Islamic world, were largely invisible in the early days of Israel and in the founding stories of Israel. Friedman’s book is telling the story of these four to help us see the Mizrahi and their importance to Israel; then and today. The title is, I suspect, also part of this layer: the Israel that they become spies for didn’t fully see them. They believed in and spied for the Land of Israel: but the state of Israel came into existence when they were already operating in Beirut and Damascus. By the time they returned to Israel, it was already a very different from the place they left. In this sense too, maybe, they were spies of no country.

Another layer of the book is the slipperiness and messiness of identity. This was a time of gigantic shifts and things got very messy, very quickly. The uneasy, yet relatively stable world in Europe was finally destroyed by WWII and now that was happening in the Middle East as new countries, including Israel, created themselves with new identities. This is given some measure of reality with the lives of these four spies. They were Jews born in the Arab world; they grew up speaking Arabic. As these shifts began, they left the Arab world to live among the Jewish, Hebrew speaking communities in what soon would be Israel. But then as spies, they are sent to live as Arabs among the Arabs. This is highlighted by this quote about the men as they were training to be spies: “But were they Arabs? They would have said no, and most Arabs would have said no. But they were native to the Arab world—as native as Arabs. If the key to belonging to the Arab nation was the Arabic language, as the Arab nationalists claimed, they were inside. So were they really ‘becoming like Arabs’? Or were they already Arabs? Were they pretending to be Arabs, or were they pretending to be people who weren’t Arabs pretending to be Arabs?” (58). It’s enough to give anyone an identity crisis!

Another layer is the ambiguity of founding stories and myths. This not unique to Israel. Americans face this too in trying somehow to make sense of the intellectual and practical achievements of liberty by men such as Jefferson and Washington with the horrors and evils of slavery in which they partook. Friedman’s book highlights the seeming paradox that Israel born out of the ideas in 19th century Europe is peopled by a population half of whom have grandparents from places like Iraq rather than Poland. Friedman’s spies come from and teach us something about this half of the population. Largely invisible for the first part half of Israel’s existence, they are becoming more and more a prominent part of the country’s culture and politics. Understanding the future of Israel means, in part, understanding this invisible past.

Friedman’s book is an opening, an invitation to this past.

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Friday, July 19, 2019

Review: College Teaching At Its Best

College Teaching At Its Best College Teaching At Its Best by Chris Palmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are several useful and helpful tips in Palmer's book. But overall, I didn't get a lot out of it. I've been teaching for nearly twenty years, so maybe I'm not the target audience. Some of this quite basic. It does seem geared a bit more towards a new college teacher, and it that regard it could be a good resource. Even with that caveat, the advice is a bit limited. It struck me as much more applicable to one who is a teaching at a more competitive or elite school with classes of 25-30 relatively well-prepared students. There is a chapter on teaching large lecture classes and there is some helpful items here. But this brings me to my other concern: much of this is overly idealistic. The techniques and advice often require a lot of time, effort, and resources from the instructor to implement, manage, and maintain. (Here's a simple example: he suggests meeting with all your students within the first two weeks of the semester. But with several hundred students each semester that's not realistic.)

The problem is not the extra effort(this is our job after all); the problem is that it ignores the reality that many if not most teachers at the college level are teaching 3 to 4 sections of large classes with little TA help, so they are already stretched thin. And there is little external incentive from the administration to do these things--and in some cases, the implicit incentives are to do less, not more. Most university's give a lot of lip service to academic excellence but do little to actually support it (and some of the policies undermine it). The book doesn't seem to acknowledge this reality of teaching.

Another huge problem is that there is nothing in the book about online or even hybrid teaching. This gaping lack is egregious as most universities have more and more teaching online--where the challenges are different and much of the advice in this book is irrelevant.

On the plus side, the book is clear and concisely written. It is easy to read over a weekend, so if you are teacher and want to improve(or are new), I'd cautiously recommend it. Some of the tidbits might speak to you and help you out. I certainly picked up a few things that I'll add to my repertoire.

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Monday, July 08, 2019

Review: North of Boston

North of Boston North of Boston by Elisabeth Elo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was perusing one of the local used book stores and saw this book. Being from the Boston area, I'm attracted to all things Boston, so I picked it up. The flap sounded interesting so I bought it. I'm so glad I did! I immediately got into the story and the main character, Pirio Kasparov. She is intelligent, a smart-ass, and has a solid moral base. She gets sucked into the mystery in a classic sort of way (the author has one of the characters quote Sam Spade's line about your partner getting killed and how you are supposed to do something. That might have been a little too on the nose, but I loved it). Pirio is not cut from a standard issue thriller/mystery female lead mold. There are classic elements, but Elo creates a unique and memorable character in Pirio.

