Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Accidental Historian: Tales of Trash and Treasure, by Monte Akers

Another book from the Texas Book Festival, and another really interesting author who I had the pleasure to hear speak there.

Unlike the Utley - Beeman or Baker books, Mr. Akers' isn't so much an authoritative history as it is a collection of stories.   Many are autobiographical, some emphasize some historic events or more likely people, and all are amusing.

Among the topics: civil war re-enactments, buying historic artifacts, and then there are just plain old stories told over drinks.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Gangster Tour of Texas, by T. Lindsay Baker

At the Texas Book Festival, I enjoyed hearing the author read a chapter from this book.   As a consequence, the voice in my head as I read this text was his -- his soft Texas accent, his cadence and word emphasis.   It made the reading altogether more fun.

This is a very different sort of book from another local Texas history text I've just read, in that this one, instead of celebrating heroes, tells the stories of villains.   Just as the title indicates.

The downside of this is that I'm personally quite a bit less motivated to take a road trip to see where bad guys did their thing.

But the stories were captivating.   This is a fine example of history telling come alive.

There are two other great things about this book.  First, at the conclusion of each chapter, you'll find detailed instructions about how to find each of the sites mentioned, including detailed little maps.   And second, each chapter ends with a "Judge the evidence for yourself" section providing the detailed references for the story told.

This is a fun book even if you're not crazy about crime stories, because it tells tales of the very early 1900s in story form and is quite well written.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

History Ahead: Stories beyond the Texas Roadside Markers, by Dan K. Utley and Cynthia J. Beeman

The best history books not only reveal the past so as to help us learn from it but also are fun to read.  This book meets that mark.   It is a "micro -history" in that it tells the smaller stories, tales that might otherwise go unknown.   And some of the fun comes from the design:  the material is entirely based on roadside historical markers in Texas.    This means you can not only read about events but also plan your road trip to the specific marker site; this is cool!

Just because I refer to this as a micro - history does not mean the stories are insignificant.  The story of Bessie Coleman, who in June of 1921 became "...the first black woman in the world to earn a pilot's license," or of Carl Morene, who was perhaps the least likely person to bring organized music instruction to Schulenburg High School in the 1930s and '40s, are inspirational, touching and meaningful.

Similarly, reading about Margo Jones -- perhaps my theatre friends know the name, but I'd never before heard of her -- was interesting, given that her work in the first half of the 20th century may have played a big role in my ability to see live theatre in a variety of venues today.

Nearly every chapter gives a similar example.   This is a very enjoyable read.

But, not without flaw: editing in chapter 19 allowed reference to Margo Jones' 1942 encounter with Tennessee Williams to be described on page 272 and again on page 273 as though it hadn't previously been mentioned. This would be easy to correct in a following edition. [The page references are from my hard copy first edition, which I acquired at the Texas Book Festival, having had the good fortune to also hear the authors speak at one of the sessions.]

All in all this is a book worth owning -- most particularly, but not exclusively, for those living in Texas; it warrants a read.

The Joy of Compassion, by Lama Zopa Rinpoche

This text is one of the books contained in the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive starter pack collection.   It is the only one not written by (or a transcript of) Lama Yeshe himself, instead reflecting the work of Lama Zopa who was Lama Yeshe's teacher and co-founder of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition.

The difference in authorship is important:   this is the only book in the collection that I did not enjoy.   Lama Zopa does not speak with the intimate, friendly, caring and open style of Lama Yeshe.

So I'm not going to say much about the book at all except that Lama Zopa points out the importance of looking beyond oneself.  That meditating alone is insufficient to improve your post-death prospects.  For many of us, our pre-death prospects are at the forefront of our interests, this may not matter very much; Lama Zopa is worried about your consciousness moving to your next life.

Fortunately, the interests of your after deal consciousness and your pre-death lifestyle coalesce:  in both cases, acting with compassion, practicing Dharma, is of value.

