Rick B. (bup) - , - Reviews

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1776
1776
Author: David McCullough
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 132
Review Date: 4/13/2011
Helpful Score: 1


Just an interesting way to slice history - I don't know if it's vertically, or horizontally, or what, but rather than make it about a person, or about one historical phenomenon, make it about a historical phenomenon artificially sliced by year. That appealed to me.

Well, that's not what he did, of course. The book opens in October 1775, with King George III's address to Parliament, and ends in the first days of 1777, with a sprinkling of the British hearing about Washington's year-end successes around Trenton.

It's basically the story of what George Washington did over his summer vacation during 1776, which opened with a siege of Boston (how surreal is that? On January 1, 1776, Boston was occupied by a foreign power, New York was a town on the southern end of 'York Island,' and Vermont was the Wild West), and ended with his freezing, starving army having been chased from one end of New Jersey to the other.

So it's the feel-good, crystalized portion of the miracle of the American Revolution.


21: Bringing Down the House - Movie Tie-In: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions
Review Date: 3/17/2010
Helpful Score: 3


"He knew he looked like the most arrogant pr**k in the world, but he didn't care. Hubris had no place in a card-counter's vocabulary. There was plenty of time for humility back in Boston..."

(emphasis added)

So, besides that bit, which will annoy me for the next week or so, it was a pretty good book. I didn't care for Mezrich's style so much (Crichton? Stephen King self-parody?), but the story is great. Much better than the movie.


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Author: Seth Grahame-Smith
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 153
Review Date: 10/13/2010
Helpful Score: 1


This is not a mashup. Just because it was written by the guy who wrote the seminal mashup, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," that doesn't mean everything he does is a classic/horror mashup. Yes, he invented the (limited) genre. He is not the genre. Got that? Good.

Because classic/monster mashup is a one-trick pony. The joke worked for one great book, even though it's impossible to perfectly capture Austen's style.

This book is not a one-trick pony. It's fantastic. I want more and more Abe Lincoln and vampire hunting. The idea is brilliant, but so is the execution here. This is guy wish fulfillment, for those of us who have wanted to be both president and superhero. Vampires are also a wonderful metaphor for the slave economy that led to the Civil War.

It's got lots of wonderful history, lots of vampire hunting, lots of blood. It captures Abe's sullen demeanor. Grahame-Smith has Lincoln's voice (in the journal woven through the book) perfectly.

Read this thing.


Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: With Connections (Hrw Library)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: With Connections (Hrw Library)
Author: Mark Twain
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
 16
Review Date: 5/11/2011


In high school I was taught this is America's greatest novel, and that it's our epic. Thirty years later, I read it again with more confidence in my own opinion.

The first part of the book, before Huck and Jim take off down the river, is great. Their island really is majestic, Huck's deception of his pa entertains and interests, as well as speaking volumes about Huck's character.

The middle of the book, Huck and Jim are too much of bystanders watching other stories - the feuding families, all the adventures with the King and the Duke.

The end of the book, when Tom Sawyer shows up? Ouch. It's a thin joke gone way too far. Just tiring to read. Then the denouement fairy shows up on literally the last 2 pages to sweep away the 2 major points of conflict in the book.

That said, it's still a very powerful, humorously ironic upending of racist America in the middle 1800's, and Twain should be proud that some doofuses still get worked up that his book has that word in it. The novel also expresses Twain's love and knowledge of America's great river well.

I think I'll read it again in 30 years.


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 20
Review Date: 10/24/2011


Thanks for Sherlock Holmes, Arthur. Now that I've read the twelve stories that comprise the official official collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I understand why the Red Headed League and The Speckled Band have become the war horses - a lot of the stories really are of pulp magazine fiction quality. Nevertheless, they gave us the character, and the world is a much better place for having him.

The Boscombe Valley Mystery stands out as another particularly good one.

On the other hand, The Five Orange Pips should be dragged outside and shot. The only redeeming aspect of this story is that it does show that Holmes is much more interested in resolving the mystery than protecting his client.


