Thursday, October 31, 2013

INXS: Story to Story: The Official Autobiography

INXS: Story to Story: The Official AutobiographyINXS: Story to Story: The Official Autobiography by Anthony Bozza
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

OK, this is the "official autobiography" of INXS, so it's somewhat filtered, I'm assuming. That said, it's pretty well researched and fairly well written, although the author is an obvious fan boy and makes INXS out to be pretty much the greatest band of all time, which annoyed the hell out of me.

It was enjoyable to read about the band's beginnings in Australia, when they were high and middle school students. How they played the pub scene for years, all around the country, sometimes three shows a night. They certainly paid their dues. Their manager was an apparent asshole, but a visionary and he had a plan to turn these boys into successes, something he ultimately did.

I first heard INXS circa 1981 when I somehow got my hands on an import LP with a post-punk song called "We Are The Vegetables" on it. I loved it and have been following the band ever since, enjoying Shabooh Shabbah and The Swing to Listen Like Thieves and Kick. I sort of lost interest as the '90s rolled around and they released X, which did fairly well, but it was their last really decent selling album.

It was interesting to read about the international tours they went on. They played America, opening for Adam Ant and blowing him off the stage. Eventually he would have nothing to do with them. They opened for the Go-Gos, and in Europe, for Queen, which I think would have been cool. They also headlined at clubs to build a greater following. Of course they had MTV to thank for introducing Americans to the band, with the channel's heavy rotation of their music videos.

I learned something I didn't know about the band. They were as into hardcore partying nearly as much as Zeppelin! I mean sex, drugs, rock and roll. Trashed hotel rooms, groupies, coke and booze. I had no idea. Some of the band members were married or had girlfriends, but the others took advantage of the opportunities such touring afforded them.

Listen Like Thieves was really their first American hit album. I still listen to it a lot. But they hit it really big with Kick, which was nominated for a Grammy. I was in college at the time, circa '88 I think, and I remember camping out for concert tickets in Knoxville with some friends and going to the show. It was great; I really enjoyed it. High energy. We all had a blast.

That was the pinnacle for INXS. At the time, they were probably as big as U2 and REM, ie, the biggest bands in the world. Everything seemed great for them. However, they had been touring for so many years that they just got tired out and took some time off before regrouping to record X. Also, something happened to them in Australia that was rather odd. They had always been local boys made good in the press, but now that they had gotten so big internationally, they were trashed in the press, as though they were too good for the locals, which wasn't the case at all. However, their reputation in Australia never really recovered, which is a shame.

I didn't know that Michael Hutchence was such good friends with U2's Bono. They spent a lot of time together and probably influenced each other a great deal. I also didn't know that the members of the band lived in England, France, and Hong Kong, as well as Australia. The distance eventually drove a wedge between the band members. Pity.

Everyone probably remembers the occasion of Michael Hutchence's death. I was horrified and felt really badly for his family and the band, just for the way in which it was portrayed. The author doesn't really tell us whether Michael Hutchence's death was a suicide or an autoerotic accident, but he does indicate that the rest of the band members remain unsure, themselves, of what exactly happened to Michael. The band members really have differing opinions of what happened. One thing that could have led to a suicide was an accident he had in Denmark, when a taxi cab driver beat him so severely that he was in the hospital for two weeks and permanently lost his sense of smell. He also got a brain injury that caused him to become angry and violent. He would lash out at people for no reason. It wasn't entirely his fault. It's just a shame that it happened like that. Toward the end, he had hooked up with Bob Geldoff's ex-wife and they had had a daughter. You would think this would have stabilized his partying, but he was hooked on heroin by then, as well as other substances, and was in a deep depression. That said, the last day of his life, he seemed to be in a good mood as the band prepared to record a new album. He died at 10 AM the next morning in a hotel room.

The writing in the book is straightforward and probably honest, but it's certainly not challenging. Rather like reading People magazine. One thing that irritated me about the author, as I've already noted, is his willingness to fawn over INXS like they were the greatest band ever. Listen to this:

" 1988, it [Kick] spurred every major label to seek out and sign some kind of slinky, sexy, romantic, rock and rhythm-and-blues band. They found them all all right, crap or not, from the Fine Young Cannibals to General Public to Faith No More to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the Fixx. INXS put punk, funk, soul, and rock together better than those bands could ever hope to, for one simple reason; INXS could and still can play them into oblivion."

Wow. Seriously? OK, I can agree on Fine Young Cannibals and Faith No More, both good for one or two albums, and who cares about General Public? But The Fixx put out some good albums, and they're still producing music, putting out a decent album which I bought just last year. And most importantly, the Red Hots? Seriously? I've read about the Red Hots and I really doubt if INXS was an influence on them. Shabooh Shabbah was released in 1982, one year before the Red Hots formed. And the Reds had it from the beginning. If anyone was influencing anyone else, it was the Red Hots. THEY had punk, funk, soul, and rock down much better than INXS did or more any other group, for that matter. Also, let's talk stats. INXS sold 35 million albums and never won a Grammy. The Red Hots have sold 80 million albums and have won 7 Grammy Awards. 'Nuff said. Don't go overboard in your idealizations, Mister Bozza. It's stupid and unfounded.

Aside from my annoyance with the author's constant praise of the boys in the band, it wasn't a bad book to read, and as a fan, I enjoyed learning some things I hadn't formerly known about the band. If you like INXS or just dig '80s music at all, you might like reading this book. Cautiously recommended.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

AC/DC: Maximum Rock & Roll: The Ultimate Story of the World's Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band

AC/DC: Maximum Rock & Roll: The Ultimate Story of the World's Greatest Rock-and-Roll BandAC/DC: Maximum Rock & Roll: The Ultimate Story of the World's Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band by Murray Engleheart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to give this bio on AC/DC more stars, but I think it has too many weaknesses to do that. That said, this 488 page book is a beast of a bio and one does learn quite a lot about the band.

This well-researched book starts out in the '60s with the Young brothers. Malcolm and Angus watched as their older brother George achieved some international stardom with a group called The Easybeats, but that group didn't last too long. The brothers were excellent guitar players and started playing early on. They were also tiny -- Malcolm's 5'3" and Angus is 5'2" -- and took a lot of crap from people. However, they were feisty Scots living in Australia and held their own in fights. A lot of fights. They formed AC/DC around 1973 with singer Dave Evans, who was replaced by the infamous Bon Scott, and they started producing records in the mid '70s. They worked hard, but didn't get much of a following for a long time. They toured England, Europe, the US, etc., opening for KISS, Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Cheap Trick, Boston, Styx, Foreigner, even the Little River Band, much to their disgust. Their intent was to blow the headliners off the stage, and they usually did. They developed a reputation for being LOUD and even though their records weren't selling off the charts, they believed in themselves. Then in early 1980, Bon Scott died of alcohol poisoning, and they found Brian Johnson to replace him. They came out with Back In Black, which catapulted them into mega-stardom. That album has gone on to sell over 50 MILLION copies, second only to Michael Jackson's Thriller. Whereas before, they were playing to crowds of 8,000 or 17,000, they soon found themselves headlining and playing to much larger crowds in stadiums all over the world. I've always been a big fan of Queen and was a little put off by the books' claims that AC/DC has sold some 150 million albums internationally, trying to make them big shots, when I know Queen has allegedly sold some 300 million albums, and I didn't care too much about AC/DC playing to 50,000 people in a stadium when Queen played to 130,000 people in Brazil, in fact 250,000 in two nights. But AC/DC apparently played for as many as a million people at a concert in Moscow, so I guess that's saying something.

