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October 08, 2009

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately—an near-obnoxious amount, really. Quite a few of the books have just not been that interesting, but there have been a few exceptions. Here are reviews of three of the more notable books I’ve read. Each of these titles is currently on the New York Times list of bestsellers.

End the Fed

End the FedLove him or hate him, you probably have an opinion about Ron Paul. He’s a guy on the fringe, a guy who does not quite seem to fit into any camp but his own. And a time when the economy is undergoing a severe test, he is one of the few politicians who actually sounds like he knows what he is talking about when it comes to economics. Firmly rooted in the Austrian school of economics, Paul advocates pretty much the opposite of all America has done in the past few years: Where Washington has continually bailed out those corporations it deems too big to fail, he advocates allowing them to go bankrupt; where Washington remains firmly committed to fiat currency, he is eager to return to the gold standard; where Washington looks increasingly to socialize health care (and those companies that would fall apart but for federal aid) he has implicit confidence in the free market and its consequences; and where Washington continues to grant far-reaching power to the Fed, Paul advocates eliminating it altogether.

Few people understand macro-scale economics (heck, judging by the debt loads of most Americans I’d suggest that few people can wrap their minds around household economics) and fewer still understand the role of the Federal Reserve in economics and politics and the sometimes-fine line between them. Among the immensely important organizations in Washington, the Fed has one power that is unique: the ability to create money out of thin air. You do not need a graduate degree in economics to understand the magnitude, the potential ramifications, of this kind of power. When you consider that the Fed operates without any real congressional oversight, that it is protected from audits and that its leaders are appointed rather than elected, it becomes more shocking still. Ultimately, if you want to understand money in America, you need to understand the Fed. As Paul says, “It is irresponsible, ineffective, and ultimately useless to have a serious economic debate without considering fundamental issues about money and its quality, as well as the Fed’s massive role in manipulating money to our economic ruin.” Paul has spoken endlessly about the Fed for decades now and in this book he advocates his solution: get rid of it.

Paul minces few words. He says, “We need to take away the government’s money power. The banking industry needs its welfare check ended. The dollar’s soundness depends on its being untied from the machine that can make an infinite number of copies of dollars and reduce their value to zero.” Later he says, “The Federal Reserve System must be challenged. Ultimately, it needs to be eliminated. The government cannot and should not be entrusted with a monopoly on money. No single institution in society should have power this immense. In fact, I believe that freedom itself is at stake in this struggle.”

While clearly targeted at a general audience, End the Fed is stock full of “economese”—the lexicon of economics—and this may make for difficult reading for those not well-versed in such matters. I often found myself confused, reading back a few lines or pages and, on occasion, just giving up and moving on. In several areas Paul assumes just a little bit more knowledge than I’ve got. Inflation is a relatively simple concept to understand from my perspective, but when it comes to understanding its causes and effects on a national or international level, my head begins to spin. Nevertheless, I read on and largely enjoyed his arguments. He argues from three perspectives: the philosophical, the constitutional and the economic. In each case he makes a compelling case that the Fed is harming America far more than it is helping and that its very existence is contrary to the U.S. Constitution. Of course the book is inherently one-sided and one must assume that the Fed’s supporters can make arguments of their own as to why it can and should remain; they will undoubtedly also argue for increasing rather than decreasing its mandate. I must have Libertarian leanings (or perhaps just common sense leanings) because I tend to agree with Paul. There has to be a better way and one that is more consistent with American ideals. “The Federal Reserve should be abolished because it is immoral, unconstitutional, impractical, promotes bad economics, and undermines liberty. Its destructive nature makes it a tool of tyrannical government. Nothing good can come from the Federal Reserve.” At least he does not leave us wondering what he really believes.

Created in time of crisis, it is ironic that the Fed is responsible for many of the nation’s subsequent economic crises, at least according to Paul. Constantly manipulating the markets, responsible for bubbles created and bubbles burst, and forever cranking out more real and virtual greenbacks, the Fed is at the center of American economics and politics. Its power is immense, its accountability near non-existent. Should not this, alone, call for abolition or, at the very least, radical modification?


Where Men Win Glory

Where Men Win GloryIn 2002 Pat Tillman walked away from a multi-million dollar NFL contract to join the U.S. Army. Just coming into his own after a career year as safety for the Arizona Cardinals, Tillman had all the opportunity in the world. Young, ridiculously good-looking, sporting the squarest chin in all of human history and with all sorts of people waving millions of dollars in his face, he could have taken any number of offers and set himself up for a long and comfortable life. Instead, he walked away from it all to became a soldier and, in so doing, an icon of post-9/11 patriotism. He was a reluctant hero who lost his life in a tragic friendly-fire in the mountains of Afghanistan. The events surrounding his death were quickly covered up and seemingly uncovered almost as quickly, bringing with them both horror and scandal. Already the subject of several books, Tillman appears again in Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory.

