Thursday, July 31, 2008

{Review} The Nero Wolfe Files by Marvin Kaye (editor)

Back in the 1970, fans of the Nero Wolfe stories by Rex Stout joined together and formed an organization called The Wolfe Pack to celebrate the author and his world famous detective (and not to forget Archie Goodwin!). They started publishing a quarterly journal called The Gazette and held a formal dinner every year, among other activities. In this book Marvin Kaye has collected items originally published in The Gazette. They range in diversity from the menu of the first "Black Orchid" dinner to texts of speeches given at the dinners to articles about Wolfe and Stout by Stout's biographer, plus many other interesting tidbits.

Unfortunately this book feels rather underdeveloped for the price. While most of the items included are interesting to some degree, there is not enough content to really satisfy a fan or to engage a casual reader. It is certainly recommended to those who are Nero Wolfe fans, or aspire to that status, but I would suggest that you try to find it at a cheaper price than the listed $15.95.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

{Review} The Formation of Christendom by Judith Herrin

This is a scholarly work about a fairly obscure subject. It isn't about the spread of religion. Instead, the book deals with the transition of the various political entities of Europe from secular states into Christian ones. It describes the increase of the power of the Church as it fills the vacuum left by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Activities such as looking after the poor, maintaining public buildings and organizing and regulating commence became the domain of religious leaders. By undertaking these actions they gained the popular support of the people. They soon established the right of the Church to advise and even make demands upon secular leaders

This is not a casual beach book, but for those interested in European history it provides an interesting look at the transition from Roman authority to feudal suzerainty.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

{Review} The Chariot Makers: Assembling the Perfect Formula 1 Car by Steve Matchett

Steve Matchett is a former Formula One mechanic who has become a successful writer and currently is a commentator for Speed TV and ESPN. In this book, Matchett weaves a tale set in an airport bar, where he and a few others wait for hours and hours for a delayed trans-Atlantic flight. To past the time they discuss what would make up an idea F1 car and team. However, the book is actually much better than this rather tissue-thin back story would suggest, although Matchett swears that the events he uses in the back story did happen, although he did alter the time sequencing and people.

Once you get past the setup, most of the rest of the book is an enjoyable discussion of Formula One technology, construction techniques and race craft. Matchett does touch upon the historic background of many of the subjects, but mostly he deals with the modern era. His style is informative without being too wrapped up in techno-speak. And, just as if he was conversing with a group of people, there are questions asked by his fellow would-be passengers that allow Matchett to explain and illustrate points so that the layman could comprehend them.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes racing, has an interest in F1 and would like to find out more about it without having to delve into much more technical books. As is always true in F1, as soon as a book is published the information in is becomes out of date, but enough of the currently technology of F1 has been around since before Matchett wrote this book that it does have relevance to the current racing season. And Matchett is a good writer, dubious back story or not.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Doo-dah!: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture by Ken Emerson

This is the story of Stephen Foster, who wrote so many songs in the nineteenth century that are considered American standards such as "Oh, Susanna", "Campdown Races" and "Swanee River". The book focuses on Foster as one of the first song writers to be benefited by the commercialization of music, in the guise of sheet music and copyrights. He became a well recognized figure based upon his fame as a popular music composer. Foster initially struggled to be a successful composer, then spend of good part of the rest of his life in court defending his rights and chasing "music pirates", to use a modern term. However, the book is not easy to read. The author goes on for page after page, chapter after chapter, relating how Foster did this and went there and said that and after a while it becomes a blur. Recommended only to those who really have an interest in the subject.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Spearheading D-Day: American Special Units of the Normandy Invasion by Jonathan Gawne

This book is a real find for those who love to wallow in the excruciating details of military operations.This is most definitely not a coffee table book. The author has investigated and thoroughly documented all those small units that assisted the landings of the Allies in Normandy, as well as examining not so much as "who" landed as much as "how" they were equipped and with "what". His emphasis is not so much on the people as on their equipment and operations. Examples? There are loading diagrams for the landing craft, showing where each soldier was positioned (or intended to be positioned). We shown in photos and text how different navy personnel marked their helmets and jackets to differentiate themselves from the men who were landing. We learn how soldiers packed their packs, what kind of uniform they wore, how they protected their weapons from salt water (plastic bags!) and what other items they carried.

There is even a detailed (heck, everything in this book is detailed!) chapter about the combat vest that was used only on the Normandy operation and not by all troops, who made them and how they were made (and how the US Marines tested it and decided against adopting the vest for their landing troops).

This is not to say that the book overlooks the operations carried out by these units. Their actions on D-Day are described in detail and often we are also informed of their subsequent actions through the end of the war.

I have at times described books as "lavishly" illustrated, but this book requires a stronger adjective. The included photographs and drawings are simply incredible in detail and abundance. There are many photos of objects from museums or collections, expertly placed and photographed for clarity. There are even posed photographs of re-enactors to show off different equipment and uniforms.

