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Posts Tagged ‘2015 Book Review’

Travels With Charley – In Search Of America – book review
Today’s review is for one of John Steinbeck’s later works, “Travels With Charley” (1962©).  The book is a “supposedly” non-fiction relating of a road trip Steinbeck made around the continental United States (about 10,000 miles).  Roughly, the trip is from his home in New York, up to Maine, across the northern states to Seattle, down through California, back east to New Orleans (via Texas), then up the Eastern seaboard back to his home.  Steinbeck says the trip is to allow him to get back in touch with the common American whom Steinbeck feels he based much of his writing on.  Having lost “touch” with his roots, Steinbeck seeks to rediscover America by seeing it again with his own eyes.  Steinbeck makes the trip in a truck with a custom built camper shell.  The truck is named “Rocinante” –  for the horse ridden by Don Quixote.
Although quite a number of books touch me (as a reader), there are relatively few which seem to strike an internal chord.  I am not a musician, so forgive me if I am misusing the term “chord”, but it is more than a single note.   It is a combination of notes which creates their own harmony.  This book is one of those few for me.  It is hard for me to adequately put into words the effect this book had except to say I consistently felt Steinbeck was writing it just to let me know I am not alone in how I feel about certain things.  From his description of his perpetual wanderlust, to his affection for his pet dog (Charley), to his observations about America – its history and its people – its cities and our civilization – I just felt a powerful bond of kinship with Steinbeck.
In the martial arts, it is frequently said that when the student is ready, the teacher will find him.  I think it ironic for me to “discover” this work as I turn sixty (“ish”) and that I feel its call to me to continue chasing my own windmills.  “On, Rocinante!!”  I cannot promise you this book will touch you as powerfully as it did me, but my final recommendation is Highly Recommended Book / Reading.
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On This Day In:
2014 Changing Frequently
2013 Trifles
2012 Simple, Ordinary And Wonderous
2011 Humane Writers

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Casca #6: The Persian – book review
This volume is number six in the “Casca: The Eternal Mercenary” book series.  “Casca #6: The Persian” (1982©) was written by Barry Sadler.  For those of you who haven’t read my other reviews, Casca is Casca Rufio Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Jesus of Nazareth while he was being crucified.  Just before dying, Jesus tells Casca that he is happy in his role and that he will remain the same until they meet again.  Each volume tells some of Casca’s life over the last two thousand years as he awaits the second coming of Jesus.
Because Casca doesn’t age, every 20 or 30 years he must travel to avoid questions about why he doesn’t seem to get older.  In a prior volume (number 3), Casca was in China.  In this, he is returning to the West and pauses to deliver a message from the emperor of China to the King of the Persians warning of impending attacks from the Huns.  Casca falls into service for the King (Shapur II) and this covers the few years of that service.
This episode has two interesting sub-stories (for me).  The first involves a re-enactment of a battle tactic Casca first saw in China.  As the enemy advances, you have a line of “volunteers” step forward and cut their throats in front of the enemy.  This is said to surprise and then terrify the Hun warriors.  They turn to flee and are then defeated in detail as they try to retreat / run away.  Casca relates this tactic to Shapur who decides he wants to try it and see if it works.  He sends Casca out with an under-manned force, but with several times the number of “volunteers” as the Chinese used.  The tactic works again and Casca is able to defeat the Huns even though out-numbered by several times his own force.
The second sub-story is about Casca’s “curse”.  Because he cannot be killed, each volume has a point where the miracle / curse must be demonstrated.  In prior stories, Casca has been drowned, buried alive, poisoned, fed to crabs and had his heart cut out and one hand completely cut off.  In this episode, the king judges Casca to have become too popular with the army so he decides to trump up some charges of treason and then have Casca burned alive.  Of course Casca survives, but the execution and recovery are explained in graphic detail.  As a reader, you almost feel you are sharing Casca’s pain.
There is a third story-line which also ties back to the earlier Chinese episode, but I’ve already given too much of the story away.  Final recommendation: another strong recommendation.
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On This Day In:
2014 Hey, I Resemble That Remark… (4!)
2013 Sit, Put, Until…
2012 Lessons For My Son
2011 Reaching The Right Audience
2010 Christmas Trees and Profession of Faith