Tillman is a fascinating, multi-faceted character and one who is very difficult to pin down. Though he was no supporter of President Bush, he still felt that it was his duty as an American to answer the call to arms. Though an extraordinary athlete, he was a deep thinker and far from the stereotypical football jock. The excerpts from his journals show a man who drank hard and played hard, yet was fiercely loyal to his girlfriend (who became his wife shortly before his death) and reluctant to be the center of media attention. He read widely, thought deeply and wrestled constantly with the moral implications of what he was called on to do as a soldier. Eager to fight in Afghanistan, he was perturbed, disgusted even, by much of what he witnessed in Iraq. An atheist, Tillman’s last words mocked a comrade who, with Tillman, was pinned down with fire from their own men. This soldier, terrified and facing an imminent death, cried out to God. Tillman asked why he was acting this way and what possible good it could do him. Seconds later he died when three American bullets tore into his head. The most famous man in the Army lay dead at the hands of his friends.

His superiors reacted swiftly, muzzling the men who knew the circumstances of Tillman’s death. A friendly-fire accident would be a media catastrophe and this at a time when the war was not going well and when support for it was falling fast. Soon, however, the truth began to leak out and Tillman’s family reacted with outrage. He was again on the front pages. Subsequent investigations proved that poor leadership, poor organization and inadequate fire control had led to Tillman’s death, though some conspiracy theorists have tried to show that he was, in fact, deliberately murdered. The consequences for those involved were minor, shockingly minor, really, with most simply being removed from the Special Forces and busted back to the regular Army.

Krakauer cannot contain his utter disregard for President Bush and jumps on every opportunity to take swipes at him and at his administration. In the end there is almost nowhere he will not go, short of having George Bush light a fuse at the base of the Twin Towers. He almost makes it sound as if from the very moment of Tillman’s death that a massive conspiracy was instantly put in place, from President on down the chain of command to Tillman’s direct superior. Krakauer goes so far as to tacitly suggest that a member of the military should have told Tillman’s parents at the funeral that he had been killed in a friendly fire incident. As horrible as it is that Tillman died in a friendly-fire incident, such things are known to happen and happen today far more often than they did in the past. It is a tragic and unavoidable consequence of the fog of war. Krakauer’s outrage stems more from the cover-up, the deception and the lack of consequences for those involved.

Where Men Win Glory raises important issues about the nature of modern warfare, though it does so only between the lines and not as a core objective. Krakauer is outraged that the U.S. government covered up Tillman’s death. But are we to be surprised that the government relies on propaganda in times of war? This is as it has always been (and always will be!). The expectation today seems to be that reporters will travel with troops and provide moment-by-moment Twitter updates as to the whereabouts of troops. Deception is viewed as evil. But since when has war ever been fought under the same kind of rules that govern court rooms? The propaganda efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are nothing when compared to the all-out campaigns during the First and Second World Wars. But that was an era of total war. War today is meant to be surgical, touching only the most guilty military targets and avoiding altogether any peripheral damage. It is a near-impossible mandate. Every time a soldier touches a trigger he must have court martials in mind. Of course there must be some kind of oversight and some kind of consequences for those who go beyond the bounds of morality. It leads me to wonder: if you cannot fight a war in which you believe in so much that you are willing to regard peripheral damage as an unfortunate, tragic even, necessity of war, is it a war worth fighting? More than ever it seems that wars are won and lost on the home front far more than in the trenches. None of this is meant to defend what happened; rather, I simply suggest that the issues are deeper than they may appear and really ought to be less surprising than they seem.

Read for its portrayal of its protagonist, Where Men Win Glory is very interesting. Tillman truly is a fascinating subject and one who is very difficult to categorize, to solve. But read as history, I would urge caution. The author seems unable to separate his outrage toward Bush from his account of what happened. There appears to be little emphasis on objectivity here. Thus the facts appear tainted by a thinly-veiled agenda that comes perilously close to the propaganda that so disgusted the author.


Arguing with Idiots

Arguing with IdiotsI can’t deny it—I kind of like Glenn Beck. Sure you can argue that he’s just another outrageous radio windbag who will do nearly anything to fight his way to the top of the charts. That’s probably true. Yes he is annoying and occasionally obnoxious and, for all appearances, ridiculously self-assured. All true. But this does not necessarily mean that he is not correct about a lot of things. Through all the bluster I hear a lot that sounds to me like just plain common sense—the kind of sense that seems a rare commodity today. Maybe it is a sign of the times that common sense can sound radical and can be labeled as such.

In Arguing with Idiots Beck takes on small minds and big governments. In a question and answer format he answers the objections of “idiots” on a series of hot-button issues: capitalism, the second amendment, education, energy, unions, illegal immigration, the nanny state, home ownership, and economics. He also looks to the long history of progressive Presidents (focusing on Wilson and Roosevelt and showing how contemporary Presidents are little different) and offers a refresher course on the U.S. Constitution. You probably know exactly the kinds of things he stands for and the kinds of things he hates, so I will not recount them all for you. If you don’t know, just imagine what Rush Limbaugh would say and you’re on the right track.