One thing that bugged me about this book was the authors are such fan boys. AC/DC is the greatest band that ever walked the earth for these two, and that's crap. I wouldn't even list them in my top 20 bands of all time; indeed, I don't know where I'd place them. One of what they considered to be their strengths is what I consider to be a weakness -- their musical formulas. They have hits that are formulaic and they don't want to waiver from that. They want to play AC/DC music. Well, other bands branch out, expand, experiment, and I have a lot more respect for those bands than I do for those resting on their musical laurels pumping out the same stuff year after year. But that's me.

Another thing that bugged me about this book was we learned some details I didn't want to know and didn't learn other details I would consider important. For instance, during the '70s, the band kept getting and giving VD to girls all over the world, especially Bon Scott. WTF? Did I really need to know that? That's gross. However, at some point Angus got married, yet we never learn a thing about that, how he met his wife, who she is, where they lived, what she did, etc. Totally omitted from the book. Same with the other guys in the band. We learn the drummer is into fast cars. We learn Malcolm hit the bottle pretty hard. But here's where I think the real weakness of the book is -- it's formulaic, just like AC/DC's music. Virtually each chapter is about an album. It begins with the group making the album, has a few lines about a couple of the songs, and then goes into length on the subsequent tour. Over and over, year after year. It gets really repetitive. And boring. What about the people? What about the relationships? What about critiquing the songs? Other rock bios I've read critique the songs from each album. This doesn't. At least this one covers album art, which has been one of my major complaints of other rock bios, the fact that most don't cover that aspect of things, and I think it's important.

AC/DC continued to get bigger and bigger post-1980, which surprised me. I can only think of one or two albums they put out past Back In Black, but they actually sold well and did huge tours. I didn't know.

One nice thing about this book is the pictures. Lots of color photographs, as well as some black and white ones. Here's another complaint though -- the first half of the book felt a lot more detailed than the second half. The authors go into extensive detail on the band's early years, the recordings, Bon's goings on, the touring, and then after Brian comes aboard, they seem to just jump from highlight to highlight, leaving a lot out. Oh well. Oh, I also got tired of the band's hubris. Unwarranted.

This is a pretty decent book which could have been much better with more detail. The band is pretty good, although not as good as they think they are. I do like listening to them and listened to a lot of their stuff while reading this, but I'm glad I'm done with the book and can move on, because as I mentioned, it got quite repetitive. I'm not sure if I can recommend this book. Certainly not to the casual reader. I guess AC/DC fans will like it though. Read with caution.

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Neena Gathering

Neena GatheringNeena Gathering by Valerie Nieman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not your typical dystopian novel. You can tell that on the first page. This is a book of fine prose, almost poetic at times. There’s a great deal of descriptive prose, flowery language. That might also be one of the book’s weaknesses. At times, the flowery language detracts from the descriptions of a post-apocalyptic America that has splintered into separate entities. Yes, America is no more. Even though nuclear bombs were banned, various new countries dropped “metachemicals” on each other, wiping entire cities out. Civilization is over.

The main character, Neena (Daneen) Daucherty, is an orphan from Baltimore who was with her mother when the carnage happened. That was roughly eight years ago. She’s been living with her Aunt Maura in the West Virginia hills ever since, learning to pick berries and herbs, gather roots and bark – all good for trading for such things as kerosene and ammunition. Life is difficult, but it’s made a bit more exciting when Uncle Ted shows up out of the blue. He’s a bit of a rebel, with a mysterious background that he doesn’t like to discuss. Ted convinces Maura to let him start distilling alcohol, allegedly for the purpose of its trading value, but more accurately it seems, so he can get drunk. Maura trades with the Barterman, a mysterious “Change” – someone who was there when the bombs were dropped, but survived, only to have his appearance ravaged. He now has a yellow hue to him. Ted hates and fears the Barterman, who witnesses Ted murdering an alleged thief in the woods.

Meanwhile, Neena is growing up. She appears to be about 14 years old, and Ted notices her physical changes. There’s a disturbing feeling of incestuous thoughts running through the novel, and Ted likes to touch Neena, to have him sit on his lap, and she sometimes thinks about it herself. She’s aware of the changes in her, but grows increasingly distressed about Ted, particularly when she witnesses Ted trying to talk Maura into letting him have his way with Neena. Frankly, the scene is fairly disturbing.

Neena has flashbacks at times. Passes out and remembers things from war-torn Baltimore. However, even though the cities are dead and there are scavengers marauding about the countryside, Neiman often doesn’t give us a really good look at it. Instead, we’re treated to intricate descriptions of plants and trees, of nature, of growth and survival. We’re introduced to the family oxen. We see bark being stripped so it can be bartered away. This gives one a feeling of ease instead of the sense of unease the book should possibly be engendering. I think this is one of the book’s weaknesses. You can tell Neiman is a poet, however, because the language, as mentioned, is often poetic, and because poetry plays such a prominent role in the book. Ted introduces Neena to poetry, which she grows to enjoy. Later in the book, Arden, the Barterman, continues Neena’s growth in learning to enjoy poetry.

Midway through the book, Aunt Maura and Neena take a trip to visit the Barterman to trade with him when Maura falls through a hole hidden in the ground, presumably by scavengers bent on evil. At Maura’s urging, Neena goes to the Barterman’s house for help. He comes to save Maura, but Ted shows up too. A fairly climactic scene occurs when Ted reaches for Neena, but Neena pulls away and lets everyone know she’s going to go live with the Barterman now. Ted is livid, and this is a pretty mystifying passage, I must say. Why? Because Neena has had nothing to do with the Barterman before; she doesn’t even know him. Yet she trusts him over her own family. I guess that should tell the reader how much she distrusts and fears her uncle by now, but it’s still somewhat unbelievable to a certain degree.

So Neena goes to live with the Barterman, whose name she finds out is Arden. He’s a former English professor from DC who survived the bombs and came to live in the countryside by himself. He’s a large man, and as a Change, is feared by most. However, Neena is able to see beyond that and comes to love this intelligent, nurturing individual, as well as his big dog. This seems to be a case of Beauty and the Beast in a post-apocalyptic world, but it works. Nieman weaves a linguistic spell that makes it both beautiful and believable. The one disappointment from this union is the night they finally make love. The description is rather limp and disappoints. It’s there, it’s happening, it’s over in a sentence or two. We assume they’re happy. It’s also fair to note that another disturbing aspect to this scene is Neena’s still an adolescent, and Arden knows that. Statutory rape, anyone?

Apparently, though, they are happy because Neena winds up pregnant. She tells her aunt who says she’ll be there for the birth if she can – not much of a family promise – but she does show up, so kudos to her. Meanwhile, a traveler who comes to trade with Arden tells of seeing Ted going to a fanatical and violent religious commune, where he’s baptized in the river and his throat is then cut. Neeena mourns. Surprisingly, so does Arden, although I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps he feels badly for Neena, because he certainly didn’t like Ted.

The book climaxes in the birth of their child, a girl named Rainelle. The final line of the book gives hope to the reader and the couple: “’Our future,’ he said. ‘Rainelle’s waiting for us.’” While that is an interesting ending to the book, it was sudden and it surprised me. I thought there would be more and didn’t realize the book was coming to its closure. As I’ve pondered it, though, I’ve concluded that the ending is fairly satisfying, that we don’t have to know everything that happens down the road, that we’re given hope for the future and that is enough, just as Nieman intends.