[Wondering what Dharma means, even after you read the material in the link above?  Try instead the definition of mitzvah, here quoted from Wikipedia:  "...Hebrew mitzvah, as with English "commandment," refers to a moral deed performed as a religious duty. As such, the term mitzvah has also come to express an act of human kindness. The tertiary meaning of mitzvah also refers to the fulfillment of a mitzvah."]

As Lama Zopa says, "Cherish sentient beings first; put enlightenment second."

Instead of this book, I recommend "The Peaceful Stillness of the Silent Mind," by Lama Yeshe.   It can be downloaded for free or purchased from the Foundation or from Amazon (in Kindle format).

Induction (Among Us), by Ploni Almoni

First I must point out that this book is rated R (or even perhaps NC-17). Don't get me wrong -- it is not "erotic fiction" (or whatever other euphemism you prefer for porn), but it does include a substantial number of sexual encounters. Were it a movie, it would be only a bit more risque than many current R -rated movies and I certainly could imagine it as a (strongly) R -rated film. But, importantly, if this sort of content bothers you, you won't want to read this book. Period. No exceptions.

With that out of the way, let's jump to what makes this book work really well. It is the story of RW, a college history professor and computer geek - the sort of person you could easily picture in your mind. Even his hobbies are geeky. One of the strengths of Almoni's writing is the character development. RW is a normal guy -- well as normal as you'll get in a novel like this.

I like this idea of Almoni sticking to a credible line -- well, given that this book involves aliens among us, with rather unusual powers and needs, credible might not be precisely the right word. What I mean is that when RW acts, he acts in a way that is believable.

It is difficult to describe the plot for fear of spoilers. Let's put it this way: RW is doing his usual stuff, hanging with his girl friend (Misty), playing around with his internet hacking hobby, when suddenly his world is turned upside down. He has to work through the resulting issues, evade some bad guys and ultimately figure out how to accept things about which he'd been happily unaware. The reader goes along on this journey with RW, alternately freaked out, exhausted, and overwhelmed, yet still moving forward.

There are a number of internet and computer machinations which play a key role in this book, but Almoni clearly has a tech background because everything he describes is reasonably believable; the reader doesn't have to buy into anything wacky, and if you're a computer professional you won't be annoyed. Similarly, the descriptions of Texas locations and surrounding areas are full of little details that support and help draw the reader into the story.

Although I'm conservative enough to prefer less and fewer of the sex scenes, they actually are integral to the plot and it would be difficult to eliminate them completely; this is a matter of personal preference that almost cost the review one star. But it is such an enjoyable book that I decided to evaluate it without over- weighting this particular prejudice of mine.

There's something for everyone in this novel. If you're about science fiction, fantasy, or whatever term is appropriate for the "aliens among us theme," then you'll delight in the language of the "Thok'h Thirrah," their sea -based headquarters, and their politics. If, on the other hand, you're looking for something suspenseful that keeps you turning pages even when your lunch break is over, Almoni delivers that as well.

In fact, it is the combination of my personal interest in the main character and the suspense of the situation he's in that is the basis for the title of this review: you just know that there has to be more, that we'll find out what happened to Misty and how RW evolves through his situation.

I expect that most readers, when they get to the last page, will similarly yearn for the next book in what promises to be a terrific series.

[Full disclosure:  I know the author and have previously provided comments on earlier drafts of this novel.  This has not affected the objectivity of my review.]

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True, by Richard Dawkins

Let's get the net-net out on the table right away:   this is an extremely good book.   Maybe even an important book (I'll get to why in a bit).

The problem is, Prof. Dawkins has written this book for an extremely broad audience, including a young adult (say maybe 8th grade and up) audience.   As a consequence, some of the writing -- while commendable for being so straight forward and clear -- can be a bit overwhelmingly simple.

Okay, back to the book.   Prof. Dawkins gives the clearest, simplest explanation of evolution that I've ever read; it is outstanding.   He also dispels odd myths of all sorts.

Let me posit that not a word Prof. Dawkins writes is scientifically incorrect -- you couldn't disprove a word of it.   A problem for some folks might be that they might not like all of it, based on their personal buy-in to specific myths.  