Albert Einstein : A Biography
Albert Einstein : A Biography
Author: Albrecht Folsing
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 2
Review Date: 6/18/2012


I thought that it was a pretty thorough bio of Einstein, but I wish there had been a tad bit more science. I think the ideal reader would be well-acquainted enough with relativity and quantum physics to follow what the biographer's talking about in many places, but not a physicist. I guess it'd be a dilettante of physics who's a bit more versed than me.

In fact, you know what would really help this book? An appendix that gives a good layman's explanation of special relativity and general relativity.

Folsing's a bit dismissive of Einstein's refusal to accept quantum theory as the actual nature of things. Einstein well-understood, and Folsing even acknowledges that Einstein understood, that the quantum model is a good model and makes accurate predictions, he just didn't think it got at the true nature of the way things are. And one can almost hear Folsing chuckling condescendingly as he wrote about Einstein being quixotic in his attempt to topple the quantum model establishment. Maybe Einstein was wrong (apparently the EPR paradox resolution by Bell's theorem indicates that, but it boggles me), but the questioning of whether two identical but opposite-momentum particles could have both their position and velocity measured was a good one. It was exactly the kind of niggling gap that led Einstein to the theory of relativity in the first place, and the kind of niggling gap Einstein explicitly stated he used to drive his contemplations through his life.

I guess that's a peeve, though. Will you like the book? Is it worth reading? I liked the writing, and Einstein's life is compelling. So, yeah.


All Quiet on the Western Front
All Quiet on the Western Front
Author: Erich Maria Remarque, A. W. Wheen (Translator)
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 416
Review Date: 3/11/2010
Helpful Score: 2


This is stupid embarrassing, but the name of the main character is Paul Baeumer, and the author's name is Erich Remarque, but the book felt so real I thought I was reading a real autobiographical history of a soldier in WWI until the very end.

The point is, yes, I'm stupid, but also how amazing real the book reads.

The other thing I think is that this book wouldn't have been nearly as effective if it were an account of a soldier on the winning side. Duh, you who have read the book say. It's all about the futility of war. Well, yeah, but still.


All Quiet on the Western Front
All Quiet on the Western Front
Author: Erich Maria Remarque
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
 17
Review Date: 3/11/2010
Helpful Score: 1


This is stupid embarrassing, but the name of the main character is Paul Baeumer, and the author's name is Erich Remarque, but the book felt so real I thought I was reading a real autobiographical history of a soldier in WWI until the very end.

The point is, yes, I'm stupid, but also how amazing real the book reads.

The other thing I think is that this book wouldn't have been nearly as effective if it were an account of a soldier on the winning side. Duh, you who have read the book say. It's all about the futility of war. Well, yeah, but still.


The Amateur Marriage
The Amateur Marriage
Author: Anne Tyler
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
 146
Review Date: 3/1/2010
Helpful Score: 3


You want me to give you a reasoned analysis of the book and I just can't. Not with this one. I just finished it, I loved it, I'm devastated it's over, it's a completely emotional response, and I'm scared if I think about it too much I'll be embarrassed at how much I liked it. So, sorry. Not gonna do it. I love this book too much to examine whether it deserves my love and respect.


American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
Author: Jon Meacham
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3/5 Stars.
 23
Review Date: 10/3/2011
Helpful Score: 1


Parts of the book are hard to read if only because you're reading about such an internally inconsistent egomaniac who thought slavery was tons of fun and a great thing to do, that ignoring past treaties with the Cherokee nation was pretty cool, and that a minority group within the Cherokee nation who agreed to be transplanted west of the Mississippi was binding on the whole tribe, and that the US was therefore justified when it forcibly moved the tribe, and who thought he was a great champion of liberty and the savior of the union.

But he's an important president, and a huge figure necessary for the understanding of where the modern presidency came from. And this book does give you that.

It's not great as a biography - it really is about his two administrations with a little bit of bumper on either side, but it gives a great sense of him, of his cabinet, and of his political opponents John Calhoun and Henry Clay.

Also, the federal bank was probably a bad thing and I'm glad he relentlessly pursued and destroyed it.


