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Rick B. (bup) - , - Reviews

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The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America
The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America
Author: Timothy Egan
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4.2/5 Stars.
Review Date: 2/14/2013
Helpful Score: 3

I can only imagine that higher-ups added the subtitle to this book, because of the rule that all nonfiction books must have subtitles, but Teddy Roosevelt is the star of this book in the same way that Jack Nicholson is the star of Little Shop of Horrors. And the thesis that the subtitle promises is only investigated as one of a few theses of the last fifty pages, where the author looks at the fire's consequences. "Fire that Saved America's *Forests*" might be more accurate, and better anyway, because it's all the more paradoxical.

So. I really enjoyed the book. He captures the confusion and hugeness of the living fire itself, the petulant whims of who it killed and passed by, and the designed unequipedness of the very young forest service to fight it. It has heroes, villains, and a great plot. It makes me seriously consider a trip to Montana and Idaho just to see the Coeur d'Alene forest and the enormity of what happened there, and the fossils and ghosts that remain.

The BNCHC: Time Machine and The Invisible Man (Barnes  Noble Classics Series) (BN Classics Hardcover)
Review Date: 3/30/2011

First, the Time Machine. I think it's considered important because this is where science fiction began to have IMPORTANT MESSAGES about society.

I hate science fiction that has IMPORTANT MESSAGES. I do, nevertheless, thank H.G. Wells for writing this, without which we may not have had The Terminator series of movies nor Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

Now on to The Invisible Man. Who authorized a book about an invisible man that doesn't even have one scene in a women's locker room? And it's not because it's all serious, either - Wells has lots of slapstick scenes with tripping and injuries that are supposed to be funny (but aren't).

Also, it never occurred to anybody to keep plenty of flour about, for throwing when the invisible man was around?

Yes, I'm responding on the wrong level - with pragmatic complaints about a philosophical thesis. But, really, I'm comfortable placing these with Frankenstein and Dracula - works that are more important for the cultural touchstones they left behind than for reading in their own right.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
Author: Mary Roach
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
Review Date: 12/5/2010
Helpful Score: 2

Man do I love some Mary Roach. The woman writes great, funny, infotaining* books. It's true that I had to cross my legs and read through squinted eyes to get through some passages (it's as much about sexual dysfunction and painful stuff doctors think of to do to genitals as it is anything else), but I enjoyed it.

Somehow, though, this book seemed to lack a focus. Maybe that was also true of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, and I just didn't notice it, but each chapter just was about its own thing without much building into any greater understanding of 'the curious coupling of science and sex.'

On the other hand, I still loved it. Make of it what you will.

* Remember that neologism? Or, I guess, more accurately, infotainment? It really seemed to be catching on for a while, and now it's nowhere.

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates
Review Date: 10/28/2014

Frans de Waal is probably the least defensive atheist in the world. A large part of the book supports a subordinate thesis that: it's not science versus religion that is behind the very visible attacks on science and religion - it's dogmatists.

Dogmatic people of all stripes cause needless trouble. I felt a great recognition of truth when I read that, and it gives me hope for the future. According to de Waal, some of the most militant atheists are former dogmatic religious nuts. Sometimes a can't-allow-disagreement-with-me person changes their team, but they don't lose the underlying personality trait.

But enough about that. Bonobos are fascinating, smart as heck, and offer great grist for thinking about human behavior. de Waal provides ample evidence that morality pre-dates the bonobo-human split - that bonobos have identifiable testable concepts of morality.

Moreover, that there are two basic forms of morality - that which he terms 'etiquette,' which can easily be forgiven in young individuals and is culture-driven (yes, in bonobos too), and that which seems to be encoded in our DNA - "Ape not kill ape" and the like.

Can't recommend this book highly enough. It really expanded my ways of thinking about the world.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Author: Milan Kundera
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
Review Date: 5/14/2013

Either Kundera has ADD, or I do. I suppose I should have liked the book - I like magical realism, I like Kundera's style of stepping outside the novel and acknowledging that the characters are made up, and I liked many parts of the novel. But overall I just felt unsatisfied.

Other reviews and official criticism talk about how wonderfully integrated the various parts of the book are, but not for me. Nothing ever came together, and I feel like I read the middle parts of several stories.

3 stars, though, because a lot of it was hot.