You don't have to be a D-Day fan to enjoy this book. I would very much recommend it for any military history enthusiast who revels in the details and minutiae of military accoutrements and equipment.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Intervention!: The United States and the Mexican Revolution, 1913-1917 by John S. D. Eisenhower

This is the story of the United States interventions into Mexico in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Eisenhower tells the story as a narrative without evaluation or moralizing and delivers a pleasantly readable history that moves along well without bogging down in details, yet does tell the story that at times goes down to the personal level of the participants. Most histories of this period confine themselves to the Pershing expedition, but this book also thoroughly examines the American seizure of Veracruz in 1914, probably one of the provocative and ill-considered military operations ever undertaken by the US against our neighbor to the south. Strongly recommended for those with interests in military and international history.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

A simply brilliant history of the political rise to power of Abraham Lincoln contrasted against those who were his adversaries, would eventually run against him in the election of 1860, or supported his opponents. All would eventually be part of his cabinet. It concentrates on the four main characters who would were his competitors and adversaries then eventually his allies; Chase, Bates, Seward and Stanton. While normally I'm not a big fan of political histories, the storytelling ability of Doris Kearns Goodwin is so successful that I thoroughly enjoyed the entire book. The narrative flow is easy to follow, well paced for the more casual reader but is still insightful and thoughtful in it's evaluation of Lincoln as a great mediator and team builder. Very happily recommended for those with any interest at all in American history.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} America's Pursuit of Precision Bombing, 1910-1945 by Stephen L. Mc Farland

In some of my reviews I have used evaluations such as "scholarly study" and "academic history". This book is solidly in that camp. Sadly it's a very dry and uninspired history of the development of precision bombing capability by the United States Army Air Corp and Army Air Forces over the period noted. The data and evaluations and observations are all no doubt valid and of great interest to the serious aviation and military historian, but it took much determination on my part to get through this book. Only recommended for those who really, really want to study this subject.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Hitler's Grey Wolves: U-Boats in the Indian Ocean by Lawrence Paterson

This is a narrative history of German U-boat operations in the Indian Ocean during World War 2. Germany, in an effort to war against Allied merchant shipping, reached an agreement with Japan to establish a base in Malaysia, with other smaller bases in Indonesia. German subs would transit out from their bases in Europe, attack allied shipping in the Atlantic and Indian oceans, then refit and rearm in the Far East. Ultimately the campaign was doomed by the overwhelming logistical challenges, the improvement of Allied anti-submarine efforts, and the lack of support and sometimes the barely contained hostility of the local Japanese commanders. It's not exactly a fun read, but it's more easy going than a scholarly study and can be enjoyed by those with an interest in naval history, especially the lesser known aspects of WW2.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} The Los Angeles Metropolis by Howard J. Nelson

I come across unusual books on at times and get the wild urge to order them. This book is more like a textbook about the history of Los Angeles and it's environs. It is not a narrative history, but instead chapter by chapter covers subjects such as climate, traffic, urban sprawl and ethnic diversity. It's not a bad book and for someone wishing to learn more about the region it's a good overview, but it's not the kind of book you bring to poolside to read while getting a tan... unless you are someone like me!

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} The Dillinger Days by John Toland

This is an earlier work by John Toland about the gangsters of the early Depression period such as Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde. Surprisingly for Toland, who military histories have been well reviewed, this book seems to fail both as a history and a narrative. It seems jumbled and meanders at times. There are other good histories of this period and I so I wouldn't recommend this book for the casual non-fiction reader.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Victorian London by Liza Picard

I love this book. Just to let you know that up front.

This is a marvelous history of London, the city and the people, from 1840 to 1870. Picard writes in a familiar, casual style what is was like to be in the city during those years. You can get a sense of the style of the book by just listing the first few chapter titles: "Smells", "The River", "The Streets", "The Railways", "Buildings", "Practicalities", etc. Picard relates fascinating details with superb storytelling skills. The book reads as if some well educated close friend was telling you about the city with evident knowledge, but with a distinct desire not to bore or become too tied down in trivia. The book achieves this in ways that Victorian America (see my review) was unable to reach.

I heartedly recommend this book to those who wish to learn more about England and her people, but also to anyone who has a desire to read a very well written non-fiction book.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Hey, why did I give 5 stars to THAT book?

As I was posting my last review, it occurred to me that someone (or more than just one person) out there might be wondering how the heck I assign my star ratings on my LibraryThing site. I suspect that people have their own definition of what they feel is a five star book, or one star, or somewhere in-between.

My criteria is based on whether I enjoyed the book, based upon what I expected to get out of the book. If I think in advance that a book will be a drier, more scholarly study and it does turn out to be that, but I learn a lot from the book without having to take massive doses of caffeine to get through it, then that's a four or five star book. If I have to force myself to get through it, then it's a two or three star, depending on how much I did learn. If it's a chore to read and I find that there's little to learn, then it's a one star.

If the book is a narrative history or storytelling, then to be a four or five star it has to be easy to read, but makes me sit back and ponder things I read and think "hey, that's interesting". If I find it's harder to get through but still ponderable (to coin a word), or easier to read but not as deep as I hoped, then it's a two or three star. If I have to get up to jog to stay awake during chapters and start finding myself skimming because it's boring or repetitive, then it's a one star rating.

Hope this helps.

