Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review of "The Ruble War: A Study of Russia’s Economic Penetration versus U. S. Foreign Aid," by Howard K. Smith and five other correspondents of CBS News.

Review of

The Ruble War: A Study of Russia’s Economic Penetration versus U. S. Foreign Aid, by Howard K. Smith and five other correspondents of CBS News. 

Five out of five stars

 The context of the publication of this book in 1958 is set by the famous line uttered by Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev to Western diplomats in 1956. The phrase was likely mistranslated as “We will bury you,” when in fact it should have been something like, “We will outlast you.” The point was that the command economy structure of the communist states led by the Soviet Union would outperform the capitalist economies of the west.

 Thirty years after the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of its’ Eastern European empire, the notion of the west ever losing the economic struggle with communism seems absurd. However, those with greater depth of understanding will realize that the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism is not yet over. In only a few decades the People’s Republic of China has risen from an economically backward nation to one having what is arguably the largest economy in the world. No political figure in the world wields as much internal power as Chinese President Xi Jinping.

 The authors of this book briefly describe the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in seeking influence among other nations by providing economic aid and assistance through investment in infrastructure. At the time, there were many reasons to believe that the Soviet Union would prove to be a stiff competition to capitalism. With the messiness of having to extensively debate issues in democracies before any action can be taken, the authors state that this would fall behind a system where the leader can “make it so” by stating their position and giving the order.

 This book is a fascinating look back to a time when communism was considered a real threat as an alternative economic and political system and there was reason to believe that it would eventually prove to be superior to capitalism.

Review of "Games and Puzzles," by Saalfield Publishing Company

Review of

Games and Puzzles, by Saalfield Publishing Company

Five out of five stars

 This short collection of simple puzzles will entertain and challenge you. Like all such books, the level of difficulty varies widely, often based on the mindset of the person attempting to solve them. Solutions to the puzzles are not included, so you are on your own and cannot cheat even if you want to.

 There are wordplay puzzles, interpreting pictures as objects, moving objects in a grid to obtain a pattern and one that is operating with numbers. While the games and puzzles are old, they never grow old and uninteresting.

Review of "Harriet Powers Journey from Slave to Artist: Sewing Stories," by Barbara Herkert

Review of

Harriet Powers Journey from Slave to Artist: Sewing Stories, by Barbara Herkert ISBN 9780385754620

Five out of five stars

Harriet Powers was born into slavery, but her artistic skills were a natural talent. Her mother was one of several slave women that did seamstress work for their master. Yet, they were occasionally allowed to work on their own projects and held quilting bees. Their products were quilts that told detailed stories.

 Harriet’s lifespan covered the American Civil War, which freed her and her husband from bondage. Better off than many when the war ended, they were able to buy a few acres of land and work for themselves rather than sharecrop. Through this time, Harriet continued her quilting and so impressed a woman named Jennie Smith that she eventually purchased one of her quilts and once it was seen by others, people at Atlanta University commissioned another quilt. In 1902, Atlanta University held a conference called “The Negro Artisan” and Harriet’s work may have helped inspired it.

 Written at the level of the late middle school child, this is a book that tells a story of how artistic skill triumphed over adversity, even the power of slavery over people.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Review of "Jenny Dean: The Secret of the Invisible City," by Dale Carlson

Review of

Jenny Dean: The Secret of the Invisible City, by Dale Carlson ISBN 0448190044

Three out of five stars

 This is fundamentally a juvenile adventure book with the main character a girl and having a plot based on a science fiction premise. While it is interesting to read an adventure book where the main character is a teenage female, the premise is weak.

Jenny is in Kansas and Thanksgiving is fast approaching. There is a sudden, massive cyclone that passes through, totally out of character with the fall season. After it is over, Jenny is out riding a horse when she encounters an invisible barrier. It is the border of a city called Krishna-La and it is populated by space aliens. The cyclone was just the manifestation of their landing on Earth.

 The aliens prove to be very adept at manipulating the thoughts and emotions of humans, starting with Jenny. When her friends and family encounter unusual manifestations such as a Masai warrior, Jenny begins to suspect that the aliens are laying the foundation for a takeover of Earth. While the issue is resolved, it is not done with great style or flair.  Another character is Mike, Jenny’s juvenile love interest, his presence does not advance the plot a great deal.

 With such a weak premise and lackluster writing, this is a book that you will read and enjoy a bit. After that you will likely forget about it.

Review of "Look And Find Superman," by Joe Edkin

Review of

Look And Find Superman, by Joe Edkin ISBN 0785313540

Five out of five stars

 This is an instance of an image search book where the reader is given a set of images that they are to search for and find in an oversize two-page picture. The theme is of course Superman, and it features him in action with friends and foes. What is different about this book is that the list of images to find is small, 6-8.

 As is the case with all such books and viewers, a few of the images are found almost immediately, while the remainder often require a systematic sector by sector scan. With such a large picture and so few images to find, there is a great deal of opportunities for similar distractors and the creators have done that.

 This is a fun book to look through, providing entertainment for people of all ages. It is not necessary to understand the Superman history to enjoy it.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Review of "Studies in Iowa History: The Negro In Iowa," by Leola Nelson Bergmann

Review of

Studies in Iowa History: The Negro In Iowa, by Leola Nelson Bergmann

Four out of five stars

 Published by the State Historical Society of Iowa in 1969, this pamphlet is generally a factual recollection of the numbers of African American people in the state of Iowa from the time the territory was opened to white settlement. Since many of the early settlers migrated up from southern states where slavery was legal, some slaves accompanied those migrants. However, they were few, yet the intense dialog regarding the future of slavery was part of the social and political fabric of what was to become the state of Iowa.