Ape House
Ape House
Author: Sara Gruen
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.7/5 Stars.
 116
Review Date: 10/4/2010
Helpful Score: 1


Maybe I'm just in a good mood, throwing all these 5-star ratings around lately. Or maybe I've been reading good books. Who can say?

As I was reading 'Ape House,' I thought to myself, "this is a bit wackier than 'Water for Elephants' was." Then I remembered all the things that actually happened in 'Water for Elephants,' and while they were sometimes raw, violent, and just plain wince-inducing, they were a bit wacky too.

Forgive my sexism, but here we have a female writer of mainstream, non-genre fiction, who's not afraid of plot and takes some risks right on the edge of the Suspended Disbelief Bridge. Like John Irving but a girl.

And man it works. You got your signing bonobos, your eco-terrorists, your porn kingpin, your explosions, everything. And humor. Really good humor.


The Areas of My Expertise
The Areas of My Expertise
Author: John Hodgman
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.4/5 Stars.
 11
Review Date: 5/29/2011


While the format of the book makes it hard to get into, when somebody ordered this from me I had only a few days to read it, and I got into it. It helped that the power has been out most of today.

It's really funny! There's lots of good absurdist humor with good improv-style justification, context and backstory that makes much of it seem almost believable. Yet stupidly funny.

Some of the best stuff is in the 55 dramatic situations (based on the 4 categories of stories many of us learned as students, but with 'a stranger comes to town' added on with 'a town springs up around a stranger,' and many of the 'man versus nature scenarios' laugh-out-loud funny - 'volcanoes come to town,' 'Saint Bernards arrive first as rescuers, but later reveal themselves to be evil captors.'

Another very strong part is the state trivia section (if Alaska were superimposed on the lower 48, it would stretch from Texas to Manhattan, and DESTROY ALL BENEATH IT).

Also, finally, I'm pretty sure the guy has read my mind. Or we have similar senses of humor.


Baa Baa Black Sheep
Baa Baa Black Sheep
Author: Gregory 'Pappy' Boyington
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 18
Review Date: 3/19/2012
Helpful Score: 1


I've been told the TV show Baa, Baa Black Sheep was not very good. I don't know. When it was on, I was too busy enjoying it to notice.

I think that may be the case here - one thing I can say for sure is that the book was not ghost written. God bless him, but the man was not a gifted writer. He was a gifted flyer and fighter. The book is probably not "good," but I enjoyed it too much to notice.

And if you want to round out your vision of the myth with some facts, this book will help you. Flyers were in combat zones for short periods - 6 or 12 weeks or something. He did most of his flying in one half (the second half) of 1943, was shot down in the first days of 1944, and spent the rest of the war in a secret Japanese prison camp where they kept 'special prisoners' that they didn't tell the Red Cross about. Boyington was missing in action, presumed killed, until two weeks after the war ended.

He also struggled with booze, and it's clear Alcoholics Anonymous philosophies directed his approach to life at the time he wrote the book.

If you love Corsairs, and enjoyed the TV show, and thought it was so cool that the show had actual combat from the wing cameras, this book is pretty much a must-read. If you have an autographed picture of "Pappy" with his squadron because your uncle was in the Marines and served in the Pacific in WW II and knew him, then you already enjoyed this book. I have to bug my wife to let me hang up that picture.


Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World
Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World
Author: Dan Koeppel
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 9
Review Date: 10/31/2012


Bananas have been coming up in my life a lot lately - I've decided they're the wonder food for biking. A guy at work has been sharing lots of banana factoids. So I'm predisposed to like reading about bananas.

And the first hundred pages or so were really interesting. I had no idea that before 1870, Americans didn't eat bananas at all. Then bananas exploded on the scene faster than Gangnam-style. United Fruits (Chiquita) and Standard Fruits (Dole) were ruthless robber barons that made the era of robber barons proud. "Banana Republic" is no misnomer - Central American and Caribbean governments existed at the pleasure of the banana companies. Then, the biggest breed of banana got a disease! That's hugely bad for banana stalks, which are reproduced from cuttings, and are all genetically identical for a particular breed! So the bananas people ate in the 1920's - Gros Michels - are basically extinct! Now our breed (Cavendish!) is facing a similar disease!