{Review} Valkyrie: North American's Mach 3 Superbomber by Dennis R. Jenkins and Tony Landis

This is another product of Specialty Press, which produces both intense studies of aviation subjects and photo books aimed at a more general audience. This book is one of the former. It's a detailed history of the XB-70, including much information on design, construction and flight testing. The book is lavishly illustrated with photos, drawings and other illustrations. Jenkins & Landis have established a reputation for well researched and written aviation histories and this book is well up to that standard. For the aviation enthusiast it is well worth the very reasonable price. Others might find the level of detail in the text a big overwhelming, but may be worth their time to read.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} The Electric City: Energy and the Growth of the Chicago Area, 1880-1930 by Harold L. Platt

This book is a history of the electrification of the city of Chicago. It is not a narrative history, rather it is a more scholarly (dry!) work with lots of tables and charts. Still, it's an interesting series of events I wasn't aware of. Starting in the more downtown areas and moving towards the suburbs, numerous small companies were established that sold electricity to nearby customers. Surprisingly for a number of years they existed side by side with companies providing gas for illumination. The author notes that it often wasn't a matter of the customers demanding electrification of their neighborhood, rather it was a start-up small electricity supplier being nearby that convinced customers to give electricity a try. Very much like the way we saw the early ISP surge in the 1990s. Ultimately, this being Chicago, local politics soon intervened and the companies that survived and ate up the others were the ones which had the best political connections.

Recommended only for those who are willing to plod through a very academic study.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Monday, July 28, 2008

{Review} The Court Martial of General George Armstrong Custer by Lawrence A. Jones

This is a novel that is chock fill of real historic detail, valid suppositions and great storytelling. The author is a military lawyer and so the account of the court-martial is detailed and convincing. The basis of the story is simple; suppose Custer had survived Little Big Horn? The book is not some overblown action story or historical romance. It is, as accurately as the author can surmise, what the subsequent court-martial of Custer would have been like. But it is not a dry supposition; Jones does a marvelous job in making his players interesting, memorable but completely in character. His protagonist is the chief prosecutor for the army and we see most of the story through his eyes, but we also are witness to events taking place from out West to the White House.

We listen in rapt attention to the testimony of Generals Terry and Crook, who led the expedition, explain how Custer exceeded his orders, and to Benteen and Reno as they retell the battle. There are other witnesses as well, but much is also going on behind the scenes as the government wrestles with conflicting goals; punish the man who brought such disaster on the army, but also defend the military actions of his superiors and the leaders back in Washington.

Jones also does a fantastic job in setting the scene. The court-martial is held in New York City in the late 1870s and Jones adds authenticity and atmosphere when we leave the courtroom to go to eat at Delmonico's or tour down Fifth Avenue.

I happily recommend this book to those who like their historic fiction with more emphasis on the history and also those who might be interested in learning more about the Battle of Little Bighorn and the political and military actions and discussions leading up to the battle and subsequent to it.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie

This is the prequel to Massie's Castles of Steel (my review). In this facinating tale Massie tells the story of the naval arms race between Great Britain and Germany in the decades leading up to the first world war. As he would do in Castles of Steel, Massie concentrates on the personalities of the government and military leaders, who often used the naval race for their own purposes to further their careers or to assuage their paranoia. He stays away from technical descriptions and evaluations, instead concentrating on the storytelling. He relates how leaders of both nations alternated between a fear of out of control budgets and eventual war and the fear that should they appear weak or vacillating to their peers, leaders and subordinates. There are many lessons for the current generation in this tale.

I would strongly recommend this not only to those with an interest in naval history, but also to those who enjoy a good non-fiction tale of intrigue, power and conflict.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Going Downtown: The War Against Hanoi and Washington by Jack Broughton

This is Jack Broughton's sequel to Thud Ridge. As an F-105 Thunderchief pilot during the Vietnam War, he flew many missions over North Vietnam, some of which are retold in this book (the first book does some of them as well). Often hamstrung by rules of engagement established by politicians without regard to military necessity or survival, he became disenchanted with the leadership and soon was flagged as a troublemaker. Broughton was finally court martialed for attacking ships in Haiphong harbor. They were made strictly off-limits by the politicians because some were Russian, but many mounted anti-aircraft guns and shot down American pilots. Broughton finally became so incensed at this that he strafed the ships on one mission. He was court martialed and convicted. Much later Congress overturned the conviction, but much too late to be of use to Broughton. The latter part of the book relates the story of the legal proceeding and the subsequent actions Broughton took to publicize the government's cover up of it's ineptness.

I would recommend this book for those who are interested in the air war in Vietnam. It does rather bog down towards the end in the politics, but should be considered a necessary read for those of the current generation who may not be aware of how badly the Vietnam air war was conducted by Washington.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Moments of Terror: The Story of Antarctic Aviation by David Burke

For those with interests in aviation or exploration, this book is a real find. Many people are familiar with Admiral Byrd's exploration of the seventh continent including his flyover of the South Pole in his aircraft the Floyd Bennett. But few are aware that aviation in Antarctica has been present since some of the earliest expeditions. Small float planes provided the ability to scout for paths through the sea ice and reconnoiter potential overland trails for expeditions based on ships. Once land bases were established, aircraft often were the only means of communication and rescue.