 There are several pages devoted to the social and economic actions of the African Americans, from the early days there were African American professionals, although most worked as laborers or domestics. It is interesting to note that there were many firsts, from the awarding of advanced degrees to the holding of state and local political offices.

 One of the most interesting topics covered is the town of Buxton, Iowa. Created as a consequence of the local coal mines, the peak population was between eight and ten thousand people and it was fully integrated. It was a company owned town, yet all workers were treated equally. Many black people that grew up there said they never experienced discrimination until they moved to other areas of the country. Unfortunately, the collapse of the coal industry led to it being a ghost town by 1927.

 There is much in this book that will make Iowans proud of their heritage of how black people were historically treated in the state.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Review of "Catwoman" starring Halle Berry DVD version

Review of

Catwoman starring Halle Berry DVD version

Five out of five stars

 A fellow fan of superhero comics once asked me my opinion on the hottest female superhero and my answer was the She Hulk. After watching this movie, my answer will now be Catwoman with Halle Berry in the role. Dressed in a sultry and revealing leather costume with a body as lithe as a cat and a sultry demeanor, she embodies sensuality. Unlike the earlier version that was a super villain, this iteration is fighting evil, specifically a cosmetic company that is about to release a new product. Their research has demonstrated that the product is dangerous to use, but the lure of massive profits is too great.

 The movements of Catwoman are a triumph of special effects, she leaps and walks on narrow surfaces like a cat and sometimes eats like a starved animal. Action scenes are intense and amazing to watch without there being too much smashing and bashing. Catwoman relies more on her avoidance skills than she does on simply whacking on her opponents.

 There is a dynamic love interest along with a best female friend that adds significant humor to the movie. The friend is not a sidekick in the usual sense, just a friend with a humorous bent that helps keep the alter ego of Catwoman thinking and acting like a human female.

 This is a fun movie to watch, one of the few superhero movies where women will enjoy the chic-flick aspects.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Review of "Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby: A Spenser Novel," by Ace Atkins

Review of

Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby: A Spenser Novel, by Ace Atkins ISBN 9780399158032

Five out of five stars

 This Spenser story by Atkins captures the essence of the main characters, including Hawk. For my taste, I was pleased that the sidekick roles was once again filled by Hawk rather than the lesser Z. Joe and Gerry Broz appear, although they are much older and well past their prime. Old adversaries and allies such as Vinnie Morris, Tony Marcus, Quirk, Epstein, Rita Fiore and Belson appear and fill their standard supporting roles. Susan is also prominent in supporting in her own sometimes detrimental way.

 A fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie Sullivan walks into Spenser’s office and wants him to investigate the murder of her mother four years earlier. She does not believe that the man convicted of the crime is guilty, but she cannot pay. Her mother was a drug-taking prostitute and the investigating officers did very little investigating. Wearing his heart of gold on his sleeve, Spenser takes the case, even though he has no expectation of making a case. Mattie lives with her drunken grandmother and is essentially raising her younger twin sisters.

 After a bit of prodding and poking as only Spenser can do, he quickly realizes that he is rapidly getting into conflict with some major criminal players. With Hawk’s help, they protect Mattie and track their way through a very dangerous trail. Spenser is also forced to battle a man named Connor, a federal agent that seems more intent in protecting his turf and being a liability than actually solving a cold case.

  The dialog is so good that it could have been written by Parker himself. This is the first Spenser book by Atkins that I could not put down.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Review of "The Supermanager: A Short Story About the Secrets of an Extremely Successful Manager," by Greg Blencoe

Review of

The Supermanager: A Short Story About the Secrets of an Extremely Successful Manager, by Greg Blencoe ISBN 978-1460980323

Five out of five stars

 This pamphlet contains a great deal of wisdom that can lead to managerial success, the problem is of course that the people that will most benefit from it will either not read it or ignore it if they do. For it contains principles that the weaker personalities in positions of authority are unable to implement.

 The two main characters are Andrew Hernandez (student) and Leon Cook (teacher.) They met shortly after Andrew graduated from business school when Andrew traveled to Nashville to attend an elite management training program. Full of confidence before he arrived, it was not long before Andrew is terrified of the situation he finds himself in. Fortunately, he goes to a fast food restaurant and is impressed by the attitude of the employees. He asks to speak to the manager and there he meets Leon Cook. Leon agrees to tutor Andrew in the basic principles of being a successful manager.

 Through examples and exercises, Leon introduces Andrew to his seven fundamental principles that will make you a supermanager. They are:

*) Surround yourself with high-quality employees.

*) Train employees well.

*) Communicate the end result you want, then empower employees to achieve it.

*) Lead by example.

*) Listen to employees.

*) Praise good work.

*) Manage each employee differently.

 These are hardly new or original principles, and they will lead to managerial success. However, they require the manager to immerse themselves in situations where they are at risk. Hiring smart people and then empowering them means relaxing controls, something that many people are reluctant to do. It is a situation where to gain power you must be willing to give it up. This is a powerful book that managers should read and take very seriously.

Review of "Journey to the Center of the Earth," by Jules Verne Illustrated Now Age Version

Review of

Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne Illustrated Now Age Version ISBN 0883011352

Four out of five stars

 Given the significant weakness in the science behind the plot of this book, I have always considered this one to be fantasy rather than science fiction. The idea that people could go deep under the Earth and encounter oceans, storms and dinosaurs is so contrary to the reality that one must pass into the fantasy realm rather than remain within the realistic scientific one.