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West Of Honor – book review
Today’s review is for “West Of Honor” (1978©), written by Jerry Pournelle.  Pournelle is a famous Science Fiction writer who not only wrote great individual novels, he also wrote story lines which spanned several books – much like Robert Heinlein’s “Lazarus Long” story / timeline.  In Pournelle’s case, the premise is that the United States and the Soviet Union come together to form a “CoDominium” to 1) control the Earth and the exploration of space; and, 2) maintain their relative positions in the “new” age of space exploration.  The “future” is strangely both dystopian and optimistic.  Dystopian in that surplus population is forced into space (as cheap labor) and optimistic as some of the planets manage to build workable civilizations.  The faster than light Alderson stardrives used in the book / series “was” invented in 2004 and first used to go beyond the solar system in 2008.  LOL!!  So far, not even close…
The main character in the time-line is a “Napoleonic” figure named John Christian Falkenberg.  This book is the story of Falkenberg’s pacification of a planet.  The story is told as a first person narrative by one of Falkenberg’s junior officers – Hal Slater.  This really is a “good, old-fashioned” modern war story which just happens to take place on another planet.  You read about planetary politics, military (and medical) technology and all that, but in the end war comes down to men bleeding and dying.  To the extent Pournelle is able to convince you to believe the technology, you buy the SciFi.  To the extent he convinces you to believe in the battles and the drama, you buy the war story.  I “bought into” both and enjoyed the book tremendously.  Interestingly, victory does not necessarily lead to a “happy” ending.
Full disclosure: I first read this book back in the early 1980’s.  I also read a number of other books in the series, but I no longer have those.  I’m not sure how or when I lost them, but I suppose it was when we moved to Liverpool (or back).  In any case, I’m probably going to end up re-buying them and re-reading them.  Final recommendation: highly recommended!!  Particularly if you like SciFi Military Lit.
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On This Day In:
2014 Sources
2013 Three Essentials
2012 Just Looking
2011 Religious Lessons
2010 View From Under The Bus… (A mid-term report card on the Obama Administration. Long, but still worth reading for historical perspective.)

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Casca #5: The Barbarian   —  book review
Today’s review is for the fifth book in the “Casca: The Eternal Mercenary” series titled: Casca: The Barbarian (1981©), written by Barry Sadler.  In this episode, Casca meets up with a Germanic / Norse tribesman named Glam and the story revolves are their adventures together over the next 30 to 40 years.  Basically, Glam leads Casca around northern Europe and Casca takes over a “hold”.  Casca over-throws the vicious lord of the hold and subsequently marries his daughter.  Thus, Casca gains and ultimately loses the second great love of his life.  Glam gives Casca one of his nicknames: “The Walker”.
All of these volumes have now fallen into their standard formula: character intro, travel around a bit, a few minor fights, a little bit of history, a major battle, and then some resolution before Casca has to wander off.  Today’s title refers to a scene in the book where the original lord of the hold has a wall at the tides edge staked.  When he wishes to execute someone (but not be “responsible” for the death), he has them staked with just their head above the high tide.  The crabs do their work during the night and only the head (and skeleton) is left the following morning.  Of course, the “curse” saves Casca (again).
If you are into adult / male historical fiction – with lots of geography, historical background and battles, this continues to be a very satisfying series.  Final recommendation: strong recommendation.
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On This Day In:
2014 Beyond Proof
2013 Poor Students Of History
2012 Between Two Worlds
2011 Common Humanity
2010 The Last Two Olympians

