Archive for Books

So many books

Wow. No book report posts since August. Ouch. Well, the good news is that I have a bunch to report on. Or the bad news. Your call. In any case, time is precious so I’ll keep them short.

  • Conservatives Without Conscience by John W. Dean – super good book. “Authoritarian followers” who are ready and willing to submit to the extreme right-wing leadership of the current Republican party and religious leaders. Very prescient. Very scary. 5/5 stars.
  • The Paris Option by Robert Ludlum and Gayle Lynds – Good clean fun, like most Ludlum books. But gone in an instant; no real long-term impact. 3/5 stars.
  • Conservatize me by John Moe – John tells us about his attempt to understand the conservative philosophy and lifestyle. Lightweight fun. Good Seattle references and makes very reasonable points. 4/5 stars.
  • One Percent Doctrine by Ron Suskind – I found this one hard to get into. Never got traction; finally aborted after 2 hours. First time I’ve ever done this. 1/5 stars.
  • Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman – Good. Very good. A particularly interesting and engaging discussion of how the Christian bible has “evolved” over the ages, both due to intentional manipulation and unintentional translation and scribe errors. 5/5 stars.
  • The Sigma Protocol by Robert Ludlum. This one was quite long, but definitely one of the better Ludlum books I’ve “read” lately. The Progeria connection was tenuous at best, and a number of the plot “twists” were appallingly obvious. But it was still fun. 4/5 stars.
  • American Fascists by Chris Hedges and Eunice Wong – I never quite got figured out “the voice” of the book since there was no introduction and it seemed more like an academic reference book than a readable non-fiction at times. That said, it made interesting points, and I finished it right as the Jonah Goldberg book was hitting the media circuit, so it made for some interesting perspective on those interviews. 3/5 stars.

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Another coincidence

I found this quite an interesting coincidence: On my drive home Monday night, I finished up “reading” (yes, listening to) “American Fascists“, a fairly interesting book.

But in particular, near the end of this book were quotes from “The Danger of American Fascism” — a article written by (then Vice President) Henry Wallace in the NYTimes in 1944. This caught my attention because the article was very prescient (sadly, both for the 1940s-50s, and perhaps even more so for today). I had actually intended to post some comment/link about this article as part of my (eventual) write-up of the book review.

So what’s the coincidence? Well, the VERY NEXT MORNING, Thom Hartmann opened up his show reading some of this very same article. I immediately recognized it. And I got quite a good chuckle at the coincidence of hearing this same text from two, completely separate sources within 24 hours.

Of course, the cynic in me might argue that this is just proof that I operate in an inbred intellectual space — where all (or at least many) of my sources have the same reaction to events of the day. The cynic in me is partially right, I suppose… we all generally surround ourselves with things we like and agree with. But, even with that acknowledgement, it’s still amazing that “the book I had just finished” happened to overlap so specifically in topic with “the lead-in to a specific guest Thom had on his show the following morning“.

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3 More Book Reviews

Once again I’ve allowed my book reviews queue to build up 3 deep. So let’s blast on through them. 🙂

First one is Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris. It was short and sweet. And it’s very unlikely that anyone who “needs” to read it will actually do so. It may just be the best example yet of “preaching to the choir”. As might be expected, he makes a lot of what I think are good points. And as also might be expected, a lot of his points are a bit overbearing and emphasized beyond the point of obvious. Oh well. It was interesting.

Next one is F.U.B.A.R. by Sam Seder and Stephen Sherrill. Blegh. Sure, I agree with a lot of their points, but this was a pretty poor delivery. If the Xtian Nation book mentioned just above was overbearing at points, this one was oppressive in its obviousness. Perhaps it’s Sam Seder’s style (I’ve not heard his radio show), but I couldn’t help but roll my eyes a number of times throughout the book. Yeah, we get it, Democrat good… Republican baaaaad.

Finally, the Tristan Betrayal by Robert Ludlum. As I’ve previously blogged, I was getting a bit tired of Ludlum books (reading so many recently has put me a bit into overload). In any event, this one was a bit different and was a tolerable read. It takes place (primarily) in the 40s, with a WW2 U.S. vs Nazi Germany vs Stalinist Russian theme. In an historical fiction manner, it presents the underpinnings of the Nazi attack on Russia (as well as the 1991 coup attempt) as having been secretly connected to the management of the main character, Stephen Metcalf. To cut to the chase, while I *was* surprised by the outcome for Lana… the final, suspenseful “climax” of the book (in the last few pages) was absolutely obvious: I knew exactly what Lana was talking about when she “subtly” mentioned “the gift” Stephen had given her years earlier and how “her most valuable things” were kept with her Grandmother. Blegh, come on… so transparent I’m sure you’ll know exactly what this is all about just from reading this review! 🙂 But, in any case, it was a pretty good read.

