Book Review: The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis (Two Stars)

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Book Review: The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution: 1782-1789 by Joseph J. Ellis

Two Stars

“Americans needed to think continentally.” A. Hamilton

Revisionist history at is best … and worst. Making use of newly available correspondence and biographies of his principles, Ellis reconstructs the efforts leading up to the 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia and the battle to ratify the new charter. However, his uneven handling of its modern meaning exposes his biases.

“It is indispensable you should lend yourself to its [the government’s] first operation.” A. Hamilton to G. Washington, 1788

Writing history is tricky. The historian must present the truth in a way that the reader can understand, even though the world view and values of their time may differ. Even if sources are cited, the reader seldom has access to them. He must trust the integrity of the writer. And if internal evidence betrays bias or false reporting, then the reader Continue reading

Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig (Five Stars)

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Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

Five Stars

“We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.”

I wish I read this book forty years ago. Instead I was reading fantasy and science fiction and tripe like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Not that I agree with Pirsig on everything, but he wrote about things I’m still pondering.

“The ultimate purpose of life, which is to keep alive, is impossible. One lives longer in order that he may live longer.”

Normally I read and review a four hundred page novel in three days. This book took several weeks because I kept stopping to look up or ponder things. The bottom line is: this is a deep investigation of life and reality. It’s a mashup of Continue reading

Book Review: Sully: My Search for What Really Matters by Chesley B. Sullenberger (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Sully: My Search for What Really Matters by Chesley B. Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow

Four Stars

“We need to do the right thing every time, to perform our best, because we never know which moment in our lives we’ll be judged on.”

An intimate look at the man responsible for the “Miracle on the Hudson.” Sullenberger’s biography as much as the story of his five-minute flight to fame.

“A hero is someone who risks his life running into a burning building. Flight 1549 was different, because it was thrust upon him and his crew.” Lorrie Sullenberger

Obviously, Sullenberger is not an author. The late Zaslow brought together a decent product quickly, however he bears responsibility for the many shortcomings. Perhaps Sullenberger talks like this, but the prose is wordy and awkward. Lots of digressions; some felt like filler.

“In the cultures of some companies, management depends on the innate goodness and professionalism of their employees to constantly compensate for systemic deficiencies, chronic under-staffing, and sub-standard subcontractors.”

Post 2001, the pensions and standards for airline pilots were gutted. Sullenberger shares his obvious unease with the direction of airline management. Capitalism undergirded America’s growth and plenty, but it has a dark underbelly.

“How many different levels of technology do you want to place between your brain and the control surfaces? Technology is no substitute for experience, skill, and judgment.”

I’ve been flying for sixty years. This book confirms my preference to fly commercially only when I have to. It’s no longer fun, efficient, nor economical. It’s effective, usually. So far.

“One of the reasons I think I’ve placed such a high value on life is that my father took his.”

By now most readers know that Sullenberger objected to the way the National Transportation Safety Board investigation was portrayed in the movie supposedly based on this book. The backbone of the movie, that investigation gets about four pages in the book. In fact, the movie should be evaluated as “based on a true story” fiction. The book is much better.

“Flight 1549 wasn’t just a five-minute journey. My entire life led me safely to that river.”

Book Review: If a Pirate I must be … by Richard Saunders (Four Stars)

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Book Review: If a Pirate I must be …: The True Story of Black Bart, the King of the Caribbean Pirates by Richard Saunders

Four Stars

“If a pirate I must be, ‘tis better being a commander than a common man.” John Roberts (AKA Black Bart)

A well-written modern attempt to find the facts behind the fiction of the most successful, if not the most famous of the Caribbean pirates: Black Bart, whose real name was John Roberts. Saunders relates both the popular stories and the realities behind them as well as providing a primer on seventeenth century trade, of which slaves and sugar were among the foremost commodities. That freed African slaves made up as much as a third of successful pirate crews is part of the untold tale.

“Common men showed little enthusiasm for defending their masters’ property.”