Moments of Terror is also the story of the more colorful aviators of Terra Australis Incognita. Few people today have heard of Lincoln Ellsworth, but in the 1930s he was as well known as Charles Lindberg. A colorful character, who among his other quirks strongly admired Wyatt Earp (and flew with Earp's actual gun in his plane). The book related the tales of his famous Antarctic cross-continent flight and his other flights there which made him a household name.

More recent aviation activity is also covered in detail. The author relates the story of the C-130 Hercules and it's association with Antarctica, becoming the workhorse of the US Navy, delivering personnel and supplies all the way to the South Pole in flights that might seem routine but are often fraught with dangers and difficulties.

The book comes well illustrated with over 300 photos, maps and drawings. The writing combines some first person tales with the author's informal storytelling style. The book remains interesting throughout, from the stories of fragile biplanes perched precariously on the decks of tiny ships to tourist flights in jumbo jets.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Friday, July 25, 2008

{Review} Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea by Robert K. Massie

Massie is the author of Dreadnought and this book essentially picks up where the last ended, with the beginning of the Great War. I had at first hesitated to jump into this book because I had read other naval histories of WW1 and didn't expect this to be much different. Yet surprisingly the book is very engrossing and readable and full of details often not covered in conventional histories. Massie explores the personalities of the political and naval leaders of Great Britain and Germany and shows how the naval movements and battles that occurred where often the outcome of conflicts between leaders of the same nation. Politics, ambition and personality quirks were often as influential as intelligence reports and naval doctrine.

Recommended for those who enjoy some fascinating history in narrative form, even if you don't really have any great interest in naval warfare.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Africa: A Biography of the Continent by John Reader

Reader's book is a gem. Subtitled "The Biography of a Continent", I was a bit skeptical that it would be so much of an overview as to be dull or repetitive. Instead "Africa" approaches the subject as an object. It is not a history of the people and cultures of the continent as much as it is the story of the land itself, as least for a good part of the book. The author delves into the geology of the continent, both in origin and the effect that it's unique mineral, landform and climate molded the cultures that evolved there. While this might sound a bit boring or scholarly, instead it makes for interesting reading.

A fascinating, and perhaps controversial section discusses the how the development of man's physiology was affected by Africa's climate and topography. This includes a discussion of the need for the cooling of the brain and how man's unique biped stance and movement were developed as a response to Africa's weather and flora. I found it pleasantly surprising to find that what I thought would be a simple history went so far afield yet stayed true to the subject.

He discusses the evolution of early man and the effect the land had on it. As man evolved and civilizations emerged, Reader shows how Africa's rainfall, soil and weather affected the way in which those civilizations developed. He describes the unique cultures of the different peoples, although he does not attempt to be comprehensive. Rather it is a sampling of some of the more interesting aspects.

The end of the book is a bit of a disappointment. With the beginning of the colonial era the style goes to more of an overview and while it is certainly appropriate for a single volume, it feels like a bit of a letdown compared to unusual and interesting approach Reader had taken in most of the book. Still, there's nothing bad or unreadable and for many readers it will be quite enough.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in people and history, and especially those who enjoy finding those books that take chances and succeed.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Thursday, July 24, 2008

{Review} SAS: Phantoms of War: A History of the Australian Special Air Service by David Horner:

While many people with an interest in military history will instantly associate "SAS" with the British Special Air Service, fewer are aware that Australia also formed her own SAS back in the 1950's. In this book Horner relates the history of the unit, from the earliest discussions among politicians and military leaders about the need for such a unit through their deployment to East Timor in 1999-2000. Note that the book doesn't include any information on the ASAS deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. This sizable book not only deals with their military operations, but with matters as mundane as government funding, building refurbishments and recruiting standards. As such, at times the book can get a bit dull for those looking for an excitement military history read.

However, if you bear with the book through the more tedious parts, or just skim or skip them altogether, you will find some truly fascinating stories of combat operations in Borneo, Malaysia, South Vietnam and East Timor. The author interviewed many active service and retired members of the regiment and as a result the stories of the patrols in these theaters of war are written at the level of the experience of the individual soldier. Combat operations almost always consisted of patrols of no more than four or five men, staying on ops for days at a time, moving in silence for hours. The narrative of the combat patrols have that "you are there" feel to them and will be appreciated by those who wish to understand how these special forces types worked in ways so different than traditional infantry.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Formula 1: Creating the Spectacle by Alan Henry

This is one of those many F1 associated reads that get pumped out every few months (or is it days?) and as such probably contains much that any F1 fan has already read about in other sources. It's now several years old and as such many details are out of date. Creating The Spectacle does more uniquely go behind the scenes to describe how the teams go from race locale to race locale, setting up and operating their voluminous motor homes and fantastically equipped garages spaces, food kitchens and VIP accommodations. Sadly the discussion of this aspect of F1 isn't delved into anywhere near enough to make it worth the price of the book, and the rest of the content is, as I mentioned, the kind of reading you get from many other sources.