The book is assembled in a kind of scrapbook format that features endless sidebars and callouts and cartoons and other visual distractions. There are even bits of colored text labeled “ADD Moments” woven almost right into the main body of the book. It makes for a rather distracting read and perhaps adds just a bit too much levity to what is really a series of very serious topics. Or maybe I just prefer the straight dope. Regardless, Beck does a very good job of taking a wrecking ball to countless idiotic objections to common sense solutions. From beginning to end he relies on his trademark sarcastic humor and offers plenty of moments when the reader will laugh or roll his eyes or, more likely, both.

Strangely, the book has a very, very abrupt ending. One moment you’re reading through the flow of text. The next moment you flip the page and are surprised to see that the book is over and that you are into the end notes. Just like that. Call this one of my pet peeves. Couldn’t Beck have tacked on at least a couple of pages just to wrap things up? You and I both know that he certainly didn’t run out of words.

Despite an abrupt ending and despite all the distraction, Arguing with Idiots does its job in standing up for common sense against the relentless, idiotic attacks against it. It’s quite an enjoyable read.

False Reverence
September 12, 2009

Here is a great (and famous) quote from Mortimer Adler’s classic How To Read a Book.

There are two ways in which one can own a book. The first is the property right you establish by paying for it, just as you pay for clothes and furniture. But this act of purchase is only the prelude to possession. Full ownership comes only when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it is by writing in it. An illustration may make the point clear. You buy a beefsteak and transfer it from the butcher’s icebox to your own. But you do not own the beefsteak in the most important sense until you consume it and get it into your bloodstream. I am arguing that books, too, must be absorbed in your blood stream to do you any good.

Confusion about what it means to “own” a book leads people to a false reverence for paper, binding, and type — a respect for the physical thing — the craft of the printer rather than the genius of the author. They forget that it is possible for a man to acquire the idea, to possess the beauty, which a great book contains, without staking his claim by pasting his bookplate inside the cover. Having a fine library doesn’t prove that its owner has a mind enriched by books; it proves nothing more than that he, his father, or his wife, was rich enough to buy them.

There are three kinds of book owners. The first has all the standard sets and best sellers — unread, untouched. (This deluded individual owns woodpulp and ink, not books.) The second has a great many books — a few of them read through, most of them dipped into, but all of them as clean and shiny as the day they were bought. (This person would probably like to make books his own, but is restrained by a false respect for their physical appearance.) The third has a few books or many — every one of them dog-eared and dilapidated, shaken and loosened by continual use, marked and scribbled in from front to back. (This man owns books.) …

But the soul of a book “can” be separate from its body. A book is more like the score of a piece of music than it is like a painting. No great musician confuses a symphony with the printed sheets of music. Arturo Toscanini reveres Brahms, but Toscanini’s score of the G minor Symphony is so thoroughly marked up that no one but the maestro himself can read it. The reason why a great conductor makes notations on his musical scores — marks them up again and again each time he returns to study them—is the reason why you should mark your books. If your respect for magnificent binding or typography gets in the way, buy yourself a cheap edition and pay your respects to the author.

September 05, 2009

You’ll have to bear with me today as I ramble a little bit on the subject of book reviews. Because reviews are such an important part of what I do here, I thought it would be worth covering just a little bit of how and why I do reviews.

I generally try to review at least one book per week and, in general, I try to choose a book that you, the readers, are likely to enjoy. Now obviously there are times that I think a book will be good but it turns out to be less than stellar. It happens. But most of the time, when I choose a book based on its subject, author, endorsements or description, it turns out to be a book I can recommend for one reason or another. Most weeks I post these reviews on Tuesday. My purpose with these reviews is to make you aware of some of the books that are coming available and to give you a sense of what you stand to gain by reading them. Since I enjoy reading so much, since I can do it quickly and since I have access to the books, I see this as a way of helping others find books that will appeal to them. If the guy who loves reading a hundred books per year can help the guy who reads ten choose the best ten, then I figure we’ve got a proverbial win-win.

Of course, and as you know, I read more books than these. In recent months I’ve begun writing the occasional “Books I Didn’t Review” article to make you aware of some of the other reading I’ve been doing. These are books I tend not to review either because they do not merit a full review or because I determine that the readers of this site are not likely to be interested in them. In such cases I tend to post just a short overview of the book with a sentence or two of my own take on it.

I also read the occasional book that I am quite sure I will dislike or that I will be ambivalent toward. I often do this when the book is a megaseller or when it seems primed to become a megaseller. So, for example, I have suffered through both of Joel Osteen’s books. I’ve done this primarily so there is at least one (hopefully) discerning review of the book somewhere on the Internet. I always post these reviews at Amazon, trusting that the reviews will at least help a person or two find a better alternative to Osteen’s mindless puffery. I have done the same with books like The Secret, The Shack and so on. Osteen’s third book is set to release next month; I am undecided about whether or not I can bear to read yet another one. And I mean that—just because of their sheer stupidity I find them grueling to get through.