Born On A Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant
Review Date: 8/30/2011

This is a very encouraging book for anybody who knows someone with the Asperger's version of autism, or think someday you might know one. Aspie's are great. Also, they'll be highly valuable in the coming war against the robots.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope (P.S.)
Review Date: 12/20/2010
Helpful Score: 2

This is an unbelievably inspiring story that makes me want to putter in my garage until I've invented an alternative energy source. What he did was so simple and so brilliant, and the stuff he taught himself about electricity just blows me away. Coiling his own whatever-ma-callits to increase voltage, and making his own circuit breakers out of magnets and ball point pens. He's like a real-life MacGyver.

The Call of the Wild
The Call of the Wild
Author: Jack London
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 5/5 Stars.
Review Date: 4/24/2011

I was supposed to read this in 6th grade. I read most of it but never finished, and I don't know why I didn't. I was surprised, reading it again, how far through it I got - I remember specific passages from lo those many years ago.

Anyway, it was great! It was short, it was emotionally driven, and so it fit the character of a noble dog. It also pulses with a visceral sense of the Alaskan wilderness.

Nice job, Jack.

Cannery Row
Cannery Row
Author: John Steinbeck
Book Type: Mass Market Paperback
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
Review Date: 3/2/2013

Quintessential Steinbeck.

A little 'Grapes of Wrath,' a little 'East of Eden,' a little 'Tortilla Flat.' I can even see in Doc the man that would see the need to travel the country and write 'Travels with Charley.' In Doc, I see a smart guy who needs to be reminded - whether he likes it or not - that life is the ugly and common things we all deal with.

Also like typical Steinbeck, some of the 'story' (thin as it is) wanders off to unresolved dead ends, but we can't worry about that. There's a party right here, a good story, some women, some booze, some fighting, and some music, and you can't live every life in this world. Just one of them. Some of it you have to let go.

The Casual Vacancy
The Casual Vacancy
Author: J. K. Rowling
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 2.9/5 Stars.
Review Date: 6/16/2013

I wonder if Rowling consciously emulates Charles Dickens. She's mentioned him a couple of times in interviews, and for most of The Casual Vacancy, I couldn't help but think of Dickens' huge casts, his wordiness, and that thing he does a lot where he shares characters' observations, in their own voices, but with just enough dry, detached formalism to it to make the whole thing ludicrous. Oh, also the social criticism thing.

Then the last fifty pages were like an early John Irving novel, which is a very dangerous place for characters.

Speaking of characters, she certainly feels them well - male as well as female, young and old, rich and poor. And she tells stories in that way that's visual but reading it is effortless.

I'm a fan.

Author: Joseph Heller
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4.1/5 Stars.
Review Date: 3/17/2010
Helpful Score: 2

I've noticed a lot of the reviews of this book mention that the person never finished the book - the usual petering-out point is about page 100.

And I can see why - there's a smug humor in the book that is just annoying by about that time. Well, really annoying by that time. For whatever reason (thanks be to God), Heller changes tack somewhere around there, and although it's still a lot of nonsense and surreal humor, and characters that are more caricature than human, at least it seems like the reader is no longer the butt of the joke.

I was ready to say this was the most cynical book ever, but then I finished it, and it's not. Also, while it's enjoyable and a must-read and blah-blah-blah, it does feel like different books at different points. Sometimes I felt like I was reading a Monty Python script, sometimes it was like "Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern," sometimes it was like a Dali dream sequence, and every once in a while it was just, you know, Hemingway or something.

I think I could really have used a study group or a college class to help me with this one. But I'm glad I read it anyway.

Chaplin: His Life and Art
Chaplin: His Life and Art
Author: David Robinson
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4.5/5 Stars.
Review Date: 7/9/2011

I think you have to like Chaplin to get through this book. I love Chaplin. So I'm glad there's a biography so thorough as this one, that collects in 632 pages and 100 pages of appendices pretty much every thing you might want to know about him.

It took me a while to get through (partly because I kept going to youtube to watch films as I was reading those parts, and watching the 3-episode Unknown Chaplin, which BBC production came out around the same time as this book and is almost a companion piece to it).

The book breaks down into two main parts - his childhood and his movies. His childhood is like a Dickens novel until he gets on a tour of the US with the Karno troupe. After he gets into movie making, the periods of his life are defined by his contracts (for the two-reeler periods), and then by each movie he made (once he was his own boss). The man lived his work.

So, if you want to know if you should read this book, and you've never seen The Gold Rush or The Kid or Shoulder Arms or A Dog's Life or The Pilgrim or City Lights or Modern Times, watch one or two of them first. If you're blown away, and you think about the fact that he directed and wrote them and scored them as well as starring in them, go ahead and seek this book out.