I would recommend this book to someone who is not a Formula 1 fan, but has an interest in finding out more about the series and is unconcerned with timeliness of some of the hard facts. With that caveat I think they could enjoy the book as a casual read. For those who are F1 devotees, well, you will probably be able to blow through this book in a long afternoon, so perhaps it's good material to bring when your loved one drags you away from the television to spend the day at the beach.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Porsche 911 Story: The entire development history by Paul Frere

Over the course of a couple of decades, Paul Frere has established himself as the definitive expert on the Porsche 911, it's predecessors and the models derived from the basic 911 platform. This book is not for the faint of heart casual reader. There are endless pages of discussions of changes to transmission gearing, updates to engines, tweaks to suspensions and so on and so forth for hundreds of pages. There is also substantial coverage of the Porsche's racing career, but that could occupy a half dozen books by itself and so the coverage in this book is more of an overview, and for that it's surprisingly rather dull reading.

The book contains hundreds of photos, drawings and illustrations, including a color section, so the text is broken up and enhanced by them. Some details described in the text could use further illustration, but I suspect that the true Porsche aficionado (of which I am not one) is better informed.

This book is most definitely not recommended for the casual reader. Even those with a passing interest in automobiles should seriously consider the degree of commitment to which they might wish to aspire before undertaking this book. Only the true Porsche-o-phile might be inclined to give it a try.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How I review books (and why)

I just updated my LibraryThing library entries for the Flashman series with review links that all linked back to my single review of the Flashman books. Since some people might think this is rather odd, I'll explain a bit how (and why).

The "why" is fairly straightforward. I enjoy books in the way that Jefferson did; "I cannot live without books". And since I have been helped by many in my quest to find and enjoy books, I feel that one way I can help others is to post reviews.

The "how" I review books is different than the way I would have a decade ago. Nowadays, in the advent of online resources like, it's easy to find the publisher's description of the book. So what I like to do is add some opinion about the book to give the readers a feel as to whether the book is one which they might enjoy. I might summarize or give a brief outline of the book's contents, but mostly I am focusing on the experience of reading the book. For instance, is it a fun read? Does it feel like a bit of a grind, like leveling up in World of Warcraft? Or is it a scholarly challenge, intended for reference and listing in someone else's bibliography?

Additionally, are there unique aspects of the book's style that make it more enjoyable? Recently I finished reading Victorian America (link to my review). I didn't really enjoy the book that much since the writing style made reading it more like research. However, currently I am reading Victorian London (link to LibraryThing entry) and the style of Liza Picard is much more enjoyable (I'll have a review soon).

I'm just in my first week of this blog, so I am still defining and developing my review style, but I hope that at least I have made my intent clear.

{Review} Cooper Cars (World Champions) by Doug Nye

This would have to be considered the definite work on the history of Cooper, as a constructor and also as a race team. It is a very sizable book and while it is well illustrated it also is quite detailed. Definitely not a coffee table book. Cooper Cars (the constructor) started off after world war 2 in a minor 500cc formula by welding together the wrecked rear ends of two Fiats, fabricating the bodywork and ended up with a superbly fast race car. From a small garage operation, Cooper expanded and by the late fifties was a major player in Formula 1 racing and also branched out into sports car and rallying. After the death of founder and owner Charles Cooper in 1964, son John struggled to manage the factory and the works team but eventually sold the business. In less than two decades Cooper had gone from a corner garage to one of the most revered marques in auto racing.

The author, Doug Nye, is one of the best automotive writers and this is one of his best works. The book touches upon the people and events, but also delves substantially into the design and construction of the cars. The photographs are excellent, including many candid shots of obscure but interesting events. The book not only deals in great depth with the grand prix and lesser formula race cars but also thoroughly explore's Cooper's other efforts, including several sports cars, some of which developed into successful race entries. Nye also relates the story of Cooper's entry into top rung of American motorsports, the Indy 500. Additionally there is a chapter devoted to Cooper's association with the British Motor Corporation's Mini, which turned a small economy sedan into an iconic symbol known all over the world.

Nye's writing style is informal and he obviously enjoys relating the small personal anecdotes he gathered over dozens of interviews. At times the relating of the events of each racing season become somewhat laborious, but Nye's intend is to give a thorough history of Cooper and so he includes all of the details of things Cooper.

Most heartily recommended for those with an interest in motor racing. Other may find the book a bit too challenging, but perhaps might be worth giving a try.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review: Water for Gotham: A History by Gerard T. Koeppel

New York City has always struggled to meet the demands of it's citizens and visitors and few challenges have been as controversial and contentious as the search for adequate water. In Water for Gotham Koeppel related the story of the high minded idealists and the low down scoundrels (including a Vice President of the United States!) who alternated between working together and fighting among themselves to establish a permanent solution to this most vexing of the Big Apple's problems. While he does delve a bit into the engineering of the many solutions, this is more a book about the people and the stories of the many projects from precolonial times to the end of the nineteenth century when a steady supply was finally assured, at least for the moment.

This is a fairly fun book to read with it's many characters and story lines. It does at time slow down in the discussion of the political battles for that most important element of any construction project (money!) but most of the time it keeps up a good pace for the reader. There are adequate maps and illustrations to view. And it does have a happy ending... so far.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

New email update request available

At the top of the left column is a place to enter an email address to get updates to this blog. For some reason either this wasn't available in Blogger, or I couldn't figure out how to get it to work, so I subscribed to Feedburner which by a mysterious series of steps provided a way to get a widget added to my blog site. Seems to work pretty well. If anyone does subscribe, let me know how it works for you.

