Monday, July 29, 2019

Review of "Kings of the Hill: An Irreverent Look at the Men on the Mound," by Nolan Ryan with Mickey Herskowitz

Review of

Kings of the Hill: An Irreverent Look at the Men on the Mound, by Nolan Ryan with Mickey Herskowitz, ISBN 0060183306

Four out of five stars

 This book is not in the “Ball Four” genre, where the dirty laundry of major league baseball is put down in the clearest of inks. While Ryan does spend some paper in talking about a few pitchers that did a figurative self-immolation in engaging in behavior that was not in the best interests of their major league careers, it is more about their strengths and weaknesses as pitchers.

 Yet, in some of those instances, he is a staunch defender of his fellow pitchers, pointing out that while their actions were inappropriate, they should not have had the negative consequences to their careers that they did. For example, he expresses sympathy for Denny McLain, the last man to win 30 games. Ryan points out that McLain was heavily injected with cortisone in his pitching shoulder during his magical 1968 season. Although McLain did some rather stupid things, the reality is that his arm was burned out in those years where he was so heavily used.

 Ryan is surprisingly candid about pitchers throwing at batters, although he is focused on doing it as retaliation and protection of teammates rather than as an act of meanness with the purpose of getting batters out. There are also many top-ten lists, such as top ten pitchers with the nastiest sliders, top ten most dubious distinctions a pitcher ever suffered and top ten pitching records that will never be broken. While one should always be careful when saying a record will never be broken, think the Lou Gehrig streak of consecutive games, one of them simply cannot be broken. That is the lowest batting average for a season by Bob Buhl. For it is mathematically impossible to have an average lower than 0.000.

This book is not deep in the weeds of baseball, just a rendition of one pitcher’s long-term experiences with other players, mostly pitchers. Although he sometimes brings in the hitters to give the reader some perspective.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Review of "NFL Films Crunchtime," VHS version

Review of

NFL Films Crunchtime, VHS version

Five out of five stars
 This video features six of the most competitive, hardest hitters that ever played in the NFL. Only one is an offensive player, the others played defense. They are Howie Long, Pat Fischer, Randy White, Dick Butkus, Mike Curtis and Larry Csonka. Howie Long and Randy White were defensive lineman, Dick Butkus and Mike Curtis were linebackers, Pat Fischer was a cornerback and Larry Csonka was a running back.

 The true outlier in this group is Pat Fischer, listed at five-nine and 170, his physical appearance is unimposing, yet at one time he had played more NFL games at cornerback than anyone else and was several times an all-star. When he went one-on-one with the Eagles receiver Harold Carmichael, Fischer gave up 11 inches, yet held his own.

 The video is a combination of testimonials, interviews with the players and highlights of events in their career. Specifically, when they whacked an opponent extra hard. These were tough men that played the game at a high level, willing to dish out and accept physical punishment for a sport they loved.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Review of "Quarterback Walk-On," by Thomas J. Dygard

Review of

Quarterback Walk-On, by Thomas J. Dygard ISBN 0688010652

Four out of five stars

 This story is one that all who aspire to sports greatness but lack the skills to do so will relate to. Denny Westbrook is a walk-on to the Sutton State Cowboys football team. The Cowboys are a national powerhouse in college football and Denny is a physical education major with his career goal being that of a football coach. His knowledge of the game is superb, his role on the team for his years at Sutton State has been to quarterback the scout team, running the plays of their next opponent. While Denny lacks the physical size and skills, his ability to quickly learn offences has proven invaluable.

 Through an unusual set of circumstances, fourth-string quarterback Denny Westbrook is suddenly forced into the role of starting quarterback in their upcoming game against Allerton. Fortunately, the team has nearly a week to prepare and Denny comes up with some unusual strategies to use.

 After some initial problems and recurring difficulties, the game begins and Sutton State holds their own, being five points behind late in the fourth quarter. Although the conclusion is predictable, the path there is a joy to read. For this is not a story about an unknown rising to the position of a star, it is about a man that understands football so well that he develops an effective strategy to win a game, even though no one thinks they can win with a small and unskilled man at quarterback. This is truly a triumph of brains over brawn.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Review of "This Is Home Now," by Floyd A. Robinson

Review of

This Is Home Now, by Floyd A. Robinson ISBN 0813817765

Five out of five stars

 The timespan of this book is 1913 to 1926 and the location was an Iowa farm. The author was a boy on that farm, and this is a description of the life he led. You grew up fast in that environment in those days, children as young as six were expected to perform significant tasks, including managing the work horses and even operating machinery. Their workday was generally well-planned in advance and the hours were from pre-dawn to dusk. There were few slack times over the course of the year, most often due to the seasons or a specific weather pattern.

