Friday, December 27, 2013

The Cosmic Puppets


The Cosmic PuppetsThe Cosmic Puppets by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, The Cosmic Puppets certainly isn't Philip K Dick's best work, but it's among his earliest, so perhaps he was just getting his feet wet and hadn't established the maturity he displays in later works. The book is a story about a 27 year old man named Ted Barton who takes off on a side trip (while on a vacation with his wife) to his hometown of Millgate, VA. He moved away from there at age nine and hasn't been back since, living in New York. He seems strangely driven to get there, anxious to see his old haunts. His wife is none too pleased. However, when Ted arrives, the town has changed -- radically. In fact, nothing is the same! Street names are different, stores are gone, others have appeared, the town park is now comprised of dilapidated buildings. It has a dingy feel to it and Ted is overwhelmed with curiosity. He asks people where Central Street is, only to find there is none. He's advised to go to the newspaper's office to research Millgate of years gone by. There he finds reference to his birth ... and his death of scarlet fever at age nine, precisely at the same time he moved away. He sends his wife to a motel in a neighboring town and returns to find out what the heck happened. So far, so good. Typical PKD alternate reality. But it has a toned down feel to it. It's not as fleshed out as some of his later works.

We're introduced to Mary and Peter, two children who mold clay figures and have strange powers (and habits). Ted takes a room in Peter's mother's boarding house and Peter tells him he knows who Ted really is before running off. We then see him with his collection of spiders, rats, and snakes in his barn, as well as "golems," clay figures who are miniature people. He uses this collection to spy on people, particularly Mary, who uses bees. While Ted is sitting at the boarding house, he spots two ethereal beings come up and walk through the walls of the house. He asks if others saw that, and to his surprise, everyone had seen it. It's common. They're called Wanderers and they're taken for granted in town.

Out drinking the next day, Ted meets the town drunk, Christopher, who confides in Ted that he, too, remembers the town of 18 years ago before "the Change" took place. That he had a business. He remembered many of the same things that Ted did. Together, they somehow magically start recreating parts of town out of thin air, starting with the park, just by sheer concentration. Apparently, everything in the town, including the people, are artificial. The town was buried by this fake Millgate 18 years ago and the Wanderers are some of the original inhabitants.

Things start to get crazier here as we discover there is a battle between good and evil taking place on a universal level, starring Millgate. The rats, spiders, and snakes come for Ted, Christopher, and the Wanderers, while Mary is killed. However, she had created a golem of herself, so she essentially survives.

I'm not going to give away the end of the story, but I guess it was okay. I've seen better PKD endings. I guess he was doing the best he could with what he had written himself into. This book really predates his quality work of later, in my opinion, but it's a short read -- I read it in easily less than a day -- and if you like Dick, you might want to try this book out. However, I've got to say that I can't recommend it for the average reader. Oh, by the way, this isn't sci fi. It's fantasy/horror. Just in case you were wondering....

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Friday, December 20, 2013

The Electric Church


The Electric Church (Avery Cates, #1)The Electric Church by Jeff Somers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read a lot of mixed reviews of The Electric Church, which surprised me because I thought it was really good. Some of the reviewers out there really hated it, thought of it as unoriginal, thought it was stereotypical cyberpunk, were bored, thought it was predictable. I thought it was none of those things. Indeed, it was such an action packed thriller that each page seemed to have something integral to the plot and I was so intrigued, I read it in less than a day.

Avery Cates is a Gunner, a killer in a dystopian world. He's old at 27 and has killed some 26 people for money, and during this book, he really adds to his kill total. The seemingly super human cops (The SSF) are after him for cop killing and now he's on the bad side of the Electric Church, a growing religion whose adherents are cyborgs who were once human and whose brains have been transplanted from murdered people to their new cyborg bodies. It's quite creepy. The head of the SSF cops hires him to kill the leader of the church in their heavily guarded headquarters, so he assembles a team of transport, tech, and other people to help him out.

Cates is a bad guy, but he's a likeable bad guy because he plays by a certain set of rules. He's also cooler than the evil police or the Monks of the Electric Church, all of whom are certifiably evil and probably insane.

Some reviewers thought character development was lacking in this book, but I was really taken with how the author captured and then let us get to know a Monk. The author really delves into good descriptions here and I had a great vision in my head of how the scene was taking place.

There's a whole lot of gun fighting in this book, so if you're into that, you won't be disappointed. A reason I'm marking it down from five stars to four, however, is the excessive swearing. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a prude. I've got a mouth of my own. But this was gratuitous swearing, dropping the F bomb every third word. It got old and felt forced. Additionally, the author constantly has to let us know that Cates is a hardass and is putting on his macho, hardass face to scare other people away. That got old too.

