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 As is always true in F1, as soon as a book is published the information in is becomes out of date, but enough of the currently technology of F1 has been around since before Matchett wrote this book that it does have relevance to the current racing season.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 Amazon.com 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