Now, let me share a couple of things by way of disclosure. I’ve mentioned this in the past, but wanted to do so again just to be sure that everything is above-board. When you read one of my reviews and see a link to buy it at Amazon or Monergism Books, those are affiliate links which means that there is typically some financial compensation that goes to me should you choose to purchase something after clicking the link. I think most people assume this, but I do reiterate it from time-to-time. These funds go to the purchase of books (the ones that are not provided gratis by publishers), to the support of the web site and, in a good month, to the support of the Challies family!

Also, you have probably (hopefully!) noticed the ads on my site. There occasionally seems to be a bit of a conflict of interest in that I will review a book while also running an ad for it (which most often happens when I review a book the same week it releases which is also, of course, when the publisher is most likely to advertise it). You may wonder how I could fairly criticize a book deserving of critique when I am being paid to run an ad for that very book. Well, thankfully that has not happened, at least to this point. But do know that advertisers have no expectation that the mere fact that they place an ad on my site will in any way impact my reviews. They expect fair reviews. Plus, I would consider it an assault on my conscience to review a bad book positively in order not to risk advertising compensation. So do know that I consider fair reviews a high calling and I will not deviate from that. I am committed to fair and objective reviews.

I will have more to say about this in the future, but do know that next year I intend to continue my once-weekly reviews of the latest Christian books. But I also hope to devote a bit more attention to the latest and greatest mainstream books. Stay tuned for details on that.

If you have further suggestions about book reviews, about the types of book I review, and so on, I would be glad to hear them!

September 04, 2009

Free Stuff Fridays

Free Stuff Fridays is an opportunity to give away some great resources and today I’ve got some I think you’ll love. This week’s sponsor is Moody Publishers. Moody has offered up five prizes, each of which will contain three brand new books: Words From the Fire by Al Mohler, The Reason for Sports by Ted Kluck and Undefiled by Harry Schaumburg.


Here is a brief description of each of the books:

Undefiled: “Amid the chaos of cybersex, impersonal sex, adultery, homosexuality, and sexual dissatisfaction in marriage, Undefiled calls readers toward a new kind of sexual revolution. Sexual impurity creates a vicious circle, one that springs from misconceptions about Christ and further taints our understanding of Him. Yet another circle is available to men and women trapped in sin, a circle of sexual redemption.”

Words from the Fire: “Whether you suspect they’re in the Bible or recite them in church, you’ll find this eye-opening look at the Ten Commandments pivotal in your relationship with God. Why? Because His commandments reveal life’s meaning and clarify the importance of our relations with others. When God spoke from the fire on Mt. Sinai, He showed His love and mercy by steering us from self-destruction. He also prepared our hearts to live for his glory.”

The Reason for Sports: ” Written in the vein of Rick Reilly (Sports Illustrated), Chuck Klosterman (Spin, Esquire), and David Foster Wallace (A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again), The Reason for Sports will both entertain and shed light on some of today’s most pertinent sports issues: race, drugs, hero worship, and more - all through a biblical lens.”

Rules: You may only enter the draw once. Simply fill out your name and email address to enter the draw. As soon as the winners have been chosen, all names and addresses will be immediately and permanently erased. Winners will be notified by email. The giveaway closes Saturday at noon.

August 21, 2009

Free Stuff Fridays

It’s time for another Free Stuff Friday. This week’s sponsor is Evangelical Press. As you may well know, Evangelical Press is a non-profit mission organization based in the UK but with an increasing presence on this side of the pond. It’s mission is to place sound Christian books and sound biblical teaching within reach of as many people as it can across the world.

Stars in Gods SkyThis week they are offering five prizes, each of which is a copy of Faith Cook’s Stars in God’s Sky. Cook is quickly making a name for herself as one of the foremost Christian biographers. This book, her latest, offers a series of short biographies of important Christian figures. According to the publisher, “In her typically engaging and enthralling style, Faith Cook shows us how God graciously works in individuals’ lives. Among others here we find the encouraging short stories of John Foxe, Fanny Guinness, John Gifford and ‘Grimshaw’s men’, Paul Greenwood and Jonathan Maskew. ‘Those who turn many to righteousness shall shine like the stars of heaven for ever and ever’ (Daniel 12:3).”

Michael Haykin says of this book, “One of the great principles of God’s Word as it relates to history is that every life that God touches is valuable. This book demonstrates that vital truth abundantly. From the somewhat famous to the completely obscure—though not to the Living God—Faith Cook reveals the polychromatic grace of God at work in the fabric of our human existence. In doing so, she excites us to praise the God of all grace and to rejoice that all who are in Christ are called to service.”

Rules: You may only enter the draw once. Simply fill out your name and email address to enter the draw. As soon as the winners have been chosen, all names and addresses will be immediately and permanently erased. Winners will be notified by email. The giveaway closes Saturday at noon.

(The giveaway is now closed)

August 21, 2009

Here is (yet) another list of books I read that will not be receiving extensive reviews.