Still, the book is non-stop action and it's enthralling. I wasn't prepared for the end and thought it was quite good. Apparently, this is the first in a series (of course), so I might read the second one soon, although I'm of the opinion that sequels rarely live up to the original. This book is highly recommended!

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Victory at Any Cost: The Genius of Viet Nam's Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap


Victory at Any Cost: The Genius of Viet Nam's Gen. Vo Nguyen GiapVictory at Any Cost: The Genius of Viet Nam's Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap by Cecil B. Currey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cecil B. Currey's book on Vo Nguyen Giap is an utterly excellent book! It's gripping, engaging, provides historical context, contains essential quotes, and shows Giap to be the logistical, tactical, and strategic genius he was as a general leading North Vietnam to defeat the Japanese, the French, the US, the South Vietnamese, the Cambodians, and the Chinese. No one else has done so much with so little. I'm going to reprint my review for Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam by James A. Warren (a book I read a few months ago...) in its entirety here, because I think many of the same things can be said about this book. Read on.


Giap: 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 then, 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!

______________________________________________________

Well, that's what I wrote about the previous book, and the same holds true for this one. The thing that separates them, I think, is Currey actually got to interview Giap for this book. It made it more compelling. There was more narrative and a lot more on actual thought patterns and secrets behind North Vietnam's successes. I also didn't know that Giap whipped China when China invaded in 1979. Truly amazing. After Ho died, though, the Politburo demoted him several times over the years, and that was disgraceful for the founder of that country's army and leader of victorious military campaigns. Still, he handled himself with grace and dignity and while he wasn't always the most likeable person in the world, you can't come away from this book without some sort of admiration for the man. Truly one of the greatest generals in history. Recommended.


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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ubik


UbikUbik by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! Ubik was a wild ride, even by Philip K. Dick's standards. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is the book meets the high standards he creates for his works, and then some!

As the book begins, we meet Glen Runciter, head of the world's top anti-psi agency (to combat all of the psi organizations that have arisen now that it is 1992 -- heh!), located in New York City. He confers with his late wife, Ella, who is dead and buried in a Swiss moratorium, where she is in a suspended state of "half life," through "cold-pac" --- something like our cryogenics. The world's top psi's are disappearing, and Runciter wants his wife's opinion on what to do. She thinks they should advertise more.

We then go off to met Joe Chip, Runciter's top man, who is dirt poor and in debt. A Runciter scout has brought a young woman named Pat by to meet Joe. Pat has an unusual ability to nullify events before they even happen. Her psi tests are off the charts, and Joe marks on her report that she should be watched, that she could be dangerous.

Runciter has a visitor from a businessman with a business on Luna (the moon?), in need of immediate anti-psi help. Runciter agrees to overlook some typical preliminaries, since it's an emergency, and soon he's leading Joe, Pat, and nine others to Luna to save this company. Where they're sabotaged. A bomb goes off in the room in which they're gathered and Runciter takes it the worst. He's pretty much dead, and the team rushes to get him into cold-pac in the spaceship so he can be saved and consulted with his wife. Joe starts planning on how to get back at their enemies from that moment forward. And from that moment forward, things start unraveling. It gets really Dick-like as alternate realities are discovered and time moves backward. Joe starts receiving odd messages from Runciter while members of the team start dying off, decomposing quickly. Soon the surviving members find themselves back in 1939 in Des Moines IA -- Joe has to get there by bi-plane. They're there for Runciter's funeral, but by now, Pat is under deep suspicion for being behind this, plotting with their enemies, and Joe's really ticked. Soon the reader doesn't know who is dead and who is alive!

I won't give away the ending, but I'll just let you know that it's a typical Dick mind-f*** which is immensely satisfying while still being a bit confusing. It's a lot to swallow at once. Ubik rears its head at the beginning of each chapter in the form of an unusual ad for an unusual product, and Ubik plays a real role at the end of the book, but it's a bit mysterious at that. Suffice it to say that it's a miraculous spray can that is Joe's only way to stay alive.

Dick's eye for minutia is especially good in this novel as he highlights magazines from 1939 (real ones), early cars, etc. And this book is a fast paced thriller too. I read it in less than a day. I couldn't put it down. No wonder Time magazine chose it for inclusion as one of their "100 best English-language novels!" No argument there. I don't know if this is my favorite Philip K. Dick book, but if not, it's close. It's got the usual PKD themes like unreliable and alternate reality, time running backward, precognition (Minority Report, anyone?), telepathy, paranoia, hallucinations, and even spirituality. It's got a fantastic ending. It's a great introduction to Dick, if you're unfamiliar with him, and if you're a fan, it's a must read. You won't be able to put it down. Highly recommended.