Then the next hundred pages were kind of interesting. Before 1870, Americans didn't eat bananas at all. Then bananas exploded on the scene. United Fruits (Chiquita) and Standard Fruits (Dole) were ruthless robber barons that made their eras proud. "Banana Republics" - Central American and Caribbean governments - existed at the pleasure of the banana companies. Then, the biggest breed of banana got a disease. That's hugely bad for banana stalks. So the bananas people ate in the 1920's - Gros Michels - are basically extinct. Now our breed (Cavendish) is facing a similar disease.

Then the last 60 pages were not interesting. Before 1870, Americans didn't eat bananas at all. Then bananas exploded. United Fruits and Standard Fruits were ruthless. "Banana Republics" existed at the pleasure of the banana companies. Then, the biggest breed got a disease. They're gone. Our breed (Cavendish) is facing a similar disease. The last 16 pages were a timeline that went over it all again.

The photos were boring, too, and I suspect were there to pad out the pages.

100 pages crammed into 260, basically. Still, interesting enough.


Baseball's Greatest Season, 1924
Baseball's Greatest Season, 1924
Author: Reed Browning
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 9/7/2010


I wanted to love this book - I love baseball, I grew up in DC, the 1924 season is the story of Washington's only World Series win, and the greatest pitcher of all time, Walter Johnson, figures prominently in the story.

Until the last chapter, though (which is the World Series itself), the book felt too much like a telegraphic retelling of the season. Each sentence was a new event - maybe a small event - like Kiki Cuyler had 4 hits in a game - but it felt like reading snippets from 154 daily sports roundups. Intersticed between the chapters that laid out the season were chapters that weren't chronological in nature at all (a chapter called 'The Business of Baseball,' a chapter called 'The Players,' etc.), as an attempt to break up the action - but it never gelled.

Still, the end of the season and World Series chapters were compelling and a great read, and brought together disparate sources of the 7-game series (the 7th game went 12 innings, too!) to make a cohesive whole of that part of the book.

By the way - I waited more than two years to get this book - and I was literally ten pages from the end, with the book riding in my travel bag - when a grape soda I had in a plastic bag in my bag somehow got a tiny hole and leaked out of the plastic bag and onto the bottom corner of the book for all of its 157 pages. Now it's NOT SWAPPABLE. Stupid grape soda. Stupid book for lying in the grape soda.


The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
Author: Dinaw Mengestu
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.6/5 Stars.
 33
Review Date: 5/13/2013


Clearly a first novel, that feels like a very well done writing exercise.

The protagonist is frustratingly slow to action, as the novel is slow to plot, but he sure is philosophical.

Maybe it's great and I wasn't in the mood.


The Beginner's Goodbye
The Beginner's Goodbye
Author: Anne Tyler
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.4/5 Stars.
 35
Review Date: 9/29/2012
Helpful Score: 3


I always love Tyler's writing - so breezy, effortless, but still sophisticated.

So I liked the writing. I also liked a lot of the book - I identified with her protagonist, Aaron, and I felt like his wife was very real. I could picture her perfectly.

But the narrative didn't feel real. This may feel like a spoiler, but it's really not, when I tell you that Aaron's dead wife appears in the book. It's not a spoiler because he says it flat out in the first sentence.

So anyway, narrative didn't feel real. Maybe she was intentionally doing an unreliable-narrator thing; if so, it didn't work with me. At the beginning of the book, he talked as if being with his wife was a constant and common occurrence, whether people were around or no. The rest of the book, his wife's appearances are furtive, brief, and people-shy. It didn't quite jell. I found myself wondering where in the narrative the scenes described in the first pages could have occurred - they didn't seem like they would fit in any part of the grieving process.

Also, and maybe this is a nitpick, but men just don't describe clothes at length, or nearly as specifically, as Tyler does. She does it in every book. In a first-person book with a male narrator, it's just got to get cut out. No man talks about the way a sweater gathers at the collar, or goes on about pencil-skirts and how often a particular woman wears that one.


Beyond Einstein : The Cosmic Quest for the Theory of the Universe
Beyond Einstein : The Cosmic Quest for the Theory of the Universe
Author: Michio Kaku
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 6
Review Date: 9/16/2013


For me this book gave me the feeling of learning something without me really learning anything.

