Book Review: Interesting Stories For Curious People by Bill O’Neill (two stars)

Book Review: Interesting Stories For Curious People: A Collection of Fascinating Stories About History, Science, Pop Culture and Just About Anything Else You Can Think of by Bill O’Neill (two stars)

“I had one qualification when I took the job: if they ever wrote a segment whereby Colonel Klink would come out the hero, I would leave the show [Hogan’s Heroes].” Werner Klemperer

The title says it. A hodge podge of very short articles about almost everything odd and curious. Cotton candy for the brain. In many cases O’Neill identifies issues without resolving them.

Writers, even historians who claim to be objective, still have opinions, which can sometimes turn into an agenda. Even ancient writers were guilty of having agendas—maybe even more so.

Well intended, just … useless. The quotations cited are as good as it gets.

“Had I been ordered to bomb Seattle or Los Angeles in order to end the war, I wouldn’t have hesitated. So I perfectly understand why the Americans bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima.” Saburō Sakai, Japanese Navy ace, nicknamed the Sky Samuri during World War Two

Book Review: Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport (four stars)

Book Review: Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia – A World on the Edge by Helen Rappaport (four stars)

“For Philip Chadbourn, that day had been a point of significant and perhaps optimistic transition – ‘the blank between the reels’ – separating ‘the black misery and injustice of the first reel’ and the ‘red revolt and bright heroics of the second’.”

The defining year of the twentieth century. The 1917 Russian revolutions in Petrograd as seen by various westerners, mostly English and American, who witnessed it happen. Uniquely British and American condescension to the plight of the Russian people, even as many of them enjoyed (initially) access to the highest levels of Russian aristocracy.

‘This man Trotzky is the king of agitators; he could stir up trouble in a cemetery.’

Rappaport draws heavily on primary sources to create a history which, while it may have a western bias, will be more accessible and understandable to western readers. Whatever their opinions at the beginning all are convinced their witnessing a really big train wreck by the end of the year. Many are thankful just to get out alive.

Kerensky was ‘more afraid of doing the wrong thing than anxious to do the right one,’ he wrote in his later memoirs, ‘and so he did nothing until he was forced into action by others.’

Like the witnesses, readers are left to discern the motives of the various actors for themselves. Even among the press representatives personal bias weighs as heavily as facts on what they see and report.

‘Russia is a wonderful country, full of lights and shadows, though just now the shadows have the advantage. It is too bad that the world must lose so much that was beautiful in Russia to receive – what? Something much worse than nothing.’

Book Review: Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England by Jane Chance (three stars)

Book Review: Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England by Jane Chance (three stars)

‘This divided self surfaces throughout Tolkien’s fictive works and exists as a symbolic badge of fallen and imperfect human nature. Human nature is good—but also evil, as Beowulf is Germanic—but also Christian.’

Wanted to like this more. Worthwhile book; terrible writing. Multiple repetitions; some misdirection. Reads as if the author wrote multiple Tolkien analysis pieces, then concatenated the bunch without a thorough editing.

‘Kilby remarks on his perfectionism: “But if Tolkien was critical of others he was even more critical of his own writings. Few authors ever denigrated their own works more than he.”’

To start, she tells us what she’s going to tell us twice before starting to tell us. Skip both Preface and Introduction. To fit her preconceived notions, Chance misrepresents or wrongly reports what Tolkien wrote, which is almost unforgivable for an author of her stature. Cost a star.

“In a larger sense, it is I suppose impossible to write any “story” that is not allegorical in proportion as it “comes to life”: since each of us is an allegory, embodying in a particular tale and clothed in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life” JRRT

Many worthwhile insights, but all must be accepted only provisionally. Tolkien followers should first read all the referenced works.

‘One should not imitate the Creator in order to aggrandize creation for selfish reasons, but instead to praise both Creator and creation, to reflect one’s love for and trust in both and one’s obedience to the will of Ilúvatar.’ JRRT

Book Review: Mrs. Sherlock Holmes by Brad Ricca (three stars)

Book Review: Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case that Captivated the Nation by Brad Ricca (three stars)

“Vice conditions here in the city are astounding,” Grace said. “The ‘good people’ of New York are as much asleep to the nastiness of their city as the nation appears to be to the seriousness of our war.”

A well-written, if pointless history of the career of a female detective. If she was New York’s greatest, New York is in trouble. Grace Humiston’s approach to crime foreshadowed Joe McCarthy’s to politics. She saw all crime through a single lens—white slavery—and developed her cases accordingly.