Many of the other characters are interesting and well-drawn, if sometimes stereotypical. The plot is well done; there were elements laid down early on that you knew where going to play a role later but it wasn't obvious how it would play out. It's not perfect, and there are some obvious "twists" but overall still original and enjoyable.

I would definitely read more Pirio novels if Elo writes them and I hope she does. I recommend this to other fans of thrillers/mysteries.

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Sunday, May 19, 2019

Review: Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics

Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics by Jeremy Schaap
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I enjoyed the book, it's a bit cursory. I would have liked more detail, more depth. Owens and his story are important and I wanted more: more about the man, more about his relationships, in particular with other runners.

It wasn't always clear what Schaap's goal was: was this a biography of Owens? A story just focused on the Owens at the Olympics? A story about the politics and nationalism that threatened to swallow the Olympics? It feels at times a little of all these, and not enough of any one of them.

I didn't like the way the book handled the footnotes, especially on kindle, it was very hard to see what the sources were for conversations and stories Schaap is relating. It wasn't obvious when Schaap was quoting a direct source for the dialogue or 'recreating' it. (This is part of the problem when a journalist writes history.)

Still, the writing is crisp and the narrative style is clear (part of the benefit of having a journalist write history!). If you know nothing of Jesse Owens and or the 36 Olympics, it's a good place to start. (Though I am not sure how much of this qualifies the eponymous "untold story").

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Saturday, May 11, 2019

Review: How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life

How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pigliucci does a good job summarizing and reviewing key ideas of Stoic thought. He focuses on his own experience applying the ideas to his life as a way of providing advice on applying it to one's own life. He uses a nice frame of talking with Epictetus as the central way of communicating the Stoic ideas. Their 'conversation' provides a way for Epictetus' text to speak to contemporary concerns.

Do not expect detailed philosophical analysis of the Stoic ideas. That's not Pigliucci's goal here; though I would have liked more of that. There is an appendix which discusses more of the historical connections.

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Review: Chasing Darkness

Chasing Darkness Chasing Darkness by Robert Crais
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another good Cole story: lots of twists and turns. Some of them you will see coming, others you may not. Well-paced, good dialogue. Less humor than earlier Cole novels; but still has his characteristic wit.

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Saturday, April 13, 2019

Review: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ariely is an entertaining writer and does a good job of explaining, in laymen's terms, the experiments and ideas of behavior economics. This is a trade book and doesn't, for good or for ill, get into the nit and gritty of the science beyond the experiments. I think it is a book worth reading to get a better understanding some of the patterns of thought or circumstances that influence our decisions and actions.

I would say on the negative side, however, that I think Ariely oversells the results of the experiments and tends to straw man traditional economic thinking. The experiments are nonetheless interesting with surprising results-but he tends to draw much broader conclusions from these than is warranted (at least in terms of the explanations in the text). And some of the criticism of the traditional economic explanations hit the mark, but too often his presentations of the traditional ideas are way too broad, simplistic, or caricatured.

Still, there is value in this book, and at worst, the discussion and results of the experiments are interesting.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The audio performance of this novel was beautiful and enchanting. The characters really come alive and you can experience the rhythm of the work. I can't recommend Ruby Dee's reading highly enough.

Janie's transformation into womanhood, her strength, her demand for life are an inspiration. Although it comes close at times, she is not beaten down by the average, mundane-ness of life, she doesn't give up in the face of tragedy. Though entirely devoted to Teacake, she is her own woman. But she has to become this. Teacake helps her to become her full self--mainly by just not keeping her down the way Logan and Joe did; but it is her own achievement.

This is classic work that should be more widely read and appreciated. Not just as a novel of a particular time and place, but as important piece of American literature: a beautiful coming of age story, a story about finding one's passions and following them, a story about having the strength and integrity to be an individual-regardless of the categories society tries to put on you.

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Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Review: The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy

The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy by Patrick N. Allitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Allitt is great as always. The course covers a broad swath of American history all from the perspective of what the western frontier was, what it meant, and how it moved over time. Allitt discusses the important role of geography as well as the history of the West before it came in to US possession. His presentation of the interaction of whites and native Americans is well done: it neither ignores the disgraceful and shameful treatment by whites of native Americans nor romanticizes the native Americans as a monolithic, idyllic people. I'm sure there are details that are missing, inaccurate, or somewhat fudged over: this is not an in-depth rigorous history. But it does a great job of telling the story of the West.