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Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation


Sartre and Camus: A Historic ConfrontationSartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation by David A. Sprintzen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I got to page 90 and gave up. I thought the book would be explosive, but I wasn't aware of the background of the 1952 split between Camus and Sartre and I found it a little underwhelming. Indeed, after the book established the fact that the split occurred because Camus moved away from communism and, to a lesser degree, toward the Americans while Sartre became fervently communist and a supporter of Stalin and Soviet Russia, I saw no further need to read. Eventually, the letters between Sartre, Camus, and Francis Jeanson, Sartre's colleague, that were published and that caused all of the stir become a large component of the book, but by then, why read? You already know what the outcome is. I've always preferred Camus over Sartre and this book does Sartre no favors (nor Camus either, for that matter), so I remain a stolid supporter of Camus and his work. I think I can get along just fine without finishing the book. For diehard fans, this might be a good read. I thought I was a diehard fan, but maybe I'm not after all.

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Monday, December 9, 2013

The Zap Gun


The Zap GunThe Zap Gun by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was another crazy book (in a good way) by Philip K. Dick. It's more lucid and centered than many of his other (later) books. This was written in 1965, but is set in 2004. In this book, the Cold War still exists, seemingly, between Wes-bloc (us) and Peep-East (the Soviets). There is a weapons race between the two sides, and each employs "weapons fashion designers" to design their new weapons. The thing is, a peace treaty had been agreed upon years ago between the sides and these weapons don't and won't work. They're not designed to. After the designs are made, they go into production and fake weapons are then filmed doing significant damage to the other side so that society, the "pursaps" (pure saps), will continue to think they're being protected by their respective governments in an evil world.

The protagonist for this book is Lars Powderdry (another great Dick name), the western weapons fashion designer. His eastern counterpart is an attractive young "cog" named Lilo Topchev, and does Lars have a thing for her. Even though he has a mistress in Paris. Yep. Dick and his cluttered relationships are at work again. Heh.

Both weapons fashion designers use hard core secretive drugs to induce a trance state during which time they sketch their weapon ideas. Upon waking, they see what they've sketched and the sketches are off to the lab. This situation works out well for everyone -- until alien satellites appear in the sky and apparently start to take entire cities (starting with New Orleans) captive for slave labor in the Sirius system. It's at this point the weapon fashion designers are brought together (in Iceland, I believe) to pool their resources in the hopes of making a real weapon to defeat the aliens.

One interesting sub-plot occurs when Lars picks up a pulp comic at a magazine stand and recognizes some of his weapons in the comic. Lilo does too, when he shows it to her. The tricky thing is, these are weapons they just concocted this week, while the comic has been on the stands for one or two months. So, are they stealing their ideas from a schizophrenic comic book writer?

Another major part of the plot occurs when some soldiers in DC happen upon a doddering old man talking about a major battle he helped win 60 some years ago -- in 2005. He's from the future. Time travel. Yep. (You also get androids in this novel too. Sci fi all the way, baby!) Klug, the old man, is taken to the authorities where they come to believe his story and set up Lilo and Lars to work with him to try and get a design for the real weapon that defeated the aliens all those years ago. Lilo is ineffective, but Lars "connects" with Klug while in his trance and finds the answers to his questions. The answer lies in a toy. I won't give it away though.

Yet another sub-plot involves Surley G. Febbs, one of the funniest characters I've seen out of Dick. A severe narcissist with a plot to rule the world, he plays a role at the end, after you think the book has been tied up nicely. The thing that makes this work is, this actually ties the ending up nicely. It's a fresh perspective for me, because one of my major complaints about Dick is that his endings always seem so rushed, so not-quite-finished. This ending works for me.

There's sex, there's a suicide, there's hilarious terms Dick makes up for nearly everything, and underneath it all is the running satire of the real life arms race that people were frightened to death of during the time of the book's writing. This isn't Dick's best book. In fact, some people don't like it all that much. But I really enjoyed it and finished it in less than a day. It was that gripping. Recommended for all!

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Doorways in the Sand


Doorways in the SandDoorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is the second Zelazny book I've gone for and I've got to say that despite all of the wonderful stuff I heard about him as a writer, I'm horribly disappointed. I couldn't even finish this one. It's his language, his use of language. He's a sci fi writer, writing this book in the 1970s, but who uses 19th century language. It's beyond distracting; it's maddening!