 Originally published in 1864, the main character is German Professor Otto Lidenbrock, a man that believes that the Earth is partially hollow and that 15th century explorer Arne Saknussemm entered an extinct volcano and traveled deep into the Earth. Along with his nephew Axel and guide Hans, Lidenbrook enters the Snæfellsjökull volcano. Rather than encounter significant heat and increasingly narrow passages, the three of them find themselves in an environment where plants and animals thrive, most of which have been extinct on the surface for millions of years. There is ample light and a massive sea that they must sail across. There is a massive storm that includes lightning and giant creatures that resemble humans. After surviving many near-death experiences, the three of them are ejected from the Earth in Italy, hundreds of miles from where they entered. 

 This story is loosely based on the legends of underground creatures found in many cultures. It has been presented as a work of science fiction, when it is in fact not. The only scientific principles that are cited appear only to be dismissed. For example, the comments about how the air temperatures they encounter are in fact not increasing.

 Yet, this book is a classic in the literature of western civilization, so much so that two feature length movies have been made using it as the basic plot. I am a strong proponent of the “by any means necessary” method of introducing modern readers to the classics of literature. This graphic novel is an excellent way to introduce middle school students to the writings of one of the pioneers of imaginative fiction.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Review of "The War of the Worlds," by H. G. Wells Graphic novel

Review of

The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells Graphic novel ISBN 0883011379

Five out of five stars

 While there are many classics of science fiction, H. G. Wells’ masterpiece “War of the Worlds” ranks as one of the best. It was the source material for what was a social panic when Orson Welles made his famous radio broadcast and it was the basis of two major motion pictures. It was also one of the first writings to feature poison gas, something that was a primary weapon in World War I, which began 17 years later.

 This rendition of the classic story of interplanetary warfare is presented in graphic novel form. While it does not precisely follow the original story, it is close enough to be considered a reasonable facsimile. The terror of the invasion and humanity’s seeming inability to effectively fight the menace are conveyed using the terminology and infrastructure of late nineteenth century Britain. In the end, human’s often mortal enemies are the weapon that defeats the Martian invaders.

 I am a fan of “any means necessary” in achieving the goal of getting people interested in the classics of literature. In this case, the graphic novel form works quite well.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Review of "Early Autumn," by Robert B. Parker

Review of

Early Autumn, by Robert B. Parker ISBN 0440022487

Five out of five stars

 This Spenser novel is the one that introduces Paul Giacomin, a character that reappears in subsequent Spenser stories. He is fifteen and his parents are fighting over his custody, but in reality, they are fighting each other, and Paul is simply a convenient tool. His mother Patty hires Spenser to “spring” Paul from his father’s custody, a task that he finds easy.

 Spenser quickly learns that Paul is a listless waif and the product of bad parenting and he decides to change that. He enlists Susan’s help, which she is very reluctant to provide. She is depicted as jealous and cold toward Paul, speaking in derisive tones to Spenser and Paul.

 This being a Spenser novel, there is of course far more than just a bitter battle between divorced people. Both parents have sordid pasts and presents, including some involvement with organized crime. When the mob muscle arrives, Spenser contacts Hawk to gain his assistance. Hawk is presented as a bit of a mercenary, even potentially acting as a hired killer.

 Spenser is once again depicted as a man of high principles, aiding a directionless young man over the objections of Susan. When faced with danger, he refuses to shoot people at times when it is in his best interests. There is no Spenser story that depicts him as a thug with a heart more than this one.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Review of "I Already Know I Love You," by Billy Crystal

Review of

I Already Know I Love You, by Billy Crystal ISBN 0060593911

Five out of five stars

 This book for children is a message from a prospective grandpa to his expected grandchild. Crystal uses references to baseball, circuses, fishing, playing games, instructing and just basically hanging out. The general form is four lines of verse per two-page image where the second- and fourth-line rhyme. It is a list of many of the things that the anticipatory grandparent hopes to do with their upcoming grandchild.

 This book is delightful, worthy of being read and re-read to all grandchildren. I also recommend it to all expectant grandparents; it will warm their hearts for what is to come.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Review of "Lucky Seven," by Matt Christopher

Review of

Lucky Seven, by Matt Christopher

 Four out of five stars

 Christopher is best known for his series of books of adolescent sports fiction where the main characters are young people. This is in contrast to many of the other main writers of sports fiction for young people where their stories feature adults, often professional players.

 This book contains a set of short stories within his usual genre of young people at play. Most of the stories feature the standard sports like baseball or football, but there is a notable exception. The last story, called “Full Throttle,” is about racing model cars on tracks.

 The stories are in the usual Christopher style of working hard, playing fair and having some sort of moral. They are all easy to understand, both in terms of the basic plot and the lesson that Christopher is trying to impart. This book is one that you read for pleasure and leisure.

Review of "Cast Away," DVD version starring Tom Hanks

Review of

Cast Away, DVD version starring Tom Hanks

Five out of five stars

 Literally from the moment when humans began traveling the seas and oceans out of the sight of land, there have been tales of people being shipwrecked and marooned. Sometimes it is small groups of people on an uninhabited island, other times there are natives on the island and in a few cases, it is one person all alone. Different and more expanded versions of this story arose in science fiction after interplanetary travel became plausible. The recent hit movie “The Martian” is the best-known example of the lone person marooned.