Review: Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture by Peter Kobel

This is a surprisingly good coffee table book covering from the birth of the cinema to the start of the talkies. The narrative is an overview of the development of the industry, the creation of the early stars of film, techniques of filming and some surprising additions, like a marvelous discussion of the critical importance of sound(!) in silent films, being the musical accompaniment. The included photos, film stills and reproduced posters are of exquisite quality and detail. If you have an interest in learning something about early cinema this is an excellent introduction, the reading isn't too heavy and the illustrations heavenly. If you are already a film fan, this book would be a superb addition to your library.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Review: Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915 (The Everyday Life in America Series, Vol. 4) by Thomas J. Schlereth

This book is an overview of pretty much everything, or so it seems, in the United States between 1876 and 1915. Subjects such as the newspapers we read, the shoes we wore, the parlor rooms in which we sat, all this and much, much more. So much is covered that nothing seems to be covered in enough detail to be enjoyed. This is exacerbated by the intent of the author to not just to provide a snapshot of Victorian America, but to show how things changed from the beginning of the period to the end. So we learn how clothes went from looking like this to looking like that and then we are rushed off to another subject. It is not a bad book, but after reading it I felt that I couldn't really recall much in the way of details. I would recommend this book only to those who are interested in gaining an overview of the period. It also might server as a good reference or refresher for someone who has an interest in the period and wishes to brush up on certain subjects.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book.

Review: The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester is one of the more popular non-fiction authors of our time and this is one of the books upon which he made his reputation. While apparently a rather small book, it deals in quite fascinating detail with the origins and development of the OED. While it does discuss how the OED was researched and how it's now legendary format and incredible amount of detail was developed, the book's primary focus is on the personalities that helped (or hindered) the gestation and birth of the OED. As usual Winchester is a master of story telling in his rather unique way. For those who are not very familiar with English tradition and culture, some causal references made by Winchester might be obscure and puzzling, but those willing to put in the time doing some Google research will be enlightened and entertained. Very much recommended as a good casual read.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Review: Vietnam Tracks: Armor in Battle 1945-1975 by Simon Dunstan

My copy of this book was published by Presidio Press in 1982, unlike the later Osprey edition, and is an overview of the armor employed by the French, US Army and Marines, Australians and North Vietnamese in Vietnam during those thirty years. It is not an in-depth study of the subject but instead is a nice overview of both the types of vehicles involved and the issues and problems faced by the combatants. The descriptions of the vehicles is accompanied by numerous photographs, some in color, most of which in this edition are of excellent quality. The author seems quite knowledgeable about many little and obscure details which makes it a rather enjoyable read. The author also discusses the challenges of operating armor in the wide variety of terrain found in Vietnam, with interesting insight into the evolution of armored doctrine as the forces gained experience.

I would recommend this book to those with an interest in the use of armor in Vietnam and is equally enjoyable by the scholar and the more casual reader. The detail of the photographs will also appeal to those involved with armor miniatures.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Review (sort of): The Flashman Novels by George McDonald Fraser

If you have questions about why I put all the Flashman books into one review, a recent blog entry I made about how and why I review books might help.

The recent death of George McDonald Fraser has brought a close (maybe permanent, maybe not?) to this delightful series of books. I have had the pleasure of following this series every since the release of the first book back in the sixties. The Flashman novels combine history (including substantial endnotes) with sex, action, adventure and the secret pleasure of enjoying the exploits of one of the most notoriously popular non-politically correct characters of 20th Century literature. Flashman is a womanizer, a coward, a scoundrel and a cheat, but in the novels, which are all narrated by Flashman himself, he is utterly honest with his readers. He is a man not proud of his faults, but certainly unabashed about them.

The Flashman novels could be dismissed as sensationalized light reading , but Fraser cleverly tied his character into most of the major events of the last sixty years of the nineteenth century, a Victorian Zelig or Forrest Gump. Flashman casually mentions this minor detail or that simple observation, then Fraser in his assumed role as editor of the Flashman papers meticulously explains in the endnotes how these mentions by Flashman confirm the truth of his narrative, since only if Flashman was there could he have known about this fact or that. Fraser's endnotes also round out the historic details of the narrative, giving background and elaboration to the history-as-I-lived-it tales told by Flashman. It all works wonderfully, even if you somewhat suspect that some details are being outrageously fabricated.

I very strongly recommend these books to anyone who has an interest in history and is willing to keep an open mind towards the womanizing and the language (the n-word appears quite a bit, but completely in character for Flashman). I would suggest the best way to read them is in order of publication. This doesn't follow Flashman's own life chronology, but the books published later often make reference to previous editions of the "Flashman Papers" and so is more fun for the reader to follow.