Here's an example. On page 20, the protagonist, Fred, kicks an intruder in the groin. and then attempts to flee. Instead of saying Fred ran away or retreated or fled or anything, Zalazny writes, "Which is why I took to my own element rather than stay there and face him." Took to your own element??? Who the hell says shit like that??? At least in this century, or rather, the 20th century? It's like some linguistic time warp with this writer, and I barely tolerated and finished the first book of his I read due to this, and I'm not finishing this one. I have two more books of his to read, but I'm reluctant. I'll probably start one and give it one to two chapters. If the language he employs is as idiotic as this shit, it's bye bye Zelazny -- forever. I don't want to get angry and headachy when reading a book!

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Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Forever War


The Forever War (The Forever War, #1)The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Winner of both the Hugo & Nebula Awards, this proved to be an interesting book for me. It's military sci fi, which isn't necessarily bad, but it's not my favorite sub-genre either. Still, this didn't go overboard, in my opinion, so that was nice. It's about a kid drafted into an interplanetary war who, due to technology issues, ages at a rate so slow in his hyperspace jumps that centuries pass by on Earth. Meanwhile, not much is known about the aliens he's doing battle with, and indeed, the book pays little attention to them. What interested me more about the book was Haldeman's descriptions of his vision of Earth's progress in the future, or lack thereof; of the changes made in society and even humanity. Where one would think positive progress is made over time, we learn that's not necessarily the case.

Written by a Vietnam vet during the Vietnam war, there's some occasional social commentary to be gleaned from the book, but it's mild. One odd thing to me, though, was that women aren't always treated overly well. When our protagonist, Mandella, is drafted, he finds that the integrated army personnel sleeps together, as in sexually and with multiple partners, and in fact, the female military members are legally obliged to be sexual partners to the men. So in essence, they're whores. That bothered me a lot. But if you can get past that, the women are otherwise treated well, and there is a love interest in the book, which I found mildly surprising.

I was bothered by some things that took place in the last section of the book, but I don't want to give away spoilers, so you can decide for yourself. I will say that I loved the ending, the way things were tied up so neatly, and I was actually touched by it. Good job, Haldeman.

Overall, even though I'm just giving this book a 4 out of 5 stars (some of it's rather dated, and he was way off in terms of envisioning some technology advances), I think it's well worth the read and I heartily recommend it to anyone out there who is not only a sci fi lover, but a reader who enjoys military books, some action, some cultural commentary, etc. Worth the time to read, and at 280 pages, it's easy to get through. Good book!

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The Unteleported Man


The Unteleported ManThe Unteleported Man by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Odd book by one of my favorite writers. Totally schizophrenic book -- two in one. Starts out as straight sci fi -- for Dick, anyway. Halfway through, it morphs into this bizarre, drug-induced psychedelic experiment that destroys the original plot and isn't really brought to a satisfying end, for reasons I won't go into here. I kept wondering while reading the second half if Dick had been reading Williams Burroughs at the time of his writing this book. Cause this definitely has a Naked Lunch feel to it. I hesitantly recommend it, cause it is a good, interesting read, but frustrating at the same time. Still, Dick's worst stuff is better than most others' best...

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Friday, December 6, 2013

Brennan's War: Vietnam 1965-1969


Brennan's War: Vietnam 1965-1969: Brennan's War: Vietnam 1965-1969Brennan's War: Vietnam 1965-1969: Brennan's War: Vietnam 1965-1969 by Matthew Brennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This wasn't a bad book. In fact, it was fairly engrossing. It was fast paced and I read it in a day. The narrative is written so that it's like a series of very short stories, mostly about the action Brennan encountered in Vietnam, where he served for four years. He signed back up for extended tours of duty twice because he couldn't readjust to civilian society. Kind of sad.

He was with the 9th Armored Air Cav, in a unit called The Blues, which he paints as some kind of super-macho, better than Special Forces unit, which didn't sit well with me. He was an artilleryman, an infantryman, and he wasn't part of Special Forces. Still, he claimed to have taken part in over 419 battles of varying sizes, most recon or rescue missions.

Funny, but he seemed to think we were wiping the NVA/VC off the map until Tet, when he finally seemed to get a minor clue. His unit was near Hue during the fighting, but he didn't actually engage them too much. Hue seems to be the turning point for him.

When he went back to the States for the second time, he was confronted with hippies and war protestors, which shocked him. Apparently, he wasn't exposed to what America was going through while he was in the field. When he went back for his third tour, the men had changed to poorly trained, racist, dope smoking losers who he had no respect for, and by the time his tour was up, he's anxious to get out. Of course, by this time, the NVA had real weapons and was using them to pound the American positions, something that finally got to his nerves.