 It was also a time of change, for during this tale, cars made their significant appearance leading to a higher quality of roads being constructed, tractors and gasoline motors were added to the farming process and electricity slowly expanded out from the cities. Accidents were a constant danger, one of the author’s brothers was killed in a farming accident. Had that happened fifty years later, he would have lost a foot, but not his life.

 One interesting aspect of the story is how the main characters extracted the cream from their milk and took it along with their chicken eggs to the local businesses for credit and cash. The sale of dairy products in that manner is now illegal, although there has been a minor movement to allow it once again.

 Life on the farm before there were good roads, government programs for assistance and the local school was truly local was a time of hard work and a continuing sense of accomplishment. For at the end of the day or season, there was no doubt whether you had accomplished your tasks or not. This is a look back to those times, while they were hard, as can be discerned from this book, they were not all bad.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Review of "Natural Disasters As a Catalyst for Social Capital," by Kevin F. Adler

Review of

Natural Disasters As a Catalyst for Social Capital, by Kevin F. Adler ISBN 9780761864660

Five out of five stars

 Since I live in the city of Marion, Iowa, which is contiguous to Cedar Rapids, my experiences with the great flood of 2008 were indirect, yet consequential. I knew people that were forced to move and had to adjust my work schedule as a consequence of the high water. Due to the water shortage in Cedar Rapids, fire hoses were connected between hydrants in Marion and Cedar Rapids and the residents of Marion were urged to cut back on usage. This book is not simply a factual rendition of the flood and how people were directly affected, it explores the nature of how a community responds to a disaster where the event was predicted but the scale significantly underestimated.

 To be specific, until shortly before the water began its rapid ascent, the consensus was that it would be a flood similar to previous ones, a major inconvenience but not significantly consequential. One of my students at the time told me that he had approximately 48 hours advance notice before the water overran his rental property that had never flooded before. In his words, when he contacted an official requesting information regarding the danger to his address, he was told, “You’re screwed.”

 The analysis here of how the community responded short-term and then long-term are fairly predictable. In the immediate, people rally to aid those severely affected with support at all levels. There is an immediate feel-good atmosphere of sympathy and gratitude.

 However, in the long term there is the inevitable battle for scarce resources as well as impatience with the slow pace of the development of long-term recovery. Many houses simply sat and rotted while the owners waited for decisions to be made by the city as to whether there would be a buyout, or they would be given the appropriate permission and aid that will allow them to rebuild. The erosion of trust in the governments from the city to the national level was severe and ten years later has not been fully restored.

 The phrase “social capital” is defined as the level of goodwill and understanding between the citizenry that allows a society to function while under great stress. When it exists, people not directly affected will step up and give a little to aid those most significantly affected by a disaster. Adler starts out by explaining the term and then describes how it was applied during a flood that will hopefully happen only twice in a millennium.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Review of "Story of Iowa," by W. L. Wallace

Review of

Story of Iowa, by W. L. Wallace

Four out of five stars

 Written in 1931, this short history of the state of Iowa must be read with that fact in mind. It was designed to be a history textbook for students before they enter high school, there are sections that will seem simplistic to the modern reader. Unlike other history books that cover this area, a great deal of ink is consumed explaining the role and actions of the Native Americans in affecting the early history of the state. Even though they were warlike in many ways, there was often friendship and cooperation between the Native Americans and the European interlopers.

 While modern readers may consider the explanations of the exploration, settlement and development of the state of Iowa to be a bit quaint, this is still an interesting book to read. For it shows how the history of the state was presented to students in the early thirties. One fascinating feature is the appendix listing the origin of the names of all the counties in Iowa.

Review of "Fairy Tales of Eastern Europe," retold by Joanne Asala

Review of

Fairy Tales of Eastern Europe, retold by Joanne Asala ISBN 1932043268

Five out of five stars

 In this case, the phrase “Eastern Europe” can be replaced by “Slavic people,” yet as is often the case across cultures, the fundamental plots of their most popular fairy tales are similar. Fans of fairy tales will recognize the widely told story of Cinderella, presented as the character Marouckla. Kinkach Martinko is the Slavic version of the Germanic tale of Rumplestiltskin and there is the classic tale of the energetic versus lazy brother.