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Today’s book review is for “Casca: Panzer Soldier” (1980©) written by Barry Sadler.  This is book four in the “Casca – The Eternal Mercenary” series.  This is a re-read for me.  My first reading would have been sometime in the early to mid-1980’s.
Casca Rufio Longinus is the legendary Roman soldier who slayed Christ with a spear.  Just prior to dying, the Messiah tells Casca: “You are satisfied with what you are and so you shall remain until we meet again.”  Thus began the (series and) adventures of Casca across two-thousand years (and counting).
In this volume, Carl Langer (Casca) has decided that Communism will be the end of Western Civilization, so he joins the German Army to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front.  Too late, he discovers the horrors of the Nazis and their “Final Solution”.  Casca also uncovers the role played by “The Brotherhood” in the war.  (See yesterday’s post for a brief intro to the “Brotherhood”.)
Like every book in this series, the descriptions of battles are graphic and powerful.  There is just enough historical accuracy thrown in to make the series “feel” like you are reading real history.  I think this is always the mark of good historical fiction – you almost believe you are reading an actual account.
Just like yesterday’s volume, this book is a fast read, typical of this series and many of the “male adventure-series” from that time period.  If you are “into” this genre (and I am), you will thoroughly enjoy this book (and I did).  I particularly like the historical fiction aspects of the series.  Highly recommended (book and series).
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On This Day In:
2014 Babies (I)
2013 Patriotic == Tell The Truth
2012 30 Days To Go
2011 Altering The Course

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Today’s book review is for “Casca: The War Lord” (1980©) written by Barry Sadler.   This is book three in the “Casca – The Eternal Mercenary” series.  This is a re-read for me.  My first reading would have been sometime in the early to mid-1980’s.
Casca is Casca Rufio Longinus, the legendary Roman soldier who slayed Christ with a spear.  Just prior to dying, the Messiah tells Casca: “You are satisfied with what you are and so you shall remain until we meet again.”  Thus began the (series and) adventures of Casca across two-thousand years (and counting).
In this volume, Casca decides to make his first visit to China.  As is the case with most of series, Casca has various adventures along the way, the most memorable being the temporary loss of his left hand in the discovery of the “Brotherhood of the Lamb”.  Of course, because he can never die and must remain as he is (was), his hand painfully reattaches.  The “Brotherhood” is a league of “crazy” religious fanatics who seek to follow and keep track of Casca, so they can honor Jesus and hasten the 2nd coming.  Of course, they hate Casca and seek to cause him as much physical pain as they can while waiting for Jesus.
Anyway, after multiple adventures, Casca ends up meeting and serving the Emperor, for which he is granted the title.
The book is a fast read as is typical of this series and many of the “male adventure-series” from that time period.  If you are “into” this genre (and I am), you will thoroughly enjoy this book (and I did).  I particularly like the historical fiction aspect of the series.  Highly recommended.
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On This Day In:
2014 Orange October (II) – Giants Win NLDS Game 2 In 18 Innings (2 to 1)!!
Acknowledging Doubt
2013 Fulfilled Acceptance
2012 Error Is Tolerated Here (So Far)
2011 In Defense Of Pain