 This movie is one where a single person somehow manages to survive a destructive plane crash and wash up on the beach of an uninhabited tropical island. Tom Hanks stars as Chuck Nolan, an engineer with FedEx that is a hard driving, yet somewhat personable individual. He is flying as a passenger in a company cargo jet when they encounter a violent storm and there is an onboard explosion of some kind.

 Once on the island, Nolan needs to immediately satisfy his basic needs of food, water and shelter. He struggles to get a fire going, open a coconut and other basic tasks with no modern tools. Fortunately, a few packages from the plane wash up on the beach and he finds some useful items in them. After four years, he realizes that if he does not leave the island, he will die there alone and largely forgotten.

 This movie is nearly all Tom Hanks and he does a superb job of playing the increasingly eccentric exile in an odd form of solitary confinement. In order to keep himself sane, he must go a little insane, inventing a semi-imaginary companion to talk to. It is a worthy addition to the story of how humans can adapt in the most strenuous of circumstances and with no hope of any assistance.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Review of "Clearing the Bases," by Mike Schmidt

Review of

Clearing the Bases, by Mike Schmidt ISBN 9780060854997

Four out of five stars

 This book by a Hall-of-fame baseball player is part autobiography and part his philosophy about the history and mystique of baseball. The sections about his life and career are interesting, but not as riveting as his comments about Pete Rose and the use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in baseball.

 Schmidt provides some real insight into the issue of whether or not Pete Rose should be admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. There is no question that his performance on the field more than warrants the honor. However, his betting on his own team and his failure to admit it has so far doomed his chances. Schmidt was one of the intermediaries between Pete Rose and the Commissioner’s office, so his knowledge is firsthand. He explains that there are members enshrined in the Hall of Fame that are adamant that Rose be denied enshrinement for violating the rules about betting on baseball.

 Schmidt also says a great deal about the problem of PED use in baseball, specifically the use of steroids. While he does mention possibilities and accusations and describes how “some players” dropped a great deal of weight that was muscle mass after the crackdown on steroids took place, Schmidt never specifically accuses a player of taking them that has not admitted to doing so. He is also adamant that records are what they are and should never be subject to an asterisk based on other factors such as PED use.

 Schmidt puts forward a proposal to deal with the most complex of issues facing baseball at the time of writing and in the future. He proposes the formation of an Otsego Committee, which would be a small group selected from the current living members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. This group would serve as an arbiter of issues such as Pete Rose’s entry in the Hall of Fame and serve as an arbiter of major labor conflicts such as drug testing and pension issues.  It is a proposal that has merit, for there are some obvious flaws in the current system where decisions are made.

  This is a book where Schmidt is honest about his opinions, even about himself. He is open in relating to how his ego was often a bit fragile and he suffered from insecurities, even when he was leading the league in homers and runs batted in. Throughout though, he expresses his reverence for baseball.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Review of "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome," DVD version starring Mel Gibson and Tina Turner

Review of

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, DVD version starring Mel Gibson and Tina Turner

Five out of five stars

 In general, the third film in a sequence tends to be underwhelming compared to the first two. That is not the case here, Tina Turner stars as Aunty Entity and turns in a superb performance as the protagonist to Max. Unlike in the first two movies, Aunty Entity is not a brutal, evil person, in her own way she is a savior of humanity and civilization. She has created a civilization out of the ruins of an apocalyptic war, giving the people hope for a future. Aunty Entity has given the world the rule of law once again, brutal though it may be.

 Max is once again a vagabond loner where circumstances give him no choice but to act as an agent of Aunty’s bidding. The ultimate in surviving, Max joins forces with a group of children that survived the crash of a 747 and are living in an oasis in the middle of a vast and nearly impenetrable desert.

 The chase scene is once again an incredible thing, this time there is some humor amidst the fighting to the death. In this case it involves a train to nowhere, where the day is saved by a man and his son with a plane. Max proves that he is very much a hero, risking his life to save a group of children.

 As was the case in “Road Warrior,” the supporting characters in this movie do much more than that. They provide tension, light moments and do more than is usual in making this movie the entertaining powerhouse that it is. There is Robert Grubb as “Pigkiller,” a man given a life sentence for killing a pig for food, Frank Thring as the “Collector” the front man for Bartertown, he is the one that decides what goods are worth and who gets to enter the town to conduct their business. Bruce Spence as “Jedediah the Pilot,” a role similar to the one he had in “Road Warrior.” Angry Anderson as “Ironbar,” one of the commanders of the troops controlled by Aunty and perhaps the best was Angelo Rossitto as “Master,” the genius that designed and managed the infrastructure of Bartertown.

 This is an entertaining and thoughtful movie, pointing out one unfortunate fact about the behavior of humans. Even after being nearly wiped out, there will still be struggles for power and control over what meager structures are rebuilt after the destruction. The action and character interactions are exceptional.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Review of "The Silver Sword," by Ian Serraillier

Review of

The Silver Sword, by Ian Serraillier ISBN 9780590437158

Five out of five stars

 While the family depicted in this book is fictional, their story is one that was mostly true for millions of people. Unfortunately, in most cases, there was no happy ending with a joyful reunion. It is the story of the Balicki family, Poles caught up in the Second World War with the deaths and displacements.

 Joseph is the father and he is sent to a prison camp shortly after the Germans invaded and conquered Poland. Determined not to let the Germans decide his fate, he manages to escape and flee to Switzerland. Along the way he is helped by an orphan boy named Jan and Joseph gives him a small silver sword as a memento.