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Robert Mak is so awesome

I was very pleased to flip on my weekly “Upfront with Robert Mak” yesterday and discover that his topic for the week was Jack Hamann’s book “On American Soil” (previously reviewed here and followed up here). This just proves, once again, what a great city Seattle is — the topic of one of the best, most interesting books I’ve read in the past year ends up featured on my very-favorite-ist weekly local political/news show. It was made even more cool because there was lots of footage from Mr. Hamann’s original 1987 investigation, and some interview footage with present-day Mr. Hamann out at Discovery park.

Plus, it was neat to see the location of the special grave at the cemetery (which my mother and I went searching for and found when she was visiting last October).

In any event, bravo King5 and Robert Mak for producing a show so cool that I record it every week — and am only ever disappointed when it’s a repeat! Well, that and when they MOVE THE TIME EVERY WEEK so sometimes it doesn’t get recorded. That disappoints me too.

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Assassination Vacation

Shortly after wading through the Ludlum book (ugh), I started Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation. This was a bit shorter than some of the books I’ve been reading lately (at only 7:19), plus it was quite engaging — thus, I got through it pretty quickly.

Ms. Vowell’s books are always interesting, and this one was no exception. As a side-bar, with all of the historical non-fiction and historical perspective books I’ve been reading lately, I actually am feeling like I know quite a bit more about 1860-1940 history than I ever did from High School… now, most of that is my own fault for (pick one: (a) skipping class (b) not paying attention when I was in class), but it’s still pretty cool. I like history!

Anyway, the context of this book was that she spends pretty much all of her vacations (even day trips) going to see various assassinated-president sites. Not just the “where it happened” stuff, but the “where the do-er grew up” and “where they caught him 2 days later” sites. She covers various aspects of history and historical interest for Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and many of their related players (such as poor, jinxed Robert Todd Lincoln who was present for the assassination of all 3 of these presidents!)

Great topics. Great presentation. Great book.

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Altman Code

I recently finished The Altman Code – another Ludlum book. Blah, I think I’m just getting a little burned out on Ludlum books. This one was a good sight better than the Ambler Warning, thank goodness, but it still just felt a bit boring and transparent (hmm, I wonder if the Vice President is a bad guy or not). The good news is that I’m going to plan to read a bunch of non-Ludlum books for a while. The bad news is that I’ve got another 3 or so already queued up and purchased from Audible (that’s how far behind I am on my reading) so I’ll end up reading some more of them before too long.

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The Defining Moment

This book covered the first 100 days of FDRs government, as well as the period leading up to and through his election. Like seemingly everyone, I’ve always considered FDR something of a folk hero for his success in turning the depression and leading us up to and through the challenges of the 2nd World War. After reading this book, I have renewed appreciation for this great man, but I’m also a little alarmed at some of the mechanisms he had to use to get it done!

In many ways FDR was terrifyingly like George W Bush in his approaches! Yes, GWB. How so? Well, FDR spent a great deal of his time misleading those he was “working with” into a position where he would get his way — a good example is the way he handled the transition to power and the bank crisis with Hoover: he pretended to have not received letters, pretended to have sent a reply that “got lost”, etc… all to ensure the clock would run out on Hoover and FDR would be able to sweep in and “fix” the problem on his own. No direct parallel in GWB world, but the “feigning ignorance” while the clock runs and sending conflicting/misleading messages suited to the purposes of obfuscation is a Bush tactic we’ve seen time and time again in the past few years. And there’s no doubt it works, it’s just a bit underhanded.

Also, the more obvious example was the way FDR essentially set himself up as a dictator during his presidency — adding more power to the executive, removing power from others, trying to stack the supreme court, stripping/violating citizen civil liberties, etc. A whole honeybucket of unpleasant and inappropriate actions that are not looked on very favorably by history. Not too far off from many of the things the GWB administration has done (no oversight from congress, wiretapping, torture/habeas corpus, classified leaks, etc… I could go on and on)

Now, the good news is that FDR was also quite a bit like Bill Clinton (or Ronald Reagan if you prefer) in that he was able to get the public to back just about any good (or bad) thing he could come up with. He was a real salesman, and an effective spokesman for our country for many years. And he was effective both internationally, and — perhaps more importantly given the depression — domestically. He was able to get people “back to work” (and more importantly, the American public BELIEVED they were getting back to work, even if it was not as broad as it seemed in advertising.