ShakedownShakedown by Ezra Levant. Unless you are Canadian, you have probably not heard of Ezra Levant. Let me fill you in. Several years ago he was publisher of Western Standard magazine and made the decision to print the infamous Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. He did so because they were newsworthy and he wanted to use them to illustrate a story. He soon found himself before his province’s Human Rights and Citizenship Commission where he was charged with the offense of “discrimination.” It was only after a long, embittered and expensive fight that he managed to avoid charges becoming, I believe, the first person to be cleared of such crimes. He wrote Shakedown to record his experience and to draw attention to these Human Rights tribunals that happen all over Canada and which have taken for themselves outrageous powers that circumvent all manner of justice. In fact, they get awfully close to charging Canadians for “thoughtcrime,” that Orwellian phrase that looks beyond what a person has actually done to what he may have intended to do. His story is shocking and, we hope, marks the beginning of the end for the Human Rights Commissions’ most intrusive and outrageous powers. (Do note, that those these commissions exist and exist all over the country, the vast majority of Canadians, even ones who are outspoken about their faith, have never been noticed or charged by them).

Culture of CorruptionCulture of Corruption by Michelle Malkin. In this book, currently perched at the top of the New York Times list of Bestsellers, Malkin looks to “Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies.” In chapter after chapter totalling almost 300 pages, Malkin provides an exhaustive look at President Obama and the men and women who work with him. She provides extensive documentation, making much of what she says awfully difficult to refute (though, of course, she focuses almost exclusively on what these people have done wrong, not on what they may have done well over their careers). It somehow manages to be shocking and yet not at all surprising to hear of the massive amounts of corruption and immorality in Obama’s inner circle. After all, power typically comes to those who fight for it and even more typically to those who fight for it tooth and nail. While I would imagine that almost every administration has multitudes of skeletons in the closet, surely not all have so many as Obama’s. I’m glad these people are running your country rather than mine!

The Man who Made ListsThe Man Who Made Lists by Joshua Kendall. I picked up this book rather on a whim as I was scouring my local bookstore. It is a biography of Peter Mark Roget, best known for creating his famous thesaurus. It traces the life of a man who was a very odd but still compelling character. As his biographer says, “Though he had a host of female admirers, was one of the first to test the effects of laughing gas, developed the slide rule, and narrowly escaped jail in Napoleon’s France, he is best known for making lists.” And make lists he did with an almost obsessive passion. Though Kendall occasionally steps beyond what he actually could know from the historical record into the realm of conjecture, he still crafts an interesting biography of a strangely fascinating man.

In the Presidents Secret ServiceIn the President’s Secret Service by Ronald Kessler. The dust cover for In the President’s Secret Service proclaims, “Never before has a journalist penetrated the wall of secrecy that surrounds the U.S. Secret Service. … After conducting exclusive interviews with more than one hundred current and former Secret Service agents, bestselling author and award-winning reporter Ronald Kessler reveals their secrets for the first time.” It may be true that no journalist has penetrated that wall of secrecy until Kesller. The problem, though, is that this wall of secrecy broke down enough for him to write a book, it remained in place enough that he was not able to cite or document what he discovered. Hence we have a book, a bestselling book, that is crammed full of unsubstantiated assertions. Now this is not to say that Kesller has just fabricated what he presents as fact. But any historian worth his degree will balk and know that little that Kesller says has any historic value.

In the President’s Secret Service is, in a sense, two books. On one hand it is a book about the Secret Service, detailing how the organization came to be, how it has evolved over the years, and telling how it works, even today. This side of the book offers little that is original. On the other hand, this is a tell-all of sorts, where Kesller shares what he learned during his interviews with former Secret Service agents. This is the part of the book that has received much attention in the press. With one chapter dedicated to every President since Kennedy, Kessler shares some of the behind-the-scenes facts about each of them. He tells how Jimmy Carter was considered the most arrogant and obnoxious of the President’s; how Kennedy’s agents were constantly on the guard during his trysts, guarding against his wife blundering into one of his affairs; how Lyndon Johnson engaged in constant philandering at the White House and at his ranch; how George and Barbara Bush were very kind to their agents, almost welcoming them into their family and even remaining at the White House over Christmas so the agents would not have to be on the road for the holiday. It is mostly the kind of facts we would assume based on the character of the Presidents. The reader who is surprised to learn that Kennedy was sleeping with Marilyn Monroe or that Jenna Bush was hardly an ideal person to guard is a person who has not done a lot of reading. But even here, Kessler, by his inability (or refusal) to cite his work gives us little reason to trust him or to believe that he has done any more than read a couple of books and filled in the gaps in a could-be-true way.

In the President’s Secret Service is tabloid history packaged with undergraduate-level research on the Secret Service. It is interesting at a gossipy, human-interest level, but as serious history it fails badly. The writing is mostly passable but, as I see it, a sentence like this deserves no place in a serious work of non-fiction: “As with all Presidents, some people totally lost it when meeting Regan” (116). That is, like, totally unacceptable. Where was Kessler’s editor?