 When their mother Ruth commits a transgression against the Germans, Storm Troopers come in the night to whisk her away and their son Edek shoots one of them. Knowing that the Germans will be back in force and that they will destroy their house, the three children flee over the rooftops wearing only coats over their bedclothes. Forced to fend for themselves, they encounter Jan and they recognize the silver sword that Joseph gave him.

 This begins what can be described as an incredible journey as the children of the Balicki family travel the hundreds of miles from Poland, through Germany until they are reunited with their father in Switzerland. The war front passes through their area and then they must move through the war devastated areas of Poland and Germany. It is a challenging journey that is an engaging story. It is also one where parts of it can be used to describe the war experiences of millions of people in Eastern Europe. Most of which do not end with all family members surviving the war.

 I first read this book in the Scholastic Books version with the title, “Escape From Warsaw.” It is an excellent book for young people as it introduces them to a chapter of history that must be remembered and continues to be repeated in many regions of the world. At this time, this story can be told with the term “Poles” being replaced by “Kurds.”

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Review of "Out of the Blue: The Remarkable Story of the 2003 Chicago Cubs," by the staff of the Chicago Tribune

Review of

Out of the Blue: The Remarkable Story of the 2003 Chicago Cubs, by the staff of the Chicago Tribune 

ISBN 1572436336

Four out of five stars

 Although the Chicago Cubs did not make it to the World Series in 2003, they came very close, there were several “if only” moments. Including one that will live in infamy among the Cubs faithful. Yet, it was a magical season, for before it started there were few that gave the Cubs much chance of contending for the title.

 Given the compilers and authors of this book, it is not surprising that the content is laudatory of all things Cubs. It is packed with the “overcoming adversity” phraseology so often uttered by athletes and their coaches. Yet, it is a joy to read, for it was indeed a memorable season for a team that was considered an unlikely contender before the season began.

 The bulk of the book consists of action shots of the players doing their deeds on the field. It was exciting to relive a season where the Cubs came so close to a World Series appearance.

Review of "The Path to the Presidency," the Concord Monitor

Review of

The Path to the Presidency, the Concord Monitor ISBN 9781597256148

Five out of five stars

 Due to their being the earliest in the sequence of events leading to the selection of the next American president, Iowa (population 3.1 million) and New Hampshire (population 1.4 million), have an outsize influence on who that person will be. In those states, any person with a desire to see a particular candidate will almost certainly have the opportunity.

 Going back to the 1960 presidential election, this book contains a set of photos of the candidates taken by press members of the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire. While most of them are posed and carefully set up, there are some that are completely unscripted and genuine. There are snowballs flying, a candidate checking his teeth in the mirror, sampling of the food in a local diner and lots of smiles, both genuine and somewhat forced.

 My favorite is one of John Kerry talking to a high school class in 2003 and the photo contains the back of a student where his shirt has the phrase, “You’re mouth keeps moving but all I hear is ‘Blah, blah, blah.” It was supposedly unplanned, but it is a photo for the archives of political amusement.  

 There is method to the seeming political madness of the caucuses and primaries, the end result has the highest possible outcome. Therefore, the insights found in this book have value in any attempt to understand and control the outcome.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Review of "The Giants and the Dodgers: The Fabulous Story of Baseball’s Fiercest Feud," by Lee Allen

Review of

The Giants and the Dodgers: The Fabulous Story of Baseball’s Fiercest Feud, by Lee Allen

Five out of five stars

 Depending on how their status as political entities are defined, Brooklyn the previous home of the Dodgers baseball team and Upper Manhattan, the location of the home field of the New York Giants, the two teams were either cross-town rivals or neighboring town rivals. In whatever way you define them, the key point is that they were rivals. So intense was the hostility, a season where one team won the majority of the games between them was always considered a success independent of their position in the final standings.

 This book takes the reader back to the beginning, 1889 to be precise, when the Giants of the National League faced off against the Brooklyn Bridegrooms of the American Association in what was a precursor to the playoff we now know as the World Series. Eventually the Brooklyn team became known as the Dodgers and both of them were in the National League. Therefore, every year they played each other many times and were fighting for the same prize, the National League pennant.

 A great deal of the undercurrents of the teams is described, from the ownership issues to those of managers, coaches, the stars and the less known and even otherwise insignificant players. There is little in the way of exciting renditions of the most significant games, the book is essentially a factual recapitulation of the events. It is a history of the teams and their interactions, a look deep into the events that made the rivalry between the Giants and the Dodgers the foremost one in sports for so many years.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Review of "Ball Hawks: The Arrival and Departure of the NBA in Iowa," by Tim Harwood

Review of

Ball Hawks: The Arrival and Departure of the NBA in Iowa, by Tim Harwood ISBN 9781609385880

Five out of five stars

 One of the main stories about sports in the current news is the fallout from a message posted by Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA team the Houston Rockets. In that message he expressed support for the freedom protests in Hong Kong opposing Chinese attempts to suppress democracy there. The Chinese government has fought back hard and billions of dollars of revenue for the NBA is at stake.

 Given this modern context, it is hard for people to comprehend that the NBA was once a small league where many of the franchises were in small towns. One of those towns was Waterloo, Iowa, a city that has never had more than 80,000 residents. They were the Waterloo Hawks and they were a competitive team in the NBA’s first season of 1949-50.

 While it is often dull with routine descriptions of the action with no embellishments, this book is an educational description of the very early years of professional basketball. Many of the teams struggled, 3,000 was often considered a large crowd and the teams sometimes had trouble finding a place to play. Owners often struggled financially with teams folding in the middle of the season, necessitating creative adjustments of won-loss records. Like baseball, players often barnstormed during the off season in an attempt to earn a true living.