Grace had gone from the most celebrated woman in New York City to something of a pariah. But she was still trying to save the girls of her city.

Twice as long as necessary. Too many rabbit trails; too many extraneous details. Paid by the word? Ricca seems proud of every shred of fact he unearthed relating to Humiston or anyone she met on the street.

“I believe the city as a whole has felt that the work of the police department was and is steadily improving,” the mayor said. New Yorkers read it in disbelief.

That said, an interesting recreation of New York City crime, corruption, and journalism a hundred years ago. Little seems to have changed other than technology.

The reader must, as those of the time had to, consider each individual source. That is part of the story, too.

Book Review: Mythmaker: The Life of J.R.R. Tolkien by Anne E. Neimark (five stars)

Book Review: Mythmaker: The Life of J.R.R. Tolkien, Creator of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by Anne E. Neimark (five stars)

Ronald would set out on a quest: this time to discover “what hobbits were like.” The answers he found would bring him a fame he had never sought.

Refreshing biography of Tolkien. Focuses on the essentials of his life—both experiential and literary, without reference to the theories or criticism of others. Don’t waste your time on turgid academic tomes; Neimark delivers the goods.

He knew other scholars might laugh at his “fairy-tale fantasies,” but he saw them as something more—as a reason for his invented languages and a means of modernizing myths so they could give strength, comfort, and even hope in a frequently harsh and dangerous world.

Suitable for young adult readers, but enjoyable by all readers. Readable yet comprehensive. Emphasizes the roots of Tolkien’s created world deep in his real world.

Yet Ronald Tolkien wanted us to know that even while the fires of Mordor burn darkly, even when tomorrow may seem unsure, we can use our imaginations, courage, and strength to seek the splendor in life.

Book Review: My Journey into Alzheimer’s Disease by Robert Davis (five stars)

Book Review: My Journey into Alzheimer’s Disease by Robert Davis (five stars)

“I wish I could tell you that you have cancer.”

With these words from his doctor, Robert Davis’s life turned upside down. This book reports the progression of Alzheimer’s disease by one who had it. Though published in 1989, in the intervening three decades little has changed about the diagnosis and treatment of this progressive thief of the victim’s mind and personality.

“My mind has become a sieve which can only catch and hold certain random thoughts.”

Davis’s perspective is unique because he recognized the symptoms early, communicates clearly, and offers insights from a Christian viewpoint. He honestly reports on the confusion, fear, and despair, but also moments of clarity and hope. Lastly, of course, Bob and Betty his wife offer words of encouragement for the victim, caregivers, family, and acquaintances of those affected.

“Christ is here comforting and giving life meaning, even when all I have to look forward to in this life is becoming a mindless vegetable.”

This book is written by Christians for Christians. Members of other faith communities may find resonance within their traditions. Or not. He reported one specialist declared, “Get real. Tell the truth of how you really feel. Stop denying it with this spiritual stuff. … How can you live in such denial?” He defended his faith and later added, “How can anyone face life—or death—without Christ?”

“God did not promise that when we became Christians we would be lifted above all of the natural trouble to which the rest of humanity is subjected.”

A few years ago I reviewed and recommended Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal; I still do but even more urgently recommend this book as, Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.

“O God, I cannot see you through the darkness that fills my mind and so terrorizes me, but please see me and take care of me in my absolute confusion.”

Book Review: Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones (four stars)

Book Review: Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages by Dan Jones (four stars)

‘That all this can still be traced back to the machinations of powerful men in the seventh century a.d. may seem astonishing—but as so often proves the case, the Middle Ages remain with us today.’

Excellent overview of the trends and influences of that epoch of history roughly between the fifth and sixteenth centuries. Thematically developed with attention to inventions, economics, trade, religion, and exploration. Ties many streams together to promote understanding.

‘For generations, historians have been trying to fight the idea that the medieval Crusades were at root a “clash of civilizations” between the Christian and Islamic worlds. For one thing, such a stark and binary reading of medieval history plays uncomfortably into the narratives of extremist factions today.’

Readable and engaging prose. Like a novelist, Jones starts chapters in the middle of that topic and backtracks to develop his tale. Occasionally confusing. Ties historic and contemporary events, occasionally padding with personal opinion and bias.

‘My aim with all my books is to entertain as well as inform. If this one does a little bit of both, I shall consider it a blessing.’