For example, if you're into a creation myth (such as one from Tasmania, where people were initially created by gods, but they had tails and no knees until another god gave them knees and removed their tails), you might decide to not prefer the science.

I suppose for most readers, the more likely creation myth that Prof. Dawkins would seek to portray as merely a myth is the Adam and Eve story.

Recently the US Republican Party has been holding debates with the lead candidates to gain the Party's nomination to run in the general election in a year or so.   One of the more worrisome aspects of those debates is the tendency of some Republicans (Jon Huntsman excepted, as he openly says that he does believe in science, probably dooming his chances to gain support from the Party) to dismiss science and prefer to make their decisions on faith.   (One hopes they're just pandering to the Tea Party faction and not actually sincere, but I'm not confident that's entirely the case.)  

Given this situation, a book that promotes science (not just evolution, but some astronomy, etc.), that is easily understood by any age audience, is a welcome thing.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Jonathan Edwards on Worship: Public and Private Devotion to God, by Ted Rivera

If you're unfamiliar with Jonathan Edwards (hint:  a US minister during the first half of the 18th century) then you are absolutely not in the target demographic for this book.   And yet, Mr. Rivera has managed to make Edwards interesting and the messages of his views of worship relevant.   There is, however, no introductory chapter, no "Jonathan Edwards for Dummies" section; we just jump right in.   The good news is that the writing is clear and the flow is interesting -- interesting enough for even me to follow.

Interesting, you wonder?   Well yes.   It turns out that one of Edwards' sermons, "mercy and not sacrifice," is pretty interesting.   He point, based on Matthew 12:1-7, is that moral duties to mankind are more important than external acts of worship to god.    Edwards sees it that a man who performs these duties as worship to god in action.  Holy cow:  perhaps Jonathan Edwards was a pre- Reform Jew who just wasn't aware of it yet!   Or, perhaps he was a Buddhist but didn't have the vocabulary nor freedom of awareness to appreciate it!   In either case, locked by family history, circumstance and geography in his Christian practice.   Then again, maybe he was just a big-thinking Christian, who today would believe in science and read The Christian Century (or join in its founding had he lasted another 130 years -- well then again, maybe he was just a bit too Puritan for that).

Let's not get too excited though.  Edwards' sermons were two hours long, and he was said to speak in a high-pitched monotone.   He even counseled parishioners that it was poor form to sleep during services.   Yikes.

So there is plenty of interesting stuff in this book even for the laity.   But let me criticize it as well.   What's missing, to my eye, is a discussion of the relevance of Edwards' views today.   Mr. Rivera tees up a number of great questions in his conclusion, including:   "What would he have to say about ministries aimed at promoting financial prosperity?  What would he think of the use of humor... in preaching?"   It would have been terrific to read Mr. Rivera's take on the answers to these questions.

How cool might it have been to extend the thoughtful analytic view of Mr. Edwards with a connect-the-dots-to-today chapter?   Then again it seems that Mr. Rivera had a very targeted audience and very focused topic in mind for this book, which I imagine is more a textbook at an advanced seminary class than it is the monthly neighborhood book club reading.

My sense is that when it comes to Jonathan Edwards, one won't be finding any popular texts on the topic no matter what the slant.   I might be wrong; Gerald McDermott wrote "The Great Divider:  Jonathan Edwards and American culture" which I would like to read -- but not so much as to buy a paid subscription to Books and Culture.

Finally, in full disclosure:  I had the distinct pleasure of working with Mr. Rivera over a period of years during his secular time as an expert on software quality, client satisfaction, and as an expert in agile software development methodologies.   In fact, he's so much an expert at educating and motivating teams to adopt tailored, high value agile development techniques that I'd recommend him as a consultant even today -- if he could be pried away from his second career as a minister and religious educator.

By the way, find below a link to another of Mr. Rivera's books as well, "Divine Direction:  God's Two Great Commandments."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Complete Guide to Chip Carving, by Wayne Barton

Mr. Barton is the go to guy for chip carving technique.   Do an internet search on the subject and you'll find his books, and his website, at the top of your results.    This book is supposed to be the introductory text of choice.   The reviews on Amazon are all 5-star.