 This book is a historical eye-opener to the early days of the NBA, when it was largely a footnote in the sports consciousness of America and the world. The players, coaches and owners did not know it at the time, but they were laying the foundation for a business that now has over $8 billion in revenue per year and so influential that governments pay attention to what is said.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Review of "Evil Eye Beagle: Funny Sports Stories," by Harrison Powers

Review of

Evil Eye Beagle: Funny Sports Stories, by Harrison Powers ISBN 0893757039

Three out of five stars

 This collection of short stories is designed to tickle the funny bones of children ten years old plus-or-minus two. While it hits the age target, it largely misses the funny one. The plots are all based on a high degree of incongruity, for example, the first one features a sad-eyed stray beagle dog that is able to put extreme hexes on people and events. So severe that the jinxed hockey team loses 48 to zero. Another one has a chimpanzee so expert at playing checkers and being annoying that people no longer go to the park where Barney hangs out.

 The absurdity of the plots provides a few light chuckles, but the writing is not light and entertaining enough to sustain the stories absent the incongruities. It is a good book for a child to read once and then mentally loose track of it.

Review of Pythagoras Hi-Q game

Review of

Pythagoras Hi-Q game

Five out of five stars

 There are seven pieces: two large triangles, one intermediate triangle, two small triangles, a square and a rhombus. The pieces have ridges, so they are easy to grasp for placement and rotation. The purpose of the game is to construct geometric shapes from the seven pieces. A paper showing 179 different figures that can be constructed is included in the package.

 As is always the case with puzzles of this type, there is a significant difference in the difficulty of creating the figures. For some of them, the placement of a few of the pieces is immediately clear, giving the player a head start. With others, it is difficult to see where any of the pieces are to go. Solutions or hints are not included, but that is not an issue as it is always obvious when you have found an answer.

 This is a game that will provide you with a lot of challenging mental stimulation (frustration).

Monday, October 21, 2019

Review of "Little League Old-timers," by Don Creighton

Review of

Little League Old-timers, by Don Creighton

Four out of five stars

 Kit Dawson is in his early teen years and very excited about the upcoming Little League season. While his team was not very good last year, he has high expectations for the upcoming season. However, all of his hopes are dashed when ground is broken for the new shopping center in the location of their baseball field.

 There appears to be no alternative site, Kit and his friends look everywhere in Millbrook for a location suitable for a baseball field. Somewhat by accident, Kit encounters a large plot of land that is the Marley Home for the aged. With no resident under 70, they are people that want peace and quiet above else. Therefore, while the Marley Home residents agree to allow a baseball field to be constructed on their property, they set very strict rules regarding noise levels. Fans and players are not allowed to yell and cheer. The season gets started and Kit’s team is an average one, winning at roughly a .500 pace. Kit proves to be a team leader, encouraging others and filling in wherever there is the greatest need.

 While this story is based on a season of Little League baseball, it is really about the youth and elderly reconnecting and finding common ground. One of the rules of the Marley Home is that to be a resident, you cannot have any relatives. Therefore, the people there have almost no contact with anyone outside the home. Although Kit’s team does not win the championship, the real message of this book is that the elderly need to have a purpose in their lives and interact with others, specifically the younger generation. There is a touching scene when one of the elderly women collapses and is rushed to the hospital. When she is recovering, she asks Kit to visit her and gives him some sage advice about life. Therefore, this is first and foremost a book about social cohesion rather than baseball.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Review of "HSPT Prep Book 2019-2020: HSPT Study Guide and Practice Test Questions for the High School Placement Test"

Review of

HSPT Prep Book 2019-2020: HSPT Study Guide and Practice Test Questions for the High School Placement Test, ISBN 9781635303254

Four out of five stars

 It is an unfortunate fact of life in the modern world of growing up that your performance on a single test can do a great deal to determine your future. From where you are placed among your peers to your entrance into the school of your choice. One of the significant early tests is the High School Placement Test or HSPT. It is taken by students about to enter the ninth grade or what is in the United States, the first year of high school. If you do well on the HSPT, then you will be placed into the college preparation track, which is often key to your future education.

 This book contains some review material, but there are heavy assumptions regarding previous exposure and understanding. The reviews are short and very to the point. There are exams with questions that require some significant thought, which is the proper level of challenge. It would be very counterproductive to give easy questions on a study exam.

 If your child is someone about to take the HSPT, then acquiring this book and using it as a study aid is a cheap and effective way to improve their chances to earn the score that will give them an edge. However, it is hardly original or unique in the approach.

Review of "Jed: The Story of a Yankee Soldier and a Southern Boy," by Peter Burchard

Review of

Jed: The Story of a Yankee Soldier and a Southern Boy, by Peter Burchard

Five out of five stars

 Jed is a soldier in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He lied about his age in order to be allowed to join and he is now far from his home in Wisconsin and sixteen years old. He is a veteran of the battle of Shiloh Creek and his unit is now in Mississippi and it is the fall of 1862. As experiencing the death and destruction of a battle will do to a person, “all the glitter and promise had gone out of soldiering.”

 Yet, there is still a spark of idealism in Jed and it is rekindled when he encounters a local boy that has wandered away from home and has broken his leg. Even though the boy is hostile to the Yankee soldier Jed, he takes pity on the boy and moves him to the surgeon for his unit. The bone is set and bound in place. The boy wants to return home so the surgeon loans Jed his horse for the return trip, as the boy cannot walk.