With many official and contemporary sources unreliable as officialdom covered their incompetence, and occasionally complicity, dealing with Bart. John Atkin, a ship’s surgeon impressed recorder the courts martial of Joseph’s crew, uniquely and dispassionately recorded the more likely truth. The author’s principal source (with the caveat mentioned) was Charles Johnson’s 1724 A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates. Johnson is responsible for today’s swashbuckling pirate stereotype.

“The love of drink and a lazy life (were) stronger motives to him (the typical pirate) than gold.” Joseph Mansfield

The eighteenth century Triangle Trade (Africa, to North America and the Caribbean, to Europe and back) on which the pirates preyed—and which killed over half of the slaves, merchant and slavers crews (they were often the same), navy personnel and pirates each year was originally driven by the demand for sugar in Europe. (Much as contemporary North American consumption of South America drugs drives the drug trade through Central America.)

“The promise of unlimited alcohol may have held little appeal [to Roberts] but power did.”

Pirates drank prodigious qualities of punch, the recipe for which included fresh limes., before James Lind’s 1747 discovery that citrus fruit prevented scurvy. Another reason pirates were healthier, if not longer lived, than many of their civilian and military counterparts.

“A merry life and a short one.” John Roberts (AKA Black Bart)

Book Review: Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland

Four Stars

“I’m not at all sure if you know that I’m alive.”

So she was/is. One hundred years old, and still living in Paris, which was the point when she wrote this book sixty years ago. She was a big Hollywood deal before most of us were born.

This short book is a chatty, personal memoir of her moving to Paris and marrying a Frenchman in the 1950s. Paris then–France then–clutched the tatters of its legacy as the center of the world, politically and in fashion. Though she still lives there; she probably doesn’t recognize today’s Paris.

“If you are loved by the French as a whole, you really feel loved.

Her adjustment to France and the French made for many humorous episodes which she relates in a conversational style. She suffered many of the misconceptions of fellow Americans and committed many gaffes, but no faux pas. (The significant difference is explained therein.)

What does every Frenchman have? A liver. And how he cares for it makes for a humorous tale in itself.

She learned, “The importance of tact, restraint, subtlety, and the avoidance of banality.”

Book Review: This Life I Live by Rory Feek (Four Stars)

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Book Review: This Life I Live: One Man’s Extraordinary, Ordinary Life and the Woman Who Changed It Forever by Rory Feek

Four Stars

“People pass away. It’s part of life. It’s hard and it’s terrible, but it’s gonna happen to all of us.”

An extraordinary story told very well. Feek bares his soul and talks from the heart about his life, which started badly and got worse as he lived it. The conversational tone pulls the reader in as if this was a chat over coffee.

“A different perspective from what I had most of my life. Finally opening my hands and turning my life over to God.”

So many quotable epigrams that I filled four pages of my notebook. The man is a professional writer: it shows.

“The only way this can work is if we are both willing to give everything up for the other person.”

I never heard of Rory Feek or Joey Martin. I’m not a fan of Country and Western music, but the man has a powerful message: admittedly Christian, but without the trappings and jargon of professional religion. He used only one theological word.

“The point where I did everything wrong was just the bigger of a bigger story. Just the setup.”

“I just wanted a little bit of something good, what I got was a lifetime of something great.”

If you read this book, be prepared to be moved, both by the hash Feek made of his own life and to its incredible outcomes. He takes you deeper inside himself than many memoirs and tell-alls. He shares his heart.

“A story that will live long after the man who told it is gone.”

“Her love strengthened my faith.”

Book Review: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (Five Stars)

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Book Review: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

Five Stars

“How we seek to spend our time may depend on how much we perceive ourselves to have.”

“We want autonomy for ourselves and safety for those we love.”

This book should be read by everyone who expects to die, which excuses half of us. Americans today deny that life will end, often in unpleasant circumstances. Our head-in-the-sand attitude only makes our dilemma worse.