I would not put this book at the top of my favorite dystopian novels (Philip K. Dick takes top honors for me), but it is somewhat unique in its treatment of such fare, and as such, deserves to be read. It’s a good book, written by a talented writer – one featured in our own Ray’s Road Review as a poet before. One of her talents lies in character development, something Dick never really mastered. (So maybe she’s better?) Another is her obvious love of language and its use. I just wish the book hadn’t been so language-intensive at the beginning, because it was difficult to get into. The book plodded at first, but once past those first pages and on into later chapters, the author successfully captures your attention and holds it. It’s a good story and one that she tells pretty well. I’m not certain that this book is for everyone, but because it’s not straight sci fi, it might be more accessible for more readers, and that’s a good thing. This is a book that’s recommended.

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*** This review originally appeared in an issue of Ray's Road Review

Prometheus Road

Prometheus RoadPrometheus Road by Bruce Balfour
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I got to page 229 of this 320 page book and gave up. It just got too silly. I tried, I really did, but while I like dystopian novels, this one had odd problems from the beginning. Tom Eliot lives in a agriculture-based commune in the western part of the US which has been blasted by "the gods." San Francisco is now submerged and other cities are now piles of rubble. Tom incurs the wrath of the gods by venturing too far into restricted zones, and Hermes comes and demolishes his family, thus forcing him to flee. He's saved by an old hermit named Magnus, who turns out to be his uncle, and who seemingly knows all. They team up with the Dead Man, a corpse who years previously had created this AI world for DARPA that has now taken over the world, the AIs acting as gods to the idiot populace. This starts reading like The Matrix, as Magnus begins to train Tom for his journey on Prometheus Road so he can defeat the evil AIs and free mankind. Training takes place while Tom's asleep. And it reads kind of like Alice in Wonderland. There's an oracle, Tom turns into a river and a trout, who's actually his dog, speaks to him. It's really kind of weird.

Hermes is on the hunt for Tom, who the AI gods view as a threat. Why? I never found out. I guess the author makes it clear by the end of the book. He better. Tom loses Magnus to Hermes as he travels to Las Vegas to team up with someone there who can help destroy a data center. Meanwhile, the language and imagery just keep getting stranger and stranger. The AIs are in the Stronghold somewhere down Prometheus Road, a virtual road I never figured out. Tom has to find the Stronghold to destroy the AI software the Dead Man built. It's apparently hidden in the "Jewel of Dreaming," which is close to the "Tree of Dreams." Meanwhile, Tom has "vision vine poison" in his system. It just starts to sound silly after awhile. What started out as moderately promising just disintegrates into stupidity. And that doesn't account for his girlfriend, also on the run from the gods after disobeying her strict father who tortured her by shocking her body. She now lives in the Vegas sewers. It's all quite crazy. I enjoyed Balfour's The Digital Dead, for the most part, which is I why I gave this such a lengthy chance, but now I'm just fed up with it and am washing my hands of it. I don't care what happens to Tom. Balfour lost me a long time ago. Not recommended.

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Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life

Born Standing Up: A Comic's LifeBorn Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Steve Martin's autobiography is a charming, witty, humorous, and at times sobering tale of his life as a stand up comedian, including everything that led up to that point. It starts with his family, when he was a boy in Southern California. He had very poor relations with his father, which obviously impacted him, and not much better relations with his mother and sister. He started working at Disneyland when he was 10, eventually moving into the magic store to sell its wares while he learned how to be a magician. Later, he moved to a theater at Knott's Berry Farm, played the banjo, did bits of stand up and magic, recited poetry, and did a little bit of everything. I was happy to recall that he enrolled at one of my alma maters -- Long Beach State (or as it's now known, California State University Long Beach), where he majored in philosophy. He was also trying out at places to do magic and stand up. He took his studies seriously, but eventually got a gig up in LA, so he transferred to UCLA (another school I also attended) and found it to be much harder than Long Beach. LOL! Eventually, he was traveling around picking up gigs -- this was in the mid-60s -- and found some up in San Francisco. When we think of Steve Martin, we often think of his records and the crowds he packed in, but we don't often realize he paid his dues for 10 years, traveling the stand up circuit around the country, playing to crowds of three and four at a time, making next to nothing. He decided, at some point, that he would start making jokes without punchlines, and while at first, audiences didn't quite get it, eventually he started winning them over with his wackiness. He landed a job as a writer for the Smothers Brothers and eventually got on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He writes he didn't really get recognized until he had been on that show 16 times. I think he's being truthful is writing that. When SNL came out, Martin was both flabbergasted and elated, because he had thought he was the only one in the country doing "new comedy," but here was an entire group of talented people he could relate to. He was soon asked to host, and went on to host numerous times. Finally, his manager got a record out, and it sold a million and a half albums. He started to get the recognition he had sought for so long. By the early 80s, he was playing to crowds of 45,000! It was crazy. And it got to him. He was booked for two years straight, and the life on the road -- alone -- really got to him. So he got out, in 1981. Left stand up for acting, and never looked back -- until this book. Eventually, he reconciled to a degree with his family, shortly before his parents died, and that was nice to read about. Martin doesn't go into great detail about his personal relationships, but does mention a few, as well as some of his relations with other performers. (Did you know Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks opened for him?) This is an introspective book that tells of a hard climb up the ladder to comedic success, and leaving it for the unknown with no regrets. It's a quick read; I read it in one day. It's very entertaining and very interesting and I certainly recommend this, not only for fans of Steve Martin, but for anyone.

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Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist

Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and ActivistJust Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist by Mike Farrell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mike Farrell is an interesting man. I bought this book (for fifty cents at a used bookstore) because of my love for his character in MASH. Truthfully, that's what I thought the book might be about, although it's subtitled "A Journey to Actor and Activist." I just had no idea what an activist Mike is! It's really overwhelming. I mean, if he's done half of what he claims to have done, he should be sainted. He traveled to numerous south and central American countries like El Salvador to document human rights abuses. He went to Rwanda to document the genocide there. He became an advocate for prisoner's rights and has fought hard to abolish the death penalty everywhere. Let me tell you, if you're a conservative, you won't like this book. I'm pretty liberal, and even I felt like I was being preached to too often at times! He's very anti-Bush, but doesn't hold back on Clinton either, as well as Reagan and Bush 1.

I was disappointed at how little a role MASH plays in this book. A little over a chapter is devoted to the show, with the only major story being about the final episode. I had hoped to read numerous behind the scenes stories about the show, and that was a big let down. At the same time, I didn't know how much other acting and producing Mike has done, so that was interesting. He got Patch Adams produced (starring Robin Williams), although he was deeply disappointed with the final product, which he thought the director and writer butchered.

Mike's devotion to his second wife and his kids is awesome. His wife had to go through so much, including a frightening liver transplant, but Mike stood with her the whole way. Mike never went to college, but his kids did, so he was proud of them.

At times, this book bored me, however. I wanted anecdotes, not proselytizing. I feel kind of ripped off by that, even though, again, the words on the book cover should have alerted me to the primary purpose of the book. I mean, most of the blurbs on the cover are from politicians. That should have been a big tip off. If you're a MASH fan, don't bother reading this book. You won't learn anything. If you're against the death penalty and other human rights abuses, this might prove an interesting read for you. If you're pro-death penalty, you'll just get a headache reading this book. I can't say I recommend it and I'm a little relieved to have finished it. Somewhat of a disappointment, no matter how noble Mike might be....

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Midlife Orphan

Midlife OrphanMidlife Orphan by Jane Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not sure how I feel about this book. My wife bought it for me because my father died three weeks ago today and she thought it might be helpful. And some of it was. But a great deal was not too.

The book is made up mostly of stories about midlife "orphans" who have lost their parents. Most seem to be Jewish, perhaps because the author is. The book centers on losing your last parent, although that wasn't immediately clear and because I just lost my first parent, it didn't resonate as much as it might at a later date. The stories are about relationships people had with their parents, their siblings, and their children. Things like inheritances are also brought up.