Do you remember in maybe junior high when a science teacher taught you that if there were twins, and one of them went on a spaceship going real fast for a long trip, when they came back the twin left on Earth would be much older than the twin that went on the trip? And that that was relativity? And then some kids would think they understood relativity because they had been told that factoid?

That's what I feel like having read this. Kaku hits all the big points pretty well, without any involved math, but I don't feel like he really took me along for the ride. I learned that Maxwell realized magnetism and electricity were the same force, and that he realized that disturbances between magnetic fields and electrical fields perfectly predicted and described the path and speed of light, but not how/why. And so on with the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and now gravity joining up with string theory.

Kaku's at a disadvantage, admittedly, because Brian Greene's books are the yardstick against which I measure explanations of relativistic/quantum/string theory discussions of physics, and they may be the best in the world.
Also, this book was written in 1987, updated in 1995. A lot of stuff has changed, I'm pretty sure.

OK - one thing I learned. The weak nuclear force only works on very short distances - the thickness of a few protons and neutrons. That's why higher-number elements are unstable, and don't occur in nature. Up after about uranium or plutonium, there are too many protons and neutrons in the nucleus for the nucleus to hold on to them all - they're too far away from the 'center of the force' - like moons that are too distant from the center of gravity of a planet to be kept in orbit.


Beyond the Shadow of the Senators : The Untold Story of the Homestead Grays and the Integration of Baseball
Review Date: 3/6/2012


The Grays have a history that deserves to be known, of course, and the fans of Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Satchel Paige will get their desires met, but what makes this book more interesting than a "Meet the Homestead Grays" is the personalities of Senators owner Clark Griffith, Grays owner Cum Posey, and Washington sports writer Sam Lacy.

Griffith comes off the least well, but also the most interesting. It had never occurred to me (or apparently Shirley Povich and many other DC sports writers) that Clark Griffith actually used the Grays to keep the Senators afloat. During the war years and just after, the Senators were breaking even, whereas the Grays were putting $100,000 a year in Griffith's pocket. Griffith, one of the fathers of the bailing-wire-and-chewing-gum guide to MLB ownership, couldn't afford farm teams, and big salaries. His farm team was Cuba. His way of getting players was any-way-you-can but we have to keep the Negro Leagues going. He was a little old-fashioned vanilla racist, too, but the economic picture Snyder paints is fascinating.

Pretty much a must-read for any Negro League, Homestead Grays, and/or Washington Nationals/Senators fan.


The Bible Code
The Bible Code
Author: Michael Drosnin
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.3/5 Stars.
 42
Review Date: 3/5/2010
Helpful Score: 2


A lot of the dazzle of this book is gone once you realize that, if you can read Hebrew, the horizontal text is just plain text. So he's just playing find-a-word vertically (without vowels, so, for instance, DALLAS would be DLS), and then looks for words 'crossing' it - of course words cross it! It's plain text!


Looking at what I've written so far, breaking at every 32nd letter:

Alotofthedazzleofthisbookisgoneo
nceyourealizethatifyoucanreadHeb
rewthehorizontaltextisjustplaint
extSohesjustplayingfindawordvert
icallywithoutvowelssoforinstance
DALLASwouldbeDLSandthenlooksforw
Ordscrossingitofcoursewordscross
itItsplaintextLookingatwhatIvewr
ittensofar


Look! 'Die' crosses 'Dallas'! That 'proves' my text magically knew about the Kennedy assasination!

He does the same thing - he's very impressed that he found "Kennedy" crossing "president." What he found was "KND" crossing the Hebrew word for "chieftain" which he loosely translated as "president." And again, of course "chieftain" is in the text - it's plain text.

Add in to that that he rearranges these things constantly (look at every 20th letter. Nothing? Look at every 21st letter. Nothing? Look at every 22nd letter. etc.) Then he goes even farther than that, accepting diagonal words (and words at various slopes).

It's garbage, garbage, garbage, and has never predicted anything before the fact (which is, in fairness, included in the definition of predict).


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