Charlie Bone and the Castle of Mirrors (Children of the Red King, Bk 4)
Review Date: 12/16/2011

The magical children of Bland Academy set off on another uninspired adventure that take them to a mirrored castle that really doesn't do anything, and they defeat some bad guys and I don't really get the point of anything.

My favorite thing about the book by far is the kid, at least as drawn on the cover, looks kind of like Art Stukas.

Clearly a ripoff of Harry Potter, and clearly written for a lower grade level, and clearly written by somebody who has observed people but doesn't get them. So activities and appearances and magical quirks substitute for real character. I imagine the author has a bunch of note cards tacked to the board behind her monitor-

Charlie Bone
- tall
- funny hair
- impetou impechuou control issues

Billy Raven
- short
- white hair
- talks to animals (remember - animals talk like Elmo!)

- tall
- light bulbs break wherever he goes
- likes Julia

It leads to excellent writing such as these passages demonstrate:

Charlie got a brief glimpse of Lysander's house as they passed a pair of tall wrought-iron gates. Lysander's father was the famous Judge Sage and the house reflected his important position.

If Albert was shocked, he didn't show it. Maybe some of his memories were coming back to him. Memories that were so bad, nothing would ever surprise him again.

She threw Charlie a quick, furtive glance and then disappeared. Curious about her strange behavior, Charlie ran across the road.

See? There's nothing terrible in there, but nothing interesting either. Even the magic is dull and pointless. It reads like an outline fleshed out by Jack Webb. I'm beginning to understand that what J.K. Rowling accomplished is really pretty special.

The Color Purple
The Color Purple
Author: Alice Walker
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4.2/5 Stars.
Review Date: 1/7/2013


I liked it well enough, I guess, but number one, Nettie's voice got too educated too quickly, and in fact slipped into 'West African National Geographic Documentary' mode to a degree I was much too aware of, and

I just DIDN'T BELIEVE the ending. Don't worry, I won't spoil it, but I just didn't believe it. Within the context of the fictional world. I disbelieved it so much, I figured I wasn't supposed to believe it and looked for clues in the text that I wasn't supposed to trust the narrator, but no, I'm supposed to believe it. Don't.

Other than that, the characters are great and all that, and it's a good story up until the last few pages.

Could someone tell me why last names weren't used for most characters? Mr. ________ ?

Confederates in the Attic : Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (Vintage Departures)
Review Date: 9/8/2013
Helpful Score: 5

The dedication (?) page has a quote that sums up the book really well:

"Southerners are very strange about that war."
-Shelby Foote

I don't think I could do better than that with a 2000 word review. Southerners (of which I'm kind of one) are very strange about that war, and it's scary.

Consciousness Explained
Consciousness Explained
Author: Daniel C. Dennett
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.6/5 Stars.
Review Date: 12/31/2012

I have not fully accepted the author's claim (that he has explained consciousness), nor, obviously, his model for consciousness, but there is so much fascinating mind food in here that it's well worth five stars.

I guess this book has become a de rigeur foundational piece for anybody interested in what consciousness is, because he sets up a groundwork for discussing it, and he covers lots of things (like Descartes' consideration of the question), and the thought experiments provide wonderful fodder for at least making me consider what counts, and what doesn't, as consciousness.

Ultimately, I disagree with him. From a scientist's point of view, of course, a model of dualism is wrong - that is, the idea that there is a 'mind' separate from 'the brain' which is unmeasurable in any way - because the mind there is by definition set up to be unmeasurable. Why should some bit of food I eat, which is clearly not conscious, and has no 'mind' - suddenly get this property if it becomes digested and becomes some of the material in my brain?

Yes, there are plenty of real problems with dualism. That, however, doesn't mean his model is right. His model is what he calls 'the multiple draft model' and it's interesting. But after a few hundred pages of not saying consciousness is an illusion, he more or less says, yes, it's an illusion, alright, and we're all 'zombies' and there's nothing different between us and a (hypothetical) computer that had many layers of self-investigation.

But it seems to me the 'illusion' premise is easily struck down - by definition. An illusion is a misperception. Unlike the proverbial 'tree in the forest,' an illusion truly does not exist without an observer. An illusion requires an observer to misperceive something. So if consciousness is an illusion, who's it fooling? Whatever that is, is consciousness, even if it's a small thing.