He details accounts of bravery, but also of atrocities that should have been prosecuted. It's a good book -- it really is. The only reason I'm downgrading it from five stars to four is with the way he described his unit and their fighting prowess, America should have never lost the war. These platoons (platoons!!!) allegedly killed hundreds and thousands of NVA/VC all over the place and the killing never ends until the very end of the book. With soldiers like Brennan and his buddies, how could we have possibly lost this war??? Pretty hard to believe. Perhaps he enjoys taking license with the facts, I don't know. It was just hard to swallow, knowing what I know. Nonetheless, it's an interesting read and if you want a perspective from a grunt's view in Vietnam, this isn't a bad place to start. Cautiously recommended.

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Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Crack in Space


The Crack in SpaceThe Crack in Space by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not one of Dick's better books, but still an interesting read and, occasionally, a fun one at that. I found it a bit shocking that in the 1960s, Dick was writing about issues that are very relevant today, such as abortion, a black president, etc. Before either was possible, in other words. The book is about a parallel earth, and our attempts to populate it with 70 million bibs, or people who had been frozen due to overpopulation. Most of them are black. As far as a standard Dick novel, I thought it moved a little slowly, and there were some things I wasn't happy with. For instance, there were far too many characters to keep track of -- it seemed like dozens! I kept getting them all mixed up. Then some would just disappear from the text, never to be heard from again (Myra Sands). It can be a bit confusing. Additionally, Dick usually throws a few more wrenches into his works than he did in this one, leaving us with the alternate earth and not much more. I kept waiting for standard PKD surprises to knock me over, but that rarely happened. Still, even though this isn't one of his stronger works, I'm giving it a solid 4 out of 5 stars, as I think most anything Dick writes is better than the best that most other authors publish....

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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality


Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian SpiritualityBlue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

There seems to be a lot of dichotomous reviews regarding Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. I have to admit, I have some mixed feelings. The book was certainly an open window into the author’s thoughts, his psyche if you will, but I’m not sure I liked what I found there.

Let me back up a minute. This is a book by a Christian who constantly criticizes Christianity and other Christians. Interesting. I can dig it. Strange, but cool. However, it’s not written in a linear way. It’s rather scattershot. The writing is all over the place, as are the topics. Midway through the book, I was still asking myself what the thesis of the book actually was. It was confusing, and in an irritating way.

Miller also has an usual writing style. He writes like an adolescent. He’s an immature person writing in an immature style. He constantly resorts to things like, “My good friend, ‘X,’ and I went on a road trip” or a coffee shop or camped out with hippies and got high, etc., etc. My, he has a lot of friends. Yet, he is strangely unlikeable, in my opinion. He states that he’s a loner. He writes that when he roomed with some other guys, he was such as asshole that they all basically hated him. He seeks professional help. Yet he constantly seems to be surrounded by people who just adore him. Narcissist much, Donald?

One chapter that really frustrated me was his first chapter on love. He was in his 20s when he wrote this book, and most people don’t know much about love at that age, but he really takes the cake! He writes that he basically can’t love correctly, doesn’t really want to get married (although he defies that repeatedly throughout the book), can’t cope with the idea of coming home to the same person day after day, etc., etc. He writes like a 15 year old boy. It’s rather pathetic. Same with his Alone chapter. He craves alone time, yet gets lonely. He’s constantly second guessing himself.

Miller also takes what his pastor, Rick, tells him as absolute gospel. Rick is never wrong. Additionally, Miller likes to surround himself with druggies and perverts (at Reed College and elsewhere), and then feels odd about being a Christian in these environments, while at the same time stating that he finds more freedom and true love with these types of people than with Christians. Miller is an immature man at war with himself, and he wrote this book prematurely. He still has a lot of work to do on himself. He’s an early work in progress, and he needs a lot of help.

Miller is consistently ashamed of his Christianity, yet he seems to bask in it at the same time. An inconsistency that gnawed at me throughout the entire book. He is powerful in publicly admitting his failings, I suppose, but in doing so, he paints himself as a very unlikeable individual – someone I hope I never meet. He thinks unflattering thoughts about many of the people he comes across. He’s all over the place in this book. I didn’t want to finish the book, from early on, yet I did because I kept hoping I would find a common theme, his thesis, somewhere in it, and I never did. This book fails for me, in so many ways, and Miller fails for me as a person. I doubt I will ever read another of his books, and I’m sorry I read this one.


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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq


Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in IraqFiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gosh, there's so much to say about this book, I hardly know where to begin! I turned over so many pages to go back and see citations or quotes that I can't possibly list a fourth of them here.