“Twenty-five percent of all Medicare spending is for five percent of patients in the final year of life … most of little apparent benefit.”

Better solutions are possible, but we have to seek and demand them. Left to themselves, the medical and government communites will treat us like high-cost, low-success science experiments.

“The closing phase of a modern life often looks like a mounting series of crises from which medicine can offer Continue reading

Book Review: Riley Unlikely by Riley Banks-Snyder with Lisa Velthouse (Five Stars)

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Book Review: Riley Unlikely: How One Young Woman’s Heart for Africa is Changing the World, by Riley Banks-Snyder with Lisa Velthouse

Five Stars

“If anything has become clear to me … it’s the link between love and craziness.”

This is an awesome book. Not only is the subject a great, true story, but the writing is genuine. The voice sounds like a real person–a poised, enthusiastic young lady who is as amazed as anyone else at what a couple weeks in Kenya changed her life … and the lives of hundreds of American and Kenyan children.

“A pencil could be a source of fulfillment and deep satisfaction.”

A fast read; a fun read. Hard to put down. Ups and downs and twist like an adventure novel. It was/is an adventure story, but it’s true. It feels authentic, even as readers follow Riley on her unlikely journeys–literal and figurative.

“His response to my doubt is not punishment; it was unmistakable grace.”

A note about “with.” Co-authors, ghost writers, whatever you call them seldom get credit for what they do. Lisa Velthouse managed to capture the enthusiasm and personality of Riley Banks-Snyder. Extraordinary young lady; extraordinary book.

“The beauty of watching God work is that his ways are so utterly unlike ours that often his moves are so utterly unlike ours that often his moves seem to come out of nowhere.”

Book Review: The Light and the Glory: Did God have a Plan for America? (Second Edition) by Peter Marshall and David Manuel Four Stars

Book Review: The Light and the Glory: Did God have a Plan for America? by Peter Marshall and David Manuel

Four Stars

As the cover asserts, the second edition is “revised and expanded.” (For a fuller review of the first edition, read here.) Some material has been deleted, some of which had doubtful providence, some perhaps to keep the book close to 500 pages. The result is a better, tighter argument of the author’s thesis.

As reviewed previously, this book presents an argument, that “Since the first Christian settlers entered into covenant with Him, God has called the people of this country to be ‘a City on a Hill,’” referring to John Winthrop’s 1630 quote from Matthew 5:14.

Thirty years elapsed between editions. This writing is tauter and reads better. While the cover art of the first edition is more striking, this edition is preferred for the text.

(Both authors are now deceased. The link in goodreads.com is erroneous, to Marshall’s father.)

Review: The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch Four Stars

Review: The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch

Four Stars

“War has an appetite that cannot be satisfied by quotas.” Hegesippus

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives was the primary source for the history of Rome and Greece during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, this volume covers the period after Athens fall from supremacy in the Greek-speaking world.

“… and deliver the state from the habit of pandering to the mob, a disease scarcely less pernicious than tyranny itself.” (Some things never change)

Plutarch’s Lives influenced art and literature as well as politics and history. Shakespeare based his ancient history plays on Plutarch, occasionally quoting him verbatim.

“The truth is that the great majority of mankind are more offended by a contemptuous word than a hostile action, and find it easier to put up with an injury than an insult.”

Ian Scott-Kilvert’s English translation is clear and readable, if occasionally colloquial. Every day English has evolved since the 1970s.

“To show kindness only to one’s friends and benefactors is no proof of having acquired such self-control: the real test for a man who has been wronged to be able to show compassion and moderation to the evil-doers.”

The serious student of history may look elsewhere for greater authority, but the rest of us are enlightened and entertained by Plutarch’s commentary on the lives of the movers and shakers during a time which reads to us like epic fantasy: Descendants of Heracles, mythic tasks, loyalty and betrayal, heroes and tyrants.

“One more victory like that over the Romans will destroy us completely.” Pyrrhus