There were a few interesting passages. One states,

"Of all the relationships we experience, our relationship with our parents is the first significant one. Our earliest and most treasured memories begin with our mother and father. As the decades roll by, we create intimate connections with others and accumulate volumes of additional recollections but all the while we are building on that first relationship. Our parents' values and their experiences are tightly bound into our life's tapestry, tangled with threads that we weave for ourselves as our individual character evolves."

I'm an only child. The book does occasionally address only children. It states that generally, for instance, "only children do not have to worry about sharing an inheritance. But that doesn't mean an inheritance has less emotional impact for them. For many only children, the death of the last parent magnifies the degree of aloneness."

Speaking of inheritances, "some children become angry when they realize that their parents did not have to live as frugally as they did." I think I can relate to this sentiment. After seeing Dad's financial affairs, I now realize he and Mom could have taken some of the trips they dreamed of taking, but never did. Why did they hold back? It seems so unfair. They should have spoiled themselves. Now Mom doesn't have Dad to share such experiences with, and that's just cruel.

My primary complaint with the book is probably not shared by many people. The book focuses on sibling and child/parent relationships. I have no siblings and no children. Aside from my lovely wife, my mom and I are now alone in this world. When Mom goes, I'll have no one to fall back on. This is a terrifying prospect for me. The book never touches on this. I wish it would have. Also, the book doesn't offer many concrete suggestions for coping, although it does advocate saving sympathy cards one receives upon a parent's death. That's nice, but I could have used more. Instead, the book is made up largely of simple stories of people who lost their parents as middle aged children, and it doesn't go into much more depth than that. Oh well. It was a decent book, and I'm glad to know I'm (kind of) not the only one, but the book could have done and been more, and I'm sad that it wasn't. Three stars.

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Rip It Up and Start Again

Rip It Up and Start AgainRip It Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an exhausting book to read, in part, because the author was so exhaustive in his research and, thus, the book is a thorough overview of British, and to a lesser extent, American post-punk rock. It's also a strangely intellectual book, and at times, it felt like I was reading a modern history textbook.

Early on, Reynolds discusses the demise of punk and the (odd) opinion that The Sex Pistols' "Never Mind the Bollocks" actually signaled the end of punk -- not the height of its glory. He shows post-punk to be distinct from punk and New Wave, among others. The post-punk bands that followed punk wanted to continue the revolution that it began but failed to fulfill. There was a sense of existing to negate the corporate hit-making machinery and ideology of 70s-era prog and commercial rock, or at least until New Pop and New Wave came along and flailed against such post-punk rebellion by emulating the most listener-friendly pop forms. These early post-punk bands began exploring other forms of music, such as experimentation with art rock, electronics, dub, reggae, funk, and even disco. Some of these early post-punk bands wanted to make a wall of noise and often the bands were made up of a collective as opposed to trained musicians. Often, the traditional instruments (guitars, drums, etc.) were completely ignored for synths and tapes, as well as other assorted unknown instruments. If there were even concerts, film and theater often played large roles. Audience participation was often encouraged.

The book is divided into two halves: one is pure post-punk and the second is "new pop and new rock." As a result, it read like two distinctly different books. The first chapter is about PIL (Public Image Limited), Johnny Rotten's band he formed after ditching the Sex Pistols. According to Reynolds, PIL was the start of the post-punk movement. However, numerous other bands formed and began playing, such as Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, Devo, Gang of Four, Wire, Pere Ubu, Throbbing Gristle, and tons of bands I've never heard of. The second half begins with The Specials, before moving on to ska and Bow Wow Wow, as well as the New Romantics, such as Adam Ant. The author goes further into groups like Gary Numan, Haircut 100, ABC, Duran Duran, and pretty much ties it all together with Madonna, of all people, at the end of the book. It's a very exhaustive look at hundreds of bands and many scenes throughout the UK and America. And that kind of presents a bit of a problem. The chronology of the book's chapters runs back and forth as different scenes and genres are covered, which was occasionally confusing. Everything was thrown into the mix together -- the bands, band missions, various genres, record stores, record labels, clubs, new types of technology -- everything. It was nearly overwhelming.

One of the major problems of the book was its tendency of the chapters to follow a pattern that got a little old fairly soon. Reynolds first discusses a specific post-punk hot spot, often geographically (such as Manchester, Liverpool, NYC, San Francisco, etc.). He then discusses the best band, or several bands, from that scene before mentioning virtually every band possible from that same scene or hot spot. Like I said, it gets a little old....

Another major problem I had with the book was its insistence that this second British invasion was the most important musical movement since the first, citing hundreds of bands, most of whom I've never even heard of, and I'd wager many other people never have either. Among the bands Reynolds discusses are The Pop Group, New Age Steppers, Delta 5, The Future, Teenage Jesus, This Heat, Tuxedomoon, Factrix, A Certain Ratio, and so many more. Many of these bands he discusses as so very relevant never even released an album, and those that did usually just released an EP or one debut album that sold something like 5,000 copies and they were never heard from again. I fail to understand why so many of these, frankly, unimportant bands were deemed worthy of inclusion.

The book, and many of the bands in it, pay homage to some that came before them, such as Captain Beefheart, Roxy, Bowie, Eno, etc, and that's cool. It's really not a bad read and I learned a lot. I just think a lot of it was unnecessary and I question the author's intentions. Did he just want to expand the book's pages to charge more? I also could have done with a little less (band) name dropping and more detail on some of the more significant bands. However, it was good to see personal favs like Bauhaus, The Cure, Sisters of Mercy, and Skinny Puppy mentioned. I'd recommend this book for any 70s music fan and many music enthusiasts, but it's a bit of a cautious recommendation. I think you have to wade through a lot of crap to get to the good stuff, and that's a bit of a pity -- but it's ultimately worth it.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Mourning Handbook

The Mourning Handbook: The Most Comprehensive Resource Offering Practical and Compassionate Advice on Coping with All Aspects of Death and DyingThe Mourning Handbook: The Most Comprehensive Resource Offering Practical and Compassionate Advice on Coping with All Aspects of Death and Dying by Helen Fitzgerald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got this book a couple of weeks ago because my father just died a few weeks ago. I got several grief recovery books and I think this one was the best of the bunch. It's pretty comprehensive and easy to read, and it's divided up into chunks so that you can go to a section that deals with your particular issues at the moment. It doesn't have to be read cover to cover (although I did that). Among some of the helpful issues it addresses is denial ("Don't try to fool yourself into thinking that you can avoid the process of grief."), anger ("You may be angry at yourself for what you may have said or not said, or for not responding calmly or quickly enough, or for being healthy and alive." It then gives tips on dealing with anger.), and more. One section that was helpful for me was the death of a parent when you're an adult. For many people, this signifies the loss of your childhood, the loss of unconditional love, the loss of a certain sense of security, the loss of a friend as well as a parent, the loss of financial support, and more. Although there's not a lot of coping strategies the author provides here (which I think is a weakness of the book), it's good to see some issues I'm facing are the same ones faced by others who lose parents. That helps. The book further goes on to advise people not to make major decisions for quite awhile, which is something I've seen repeated elsewhere. It gives many reasons not to do so and they make sense. Another helpful section for me was on witnessing a death, particularly if it's a sudden or violent death (such as my father's). It was highly traumatizing, and the book advises seeking the help of a professional, but doesn't give too many other strategies, a continued weakness of the book.