The serious chapters in this book seem like an attempt to legitimize the tabloid qualities. The sordid stories of America’s leaders have been used to sell the book, drawing people into a title that would otherwise be of little interest. Kessler also attempts to lend the book some legitimacy by seeking to show that the Secret Service is underfunded and underequipped for their role and that, if the situation is not remedied, at some point they will lose one of the people they seek to protect. While this may be true, Kessler fails to be convincing, perhaps largely because of the very nature of the book which is, at its heart, just not very serious.

August 03, 2009

My vacation is over. But as luck would have it, my first day back is a holiday, so I guess that extends things by one day. Today is Canada’s annual Civic Holiday. I don’t think anyone really knows why this holiday exists except as an excuse to enjoy a day off in what is usually about the best part of the Canadian summer. I’ll actually be working much of the day, catching up on the work and the emails that have been piling up while I’ve been laying low, but I will be taking some time to hang out with my family (and with my mom whose visit is just about over). Normal blogging will resume tomorrow. For now, here’s a rundown on a few of the books I’ve read over the past week or so.

Magnificent DesolationMagnificent Desolation by Buzz Aldrin (with Ken Abraham). This is Aldrin’s second or third stab at an autobiography, but the first I’ve read. I saw it on the New York Times list of bestsellers, timed to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the moon landings, and thought I’d have to give it a read. I was rather disappointed. I don’t know that I can say it a whole lot better than this Amazon reviewer did: “At one point in the book, Buzz Aldrin observes: ‘I kind of like David Letterman’s quirky humor, it is like mine’. This pretty much sums up the annoyingly self-centered storytelling of the book. As others have pointed out, the space-program related parts are boilerplate, nothing new or interesting here. The rest, 85% of the book, is self-centered crank, crank, crank, descent into depression and alcoholism, page after page of self-quotations from speeches and pitches of the same old ‘Mars cycler’ or go-to-space-lottery half baked ideas. For a 3-year old to misbehave and throw a tantrum in order to get attention is normal, and most get over it in time. Buzz Aldrin is still stomping his foot, ‘me, me, me’.” Perhaps that is overstating the case a little bit but reading this autobiography, which begins with the countdown to Apollo 11 and carries on to the present day, primarily details life after NASA. The most interesting parts of the book, then, are the in the opening pages. After that the reader is forced to walk with him through the dissolution of his first marriage (and his second and the first twenty years of his third), affairs and girlfriends, drunkenness and clinical depression, and the rise and wane (and rise and wane) of celebrity. It was forty years that Aldrin stepped on the moon and it seems that since then he has been trying to find some return to glory. So far it has not happened. This is a pretty dismal tale and one that is not only quite boring but also poorly-written. I love to read biographies of heroes, but the more I read of Aldrin the more I see that he is no hero. Desolation described the moon, it described much of Aldrin’s life (by his own admission), and it describes this book. You’ll want to take a pass on this one (or at least wait for the paperback).

FordlandiaFordlandia by Greg Grandin. This is a fantastic book that tells of “The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City.” Author Greg Grandin tells the strange tale of Henry Ford’s obsession with creating a utopian American-style city in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest. Built initially to provide rubber to the Ford company, the city, built on a tract of land twice the size of Delaware, became something of an idealistic obsession with Ford. Soon he had a city complete with golf courses, ice cream shops, indoor plumbing and, of course, Model T’s rolling down broad paved streets. Needless to say, Ford’s idealism fought an epic battle with the jungle as the Amazon constantly fought back, obliterating the rubber crop and infecting so many of the people who ventured there. The Brazilian work force came into conflict with Ford’s strict mores. The author aptly shows how Ford sought to export his own brand of American idealism and how badly he failed in the end. It’s just a fascinating tale and one that is well worth the read.

Crazy for the StormCrazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad. I bought this book after seeing it make appearances on most of the best-seller lists. This is a “Memoir of Survival” according to the subtitle, and it tells of Ollestad’s survival after a plane crash that took the life of his father and his father’s fiancee. Though that plane crash provides some cohesion to the story and though it was a life-defining event, it was a matter of only a few hours. So the survival in the story is much deeper-rooted in Ollestad’s story of his relationship to his father. His father was a strange, egocentric man who had a very odd relationship to his son, constantly pushing him to do things he had no desire to do. Ollestad both idolized and despised his father. The story is interesting enough, I suppose, but after reading to the end I could think of few reasons that I would want to recommend this to anyone else beyond the usual human interest reasons. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with the book, I also did not find enough right with it that I’d recommend it to others. I wouldn’t bother with it.