Book Review: The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King (four stars)

Book Review: The Good Neighbor; The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King (four stars)

“You don’t set out to be rich and famous; you set out to be helpful.” Fred Rogers

Fred Rogers may have been one of the most significant Americans of the Twentieth century. A good biography is necessary to separate the fact from the fiction. This isn’t that biography.

“The real issue in life is not how many blessings we have, but what we do with our blessings. Some people have many blessings and hoard them. Some have few and give everything away.” FR

Non sequiturs and irrelevancies abound. Much redundancy. Compresses 200 pages into 300.

“There are many people in the world who want to make children into performing seals. And as long as children can perform well, those adults will applaud. But I would much rather help a child to be able to say who he or she is.” FR

Despite all that, this book is worth reading as it contains many details of Roger’s family, upbringing, and life which have gotten overshadowed by myth and rumor. Still, it should be better.

“The child is in me still and sometimes not so still.” FR

Book Review: Inventing the World: Venice and the Transformation of Western Civilization by Meredith F. Small (three stars)

Book Review: Inventing the World: Venice and the Transformation of Western Civilization by Meredith F. Small (three stars)

‘Many of these Venetian firsts were still with us, part of the fundamentals of Western culture, how we think and how we operate.’

Disappointing. Want to like this book because I agree with its premise. Too much padding, too many opinions disguised as fact, awkward presentation.

‘Today we anthropologists call that cultural indoctrination a belief system.’

Belongs on the same shelf as How the Irish saved Civilization and How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Simply reading Wikipedia supports Small’s major argument. Much of the rest is hyperbole and fluff; entertaining but didactic.

‘According to Marx, capitalism contains within it the “seeds of its own destruction” as the rich overreach, consolidate their power and grip, and choke off their own economic growth. Venice was, in fact, a prime example of Marx’s philosophy.’

Cynical, socialist take on capitalism, innovation, and property rights. Skip the first chapter; you’ll read her opinions on creativity and humanism many more times. Uses statistics to inflate, not to inform.

‘Today there are 6.5 million people in Italy.’ (more like 65 million), ‘As imaginary, as we do today as we do with online transfers.’ (huh?), ‘This book is not just for Venetofiles.’ (ph, not f), ‘they perfected the thermometer” (invented), ‘When John Quincy Adams … as he helped give birth to the United States.” (John, not John Quincy, his son), ‘The city of Trieste, north of Venice’ (east), ‘Some doctors proscribed electrotherapy’ (prescribed?).

Needs another proof reading. Many errors of history, geography, and grammar. Reads as if translated from a foreign language. Awkward verb choices knock the reader out of the narrative trying to decipher the meaning. Many foreign phrases not translated.

‘Ironically, this city is the father of capitalism, yet it feels like end-stage capitalism now.’

Book Review: Ike the Soldier by Merle Miller (three stars)

Book Review: Ike the Soldier by Merle Miller (three stars)

‘He went to a lot of trouble to appear average, to seem ordinary, to appear guileless. And he fooled most people most of the time, including most of his biographers.’

Published posthumously in 1987, Miller squeezed 600 pages squeezed into 1200. Pages of trivia, gossip, and speculation. Lots of quotable epigrams and original source material. Enough intimate insights to give the reader a deep understanding of Ike. However, given Miller’s Plain Speaking controversy and all the questionable quotes from impossible-to-trace sources, how are readers to separate be fact and fiction?

‘Omar Bradley later said, “Ike liked people and it is awfully hard for them not to like him in return.”’

Starts smartly with Ike’s years at West Point, then backtracks to a detailed biography of his entire family almost back to the Flood. No bit of trivia or controversy is too minute to earn a place, including advertising taglines from businesses cited.

‘He did not do much to interfere with the freewheeling reign of Joseph R. McCarthy.’

Miller gets verifiable facts wrong. For example, David A NicholsIke and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy, reveals that Ike covertly torpedoed McCarthy while never mentioning his name. (Miller had his own very public issues with McCarthy.)

“I want every American unit not actually in the front line to see this [Nazi concentration camp, Ohrdruf]. We are told that the American soldier does not know what at he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.” (D. D. Eisenhower)

Presumably, most of Miller’s material in meticulously researched and documented. His style was “warts and all” minutia, but even a one percent fabrication rate becomes tens of pages of error. How is the reader to known what to believe?

Eisenhower was “the wistful exponent of a simpler and lost America.”