Toward the end of the book, there's a section titled "You Know You Are Getting Better When..." and it provides a list of things you can do or will do which indicate improvement in your life. These include looking forward to holidays, reviewing both pleasant and unpleasant memories, driving by yourself without crying, when you no longer feel tired all the time, when you can concentrate on a book or favorite television program, etc. In reading this list, I've come to the conclusion that while I'm still grieving, I am improving, so that's good.

I'm going to contrast this book to one I didn't really find too helpful -- The Grief Recovery Handbook by James and Friedman. It's a pretty harsh book to read, often telling the reader that what one hears or feels is distorted, such as guilt, etc. There were some helpful things, but overall it had an unsympathetic tone which didn't resonate with me. The Mourning Handbook had a much more nurturing feel to it and I appreciated that.

It's a shame that anybody has to read such books at all, but I guess it's a process of life most of us have to deal with at some point, so I'm glad I discovered this book. I'd recommend this book for anyone who's experienced a death by a family member or even a friend. It's a good resource and I'm glad I read it.

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Voices From the Street

Voices From the StreetVoices From the Street by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For my review of Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, one of Dick's mainstream novels, I wrote "I feel like a total traitor, because I got through the first six chapters — to page 94 — and finally gave up. Philip K. Dick is one of my two favorite writers, the other being Charles Bukowski. I’ve ALWAYS loved his books, even if some are imperfect. This one, though, was simply dull.

It’s a well known fact that Dick hated being considered a sci fi hack and wanted to be considered a mainstream novelist."

Well, Voices From the Street is another mainstream novel of his that was never published during his lifetime, indeed, not until a few years ago. And I tried, I really did, but I can't finish it. I just can't. I got to page 216 out of a little over 300 and I can't make the final 85 pages. I'm too disgusted. There's not ONE likeable character in this novel! Not one! It made it a grueling task to read. How can you identify with characters if they're all so crappy?

As another reviewer pointed out, "anyone [who's] read Dr. Bloodmoney or Humpty Dumpty in Oakland will instantly have recognized blatant similarities: a boss named Jim Fergusson and an everyday salesman/repairman named Stuart and in all three books the characters Jim and Stuart play similar roles; guilty boss and disgruntled employee." Stuart is the main protagonist, and he's got a good job selling TVs, moving up to management, a pretty, young wife and a baby. It's 1950s America and he's living the dream. But he's unsatisfied and doesn't know why. His boss, Jim, is a crabby, grumpy a**hole who mistreats just about everybody. Stuart's sister is married to a massive a**hole to runs roughshod over everyone around him.

Stuart begins to become fixated on a religious movement run by a large black man named Theodore Beckeim, who has persuasive powers and believes the world is going to end sometime soon. And what happens in this novel? Not too much. Stuart goes to a health food store. Stuart gets into verbal tiffs. Stuart goes to San Francisco with an unlikeable woman named Marsha to meet Beckeim, which proves to be anticlimactic. Jim and Stuart argue. It's BORING. No wonder Dick never got it published! Stick to your early sci fi, Mr. Dick, because that stuff is brilliant. This is horrible!

Another thing about this novel is its overt racism. I'm convinced Dick was a closet racist, although I've never seen it mentioned anywhere. In my review of Flow My Tears, I wrote the following:

“I’m starting to notice a disturbing theme in Dick’s books: he doesn’t seem to hold black people in high regard. In this novel, black people are being sterilized out of existence and Jason seems to be glad of it. Dick also treats blacks oddly in The Crack in Space and there are pissed off, drugged out black people in Counter-Clock World. Evidently, Watts serves as Dick’s place of ultimate black fear and evil.”

I wrote those words in my review of Martian Time-Slip, a novel where we meet Martian "niggers." Yep. In this novel, what do we see? "Chink," "nigger," and "kike" all appear throughout the novel, and the Golds, a Jewish couple, are particularly represented in repulsive terms. Frankly, the book is antisemitic. I don't know if this represents Dick's own thoughts or just were part of the times, but it's pretty repulsive and I could do without reading about "niggers" and the like in Dick's books.

In other reviews, I read the last part of the book picks up as Stuart sinks into madness. However, I just can't bring myself to read it. I just can't do it. And I've started VALIS already and already I'm bored. I tell ya, I'm going to stop reading lengthy portions of books hoping for something interesting to happen. I'm going to give a book something like 30 or 40 pages and if it hasn't hooked me by then, I'm dumping it. I'm sick of reading utter crap just to get through a book. Fortunately, there are still many Philip K. Dick books I have yet to read, many of them allegedly good, so I'll look forward to reading those. This book is not recommended and I'm being kind in giving it two stars.

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Ho Chi Minh: A Life

Ho Chi Minh: A LifeHo Chi Minh: A Life by William J. Duiker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve always been fascinated by Ho Chi Minh, one of history’s most mysterious yet prominent figures. I’ve read what little there is on him over the years, and then finally came across this book, William Duiker’s Ho Chi Minh: A Life. What a thoroughly researched and detailed book! Duiker does a truly admirable job of piecing together information from archives and sources from all over the world to give us the best possible picture of Ho, and he does it in a reasonably objective way.

Ho Chi Minh was born on May 19th, 1890 with the given name, Nguyen Sinh Cung, to a Confucian scholar in the Nghe An province of Annam, part of French Indochina, a colonial territory. Duiker writes a great deal about the history of Vietnam, how it had been conquered and occupied for centuries (much of it by the Chinese) and how the 20th Century Indochinese resented their French occupiers for many legitimate, assorted reasons. As young Cung was about to enter adolescence, his father gave him a new name – something customarily done then – Nguyen Tat Thanh, meaning “he who will succeed.” Thanh learned Chinese and Confucian history. He also started being influenced by displaced nationalists who wanted to see an independent Vietnam. However, Thanh felt it important to first understand their oppressors, so he began studying French and the French culture at a Franco-Vietnamese preparatory school in Vinh. Thanh’s attitudes about the French were also no doubt influenced by his father, who despised the imperial government the French allowed to rule over the three sections of Indochina.

In 1907, Thanh enrolled in National Academy, the highest level Franco-Vietnamese school in Hue, the imperial capital. He learned French, Vietnamese, and Chinese, but he was considered somewhat of a country bumpkin by his peers. Still, Thanh’s patriotic instincts were stoked while at this school. Indeed, his first direct involvement in political action came during this period as a wave of unrest swept the countryside and there were many demonstrations. On May 9th, he was beaten and fired upon by French troops during a demonstration. Thanh was dismissed from school and left Annam for Cochin China (South Vietnam) where he taught school for a period before deciding to go to France to study, leaving on a liner where he worked for passage under the name, “Ba.”

In France, Thanh took up odd jobs and started attending labor union meetings and meetings of socialists and Marxists, who supported more freedoms for colonial territories. He started writing articles under pseudonyms and publishing them in numerous media. In 1918, Thanh drafted an eight point petition to the government demanding Annamite freedom. He signed his document, Nguyen Ai Quoc, or “Nguyen the Patriot,” a name he would carry forward with him for decades to come. Eventually, the French police and secret police started taking notice, and he went to New York and London to escape their notice for awhile, before returning to France. He became rather prolific there and the voice for the Vietnamese people, as well as others. In 1924, he left for Moscow, where Lenin had radicalized Russia, a newly Communist country with great goals of expanding communism to the third world, including Indochina.