Review (Sort of): The Nero Wolfe Novels by Rex Stout

I almost exclusively read non-fiction. However, there are times when the brain craves something less challenging, like a good detective novel. So a few years ago I started reading the Nero Wolfe novels, written by Rex Stout. Unlike many characters in the detective genre, Wolfe isn't a hard-bitten tough guy or an ex-cop following a different career path. Wolfe in fact is a well educated, very literate man with a vast intelligence and, at least according to his right hand man Archie Goodwin, a vast girth to accompany it. Goodwin is Wolfe's eyes, ears, legs and arms. Besides being handy with a gun and bare knuckles, Archie also takes shorthand, types well and has almost total recall. He is also an unashamed womanizer; well, rather it could be said that he hasn't seen the light of female equality. Overlooking this character flaw isn't too hard, especially when you remember that Stout started the series back in the 1930's when a socially enlightened gumshoe would have been considered not up to the task. Archie is also the narrator of the books, a literary device that works splendidly in this series.

Wolfe and Archie can call on the assistance of the associates, headed by Saul Panzer, perhaps the best shadow man that Archie has ever known. Mr Parker is Wolfe's attorney on call, always ready to bail Archie out of the local lockup or work up the legal rational to assist Wolfe in tippy-toeing round the edge of the law. The law is ably represented by Inspector Cramer and his men; Cramer and Wolfe had butted heads for decades, but they still respect one another, although Cramer lives for the day he can put Wolfe behind bars and keep him there.

As you might tell, I am very fond of these books, having read pretty much every one I could lay hold of. Some of the books are full length novels, some are collections of three or four novellas. Some aren't quite as good as the others, but there isn't a stinker in the bunch. And if you can, look for some of the short story collections. The originals appeared in various magazines throughout the years and occasionally are re-issued in collections.

One more thing. After the passing of Rex Stout, his estate authorized Robert Goldsbourgh to use the characters and style to write more Nero Wolfe novels. I have read one (The Silver Spire) and found it adequate. I might explore others of his, sometime.

Review: Marines Under Armor: The Marine Corps and the Armored Fighting Vehicle, 1916-2000 by Kenneth W. Estes

Marines Under Armor is a history of the development, procurement and use of armor by the United States Marine Corps. Estes traces the origin of armor doctrine and use in the Marines from after the first world war through the end of the twentieth century. Between the world wars the Marines were trying to define their role in the US military and as part of that development the adoption of armor was discussed. As the book relates, the Marines initially tried to procure armor designed to their own unique requirements, but slashed budgets and the lack of a formal operational doctrine eventually drove the Corps to adopt the armored fighting vehicle types of the US Army prior to and during WW2. With the acceptance of the task of amphibious assaults against fortified beaches, the Marines did adopt unique designs such as the armored amphibious tractor. After WW2, during Korea, Vietnam and through to the Gulf War, the Marines maintained the policy of mostly using the same main battle tanks as the US Army. However, the Marines did uniquely adopt the LAV (Light Armored Vehicle) and also continued to develop the amphibious assault vehicle.

The book is more of a scholarly study with a minimum of combat stories and personal tales. A good part of the time we read about congressional hearings and doctrine development, budget concerns and organizational makeups. For the serious student of Marine armor this is a must get book, for the more casual reader this might be too tough a read to enjoy.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

New on "My Blog List", TOCWOC - A Civil War Blog

I've added the blog "TOCWOC - A Civil War Blog" to my Blog List. This is Brett Schulte's excellent American Civil War site with book and game reviews and many other items of interest. Well worth the time to read.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Stack o' Books

As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm a member of the Bookmooch community. Sometimes I get a book or two a week, sometimes....

The stack is fifteen inches tall, but to be fair that's an Amazon order box second from the bottom. Still, it's great to be part of Bookmooch.

And for those confused about that green box in the photo, that's a VCR tape, as in Video Cassette Recorder. Your folks probably have one up in the attic ;-)

Bookmooch and me

Besides this blog and my LibraryThing account, I'm also a Bookmoocher. I realize that to be as confusing as possible my Bookmooch account is under another name, but who doesn't have a bunch of personalities on the Internet? Visit the Bookmooch home page to get info and start an account. It's pretty darn simple to use, only costs you money (as postage) when you send out a book, and you can get the satisfaction of helping charities and other organizations, and also get rid of those copies of The Babysitter's Club that have clogging up your attic.

Flattery and the Strategist's Personal Library

As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. While I have had an account on LibraryThing for quite a while, I never have gotten around to writing reviews. When I finally decided to spend some time and start posting, I noticed that besides just putting the reviews on the LibraryThing book page, it was also an option to start a blog and put my reviews there. I got this idea from the Strategist's Personal Library (SPL) blog by jmnlman. It's a very good blog and also a great source of temptation to get more books. Anyway, I just want to mention the SPL here so he doesn't think I'm just ripping him off! j/k

Review: GHOSTS OF THE ETO: American Tactical Deception Units in the European Theater, 1944 - 1945 by Jonathan Gawne

Ghosts is one of interesting books that reveal a lesser know side of World War 2, in this case tactical deception. Tactical deception is the art of deceiving the enemy as to the strength, location, or intent of a combat unit, as opposed to strategic deception which can be considered to be misleading the enemy as to actions that might affect an entire theater of war, for instance fooling the enemy into thinking that you are going to land at the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy.