 There are great and dangerous adventures, heroes that must succeed against great odds or lose their heads and cases of false witness in an attempt by a nefarious person to gain wealth and power that rightfully belongs to another. These tales are a peek into the Slavic culture and a demonstration of how many of the basic fairy tales of humans are based on the same plots across cultures. While the background climate may change, the expression of human and mystical nature does not.

Review of "Varsity Blues," movie

Review of

Varsity Blues, movie

Five out of five stars

High school football coach as absolute monarch

 While this is a work of fiction, in some areas of the United States high school football is akin to a religion and the coaches are the clergy with nearly absolute power. Jon Voight stars as Bud Kilmer, one of the most successful coaches of all time. He will let nothing stand in his way, from injecting star players with drugs so that they can play, even though they are risking permanent injury, to making threats that will destroy scholarship chances. Kilmer is so powerful in the community that even the local law enforcement will bow to his wishes.

 All of this is set against the backdrop of the players being adolescents in high school, with many of the coming of age problems common to teens. There are some disturbing scenes of very heavy drinking at a strip club where the players are shocked to see someone they know up on stage, giving new meaning to the term moon(light)ing.

 Much of the action is predictable, specifically the way the big-game-at-the-end concludes. One of the most interesting and unusual characters is the younger brother (Kyle) of the second-string quarterback that is forced into a starring role when the starter is injured. Kyle is heavily into traditional religion, providing a curious backdrop to the many adults that consider high school football to be their religion.

 While this is ultimately a teen movie, adults will relate to the problems these characters have in trying to meet the unreasonable expectations of the adults. The conclusion is one that will satisfy all viewers, as the game and girl are both won at the end.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Review of "The Wonderful World of J. Wesley Smith," by Burr Shafer

Review of

The Wonderful World of J. Wesley Smith, by Burr Shafer

Five out of five stars

 These cartoons are based on non-trivial historical facts that may be lost on those not well versed in history. One of my favorites has a man reading in a stuffed chair while a woman struggling with six small children tells him, “Instead of just sitting there reading Malthus, why don’t you help out around here?” This is of course a reference to Thomas Robert Malthus and his theories of how a population will tend to outgrow the resources available to it.

 Another favorite has a man in a publishing house where there are posters of books authored by Horatio Alger. A man is sitting in an office chair and the caption is, “Why don’t you do a story about me, Mr. Alger? How I inherited this business from my father and …” Of course, Horatio Alger was famous for writing rags-to-riches stories, in fact the phrase “A Horatio Alger story” is used to refer to such events.

 My final featured cartoon has a man about to board an ancient sailing galley and the caption is, “I’m in a hurry to get home so I’ll go with Ulysses.” Of course, this is a reference to “The Odyssey,” the ten-year adventurous journey back from the victory in the Trojan War.

 Many of these cartoons would be excellent supplements to materials in history classes, they are entertaining and challenging.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Review of Sagebrush Trail, a western movie starring John Wayne

Review of

Sagebrush Trail, a western movie starring John Wayne

Three out of five stars

 Released in 1933, this movie stars John Wayne as a very young and unpolished actor. His character is John Brant, a man wrongly convicted and imprisoned for murder. He decides that his only hope is to escape and find the real killer, which may have been an original plot device in 1933 but is now well worn.

 After he escapes, he eludes two law officers and meets outlaw Bob Jones, who introduces him to an outlaw gang living in an abandoned mine. Determined not to make his situation worse, Brant warns of upcoming robberies to be carried out by the gang and predictably starts a romance with a local store clerk.

 The plot unfolds in a manner that can be foreseen, the romance continues, Brant commits no other crimes and at the end, his newfound friend confesses to the murder that Brant is accused of. It of course ends with a kiss between Brant and his newfound love interest.

 There is one very amusing aspect of this movie and that is the number of rounds that the men sometimes fire without reloading. Their guns are closer to sixteen shooters rather than the standard six. This is a movie that you watch because it is a John Wayne western and no other reason.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Review of "American Expansion: A Book of Maps," by Randall D. Sale and Edwin D. Karn

Review of

American Expansion: A Book of Maps, by Randall D. Sale and Edwin D. Karn

Five out of five stars

 In this book, the authors move stepwise through the decades, starting at 1790 through 1900. At each step, there is a page of text on one side and a map of the continental United States on the other. The map has the borders of the states and territories imposed on the regions along with three levels of color-coded population density. They are: less than 2 per square mile, 2 to 6 per square mile and more than 6.