One thing I’ve always been curious about regarding Ho is whether he was a patriot fighting for national independence or a communist fighting to spread communism. The author of this book addresses this issue at several points throughout the book. He writes, “There are valid reasons for the argument that Nguyen Ai Quoc was above all a patriot. In 1960 he himself conceded in [a] short article … that it was the desire for Vietnamese independence that had drawn him to Marxism in the first place.” Yet, “there is also persuasive evidence that the young Nguyen Ai Quoc viewed Marxism-Leninism as more than just a tool to drive out the French…. Quoc believed that the struggle against the forces of imperialism throughout Asia would culminate in a global revolution.” And there you go. He was both.

Whatever the case, Quoc stayed in Moscow a very long time, studying at the Stalin School and writing things like The Revolutionary Path, his first major effort to introduce Marxist-Leninist doctrine to his countrymen. He moved from Moscow to China next, where he established himself with a network of like-minded nationalist/communists who sought Vietnam’s independence. From there, he oversaw the battle for Vietnam’s independence on behalf of both Russia and China, playing both countries against each other brilliantly – something he’d do for the rest of his life.

Rumor had it he was married to a Chinese woman and had a daughter, but he had to leave them and flee to avoid arrest by the ever aggressive French, returning to Moscow. There he set up a system for patriotic countrymen to come study Marxist philosophies and to go home to spread their knowledge. In 1941, Quoc traveled back through China under the assumed name of Ho Chi Minh, the name that would stick with him for the rest of his life. (It meant “He Who Enlightens.”) During the World War Two years of Japanese occupation in Vietnam, Ho traveled back to Vietnam for the first time in decades, to head the Vietminh Front, along with future general, Vo Nguyen Giap and others. With China’s help, they carved out for themselves some territory in northern Vietnam and solicited help from both Russia and the US, of all countries.

After the war was over, Ho declared Vietnam an independent country, much to the delight of his countrymen who viewed him as a hero. The French had other plans, and with US backing, returned to re-colonize Indochina. Ho and the Vietminh went into hiding and started conducting guerrilla warfare, eventually demoralizing the French and gaining power, ultimately resulting in the military destruction of the French at Dien Bien Phu, and France’s essential surrender, resulting in a split Vietnam, where the northern part would be governed by Ho, and the southern by a corrupt president propped up by the US, one who would later be assassinated with America’s permission and knowledge.

One thing you have to understand is this – the Vietnamese wanted a free and independent unified Vietnam, even most of the southerners. Thus, the Viet Cong, who started making their appearance in 1961 with the north’s backing. Ho continued to seek a political solution, but Lyndon Johnson would have none of it and with the suspicious Gulf of Tonkin incident, he brought the US right into the war. Something that will forever be remembered as one of the most stupid things done by a US president. It was an unwinnable war. Ho said that the Vietnamese may lose 10 soldiers for every one American soldier, but that Vietnam would outlast America, and he was right.

Ho’s influence started to wane as he aged, on into the 1960s, but even as a figurehead, he still played a large role. Power had shifted to other Vietnamese leaders, such as Le Duan, but until Ho’s death on September 2nd, 1969, he was viewed as the legitimate leader of his people and a fighter for the oppressed the world over.

The book, aside from an epilogue, ends with Ho’s death and briefly describes the end of the war, so you won’t get much information about how the war ended or why, but this book goes a long way to demystifying a mythical man of immense power and stature, and for that, the author should be applauded. Perhaps I should end this review of this strongly recommended book by citing the final paragraph in the book, a book written by a man who worked at the US Embassy in Saigon back during the war:

“Ho Chi Minh, then, was … an ‘event-making man,’ a ‘child of crisis’ who combined in his own person two of the central forces in the history of modern Vietnam: the desire for national independence and the quest for social and economic justice. Because these forces transcended the borders of his own country, Ho was able to project his message to colonial peoples all over the world and speak to their demand for dignity and freedom from imperialist oppression. Whatever the final judgment on his legacy to this own people, he has taken his place in the pantheon of revolutionary heroes who have struggled mightily to give the pariahs of the world their true voice.”

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VALISVALIS by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

THIS ISN'T SCIENCE FICTION!!! THIS IS THEOLOGICAL CLAPTRAP DISGUISED AS SCIENCE FICTION AND IT SUCKS! This book is SO boring, I couldn't get past page 65. Don't get me wrong -- I love Philip K. Dick, particularly his works from the 1950s and 60s, but the VALIS trilogy is just plain bad. I had wanted, cautiously, to read this book for awhile, merely due to its reputation, but having already read the third book in the trilogy, I didn't have high hopes for it. So, I was (not) disappointed when I attempted to read it.

The book is utter crap. It actually should start later in the novel, where the protagonist, Horselover Fat, is locked up. Horselover Fat is also Philip K. Dick in the novel, and he's going quite mad. He narrates the story as himself and as Horselover Fat, and they're often interchangeable and you never really quite get what's going on to whom. There's a lot of Dick's 1970s drug use, but other than that, I missed his usual brilliantly crafted future worlds of androids, lasers, robots, new slang, new inventions, new drugs, new powers, and his alternate worlds we so often see.

Horselover/Philip believes he has had an encounter with God or some kind of god-like entity, which also happens to have supposedly happened to the author in real life. VALIS stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, which is the name that Horselover/Philip gives to the god-like thing he experienced. He and his few friends gather to exchange lies and ideas on theological conspiracies and other such garbage and nothing happens in this novel. I wrote in the review of my last Dick book, the "straight" lit novel Voices From the Street, that I'm just not going to give books the kind of chances I once did, like reading 215 pages of that novel before giving up in disgust. I'll still love Dick's work, but I'm sticking with his non-theological, pure sci fi stuff from here on out. I can't recommend this book to anyone, even hardcore Dick fans. And if you're just starting to read Philip K. Dick, DON'T begin with this book because you'll lose any interest in reading his finer works. I hated this book. One star.

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Monday, October 28, 2013

Hot Wired Guitar: The Life of Jeff Beck

Hot Wired Guitar: The Life of Jeff BeckHot Wired Guitar: The Life of Jeff Beck by Martin J. Power
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First things first. Jeff Beck is my favorite guitarist. (Brian May is a close second.) I think he's the best who's ever lived, and that sentiment is shared by many, including many famous musicians. So I approached this book rather eagerly, hoping it would be a good read and that I'd learn a lot. And it did not disappoint.

Jeff Beck is one of the few musicians who can claim to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice: once for his years with the Yardbirds and once for his own solo career. I think that makes him pretty special. The thing that was special about the Yardbirds is they probably are the only group in history to launch the careers of three of the greatest guitar players ever: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. How Clapton and Page went on to glory while Beck toiled in relative obscurity has always been a mystery to me, but the author of this book reveals what happened. Basically, Jeff got bored every couple of years. After he left the Yardbirds, he formed his own "supergroup" with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood and his first solo album, Truth, was a masterpiece. His follow up, Beck-Ola, was good, but not great. He then split the band up and started working on his true love -- old hot rods. He basically split his time between cars and guitars the rest of his life. In the mid-70s, his classic Blow by Blow album came out to major critical acclaim. It was a jazz fusion album, which threw off his rock followers of previous years, but earned him new followers. His 1976 Wired album was also extra special. It's one of my favorite albums of all time. I first heard it in 1981 in my cousin's car. Beck teamed with Jan Hammer to do some truly special songs. Then he broke up his band again. Went out touring with Hammer's band for awhile, but didn't do anything for a few years, while Clapton and Page were raking in the dough. He came out with There and Back in 1980, which I think is a very good album and which did well in the US, but not his native UK, where he's never done very well. This was more rock-oriented again, leaving fusion behind. He then fiddled around playing on other people's albums for much of the '80s, content to do nothing major himself. In the late '90s, he was intrigued by techno, so incorporated elements of it into a new album, which did nothing, and then two more increasingly harder edged albums -- Jeff and You Had It Coming, both of which I really like and both of which didn't do very well. It seems like the public had forgotten him. Then he changed management. In 2007, he was contracted to play 5 straight nights at London's infamous Ronnie Scott's club, where attendees included Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Brian May, and John Bon Jovi. He teamed with my favorite bass player, the 21 year old prodigy Tal Wilkenfeld and their chemistry was obvious. They really played well together. Seeing the DVD of those shows brought me to purchase her solo album, and I haven't been disappointed. The DVD of the Ronnie Scott's performance sold over a million copies and he was back. He did a Les Paul tribute, which was also captured on disc and sold, I believe, quite well. In 2010, he released his first new album in some time, Emotion and Commotion, which had some female vocalists on it, like Imelda May and Joss Stone, both great singers. The album hit the charts at number 11 its first week out and it sold well. He went on tour, and I was fortunate enough to see him with my cousin at his show in Atlanta. It was amazing. He was 66 and could still play better than anyone. He's still touring, although I don't know how many more albums will be forthcoming. He's won 8 Grammy awards, he's met the Queen, he's in the R&R HoF twice. What more could you want, right? He's a legend, and this book was an enjoyable read and quite revealing about many things. If you're a music fan, a blues or jazz fan, a fan of early metal, or a Jeff Beck fan, then this book is definitely for you. You won't be disappointed.