 The Union Army often ran low on supplies, so they made do by living off the land. Which meant that they often simply took livestock and foodstuffs from the local farms at gunpoint, leaving the people to starve. Jed was a participant in one such raid and it greatly disturbed him, he vowed to never go on such missions again unless he was ordered.

 With the help of some of the kindly men in his unit, Jed is able to successfully return the boy to his mother and then thwart an attempt to pillage their farm without being disloyal to the Union cause. This is a good story about a boy/man that keeps his ethical and moral principles while others have the heat of battle destroy theirs.


Review of "You Can Tell You’re a Midwesterner When . . . ," by Dale Grooms

Review of

You Can Tell You’re a Midwesterner When . . . , by Dale Grooms ISBN 9781571662170

Four out of five stars

 This is a book of rural “wisdom,” a collection of generally folksy sayings that are a combination of the frivolous and profound. Nearly all of the sayings begin with a “..ya” although a few begin with “you” or “yer.” They are often deliberately grammatically incorrect in an attempt to make them sound more folksy.

 As a former Iowa country boy, I found the first one on page 24 to be one of the most amusing:

“.. ya know what it feels like to whiz on an electric fence.”

In general, country boys can be divided into two categories, those that did take a whiz on an electric fence and those that convinced another boy to go first.

 Published in Iowa, this book is meant to be a frivolous exaggeration of how rural Iowans talk and act. In that sense, this book succeeds, although some may be put off by the deliberately poor grammar.

Review of "Pencil Puzzlers," by Steve Ryan

Review of

Pencil Puzzlers, by Steve Ryan ISBN 0806985429

Five out of five stars

 The puzzles in this collection are hard, but in general all that is needed to solve them is persistence rather than mathematical insight. Although the title hints that the puzzles are those of finding a specific path through a maze, that is not always the case. There are puzzles involving letters in words, determining the values of unseen numbers, a crossword puzzle that uses all 26 letters one time and using straight lines to split a diagram into congruent pieces. The puzzles are challenging, and hints are often given a few pages ahead. Answers to all puzzles are included in an appendix.

 Math skills or insight are not needed to solve these puzzles, they are solved using systematic trial and error. Therefore, people of all ages can use this book to sharpen the edges of their brain cells.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Review of "Daddy’s Little Girl: For Dads and Little Girls of All Ages," by Donna Reed

Review of

Daddy’s Little Girl: For Dads and Little Girls of All Ages, by Donna Reed

Five out of five stars

 This heartwarming story is a common one. A loving father is forced to work long hours in order to pay the bills and therefore his daughter rarely sees him as she is growing up. It is something that is always foremost in her mind and she is now older.

 Forty years have passed, and she has acquired two tickets to the University of Iowa versus Purdue University basketball game. Instead of asking a friend, she calls up her dad and asks him to go with her. He agrees and their sharing of the activity rekindles and reinforces a bond between them.

 The story then quite correctly points out that little girls of all ages need much more than food on the table and a better way of life. However, this point of emphasis does leave a bit of reality behind. It is easy to point this out, yet for many it is much harder to carry it out. For a large number of people, not working those extra hours means that decisions have to be made regarding what bill is not paid that month.

 This book was published in 1994 and for the majority of people in the United States, their wages have stagnated since then. It is not their fault and they are often faced with two options. Bankruptcy or working longer and harder. Loving parents will always choose the latter.

Review of "Child Ward of the Commonwealth," by Eileen Cleary ISBN 9781599487465

Review of

Child Ward of the Commonwealth, by Eileen Cleary ISBN 9781599487465

Four out of five stars

 One of the realities of the world is that there are some children that simply should not remain in the custody of their parents. Almost anything is better than the environment they are living in. Unfortunately, the alternatives that they often find themselves in are not much better. While most have improved from the conditions many years ago, orphanages are still in general rather dismal places. Granted that foster care is generally better, it can often be a stark existence where the child is tolerated rather than loved and cared for.

 The author of this collection of poems had a childhood that was an incident of that reality, and the short segments of verse describe some of her experiences. There is nothing horrific such as an explicit sexual assault documented in this collection, although it is clear that there was the potential. Many of the poems describe an emptiness, the child survives to adulthood, yet the childhood years were not ones of happiness and healthful play.

 For example, the short poem on page 31:

“We carry, like a dead baby, our unfinished love. A thing outlived. Holy. Yet dreadful. Through awkward centuries of November, shapeless days assemble.”

 The poems in this collection are not uplifting, or even a song of triumph over childhood adversity. They are metaphorical allusions to a childhood that is remembered, but not fondly.

Review of "The Joys of a Simple Life," by Elmarie Novak

Review of

The Joys of a Simple Life, by Elmarie Novak

Four out of five stars

 The author grew up in the area of Spillville, Iowa and this book is a collection of short recollections she has of her life in the years 1924-1934. She is of Czech Catholic heritage, which is fitting for Spillville is the home of the oldest Czech Catholic Church in the United States. Her family lived on a farm and while they had a personal electric power system run by batteries and a recharging generator, the house was heated by woodburning stoves and water was derived from cisterns for storage and hand pumps for delivery.

 Like all such farm families, the people worked very hard, yet they always ate very well and enjoyed life. There was a tight bond of family and community among the people, one of the essays is about when an entire family was stricken with the flu and quarantined. The author’s family did their farm chores as well as those of the stricken family and bought their groceries, setting them on the porch in order to avoid physical contact.