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The Journey To The East”  —  book review
Today’s book review is for a book I finished last Saturday (July 11th), but never got around to posting about.  The book is: “The Journey To The East” (1956©), written by Hermann Hesse.  The book is supposedly autobiographically written by an un-named character “H. H.”, but as Hesse has written other books with main characters who share his initials, the intent seems to be to not make this novel personally semi-autobiographical.  “H. H.” is a member of a secret “League” which exists to assist its members in understanding life (via shared personal experiences) and in advancing civilization (via the creation of a vast library containing all of human knowledge).
The group on the journey with H. H. fails to reach their destination and the individual members lose faith in the League, with each other, and with themselves.  The author (H. H.), spends a good part of the rest of his life living as a “failure” and then decides to make himself whole by writing a book about the journey.  The problem is he can’t remember the specific details of his trip.  He seeks out a friend who’s advise is the find one of the other participants from his trip (Leo the servant) and to seek his (Leo’s) recollections.  Leo is not receptive at first and then he lets H. H. have access to the League’s library – which contains the sum of human knowledge, including entries about every single person (living or dead).
The journey to the East seems to be a metaphor for growing up, or more precisely, for going on a vision quest to seek the meaning of life.  The trip to the “East” is a trip to discover yourself and the realization from that discovery (for H. H.) is that the meaning of life is service to others.  Thus, “East” is not a direction of travel.  It is a destination.  Your “home”.
The novel is very short (120 pages) and can be read in a couple of hours.  It is a simple narrative told by the principal and is done in very straight forward language – so it’s easy to read.  I found the book interesting for a number of reasons.  The two main ones were (are): 1) the book created a reinforcing memory of a scene in the movie “Interstellar” where the main character is in a four dimensional representation of a library (actually behind a bookshelf in a bedroom); and, 2) because there are a lot of pseudo-Christian messages sprinkled throughout the book.  The meaning of life being service to others is just one of many such messages.
So, final recommendation:  Strong recommendation.  The book is short, easy to read and promotes thought for the reader about what is the purpose of life.  It worked for me…
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On This Day In:
2014 Pass The Soul
2013 Zapping Music And Art
2012 Not Quite Fantastic
That Kid Is Back
2011 Wolves At The Door
2010 I’m Feeling Patriotic… (Well, more than usual, anyway.)
Beating the Heat…

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Today’s book review is: “The Aims Of Education” (1929 ©), by Alfred North Whitehead.  The book is a collection of papers and presentations (speeches) given by the author on a number of topics: education, freedom and discipline, science, the function of universities and the nature of thought itself.  Although a relatively small work, it is quite deep and scholastic / academic in tone, which will not be to everyone’s taste.
Whitehead was a mathematician who emigrated to America and became a philosopher in his later years.  Apparently, Cambridge had a lecturer time limit of twenty-five years and he was forced into retirement.  He lectured in London for another dozen years before moving to Harvard where he also spent a little over a dozen years.
The book is really in two parts for me: the parts I understood and agreed with wholeheartedly (the first half of the book) and the later part (mainly dealing with the “organization of thought” and “the anatomy of some scientific ideas“) which I believe I understood, but which I disagreed with.  Metaphysically speaking, Whitehead poses that reality is what we (individually) perceive it to be and the normalization of perception is (what we agree on collectively) what we “scientifically” say is the “real” world.  In a strange way, the only things which can be real are those which we perceive to be real and on which we can agree with others in their perceptions.  This “relativism” of a perceived real world has consequences, but I’m not sure I have ever been able to get my head around them.  (I went through this in a political theory class back in my own university days.)
While I feel I understood what Whitehead was trying to express, I found it extremely dry reading and in the end (after several weeks of having the book on my bedside table), I had to force myself to read the last 30-40 odd pages.  My difficulty was less my “disagreement” with his proposition, as the general feeling of its irrelevance in “my” real world.  I don’t really care if all the universe is really changing and even mountains are eventually reduced to sand.  For my lifetime, they are mountains.  I recognize that in a billion or so years, the Earth will no longer be here (or the mountain), but for now, I still need to climb it, ski it, or build a train tunnel through it and I (we) can still ascertain (agree) on it’s location, height, circumference, etc.  It is as real as I need it to be.
If this review seems a bit negative, let me also high-light the books strengths (or at least the parts I agree with), too.  The book’s title refers to the first lecture in the book and describes what we as a society should hope to gain by educating our youth.  It describes the “rhythm” of education in a person’s life.  It also relates Whitehead’s views on subjects to be taught and their order of learning.  As mentioned above, he goes on to discuss the value of a liberal education, the use of classics in education, and the role of a university in developing the leaders society requires.  Whitehead does not neglect the necessity of practical and technical training in the spectrum of education .  He simply notes they will be sufficient for the masses and remain a minimum standard for the well developed (pre-) university graduate.  This seems an extremely elitist view until one recognizes that education is a lifetime endeavor and returning to school (university) is not (or it should not be) prohibited for those who start their working lives as tradesmen and technicians.
Final recommendation:  moderate to strong recommendation.  This book is a definite “classic” and I feel I am “better” for having experienced it.  But, and this is a rather large qualification for me, it isn’t a book I left feeling many others would be interested in.  Primarily because of the nature of the subject matter, but also because of the way it’s expressed (extremely erudite language), this is not a book (I believe) many will force themselves to wade through.  Very reminiscent of a description I once heard of the book “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking, this is a book you want people to see on your coffee table, but which nobody ever actually reads.  Stick to the first bits on education, liberal arts and the purpose of a university, and leave the rest for when you tire of insomnia.
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On This Day In:
2014 Sums
2013 Memories & Binging
Admiration Due
2012 Choices Matter
2011 Acceptance Is The Key
2010 Just A Permanent Crease…
Bodily Functions