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Hunting the Jackal

Hunting the Jackal: A Special Forces and CIA Soldier's Fifty Years on the Frontlines of the War Against TerrorismHunting the Jackal: A Special Forces and CIA Soldier's Fifty Years on the Frontlines of the War Against Terrorism by Billy Waugh
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to give this somewhat exciting book more stars, but it leaves out too much information to merit it. For instance, the author joins the military in 1947 and apparently fights in Korea, but the first we see of him is in 1965 Vietnam, after he's joined the Special Forces and is hunting NVA units. There are a couple of exciting, if somewhat unbelievable, tales of his time in Nam, particularly when he thought he might catch Giap (which didn't happen, obviously). He earned eight Purple Hearts and other assorted medals.

After he leaves the army, as a master sergeant (which is odd, considering the high level talks he allegedly has with colonels and generals), he joins the postal service and is bored stiff. Then, in the mid-70s, he's recruited to go to Libya to train "elite" commandos for an impending war with Egypt. He's also recruited by the CIA to take photographs and spy for them. Let me tell you, he doesn't hold Arabs in high regard.

After skipping ahead to the early 90s, he's stationed in Khartoum, Sudan where there are apparently tons of terrorists. He comes across "Usama" bin Laden, but he's such a low level target in 1992, that he doesn't really think anything of it. Instead, he's after Carlos the Jackal, the world's most notorious terrorist. He gets actual pictures of Carlos, the first any have been made of him in 10 years, and then sits in an observation post taking more pictures. We're supposed to be leading up to an exciting climax here, but we then learn the French have taken Carlos in because they have a warrant, the US doesn't, and we handed him over to them. It's REALLY anti-climactic.

Later in the book, he discusses 9/11, but not much. He's clearly anti-Clinton, and I guess pro-Bush, so there you have it. In 2001/2, at age 72, he joins Special Forces in Afghanistan to hunt the Taliban and bin Laden. He's amazed by all of the new high tech war weapons, such as drones, and puts forth his belief that bin Laden died from a drone strike. I don't know when this book was written and I don't know if the author is still alive, but I'd be interested in hearing his opinion after knowing the facts of bin Laden's actual demise. This last part of the book leaves you feeling fairly empty though, because nothing happens. Nothing. His Special Forces team occupies a deserted Afghan school. He's very cold. They smell bad. Ooooh!

There's almost no background information on Waugh in this book, some of the stories seem exaggerated, he leaves out lots of details because they're classified (he apparently went to 64 countries as a CIA operative, but talks about three of them), he served, apparently, in Iraq and the Balkans, but we hear nothing about that, just like we hear nothing about Korea. WTF? Why did he pick and choose four or five scenes from his 50 years of combat to share? He could have made this book four times as long and 10 times more interesting if he had chosen to include more information. Oh, he also gets married to a wonderful girl and then we hear nothing more about her. He's also fairly narcissistic. The soldiers in Afghanistan "worshiped" him. He's a legend in his own mind. I really wanted to like this book, and parts of it were exciting, yes, but so much is left out that I can't recommend it at all. I feel like I'm doing the author a favor by giving it three stars.....

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Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam

Giap: The General Who Defeated America in VietnamGiap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam by James A. Warren
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

General Vo Nguyen Giap was the North Vietnamese mastermind who defeated the French and American superpowers over 30 years in what was previously an unthinkable possibility -- that countries with so so much more military and economic power could lose to an underdeveloped third world country. And yet it happened. (Also, Giap had to battle the Japanese toward the end of World War Two.)

Giap came from humble beginnings -- a history professor turned professional solider from the Quang Binh Province of Vietnam. He was self taught. Aside from Hi Chi Minh, Giap was probably North Vietnam's most important figure. He learned communism from Ho and never strayed. He learned how to battle from the Chinese and adapted what he learned to the Vietnamese battlefield. When the Vietminh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu to end the French colonial war with what was then Indochina, he showed that he had mastered guerrilla tactics as well as conventional war strategies, and these carried over to the American war. He was also a master at logistics. It took months for the Vietminh to carry broken down parts of artillery pieces up into the mountains surrounding Dien Bien Phu, where they were then assembled and used with devastating success. Another strength Giap possessed was learning that the political counted as much as the military. He indoctrinated his soldiers, the Vietnamese peasants, and won a war of attrition against both France and America -- both countries, he knew, that wouldn't have the stomach for a protracted war. He was right. Now he took horrifying losses throughout both wars. When all was said and done, the NVA and Vietminh lost over a million soldiers (to America's 56,000), but he knew that a country united in revolution against colonialism was destined for victory. He never lacked in confidence. The Tet offensive was, of course, the turning point in the Vietnam war with America. Looked at it militarily, the US won, giving the NVA and Viet Cong horrifying casualties, but strategically, North Vietnam won because America now wanted out and started the process of withdrawing troops and halting the bombing of North Vietnam in an effort to get to the negotiating table -- a place where America had no leverage.

The author makes some good points in his final chapter in this excellent book.

"The power of the US military machine posted immense challenges to Giap as a commander. He knew that the conflict would result in horrific losses, but he also realized that those causalities were the inevitable cost of victory, and neither the reality of those casualties, as regrettable as they were, nor the destructive capacity of American forces, would prove to be decisive factors in the war's outcome.... Giap was first and foremost a revolutionary war strategist, which is to say he conceived of war primarily as a social struggle by people committed to breaking down the status quo and replacing it with a new set of power relationships and institutions, not as a strictly military activity carried out by full-time soldiers and guerrillas.... the work of building a powerful political infrastructure that could challenge French and American efforts was far more important than achieving victory in a series of conventional military battles and campaigns.... He also believed that he could instill a sense of futility and exhaustion in the French and American armies by avoiding large-scale combat engagements in favor of harassing tactics, including ambushes, booby traps, and luring the enemy into patrolling forbidding mountainous terrain and steamy jungles where his own troops were more at home."

"Giap never doubted that the power of his soldiers' and citizen's commitment to the Vietnamese revolutionary vision would compensate for the inferiority of their military forces. It was only necessary to instill the same level of belief and determination he himself possessed for the cause into the Revolution as a whole, and to direct that energy toward victory.... When all is said and done, Giap's enduring importance lies in recognizing that he was a successful general largely because he could see with extraordinary clarity all the factors and forces that shaped the trajectory of the wars in which he fought, and how each element related to all the others."