Incidentally, The only place I noticed the age of this book is in his talking about how language is crucial in advanced 'consciousness' - and that therefore, non-humans cannot be said to be conscious. However, many animals are capable of rudimentary language. Incidentally to the incidentally, a section about language early in the book - and how memes live and mutate and spread and therefore evolve in the Darwinian sense - is fascinating, and made me a little smarter, I think, than I was before.

Anyway. This is a necessary read for anyone considering the nature of consciousness, and the puzzle of how millions of cells which act as a confederacy can achieve something so unified as conscious experience.

Consider This, Senora
Consider This, Senora
Author: Harriet Doerr
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.6/5 Stars.
Review Date: 3/17/2010
Helpful Score: 2

So I think I like female authors more than the typical male does. Not chick-lit, Dating Big Bird notwithstanding. Female authors have a tendency to write about normalcy, though - things that could happen in unremarkable lives. Or at least have a way of making things feel normal, no matter how strange. I like that.

This book, although it has an actual plot, feels like the recording of a few years of regular lives. And that's cool. I don't know how Doerr did it, making it all feel so normal, especially since there's a very strange death that unfolds, but she did.

And now she's dead. Which just goes to show you.

The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson (Lives of the Founders)
Review Date: 9/10/2017

Brief (216 pages with generous blank pages) but dense (including fun vocabulary like flummery*, pettifoggery and asseverate) biography of a man generally known, if he is known, as the milquetoast antagonist in 1776.

Murchison argues well that Dickinson deserves the label founding father though he voted against the second continental congress' independence resolution and would not sign the Declaration of Independence. He shows that Dickinson's opposition was with regard to timing rather than absolute opposition to independence, and that he was one of only a very few of the members of that congress who served the United States in a military capacity during the Revolutionary War. Other scholars have said that Dickinson refused to sign the Declaration based on its reasoning in the inalienable rights all people have, rather than being based on British laws and precedents and their rights being based in British citizenship which were being denied, but Dickinson does not stress that.

Dickinson was part of the constitutional convention, too, and Murchison points out how the document we've inherited as the framework of our government is different for Dickinson's contributions. He was as influential as Hamilton or Morris in the final document, perhaps as influential as anyone but Madison. Dickinson's overriding insight was seeing the states themselves as checks on the executive power, instead of just the federal congress and judiciary.

I can't compare this to other biographies of Dickinson, because I haven't read any (and this is the first one in a long while), but if it makes people more aware of this deserving person, that alone makes it a good book.

Note: One thing I think is a mistake is the claim that Dickinson was the only representative of the constitutional convention who had freed his slaves. I know Ben Franklin had owned a handful of slaves and freed them, and because slavery was already illegal in several northern states by 1787, I would think that there were other members among that affluent body of white men who could make the claim. Perhaps Murchison meant Dickinson was the only one who had freed his slaves when slavery was still legal where they lived. Then for all I know it's true. And remarkable.

* Spellcheck thinks flummery is not a word.

A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk and the Conquest of the American Continent
Review Date: 4/7/2012

Some of the United States' best presidential administrations have come from presidents who were just barely in charge. Polk seems to have been sliding across a constantly shifting ice mass, and yet when all was said and done, he accomplished all his campaign promises, had added the land that would eventually become Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, increased federal income by lowering import tariffs, and established a viable, solvent national treasury.

His cabinet, congress, and his generals backbit him at every turn, and yet he remained loyal to them. Kind of like Lincoln. Or Washington (who was victim of a lot less backbiting, but still ignored what there was in his dignified way). Really remarkable trait. Never seek revenge. Never get petty. Still accept the input of, and show respect to, the connivers who are supposed to be supporting your aims. It's certainly been beyond the capabilities of some presidents.

Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History
Review Date: 1/8/2011
Helpful Score: 2

The title calls it "The Greatest Season in Baseball History," and she makes an excellent case for it. And she's done her homework - the research far and wide that informs her narrative is really impressive. From a serial killer in Indiana to anarchist terrorism to race riots in Springfield, IL, to the presidential race, she provides context that makes the whole thing more understandable. Oh, she also seems to have read, and references, about 3,487 baseball books, and read ever document at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Murphy also writes really well - she has many nice turns of phrase, some of which involve 50 cent words, some of which involve period slang, that create an intelligent but entertaining mishmosh read.

Finally, 1908 is great subject matter. The National League's 3-way race that has all three within a game of each other on the last day of the season, and it's been just about that tight for a month and a half - what better drama could you ask for? Oh, yeah, the Merkle game. Well, you got it. The Merkle game occurs in the midst of that.

Basically, if you're a baseball fan, and interested in its history at all, this is a must-read.

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