 Like the title, the writing is also fairly simple, there are errors and some repetition. Yet, the points are well made, although they lacked a lot, the family and the community described in this book had many things that modern people no longer have. I would describe their lives as “uncomplicated” rather than simple.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Review of "On the Ropes: A Novel," by James Vance and Dan E. Burr

Review of

On the Ropes: A Novel, by James Vance and Dan E. Burr ISBN 9780393351224

Five out of five stars

 This graphic novel is based on a lot of history, much of which is no longer heavily emphasized in the educational curricula. The setting is the United States in 1937, where the Depression is still heavy and even the employed struggle to make ends meet. Large corporations do not hesitate to hire thugs to beat up union organizers and some of those doing the beating wore police and National Guard uniforms. Major newspapers, the only real mass media outlet at the time, often took the side of the companies, claiming that people fighting for a union and decent wages were “Reds,” the common term for communists at the time.

 The main character is Fred Bloch, a young man that lost his leg in a train accident and has found what passes for a home in a traveling circus funded by the WPA. He is apprenticed to Gordon Corey, an escape artist that has shackles put on his arms, a hangman’s rope around his neck and then at the count of five the trap door under his feet is opened. Although Gordon is clearly a man on the edge of self-destruction, he always manages to carry out his daring escape.

 There is a great deal of labor strife and Fred is associated with a national organization of labor organizers. He is a message runner and is being stalked by two ruthless men employed by the corporations. They will not hesitate to kill to carry out their mission, and that includes the brutal slaughter of women that go contrary to their wishes.

 This is a tough graphic novel, yet it revisits the days of the Depression when workers striking for union recognition and higher pay were killed, some of which were women marching in solidarity with the men. It is also important for the current generations to understand that the Depression was an extremely tough time and standing up for your worker rights could mean getting beaten or shot. It is a book that could be used in history classes in order to provoke discussion and further research and a reminder of the past struggles of labor.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Review of "Snap Me Perfect! The Darrell Porter Story," by Darrell Porter with William Deerfield

Review of

Snap Me Perfect! The Darrell Porter Story, by Darrell Porter with William Deerfield ISBN 0840753675

Four out of five stars

 This autobiography of Darrell Porter, an admitted alcoholic and drug addict, appears to have a happy ending, as it ends with him clean and a born-again Christian. Out of curiosity, I investigated his life after this book was written and learned that he died in 2002 at the age of 50. An autopsy revealed a level of cocaine in his body “consistent with recreational use.” Therefore, it is clear that he was never able to defeat demon coke.

 Although Porter played 17 seasons in the major leagues and had some outstanding seasons, a strong argument can be made that he would be in the Hall of Fame if he had not been under the influence most of the time. In 1979 he led the majors with 121 walks and scored and batted in over 100 runs. Feats where the only other catchers to accomplish them are in the Hall of Fame.

 This would be a better book of Porter had not descended to the level of seeking pity, often blaming his father for being unloving. Some of that is no doubt due to the fact that Porter never had to experience the issues of struggling for money. Many children of working-class parents that struggle to make ends meet resent their parents until they themselves are in that situation. Only then, do the appreciate what their parents did and sacrificed for them. Porter signed for a major bonus right out of high school, so lack of income was never an issue for him.

 As you read this book, you are amazed that Porter was able to function as a star at the major league level. He claims that he strictly controlled his intake, but that is a delusion that is easy to see through. He describes being so paranoid and delusional that he kept a loaded shotgun near his bed and found conspiracies against him in chance encounters with people.

 A natural athlete that was so gifted that he received multiple offers from NCAA football powerhouses as a quarterback, Porter could have been one of the greatest of all time. Yet, his significant feelings of insecurity and inadequacy were so strong that they were the stepping-stone to his drug use in an attempt to cope. This book is one that will make you sad, even more so because his story is not unique.

Review of "A Coloring Book of Ancient China," Bellerophon Books

Review of

A Coloring Book of Ancient China, Bellerophon Books ISBN 0883880776

Five out of five stars

 This is both educational and a challenging coloring book for adults. The images are from works created in ancient China and are composed of many tiny details, giving the artist an essentially infinite number of possibilities to develop. Most of the pictures are copies of museum pieces and there is a short caption of text giving the message of the image as well as the origin and current location.

 There are many ways in which to study history and learn about other cultures. While this book is not for everyone, it certainly is a worthy object of study and artistic activity.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Review of "The Blue Ribbon Day," by Katie Couric

Review of

The Blue Ribbon Day, by Katie Couric ISBN 0385501420

Five out of five stars

 The theme of this children’s book is how to bravely face failure and use it as a learning experience and as a way to move on to other things that may be more suited to your physical and mental skills. Ellie McSnelly and Carrie O’Toole are friends at Brookhaven School. They get very excited when they see a sign announcing tryouts for soccer.

 When the workout is in progress, Ellie demonstrates significant skills at the game while Carrie has trouble making contact with the ball. When the roster is announced, Ellie has made the team while Carrie has not. After shedding tears of disappointment, Carrie decides to enter the school science fair. Her project is the use of sugar solution to make blue rock candy, and her project does so well that she wins a blue ribbon. Demonstrating to the reader that there are many types of skills, what a person needs to do is discover which ones they have and learn how to leverage them to success.

 The text is written in four-line segments, where lines 1 and 2 and then 3 and 4 rhyme. All rhymes are simple and can be understood by the student in the middle of elementary school. The illustrations are colorful and depict a lot of action with intense facial expressions.

 This is a good book for children, the theme is about life and how the manner in which we face and respond to disappointment determines whether we will be successful or not. I strongly recommend it for all children.