So maybe I'm just destined to be the slow student in the class, blaming the teacher.   But I don't share the enthusiasm about this book.

The good news:  introductory chapters cover everything from how to sharpen your carving knife to how to hold it.   And, when you get to the chapter on rosettes, there's a partial page of guidance on how to lay things out.

So why the grumpy review?   Because that's the extent of the layout guidance.   For example, in the section on borders the photos show the layout lines of intersecting sine curves against which one can carve a really nice border.   So, again admitting I'm the slow kid here, how do I lay out those cool sine curves?  I tried a few different approaches but didn't get anything like I wanted from my compass.   This is an example of where a bit of detailed setup guidance could go a long way.

In fact, the bulk of the book after those how-to chapters consists of pretty examples of chip carving excellence.  But apart from a single page of advice on how to lay out rosettes, you're pretty much on your own for figuring out how to duplicate any part of these great examples on your own.

So as a catalog of really cool carving examples, it would get 5 stars.  But since the introductory chapters do set it up as the how to book for beginning chip carvers, the absence of real layout guidance makes this at best a 2- star book for me.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Country Driving: A journey through China from farm to factory, by Peter Hessler

First off, a confession and a complaint.

The confession:  I couldn't make it through the book.   I was very interested in the first section, which was about Mr. Hessler's initial drives across China.   The second section, about his home away from the city (Beijing) in a peasant area, was largely interesting to me.   But by the third and final section, about a factory village, I'd lost all my interest.   Now in fairness I did skim through the remainder, reading a few pages here and there.   But that was sufficient.

Based on the uniformly positive reviews of this book I can only assume the failure here is my own inability to focus.

So now the complaint.   If you're reading a book about a remote place, and specifically someone's road trips across that remote place, don't you think you're entitled to a map?   But the first map (it is generous to call it that) didn't appear until after the 122nd page.   And it didn't show any of the routes of the first 122 pages at all.  Or maybe it did.  Hard to tell.

I really should say more about this book, at least facts about it.   The prior sentences presumably convey my assessment.    So here we go:   Mr. Hessler is an American journalist who'd been living in China for some time, and speaks the language.   Living in Beijing, he decided to get a driver's license (no small task in China), rent a car and travel along a Great Wall -oriented route, trusting the inadequate drivers maps as a general guide.   This book documents these travels (in the first section), as well as his experiences in part-time living with a small village population a couple of hours outside of Beijing (the second section), and hit visits to a factory region in the south, near Wenzhou (in the third, and as previously confessed, largely unread third section).

There are, it turns out, multiple versions of this bookavailable.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales, by Penn Jillette

The first thing to notice about Mr. Jillette is that he is quite foul-mouthed.  Really can't seem to stop swearing.   He writes that he never swore in front of his parents, out of respect.   Would that he respected his readers nearly as much.

The title of this book represents a broad theme of the book but most of the text is a somewhat random set of anecdotes about Mr. Jillette's life.   They range from interesting to funny -- the story about how he dried off after a shower using a blow dryer (as there were no towels in the bathroom) made me laugh out loud.

The theme of atheism is supported by the usual arguments, and those are made far more convincingly by folks like Richard Dawkins.

Mr. Jillette starts some of his chapters with an atheist's take on each of the ten commandments.   They map pretty well to an Ethical Humanist's take on appropriate behavior; think of this as the atheist's social gathering, equivalent to a church meeting, and some (like the New York Society for Ethical Culture) have been doing this a long time (in the NYSEC case, since 1876!).