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Over the last couple of days I watched a couple of movies and read a book.  In order, the two movies were: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier“, “Transformers: Age Of Extinction“, and the book was: “Casca: The Eternal Mercenary #1” (1979©).
It’s been a year since my first review of CA:TWS (see original review here).  Well, I picked up the DVD and thought I’d take another look.  My initial review is still pretty much spot on…  This is a look at the darker side of technology as used by today’s governments to try to “maintain” security and “protect” the people.  It is also a general statement about the need to minimize secret organizations – even when they purport to be providing security and protection, as it is far too easy for them to fall into the wrong hands.  Final recommendation: still highly recommended!
The second movie T4:AoE also came out in 2014 and stars Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeager (a more-or-less unemployed robotics expert and single parent living in Texas and, of course, trying to mind his own business), Nicola Peltz as Tessa Yeager (Cade’s daughter, who when threatened, becomes daddy’s reason to get even with the bad-guys), Stanley Tucci as Joshua Joyce (a billionaire corporatist who thinks a lot of himself and yells a lot at his minions), Kelsey Grammer as Harold Attinger (the CIA bad-guy and front for the evil transformers), Jack Reynor as Shane Dyson (the daughter’s boyfriend and a race car driver).
This is a movie with lots of sound effect (explosions) and special effects (mostly computer generated transformers but also explosions), who’s main purpose seems to be to move away from the main human characters of the three previous movies and create a new thread for the franchise to follow.  Fair enough, but is the movie any good?  Within the strict paradigm of an action movie (large robots fighting, car chases, and multiple explosions) – yes, it does.  Quite well, in fact.  If you are looking for simple-minded entertainment (please don’t even try to think about the plot), this is a high quality production which delivers action and explosions.  My one “real” fault with the movie is it is loonnggg – 2 hours and 45 minutes – and actually seems longer.  I don’t usually say that about “action” movies, but this felt too long.
Final recommendation: moderate to strong recommendation.  If you’re into the Transformer movies (and I am), you’ll enjoy this addition.  If you believe this is just another movie to market toys to youth, well, yeah, it’s that too.
The book – Casca: TEM#1, is the first in an ongoing series of books about a fictional / mythical character – based on the Roman Legionnaire who put the lance in Jesus Christ’s side.  There are 42 books in the series so far.  In this first book, Jesus looks down at Casca and says: “You are content with what you are.  Then that you shall remain until we meet again.”  Henceforth, Casca is cursed to live forever – or at least until the second coming.  Each book in the series is about a segment of his 2,000 years (so far).  The series was initially written by Barry Sadler of “Ballad of the Green Berets” fame.  I have the first 22 volumes in the series.  These are the ones written by Sadler (or at least ghost written for him with his name on the book).  I have not read any of the subsequent volumes.  This volume covers most of his first two centuries of life – Roman rule times.
The books are adult, historical fantasy / fiction.  The main character is Casca Rufio Longinus and is loosely based on the Christian legend Saint Longinus.  Being Catholic and knowing a little (very little) about the Spear of Destiny, I picked the book up and thought I’d have a laugh.  I was very pleasantly surprised that it completely captivated me.  In fact, I’ve read the book several times, about once a decade, since I purchased it back in the early 1980’s.  I’ve also re-read a few of the other volumes, but they never seemed to capture me the same way this initial book did.
Final recommendation: Highly recommended book (and series).  If you enjoy historically based fiction about combat / war, this is a very good book / series.  Caution: it can be graphic in the depiction of violence so this is not appropriate for youth – probably up to late teens.
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On This Day In:
2014 True, Vibrant And Open
2013 Remembering, Yet Again
2012 Something Of Value
2011 Sleep All Day