 The color coding gives the reader a clear indication of how the population of the country moved generally westward from the Atlantic coast, sometimes bypassing large regions that were filled in later. Territories that were in dispute at that time are also marked with hatching.

 The textual supplement states some high points of the past decade as well as giving the basic population numbers and the percentage of growth. Specific locations where the Europeans established settlement, conducted explorations and the specifics of land grants, offices and key actions such as the establishment of railroad lines are explained.

 The westward movement of higher densities of population often exhibits the characteristics of tendrils following the paths of least resistance. The most notable exception is the thousand-mile leap from Missouri to California as a consequence of the gold rush in 1849. If you are looking for an understandable overview of the expansion of the United States from one coast to another, this is the book for you.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Review of "Zentangle Basics," by Suzannne McNeill

Review of

Zentangle Basics, by Suzannne McNeill ISBN 9781574213270

Five out of five stars

 A zentangle is a very creative artform where the artist starts with a simple line structure such as a zigzag line, half-moons, a symmetric design of small squares or even simple crosses. From this beginning, the pattern is either repeated or filled in to create a completed black-and-white design.

 The end results are simplistic yet elaborate. While they require a steady hand, none of the images are beyond the skills of even the minimally talented with pen and paper. If the simpler ones are selected, they can be the subject of even the early years of the K-12 education.

 Like all good books that introduce new art forms, it is easy to imagine variations of the patterns contained in this book. I highly recommend it to all people that love drawing and want to try something different.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Review of "Compair Lapin and Piti Bonhomme Godron (The Tar Baby)" as written by Alcee Fortier in 1894

Review of

Compair Lapin and Piti Bonhomme Godron (The Tar Baby) as written by Alcee Fortier in 1894

Four out of five stars

 The American literature of the old south is in many ways an amalgam of two widely different cultures. There is the ruling class of white European heritage and the African slave heritage. Alcee Fortier was born in 1856 and spent much of his life writing about the folk tales that the imported African slaves passed down in a rich oral tradition to their descendants born in the Louisiana area of the United States.

 The slaves that passed these specific stories from generation to generation were originally from the Sene-Gambia river region in Africa and the stories feature animals from that region. The primary villainous character is a rabbit and he is, “Compair Lapin, the most famous rascal in the universe.” He is constantly stirring things up with the other animals that get very frustrated with his annoying antics. One of the main characters adversarial to Compare Lapin is Mr. Monkey, a doctor that is half wizard and half voodoo.

 The stories are a bit disjointed in their telling, the flow is often a bit rough. However, if you read them giving some slack regarding the origin of the stories, then they are entertaining. They follow the basic theme of the good critter(s) versus bad critter plot device, so there is a bit of predictability in the outcomes.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Review of "Skull In the Ashes: Murder, A Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America," by Peter Kaufman

Review of

Skull In the Ashes: Murder, A Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America, by Peter Kaufman ISBN 9781609381882

Five out of five stars

 I have been through Walford, Iowa many times, sometimes passing through and other times doing construction work and eating in the cafĂ©. Until I encountered this book, I had no idea that an event that took place in 1897 put that small town into the limelight. When the general store owned by Frank Novak burned down it was of course a major event. It took on even more significance when a badly burned body was found in the ashes.

 At first, the belief was that it was the remains of the owner Frank Novak, but after a bit of investigating, the conclusion was that it was Ed Murray, a man known to have been with Novak earlier in the evening. This result was based on dental records as well as scraps of clothing that somehow survived the fire. Once this conclusion was reached and Frank Novak was nowhere around, a nationwide search for him was initiated. Novak was finally tracked down in the booming gold fields of the Yukon by detective Red Perrin, he was captured and brought back to Iowa to stand trial. The only way to get to the Yukon was to go to the west coast of the United States, then up to Alaska by boat and then upriver to their destination.

 In an era where people got their news from newspapers and their thrills from dime novels, this was better than the fiction they were reading. The story captured the imagination of the public and led to a legal precedent, where a series of linked events were used to construct a convincing circumstantial case for Novak having murdered Murray.

 The story is one where fact is truly more unusual than fiction. For Perrin traveled thousands of miles by boat and rail in order to find Novak, utilizing the slimmest of clues. It is a great tale of persistence, luck and sensational events that would challenge the most talented of fiction writers.