No matter what one's religious beliefs, if any, it is difficult to find fault with Mr. Jillette's list of good behaviors:

  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me becomes, "the highest ideals are human intelligence, creativity, and love.  Respect these above all."
  2. Thou shalt not make for thyself an idol... becomes, "do not put things or even ideas above other human beings."
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the lord thy god in vain becomes, "say what you mean, even when talking to yourself."
  4. Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy becomes, "put aside some time to rest and think."
  5. Honor thy father and thy mother becomes, "be there for your family; love your parents, your partner, and your children."
  6. Thou shalt not kill becomes, "respect and protect all human life."
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery becomes, "keep your promises."
  8. Thou shalt not steal becomes, "don't steal."
  9. Thou shalt not lie becomes, "don't lie."
  10. Thou shalt not covet... becomes, "don't waste too much time wishing, hoping, and being envious; it'll make you bugnutty."
Hard to argue with Mr. Jillette's list of things to do (or not do), independent of one's religious convictions.
As an aside, I find it odd that Mr. Jillette chose to mirror the ten commandments with his equivalent guidance instead of the 613 commandments.   I suppose it would make his book too long.   Plus, both Christians and (non-orthodox) Jews like to ignore the 613 commandments of the bible and instead focus only on 10.  It is way easier of course.  One could comment that once you pick and choose 10 instead of 613 you kind of rule out your options for picking and choosing bible verses which condemn your favorite sinners (e.g., homosexuals), but hey, I don't want to throw rocks.

Also, even the orthodox Jews don't expect anyone else to follow the 613 commandments; in fact they expect non-Jews to only follow the seven Noahic commandments (what god told Noah to do when he was saved from the big flood, derived from the ten commandments of Genesis 9).   These seven are:  establish courts, don't blaspheme, avoid idolatry, no to incest and adultery, avoid bloodshed, don't rob, don't eat the flesh of a living animal.   The orthodox Jewish view is that if a non-Jew follows these rules, then they get a seat in heaven -- with a lot less hassle than their Jewish neighbor in heaven who would have had to strenuously follow 613 rules.   (This is presumably why Jews don't go door to door to recruit, it is a tough sell.)

But hey, Mr. Jillette couldn't ask much more of a sticker price for a book 63 times as long, and besides, who would read it.
One serious point in between the profane stories:  imagine a jury of Christians viewing the claim of a man charged with murder whose defense was that god told him to do it.   Mr. Jillette says there's no question everyone on the jury would consider the defendant nuts, because after all, who would expect god to talk to someone.   Yet these same folks believe god does listen to their individual prayers, perhaps even takes action to affect individual circumstance, and they believe that many biblical figures took direct orders from god which might seem weird (e.g., Noah), or even criminal (e.g., Moses) to others.  

This seems kind of extreme, but current news supports the argument.   Pastor Jeffress of First Baptist of Dallas made some headlines recently when he called Mormon a cult and non-Christian.   Presumably this is because they believe in some items that are "Noah, go build an ark" -style unusual.   It seems pretty clear what Mr. Jillette would make of this:   Pastor Jeffress finds Mormon claims of its bible version (the Book of Mormon) so unbelievable and fantastical as to be dismissed as a cult, and Mr. Jillette similarly finds the claims of the Christian (and Jewish) bibles to be so unbelievable and fantastical as to be dismissed as fairy tales as well.  

As mentioned above though, Mr. Dawkins says it best to theists:  if you don't believe in the god Thor or the god Zeus or the goddess Athena or the god Baal, then you and he are in nearly complete agreement -- he just also doesn't believe in the one (or for Christians, two or three) additional god that you accept.

To sum up Mr. Jillette's book:   if you like a set of rambling stories, don't mind incessant swearing, and aren't bothered by (or embrace) a strong dislike for religion, then you probably will enjoy it.   Else, not so much.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking, by James Krenov

It must be me.  Everyone else thinks this book is great.  I do think Mr. Krenov is great.   But his book, not so much.  So it must be me.

Well what did I learn reading this book?

The first chapter is about wood as art.  At least I think that's what it is about.   The illustrations are clear:  if you pay attention to the grain direction you can make furniture that looks really great, and if you don't you can make furniture that looks, now that I've seen the comparisons, pretty yucky.    As for the text, let's face it:  I'm too much the barbarian to really understand it much.     It sounds the same to my ear as descriptions of modern art.

Don't hate me for this.  I've confessed my ignorance.   Be compassionate.

