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.