Plus, one could argue, even with the questionable things he did — FDR did more good than harm. That alone puts him closer to the Clinton legacy than the GW Bush legacy.

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Until I find you

Not all of John Irving’s books are available in audible (in fact, only a handful are). This “new” (now probably 2 years old) book, however, was available, so it’s the next one in my listen pile.

It took me AGES to get through this book (almost a month of nearly daily listening). Not because it was a slow or bad book. Quite the opposite, it was actually quite an interesting and engaging book. But it was long, 35+ hours to listen through, so it just took a long time!

In traditional John Irving fashion, there are his standard sort of strange topics: Wrestling, kinky/strange/inappropriate sex and sexual encounters,  broken relationships, stoic/unfeeling participants.

A handful of new topics added: tattoos, organ playing, prostitutes in Amsterdam.

And, finally, a couple of “curiously absent” old favorites we’ve seen in other stories: stories within a story, zoos, and German literature.  (Catherine points out that I only think these are standard-faire Irving because of the set of his books I’ve read and the ones I’ve yet to read).

Hehe. I’m such a cynic. John Irving has such an engaging writing style, I just can’t stay away… even as his books get weirder and weirder (or, some might argue, LESS weird). The idea that his real-life experiences play into some of his writing topics is particularly interesting.

That said, I nearly always have trouble connecting with one or more of the characters in his books, and this one was no exception. I had a very hard time understanding





Jack’s reaction when Emma died. I think that was partly the point, but still I found it empathetically a very sad point and it made me feel particularly sad for Jack for his lack of emotion.

I also didn’t understand why William never tried to “find” Jack after he turned 18 and there was no real risk of interference from Alice. Seems they could have enjoyed so much more time together.

Oh well. Another good book down. Only a couple more JI books to go and I’ll be caught up. Problem is I need to actually read most of the rest, so it might be a while. 🙂

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Ambler Warning

Recently I’ve been trying to alternate a fiction book, then a non-fiction book, etc. In that spirit, after finishing “The Mighty and the Almighty” back in April, I launched into a Robert Ludlum book: The Ambler Warning.

I usually quite like Robert Ludlum books – the Bourne Identity (and the rest in this series), for instance, were quite engaging and were what got me into this author in the first place. But this book was different. It’s actually been a month since I finished reading it (running a bit behind in all of my blog posting due to being so busy at work lately)…  so I don’t remember a lot of details. The main character was some sort of assassin who had lost his memory, except he thought he hadn’t. And he has some gift where he can always tell whether a person is lying. And he’s running from lots of people (and who, WHO are they REALLY?!). Ok, so far, standard-fare Ludlum plot. And of course there was a standard-fare Ludlum climax and plot-twist.

But it was really boring. My exact post-read notes were: “Boring. Slept through it. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

Ouch. That’s a pretty stirring indictment of the book, even for me (I have a fairly high tolerance for finishing books, even when they’re stupid and/or boring). There are much better books to read, so I highly suggest not to bother with this one.

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The Mighty and the Almighty

I recently finished Madeleine Albright’s book “The Mighty and the Almighty” (from Audible, of course). I wasn’t all that thrilled with the first part (where it seemed to me like she was justifying government working in combination with religion), but after finishing the whole book I think I’ve come around to better understand her point.

Now, disclaimer — I’ve always been a HUGE fan of Ms. Albright. She’s always struck me as very intelligent and rational, while still being a real person. I wish she was US-born and wanted to be president. I would vote for her in a second. (which was all the more reason I was a little distressed by the first part of the book).

So, where did I go wrong? What was she really saying? Well, after listening to the whole book, it seems to me like she was saying not that government should comingle more with religion, but rather that government should be more AWARE of religion and the influence of religion throughout the world. A good example of this would be that as “religious” as our current government is, it’s hopelessly tied to Christianity — not really a benefit when trying to understand cultural differences and do diplomacy with many nations around the world which as not majority Christian.

Overall, a very interesting book from a very interesting author! Highly recommended.

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