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Sunday, February 03, 2019

Review: Lords of the Sith

Lords of the Sith Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author does a great job of maintaining suspense even though we know, broadly, how the story must end. Vader and the Emperor battle against the Free Ryloth movement which is engaged in open rebellion against the Empire. Since this is years before the events of A New Hope, they and their Empire obviously survive. Yet, the author creates enough tension that you almost begin to believe that Cham and his allies might succeed.

One of the most fascinating aspect of this novel is Vader. There a lot of Vader’s inner monologue. He remembers moments from the past; the pain and anger that drive him. He chafes somewhat under the Palpatine’s commands. Just as when he was Anakin and commanded by the Jedi Council, Vader is impatient and independent and doesn’t take to being told what to do that well. Well, at least inwardly. Outwardly, Vader still obeys Palpatine without flaw. This look into the inner life of Vader is disturbing and insightful. The anger and pain that has consumed Anakin is everywhere. Vader fights to suppress his memories and his past but at the same time he is both incapable of doing so and still needs this to fuel the anger that is his connection to the power of the dark side. There are many allusions to past events in Anakin’s life and foreshadowing of events we know come to past later.

Vader is the most fascinating character of Star Wars—maybe even of contemporary culture. He is evil; a murdering, unstoppable machine. And yet…and yet, he is redeemed. Unlike Palpatine and many of the imperial flunkies, Vader is not driven by a hunger for power, rapaciousness, or sadism. He wants to impose order; he wants power to make sure things work (and we see this in Anakin very early). He murders without any qualms, but he doesn’t take pleasure in it nor does he do so wantonly. We see this throughout the canon with Vader, including here in a few important scenes. It sometimes comes across almost like mercy. Almost, but not quite. It is more about what serves the imposition of order and his connection to the Force. The conflicts that Vader has in his inner monologue in Lords of the Sith shows us this. The novel shows Vader continuing to commit himself to the Emperor and the dark side primarily because he can so no other way to achieve order and serve the force. And this partly sets the stage for his redemption in Return of the Jedi.

There are also several interesting elements of the Free Ryloth movement. Cham, who fans will know from the animated series, has an important role to play here. The beginning of Cham’s transformation from a principled freedom-fighter for Ryloth to a more full-fledge Rebel is one of the sub-themes of the novel.

The execution of these thematic elements in the book was inconsistent. Not every “note” was hit as well as it should have been. Nevertheless, the novel is a good read and fleshes out important aspects of the Star Wars universe.

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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Review: Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

People who know me, know that I love coffee. So this book was a natural. But, ultimately, I was disappointed. It is not bad, and there are a lot of interesting bits in the book. However, it gets bogged down at too many places. In particular, there is far too much focus on the intricacies of coffee businesses and international markets. Obviously, these are important aspects of coffee and its impact, but Pendergrast focuses a lot on the details that often just don't seem all that relevant.

More to the point, I was looking for much more of the ways that coffee transformed the world more broadly, per the subtitle. What the book is, is more of a history of the markets in coffee. That's fine, but not what the book is billed as. There is a lot of discussion, in general, of how these markets impacted the coffee growing countries. But even here, it veers too much to the "one damned thing after another" telling of history or makes broad generalizations about economics that, frankly, I am skeptical of. (why? they are rather general and conventional, and the author is not a trained economist). Now certainly the coffee market could be used to explore many themes (as suggested by the book description). But the book just doesn't pull this off well.

The author knows (and loves) coffee and there is some good stuff here. But the book doesn't live up to what it could be.

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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Review: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By the end of the book, I felt so deeply connected to Joe Rantz and his teammates that I cried as I listened to the epilogue. An incredible story, too unbelievable to be fiction--no publisher would buy it as a novel. The things that individually and as a team, the Washington Crew had to overcome to make it to the Olympics and then win them was just ridiculous. Time and time again, everything was stacked against them and it looked like their tale was over. Time and time again, they found each other and prevailed.

The story primarily follows Joe Rantz from his childhood up through the winning of Olympic Gold. I am not sure why his story was the focal point rather any of the other boys. Maybe because his circumstances were from the start the most tragic, that he had the most to overcome. (More practically, it was probably because the author was able to interview him the most before Rantz passed away in 2010).

The first third or so of the book is a little slow and less interesting. This is largely about the travails of Joe's childhood. Once he is at the University of Washington and on the team, the story gets much more compelling.

The author does a good job of keeping the story on task. There is a lot going on the 30s that could have sidetracked things. While the story has to deal with the Depression and the rise of Hitler--the author does so only so much as necessary for the story.

I would have liked even more of George Pocock, the man who designed and built the racing shells for University of Washington (and many other teams). Each chapter starts off with an epigraph quotation from Pocock and he comes across as the 'Yoda' of the crew.

Edward Hermann does a masterful job, as always, with the reading.

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