Giap than, who might still be alive at over 100 years old, was the instrumental commander that foresaw victory and instilled that vision in his troops and citizens. He was Ho's second, and as such, wielded great power. He built his army up from a tiny platoon in 1945 to hundreds of thousands of hardened troops by war's end. When the NVA rolled into Saigon in 1975, the revolution was complete and Vietnam was reunited. Communist, yes, but under no colonial authority for the first time in over a century. It was a mighty struggle, and even though I'm an American, I've studied this war for decades and have seen how American stupidity lost us the war -- which we could have won with the right strategies and leadership, I believe. Giap's commitment never wavered. He should be looked at as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. I can't think of a single instance in which a tiny, impoverished, technically backwards country defeated two of the world's superpowers within two to three decades of each other. His legacy will live on for a long time. This was an excellent book to read and I certainly recommend it to any military buff or historian, or to anyone interested in the Vietnam war. Great book!

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The Bus: My Life in and out of a Helmet

The Bus: My Life in and out of a HelmetThe Bus: My Life in and out of a Helmet by Jerome Bettis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed reading Jerome Bettis's account of his life, and not just because I'm a Steelers fan. The book was interesting and was a fun read. It starts with his childhood in Detroit, where he could have gotten himself into trouble (he was stealing things, selling them for a profit, and eventually selling drugs) if not for finding football in high school. There, he became a great linebacker and fullback with college scholarships from tons of places. Tennessee was on his short list, which was a surprise to me. As a UT fan and alum, I would have welcomed him in orange. Michigan thought they had him because he was an in-stater, but he chose Notre Dame because they gave him a chance to run the ball -- he thought he'd play linebacker at Michigan. By his junior year, it was apparent that he might be destined for the NFL, and after his senior season, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, where he proceeded to rush for over 1,400 yards his rookie year. For some reason, though, things soured for him there. They brought in a new coach who didn't like him, and by his third year, his numbers were down and the Rams just wanted to get rid of him. Fortunately, for him (and the Steelers) he signed with Pittsburgh and the rest is history. He played in the NFL 13 seasons, and with 13,662 yards, he finished as the fifth leading rusher in NFL history. He played in six Pro Bowls, was the NFL Man of the Year, the NFL Comeback Player of the Year, had nine 1,000 seasons, and in his last year, he finally won his long desired Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit, which is just a magical way to end a spectacular career. Bettis will be up for the Hall of Fame this year for the third time and it's an absolute CRIME that's he's not been voted in yet. I'm sure he will be, at some point, but why not yet? His career speaks for itself!

This book was all the more interesting because you get a lot of behind the scenes stories of him with coaches and players like Hines, Ben, and Troy, as well as linebackers Greg Lloyd and Joey Porter. You learn about the charities he set up and the good they've done. You read about his wife and daughter, as well as his much loved parents and brothers. Jerome is a good natured individual and really doesn't hold grudges, so it's a joy when he discusses other players and the respect he had for them. This is a lightweight book, and it's not very big, but it's a great read and it makes you feel good about Bettis and proud to be a Steelers fan. Recommended.

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Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last HeroClemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero by David Maraniss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I became a Pirates fan when I moved from Canada to Pittsburgh in 1971 as a small boy with my family. I don’t remember much of Roberto Clemente, but I remember how huge he was in the city. Willie Stargell was my favorite Pirate. Still, I remember when Clemente died on New Year’s Eve, 1972, and what a shock it was to the world, to the baseball community, and to Pittsburgh, and what a sense of loss it brought.

Maraniss writes a pretty good book about Clemente. It’s not perfect, but the highlights are well written and one learns a lot about the man. Coming from Puerto Rico up to Montreal, in the minors, around 1954 was a huge shock for him, and then when the Pirates drafted him from the minors in 1955, it continued to be a culture shock for him, not only as a Latino player, but as a black Latino player. Since Spring Training was in Florida, Clemente was exposed first hand to Jim Crowe laws and couldn’t stay with the team, eat with the team, do anything but stay in the “colored” sections of towns and play ball. He wasn’t an immediate star, but he was obviously talented. He had a rocket for an arm and played a mean right field. He could hit fairly well, and with some power. He was primed for stardom.

By the time 1960 rolled around, the Pirates had risen from mediocre to National League champs, but they had to play the dreaded Yankees (with Mantle and Maris) in the World Series. And NY bombed Pittsburgh in three games by huge margins. Nonetheless, Pittsburgh won three games too, setting up a seventh and deciding game. The game was tied going into the ninth inning. Finally, at the end of the ninth inning, Bill Mazeroski hit a home run out of the park in one of the most famous moments in Pittsburgh sports history, winning the Series for the Pirates. It was the “shot heard round the world,” and to this day, is probably the most readily remembered World Series home run. For the Series, Clemente hit safely in every game.

Now my complaint with the author comes into play. He basically skips entire seasons after that Series. The 1967 season isn’t even mentioned, and Clemente was the 1966 National League MVP. You’d think Maraniss would want to follow up on that. Also, while we learn about Clemente’s tempestuous relationship with the press, who really never truly understood him, we don’t get as much on his relationship with the team, such as his manager Danny Murtaugh. It would have been nice to read more about their interactions.

Finally, we come to another good chapter – the one on the 1971 World Series against Baltimore, a team with four 20 game winning pitchers. By this time, Clemente was the old man on the team, but he hit safely in all seven games of this Series too, and was named Series MVP as Pittsburgh won another World Series.

In all, Clemente finished his career with a .317 batting average, 3000 hits, four N.L. batting titles, 12 Gold Gloves, the 1966 National League MVP, the 1971 World Series MVP, and was the first Latino elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

At the end of 1972, there was a devastating earthquake in Nicaragua, a country where Clemente had just managed the Puerto Rican national team in a playoffs. He was determined to help the people and helped gather over $100,000 and hundreds of tons of supplies to take to Nicaragua for disaster relief. Unfortunately, he put his trust in a shady character who had a plane he contracted out. This guy had 66 FAA violations and couldn’t even fly the plane, even though he was the co-pilot. The pilot had 12 violations and was exhausted from a trip he had just taken. Additionally, the plane was in bad shape and had been wrecked just two weeks before. Finally, it was overloaded by something like 4,500 pounds. It could barely lift off the ground. Nonetheless, Clemente said goodbye to his wife and three boys, took off, and never made it, as the planed crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff, smashing everything to smithereens. His body was never found.

Roberto Clemente was the pride of the Latino world, could have ruled Puerto Rico, was much loved by kids around the world, who he related to quite well, and had millions of fans everywhere. While he didn’t always get along with the press, they decided to do something that had only been done once before – bypass the five year minimum requirement of being away from baseball for election into the Baseball Hall of Fame (the other player was Lou Gehrig), and he was elected 11 weeks after his death.

It’s a good book, even though it does leave details out. (Why did Clemente give one of his Silver Slugger awards to announcer Bob Prince?) It’s well researched and documented and it sheds light on one of the greatest athletes of our time. Clemente will never be forgotten, and I certainly recommend this book.

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Hello. My name is Scott and I write book reviews. No, not for a living. Just for the fun of it. Truthfully, I'm on Goodreads a lot and often write my book reviews there, before cross posting them elsewhere. Many of the books I read and review are science fiction, nonfiction, and religious, but I do write about other books too. I have a couple of other blogs on other sites, but I wanted to create a blog just for my book reviews, so here it is. Drop by, read, and comment if you feel like it.