Ricks did a great job of presenting the build-up to the Iraq war and through the first three years. Since this book was published in 2006, it feels very unfinished and I would appreciate a 2013 second edition, but oh well. Ricks seems to lay first blame at some Iraq hating, war hawks in Bush's administration, notably Paul Wolfowitz, to take advantage of 9/11 to go after Iraq by suggesting its association with terrorists. (There was none.) We first heard about WMDs, which was the ploy used in the decision to preemptively invade Iraq. (There were none.) Cheney backed Bush into a corner during a speech in Nashville in August, 2002 I believe, in which he said there was "no doubt" that Iraq had WMDs and that "We must take the battle to the enemy."

Let me back up to something interesting first. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush and Cheney said that they thought that "Bill Clinton had used the military too much in his foreign policy." Of Gore, Bush said "He believes in nation building.... I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders." OK -- first, what a damn lying hypocrite!!! Second, what a damn lying scumbag. I guess it should come as no surprise, then, that a pre-presedential politician who goes on to steal an election goes on to lie to the world in order to preemptively invade a sovereign country. Amazing.

Other evil dudes in this book are Rumsfeld, the most arrogant, opinionated, self righteous prick of the 21st century; Paul Bremer, the ambassador who was always at war with the military and who was a bumbling fool, Iraqi exile Chalabi, who may have been working with the insurgents even as we tried to make him president, and military officers Sanchez, Franks, and Meyers. All incompetents who blew things to hell and back.

There are many narratives throughout the book of military men and women fighting hard to win an unacknowledged, unwinnable war -- soldiers both brave and cowardly, such as the ones who blew our integrity at Abu Grahib and the others who blew away prisoners who posed no threat whatsoever, and who received 45 day jail terms slaps on the wrists. Mind blowing.

There's a lot of politics in the book too, as well as musings of the highest military officials around. There was a lot of criticism and disagreement, but since soldiers are taught to follow orders and since orders were being given by stupid Bush-loving civilians with no concept of what was going on over there, disasters naturally occurred. Petraeus, however, is portrayed almost worshipfully, which I don't think is good. Face it, there were just too many problems between the Department of Defense and the CAP (Coalition Provisional Authority), the ones giving the orders in most cases.

Another problem with this war was we had intentionally forgotten the lessons of Vietnam about fighting insurgencies. We attacked with major divisions and battalions, didn't mingle with the people and learn about them and their customs, thus trying to win them over, didn't provide essentials such as water and electricity, set up large isolated base camps from which to operate and so much more -- all of which go against counter-insurgency tactics. Special Forces tried to warn them and some conventional units had some success, notably the 101st, but it was basically a war where we turned friendlies into enemies with our blasting into houses at 2 AM, roughing people up, taking the men away to prison, taking other family members "hostage," turning houses into rubble, and generating ill will to the US. Where Bush and the others thought we would be viewed as liberators, we quickly became occupiers and it really hurt us.

I had so much more I wanted to say about this book, but I won't. I had a small surgical procedure yesterday and the anesthesia still hasn't worn off, so I'm kind of tired. The book claims that by 2006, over 200 billion had been used in the war. That figure is way off. Earlier this year, I finished a book called The Three Trillion Dollar War, which admittedly is more recent, but which gives hard evidence to the fact that we have yet again been lied to as to the actual costs involved with this war. By the end of this book, the politicians remain in denial, the military is disenfranchised and demoralized, and the Iraqi insurgency is here to stay. Again, I'd like to see a more recent book detailing what's happened since. I don't know why I'm not giving it five stars. It might have been worth it. I think I'm actually downgrading it a bit because it was just TOO packed with information. It was almost too much to digest, hard to remember all the names, places, people, events. Still, it's recommended. Just be prepared to become even more disillusioned with the Bush administration, if you're not already.


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Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived



Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever LivedLove Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second time I've read Rob Bell's Love Wins, and I've got to say it's one of the more remarkable books I've ever read! Whether you agree with him or not (and many people do not), he asks a lot of good, legitimate questions -- some I never thought to ask and some I was afraid to ask -- and puts issues on the table that are very worthy of discussion. What exactly is heaven? And hell? What does God's love really mean? How do we get to heaven, if there is such a place? Etc., etc. I've had "issues" with God and traditional (evangelical) Christianity most of my life, so I can't tell you what a relief it has been to read a self-described evangelical ask some of the questions being asked in this book and stating some of the things that are stated. It has given me a new way of looking at things. It has given me a sense of hope. What more can you ask for in a book?

I want to mention just a few passages from the book that really struck me:

"Now, back to those church websites, the ones that declare that ultimately billions of people will spend eternity apart from God, while others will be with God in heaven forever.

Is history tragic?
Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth?
Is our future uncertain,
or will God take care of us?
Are we safe?
Are we secure?
Or are we on our own?"