The Lost City of ZThe Lost City of Z by David Grann. This is “A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon,” according to the book’s subtitle, and it is a good one. Set in the jungles of the Amazon (that makes two books set in the Amazon, doesn’t it?) this book tells of the famed explorer Percy Fawcett who, in 1925, ventured into the jungle to find the lost and fabled city of El Dorado (which he knew as the city of “Z”). Like so many before and after him, he disappeared and was never seen or heard from again. Almost a century later, David Grann, a man far more at home on the couch than in the jungle, became intrigued by the story and set out to try to find out what happened to Fawcett and whether the mythical civilization he set out to find had even existed. I will not spoil the story by telling what (if anything) he found, but I will tell you that it is a joy to find out. The book is very well-written and very nicely paced. You’ll enjoy the biographical aspect of the story as it shares the life of Percy Fawcett and you’ll equally enjoy Grann’s efforts to track him down. This is not going to be the definitive book on El Dorado and ancient Amazonian civilizations, but it does provide plenty of fascinating information that before this has only been found in dry and scholarly journals. I recommend this one!

MillionaireMillionaire by Janet Gleeson. John Law was “The Philanderer, Gambler and Duelist Who Invented Modern Finance” and, in Millionaire, Janet Gleeson provides a brief but timely overview of his life. Born in Scotland and, after winning a fatal duel exiled from England, Law ended up in France where he was eventually given the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. In the early eighteenth century he almost single-handedly overhauled a French economy that had been devastated by wars and opulence. He quickly became one of the most famous men in all of Europe. He did all of this by moving France away from the gold standard that had been the foundation of her economy and in place introduced a system of fiat currency. He also founded a New World trading company that promised great riches. The French economy experienced an enormous boom-then-bust cycle that introduced the term “millionaire” but then left many of those former millionaires as little more than paupers. During this time of great financial upheaval we would do well to study the lessons of the past and Law’s story has a great deal to teach us, I am convinced. Millionaire is a great place to start. For a book dealing with a topic that can be as dry as finances, this book moved along well and never bogged down in numbers or in boring detail. Economists would want to read something more in-depth but for the rest of us, this is ideal. I recommend it!

July 17, 2009

I do not intend to continue posting these “Books I Didn’t Review” article with the frequency I’ve been doing so lately. But this summer I’ve been enjoying reading books outside of the Christian genre and I’ve been read a lot of them. It has been a refreshing break for me. I’ve still been enjoying at least one Christian book per week, but my recreational reading has taken me far and wide. In Canada we have a bookstore chain called Indigo, headed by Heather Reisman. She offers lists of “Heather’s Picks” and the beauty of it is, if you buy the book and don’t like it, you can return it, no questions asked. So I have been gleaning from her list (skipping over the many novels she recommends), browsing through other lists, and reading a variety of books.

Here are some of the titles I’ve enjoyed:

Tears in the DarknessTears in the Darkness by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman. In the first four months of 1942 American and Filipino soldiers fought a long and brutal battle for the tiny Philippine peninsula of Bataan. The battle ended with the surrender of 76,000 Americans and Filipinos, the worst defeat in American history. After the battle these men were subjected to unbelievable cruelty that began with a long, forced march across Bataan to a prison camp. The soldiers who survived this march, ravaged by tropical diseases, were starved and beaten and worked to death as slave labor. Thousands died. Those who endured would never be the same. Tears in the Darkness, a current New York Times bestseller, focuses on the story of the Bataan Death March and its aftermath. It takes Ben Steele, a young American soldier, as its protagonist, and looks primarily through his eyes. The book is unique in that it does not end with the liberation of the prisoners but with the trial and conviction of the Japanese officer deemed responsible for much of the cruelty and deprivation. The authors have constructed an absolutely fascinating account of this part of the war and this is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the Second World War. Because the book focuses on one central character, its appeal will go much further, though, to anyone who would want to marvel at the unimaginable torture a human can endure with nothing but the will to live to sustain him. This is one of this summer’s must-read books!

Prisoner of TehranPrisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat. This memoir comes from Marina Nemat, who was born and raised in Iran but, surprisingly, as a Roman Catholic. In 1982, at just sixteen years old, she was arrested on false charges by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and thrown into the notorious Evin prison. There she was tortured and condemned to die for her supposed acts of sedition. But in a rather remarkable twist, her life was spared by a prison guard and interrogator who pleaded for her life because he had fallen in love with her and desired to marry her. Nemat is a bold protagonist who refuses to sell out her mind by believing all the lies told to her, yet she is human enough to surrender when stubbornness might cost her life. The conflict that rages in her heart and mind throughout her imprisonment is fascinating. She also offers a insider’s perspective on the radical transformation that occurred within Iran before, during and after the Islamic revolution. This book has the kind of characters and plot twists that seem more at home in fiction than fact. Yet it is a true story, or so Nemat claims. It seemed to me that the story fit together just a little bit too well and I began to wonder if perhaps the author had taken some liberties with the facts. A search of the internet revealed some controversy to that end with accusations flying both ways. Regardless, whether it is read as fact or a blend of fact and fiction, this was a Heather’s Pick that I enjoyed thoroughly. It makes for an excellent “evening or two” kind of read.