Ghosts primarily deals with a single unit, the US 23rd Special Troops. This unit, or parts of it, was assigned to various commands of the US Army in Europe in 1944-45. It's role was to deceive the enemy into thinking that a real combat unit was someplace it wasn't, or to mask the movement of a combat unit by misleading the enemy into thinking it had gone to somewhere else. There were also other tasks undertaken by the unit. These deceptions were accomplished by using explosives and speakers to mimic artillery fire, phantom radios to simulate the normal wireless traffic of a real combat unit, trucks or half-tracks mounting large speakers to replicate the sound of a large unit moving, and many others.

The book contains a wealth of information concerning these deception techniques and their employment, but sadly the author spends many chapters covering operations that are repetitious to ones previously described. He does carefully include maps to cover the operations, but they aren't all that useful to illuminate the hows and whys of the operations, just where and whens. As I read the book I found myself skimming over chapters once I had determined that it contained nothing new of interest to me. As a unit history this book has much to commend it, but as a study of tactical deception it does tend to get boring after a while.

LibraryThing link to this book

Review: Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire by Simon Winchester

The copy I have of this book was published in 1984, so much of the political and other information is very out of date. However, as a travelogue with some very astute and perhaps controversial observations it is still a very enjoyable read. Winchester is a favorite author of mine, Krakatoa and A Crack In The Edge of the World being a couple of my favorites. In Outposts however Winchester relates his personal travels to the (at the time) remaining colonial outposts of the British Empire. He also shares his thoughts on how the British government has ignored or short-changed the residents of these outposts. He does at time seem to take a long time to reach a point, and often skims over many aspects of where he visits with nary an explanation, but if you are willing to let him be the guide you will find it an enjoyable if sometimes frustrating journey.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Review: The Guinness Book Of Espionage by Mark Lloyd

This is one of those hard to classify books. It's not really a narrative history of espionage, but it's not really an encyclopedia or reference work. It does have some chapters devoted to the history of spying and also to current activities such as industrial espionage, but none of the accounts of really detailed as much as they are just interesting snippets of information or even trivia. Other chapters relate the nuts and bolts of the spying business, from miniature cameras to an entire chapter devoted to airborne espionage, including a number of entries for current intelligence gathering aircraft. There is quite a number of pages devoted to British espionage efforts in occupied Europe in WW2, including some fascinating detail about their radios. There are also long detailed retelling of some of the more important espionage scandals of the second half of the twentieth century, such as the Kim Philby affair. However, other affairs and incidents are only briefly covered or completely ignored. Probably the best way to assess this book is to see it as a sort of Whitman Sampler of spying. You get a taste of this and a nibble of that and perhaps you'll find a subject into which you would like to delve further. Overall it's a fairly easy to read overview of the subject.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Review: Last of the Flying Clippers: The Boeing B-314 Story by M.D. Klaas

This is another entry in the Schiffer Library of big, glossy but fairly high priced books. In this case the price is well justified. The author, who native language is apparently not English, tells the complete story of the Boeing B-314 Flying Clipper. There is just a marvelous amount of detail about the original concept for the aircraft, the actions by Pan-Am to fund construction, the headaches of international diplomacy to negotiate landing rights overseas, and so on and so forth. An entire chapter is devoted to a walk-through of the aircraft, while another details the training and career progression of the Clipper crews. The book covers the pre-war flights by Pan-Am and then in even more detail relates the wartime activities of the aircraft when they were operated by Pan-Am for the military and also by the British government. Finally the short post war lives of the various aircraft are followed, till they were either lost in accidents or broken up for scrap. And in the middle of all this there are the odd chapters just describing what it was like to fly across the ocean on a clipper. Most definitely recommended. And one bit of trivia for you. The Boeing B-314 Flying Clipper was the only aircraft known to have included a stand up urinal!

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Review: The Winter War Russia Aganist Finland by Richard W. Condon

the winter war: Russia against Finland by Richard W. Condon - This is one of the old (early 1970s) one dollar trade sized paperbacks put out by Ballantines. The original series was called "Ballantine's History of World War 2" but they realized that was rather limiting and so it became "Ballantine's History of the Violent Century". The series featured many illustrations, photos and maps in the 160 page book as opposed to most mass market paperbacks of the time which featured few illustrations and perhaps a photo section.

In "the winter war" (yes, it's not capitalized on the cover) the author gives a brief but thorough account of the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-40, including the events leading up to the Russian invasion and the post-war effects. The book does not give deep details on orders of battle, troop counts or weapon specs, but as a narrative history of the war it is fairly thorough in it's retelling of the significant battles and other activities. There are a decent number of maps which are clear and well rendered. The text is well edited and sharply honed to tell the story without extraneous personal accounts, although there are some stories of individual heroics and ordeals. It strikes an excellent balance between a more scholarly report on the war and an easy to read narrative.

I would recommend this book to anyone wishing to gain an understanding of this little known but very significant conflict. It is much more thorough than a Wikipedia entry, or even an Osprey Campaign book, but not so detailed as a full book treatment. These old Ballantine books can be hard to find, but if you can locate one in decent shape they can be wonderful additions to any military history library.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Kicking off my Blog

I've never blogged before, so this should be interesting. I'm planning on using this blog to post book reviews linked from my LibraryThing account. Just how many I'll be able to post depends on real life and that's always unpredictable.