(p 102)

Later:

"Could God say to someone truly humbled, broken, and desperate for reconciliation, 'Sorry, too late?' Many have refused to accept the scenario in which somebody is pounding on the door, apologizing, repenting, and asking God to be let in, only to hear God say through the keyhole: 'Door's locked. Sorry. If you had been here earlier, I could have done something. But now, it's too late.'"

(p 108)

Still later, about God sentencing a well loved child of his to eternal damnation:

"If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.

If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good.

Love one moment, vicious the next.
Kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye.

Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die?"

(p 174)

More:

"...when religious people become violent, it is because they have been shaped by their God, who is violent. We see this destructive shaping alive and well in the toxic, venomous nature of certain discussions and debates on the Internet. For some, the highest form of allegiance to their God is to attack, defame, and slander others who don't articulate matters of faith as they do."

(p 183)

It's this last quote that particularly speaks to me, because when I look at mainstream Christianity, I see the type of Christian he describes here. "Loving" until they find out you don't see things the same way they do. Hostile and nasty when you let people know, for instance, that you're actually a Democrat in a Republican, evangelical church. I remember when I first heard of Fred Phelps, and his now infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. This was back in the mid '90s, long before they were protesting military funerals. They had just started a new website called godhatesfags.com. It made me sick to my stomach. No matter what you think about what happened to the inhabitants of Sodom, all people are God's children created in his images. God loves us all. (Except perhaps Fred Phelps. Just kidding.) It's the toxic, ultra-conservative Christian who is ruining things for people like myself all through America and the rest of the world, and when you Google Rob Bell's name, you find plenty of websites by so-called Christians doing exactly what Bell describes here -- creating toxicity in calling Bell a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and the anti-Christ and numerous other idiotic things merely because they disagree with his theology. Well, who made THEIR theology the right one, huh???

OK, I got off target. I guess I'll wrap up by saying I think everyone out there would benefit by reading this book, again, whether you agree with Bell or not. It simply raises a lot of interesting and legitimate questions, and its basic premise is one everyone could use and perhaps needs -- in the end, love wins.

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Stardust: The David Bowie Story


Stardust: The David Bowie StoryStardust: The David Bowie Story by Henry Edwards
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book really ruined my views on a longtime musical hero in Bowie. Talk about disillusioning! The authors have an ax to grind, that's for sure. Bowie is relentlessly described as a mere child who constantly needs mothering, fathering, who throws tantrums and has crying fits, who was a horrible failure for many years before Ziggy, who actually was NOT innovative, but was actually always trying to catch up with where others had gone on before, who benefited only because his wife and some gay friends got him to go with the Ziggy look, who threw people away when he was done with them, etc., etc. I just couldn't finish this book. I want to take the authors out back and beat the shit out of them for butchering Bowie so much in my eyes. Now I'll never be able to look at him the same way again, and that's a real shame.

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Monday, December 2, 2013

The Age of the Conglomerates: A Novel of the Future

The Age of the Conglomerates: A Novel of the FutureThe Age of the Conglomerates: A Novel of the Future by Thomas Nevins
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is a terrible book that I just couldn't finish. I put it down some time ago and am just now getting around to writing a few words about it.

Frankly, I have no idea why this book got published. It's that bad. Perhaps it's because the author is a publishing house's sales rep. Yep, that would be the reason.

The book centers around a near future where a conglomerate of corporations have taken over. Geneticists are employed to grow babies. The elderly are packed off to Arizona, their possessions sold for a profit. (How profiting from old people while still caring for them provides any profit at all isn't addressed.) And unwanted young people are dumped into NYC's sewers to fend for themselves. The protagonist is a woman named Christine, one of these geneticists. We follow her and her extended family throughout the novel.

Unfortunately, the writing in this book is terrible! The characters are not well developed, the writing seems stilted, there are too many odd coincidences, and the plot is ludicrous. I'll give you just one example. The conglomerates are in charge in this society. One of the characters, Gabriel, who I think works with Christine, has been targeted for a political kidnapping. As he's in his office in a NYC high rise, the conglomerate agents go through surprising ruses to get him, dressing as firefighters, sneakily putting out the security cameras, taking him out on a stretcher after they've gotten him, as though they're rescuing him. Well, that's silly! If they're in control, why do they have to fool anyone? Who do they need to fool in order to take Gabriel in? Why go to these lengths when they can just send some agents/cops up to the office and lead him out in handcuffs? This is the type of writing that screams "I'm an amateur writer!" Boy, is it bad. This book is not entertaining. It's not good sci fi or a good type of any fiction. Ballantine should be ashamed for publishing crap like this. Don't bother reading this book.