The second chapter is about Mr. Krenov's workshop, about tools and machines.   I didn't learn much here either.  Except that the photos of his equipment in use were scary in the sense that someone with much less experience than Mr. Krenov (and isn't that most people?) might think they too should eschew all sorts of safety precautions.  Probably most people shouldn't do that.   I accept that Mr. Krenov could but it isn't clear what sort of message he was sending about this.  Perhaps he didn't consider it an issue.

I did like his idea of using the springs from cheap ball point pens to construct his wood bench dogs.

Then we got into planes.   He explained how to build a wood plane.   The instructions are not for neophytes like me.  (Not to mention not for barbarians like me.)  For example:

"If you can't find suitable breakers, it is not difficult to make them. Simply obtain some mild steel (or even iron) the same width as the plane irons you have, and make the breaker as the sketch and photo show."

He lost me at "obtain some mild steel."

(Remember, if you hate me for this, you might feel badly about yourself tomorrow.   Do you also aim your car at innocent squirrels?)

The third chapter is titled, "Details of Cabinetmaking."  This was pretty interesting, and illuminating both about the craftsmanship that Mr. Krenov represents as well as about myself.   I'm no artist.   At this point in my woodworking development, I'd be happy to be a competent apprentice.   All of Mr. Krenov's work is artistry.   His "unconventional runners" which extend outside the drawer to become pulls are amazing.

So how to sum up this book?  First of all, it is audience -specific.   All the really talented woodworkers stopped reading at the first paragraph of this post and will spit at the mention of my name.   The rest of us (if I'm not alone) can get some very positive use from this book:   an appreciation of the art of wood selection and respect for the medium, and some photographs of really cool cabinetry.

Is there a James Krenov book for me?   Maybe I will try "With Wakened Hands: Furniture by James Krenov and Students"as it promises to be more of a catalog of beautiful work.   And one day perhaps I'll achieve illumination and some of what he wrote in this text will click with me.   Hey, even barbarians can dream.

(Um, still though, I have to call this a miss.)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Just Run, by Chris Culver

I was really impressed by Mr. Culver's writing in his first book, "The Abbey."   It also struck me that the 99 cent Kindle price for it was really low considering it is a first rate detective novel -- as good or better than most of the name writers who charge far more for their work.    Presumably the attractive pricing is a means by which Mr. Culver could build up a readership.

When I saw that his second novel, "Just Run," was similarly priced, I was surprised but delighted at the bargain.   This one is even better than his first.

The heroes of "Just Run" are Renee Carter, a female professor caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Trent Schaefer, a somewhat mysterious detective who investigates a situation in which Renee's entangled.

It is difficult to say more without spoiling the fast paced and engaging plot.   The character development is strong, the story line focused, believable, interesting and compelling.

I've become quite the fan of Mr. Culver's writing and look forward to his next book.  According to his blog, at, it will feature the detective and law student main character Ash Rashid who was so interesting in "The Abbey."

For this 99 cent strategy to work, there should be hundreds of positive reviews for Mr. Culver's books, with massive sales to encourage and support him to keep writing.    I don't know how volume marketing of novels works through Amazon, but I wish him the best on this as I want to keep reading his work for years to come.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Abbey, by Chris Culver

If you like the detective story / mystery / suspense genre then you should buy this book.   There's no reason not to, it is just 99 cents on Kindle.   And you can read Kindle books with free software on virtually any device, your PC or Mac, so there's no obstacle.

Why do I say this?   First of all, it is mind-boggling to me to see a first rate novel sell for this price, considering the crazy price point of other, more well known authors get even in Kindle format for books that are as good, or often not as good.

Here's what makes Mr. Culver's novel interesting:  good plot line that keeps you interested, excellent character development, and a very interesting hero who is an every-man.  Hardly a hero type.  Not particularly flawed, just as much as anyone else.  Well, perhaps he drinks too much, especially for a practicing Muslim.

As a loss-leader approach it is successful -- I'm eager to read Mr. Culver's next novel even if it was at a more typical (i.e., way higher) price point.