The First TycoonThe First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles. This is a long and occasionally dense biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a character who continues to fascinate well over a century after his death. He is a character who is quite difficult to understand and, therefore, one who many biographers have portrayed unfairly as one dimensional. Stiles portrays him, accurately I think, as a brutal businessman but a man who had a tender heart toward those he loved and who did have some room in his heart (and his pocketbook) for acts of kindness and charity. Vanderbilt is a fascinating study of opposites, really, in his love-hate relationship with family members and business associates. For every noble character quality (which history has largely ignored) he has three or four ignoble. What interested me most of all, I think, was seeing how so much of what he did was motivated not by the desire to be wealthy, but by the desire to punish those who would dare to cross him. There were times when he risked the economy of the nation for reasons no more noble than personal vendetta. His pride seemed to know few bounds. Money was power and power was a game to see who could win the greatest, most resounding victories. If there was one thing I’d wish for this biography it would be that there be a little more of the man and a little bit less of his business transactions. However, Stiles would likely make the case that to know the man’s business is to know the man himself and he may well be right. While The First Tycoon can occasionally bog down in the details just a little bit, it remains a very readable biography of a character whose importance to America (as that first great business tycoon) is difficult to overstate.

The Victorian InternetThe Victorian Internet by Tom Standage. In this book Tom Standage writes of “The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers.” He shows, quite well, how the invention and popularization of the telegraph in many ways foreshadowed the world wide web. In a matter of just years the world shrank through this amazing new communication medium that was almost infinitely faster than the train and steam boat which, until that time, were the fastest bearers of information. If the book has a downside, it would be where Standage seems to over-reach just a little bit, reading the telegraph through the lens of the internet instead of the other way around. Still, it is fascinating to learn of “online” communication that saw men and women meet and marry through the wires much as people do today through the web and to read of the way society struggled to adapt to a medium of communications that was light years ahead. There are some good lessons for us to learn here. This is a book that will appeal to anyone who is interested in technology or history or the confluence of the two.

Accidental BillionairesThe Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. I read this book because I wanted to understand the history of Facebook—a program (a site, a lifestyle) that is changing society. The book’s cover (a picture of a red, lacy bra and a couple of cocktail glasses) and subtitle (A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal) should have tipped me off that it was not going to be serious history. Mezrich writes the book in the style of dramatic narrative which apparently means “when I don’t have facts, I’ll just make ‘em up and when the story gets slow, I’ll fabricate a sex scene.” He does provide lots of interesting facts and shares the rather brutal history of Facebook (from Mark Zuckerberg essentially stealing the idea from people who had asked him to create a very similar social media site to the backhanded way that he forced his co-founder out of the company). I suppose it is a tale of money, genius and betrayal, though I don’t see how sex really enters into the true tale except as much as it would for any group of college students (except, of course, as a selling feature). So this is Mezrich’s take on the story, written in a tabloid fashion where what is true and what could be true blend together. The framework of the facts seems to line up with what I’ve read elsewhere but the very nature of the book makes it somewhat less than trustworthy. Still, if you want to know how Facebook came to be, how it evolved from a week’s worth of work for a college student to a company valued in the billions dollars, this seems to be the only show in town. Even then, read Wikipedia first to see if it offers enough to satisfy your curiosity before plunking down the money for this book. Even at just $16.50 it’s hard to believe that it’s worth the money.

MoneyballMoneyball by Michael Lewis. This was a book I read purely for pleasure. This was a #1 national bestseller and has been available since 2003, so I am guessing many of you have already read it. Somehow I only got around to it now. In this book Lewis went on a search for answers, seeking to find out how the Oakland A’s, one of Major League Baseball’s poorest teams, could keep competing against teams with payrolls two or three times higher. And, indeed, the A’s have been competitive year after year. The book focuses in predominantly on Billy Beane who has been General Manager since 1998. It’s a very interesting book, though some of Beane’s “genius” has been exposed by the light of history (some of those draft picks that everyone else laughed at have, indeed, been laughable). But it’s still a very enjoyable read and one any baseball fan will enjoy, even six years later.

Tiny DancerTiny Dancer by Anthony Flacco. You may remember this as one of the few “feel-good” stories to emerge shortly after the US went to war in Afghanistan. Anthony Flacco relates the story of Zubaida Hasan, a nine year-old girl from a tiny village in rural Afghanistan who had been terribly injured in a kerosene fire. Burned and disfigured beyond recognition, Zubaida was taken by her father to the city where an American Green Beret saw her and took pity on her. She was eventually flown to the United States where she received first-world medical care and had her disfigured body rebuilt by Dr. Peter Grossman, a famed burn surgeon. At the same time she became almost a surrogate daughter to Grossman and his wife, Rebecca, as she lived with them through the long year of surgery and recovery. You can read more about Zubaida and her rather remarkable story at zubaidatinydancer.com. At the very least look at the before and after pictures and marvel at the blessing of modern medicine. Though this book stumbles into one of my pet peeves, putting thoughts into the characters heads—thoughts the author could not possibly have known—it is still quite a good read and worth the evening or two it will take to get through it. Though the book is only a few years old, it seems to be out of print so you need to find it in the bargain area (as I did) or buy it used.