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Reaper Man

Reaper Man (Discworld, #11)Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, Terry Pratchett's Reaper Man is a crazy book and a whole lot of fun to read! I hadn't read him in many years and had forgotten how witty the man is. Sheer genius. In this book, Death is retired and given a mortal life (while still remaining a big skeleton). He goes to work as a farmhand named Bill Door. The old woman he's working for is either crazy or quirky -- you pick it. Since Death is no longer busy getting souls to take them on to the other world, and since a replacement has apparently not been found, everyone (and thing) dying is going right back into their bodies and the place is really messed up. An old wizard named Windle Poons, after dying, now finds himself back among the living as a sort of zombie. There are all sorts of delights in this book -- werewolves, vampires, bogeymen, etc. All with Pratchett's flair for wording things brilliantly. The man is simply funny. As things progress, you start to see how a couple of stories that don't seem to have anything to do with each other actually do and they come together. During the book, I wondered how Pratchett would end the book gracefully, and I've got to say, he did not disappoint. It's a very satisfying ending. This book is part of the Discworld series, and it's quickly become one of my favorite Pratchett books I've read.

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Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile

Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in ExileJesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile by Rob Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was an interesting read, and fairly different from Bell's Velvet Elvis & Love Wins. It's more straight theology & less personal anecdote. He states early that he'll be taking a "New Exodus" approach in this book, which sets some people off pretty vehemently. For me, I don't have a problem with it. Indeed, I found it rather enlightening. Bell tells us that Jesus wants us to concern ourselves with the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the poor, etc., and that much of the church is missing the point. He consistently uses scripture to back up his assertions. Here's one quote I particularly liked:

A church's authority comes from somewhere else -- it comes from how we've been broken open and poured out, not from how well we've pursued power & lobbied & organized ourselves to triumph. This is why when Christians organize politically & start flexing that muscle, making threats about how they are going to impose their way on others, so many people turn away from Jesus.

Jesus' followers at that point are claiming to be the voice of God, but they are speaking the language of Caesar & using the methods of Rome, & for millions of us it has the stench of Solomon.

Rob Bell, Jesus Wants To Save Christians


I just love Rob Bell and his books. He singlehandedly makes me want to return to the church and live the kind of life I think Jesus would want from me. He's a true inspiration. Indeed, I'm re-reading Love Wins just to get a better understanding of what God wants from us, with us, and for us. I think this is my least "favorite" book of Bell's I've read, but it's still quite good and very much worth reading.

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Sunday, December 1, 2013

I'm Fine with God... It's Christians I Can't Stand

I'm Fine with God... It's Christians I Can't Stand: Getting Past the Religious Garbage in the Search for Spiritual TruthI'm Fine with God... It's Christians I Can't Stand: Getting Past the Religious Garbage in the Search for Spiritual Truth by Bruce Bickel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I just finished this fine book and must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. First of all though, the authors identify themselves as Christians, so don't get too worked up before you know this fact. A lot of the reviews I've read for this book state they don't know who the intended audience is. Man, that blows my mind! I am most certainly of the intended audience. For years -- for decades -- I have been saying the title to this book literally over and over again to whoever will listen. It's not about God -- it's about his idiot representatives, or at least the majority of them! Talk about driving people away from God....

The authors of this book cover Christians who
* impose their morality on others
* are paranoid
* think they are correctly right and everyone else is wrongly left
* think science is the enemy
* are convinced God wants them to be rich
* fixate on the end of the world
* make lousy movies
* don't know what they believe
* think they have a monopoly on truth
* give Christ a bad name.

Wow, that covers a whole lot of people, doesn't it? The chapters that especially spoke to me were on the getting rich quick Christians (prosperity Christians) and the anti-science Christians, because these two drive me nuts more than most of the others. I guess I could lump in the ones that believe they have a monopoly on truth too. I wish some Christians could lighten up, not be such assholes, get a clue, etc., et al. This book really spoke to me, and it spoke some real truths to me as well. (It didn't hurt to see Pat Robertson get taken down a notch. LOL!) There are so many people out there -- avowed Christians -- who I would love to give this book to, but I know deep down that if I did, I would be met with Christian hostility, and that saddens me. Cause sometimes you have to look in the mirror and even though it hurts, it's often best to do.

One passage toward the end of the book stuck out for me. It said, "If Christians are going to restore the perception of Christ as he is portrayed in the New Testament, we need to be more thoughtful about our faith. Instead if spending our time lashing out at the culture ..., we should put our time to better use by trying to conform ourselves to God." That's a powerful statement, and I think it's right on. Frankly, society as a whole could benefit from America's Christians reading this book all together, and ultimately acting on what they read. Finally, the only reason I'm giving this book 4 stars instead of 5 is that I think each chapter could have been more in depth than they were. This book was clearly intended for the TV generation of those with short attention spans. Other than that, I was happy I read it.

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