 

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Thursday I completed the novel “Ender’s Game” (1985©), written by Orson Scott Card.  The novel is an expanded version of a short story Card wrote back in 1977 for a SciFi magazine.  The book is fairly well know in SciFi circles and won both the Nebula and Hugo awards for best novel.  Both awards are for best SciF novel with the Nebula being the American award and the Hugo being the international version of same.  In addition to the “normal” SciFi crowd, the book is popular in the military community and is “expected” reading in at least one branch (U.S. Marine Corps).
Basically, the book is a coming of age story for a young (pre-teen) Caesar / Napoleonic / Alexander character who, through an undiscussed eugenics process, has been bred to lead the combined Earth forces in an interplanetary war against a race of giant ants called the “Formics”.  They are more “affectionately” called “bugs” or “buggers”.  The story traces his (Andrew “Ender” Wiggin) life from just before he leaves his family, through his “growing-up” at a military academy to the end of the war.  To say much more is to give away a substantial amount of the ending.
Despite the implausibility of a story about an 11 year old being granted the authority to lead an interplanetary armada and the short span of time between “know-nothing” to force commander, the story is a pretty good one.  The story is very much “Lord of the Flies” -In-Space, but I still found the book and the twist at the end enjoyable.  In fairness to the reader coming at the book for the first time, I must admit, I saw the movie version first and enjoyed it too.  The movie (same name) was released in late 2013, and having seen the previews, it piqued my interest.  In the end, I never saw it at the theater because I thought it was going to be a “young Harry Potter saves the world from aliens” kid’s movie.  Anyway, I remembered the movie preview and when I got a chance to catch it on the tube, I took advantage of the opportunity.  I was pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed it as much as I did.  This in turn led me to be on the look-out for the book(s) – there is a whole series – which I have finally gotten into.
The movie tracks the book pretty accurately, so the book’s ending wasn’t the surprise it might have been, but I felt (as usual) the book had the time and space to explain what was happening a lot better than the movie did.  This isn’t a criticism of the movie as much as it is an acknowledgement that action movies don’t lend themselves to narration accept at the beginning and ending.  In between, it’s the action which is supposed to tell the story (normally).
I found the military tactics, personal combat, team building, working on one’s craft, and the personal/internal conflict about the morality of inflicting pain and death on an enemy to all be accurate within my (very) limited experience of each.  Fortunately, I was never placed in a position to shoot / kill someone, but I still have distinct memories of basic training and realizing there was a reason the “targets” were silhouettes of the enemy instead of simple concentric rings.  We were being trained to shoot at other humans, not at bull’s-eyes’.
I found the movie interesting and enjoyable, but also troubling.  Because the book explains more, it is more troubling.  So my final recommendation for the movie is recommended, and, for the book, highly recommended.  If it’s good enough for the Marine Corps “Recommended Reading List”, it’s good enough for me!
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On This Day In:
2014 Two Thoughts
2013 RIP – Dear Abby
Half-Life Problems
2012 To The Soul…
2011 Reverted!!

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