Category: General Non-Fiction

“Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans: The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny” by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger Review

Andrew JAckson Battle

Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans:  The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny

Authors:  Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

Published:  2017

I’d read a biography on Andrew Jackson last year (Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H.W. Brands), but was given this one as a recommendation by another reader, who gave the glowing recommendation that it was interesting and could be finished in two nights. As a result, I already had a pretty good knowledge of most of what was in this book prior to reading it. Overall though this was still an interesting read because Andrew Jackson’s early exploits are fascinating enough to visit twice.

Although the title of this book makes it sound as though it’s entirely about the Battle of New Orleans, out of the 230ish pages I’d say just about half or less focuses on the actual battle (buildup, battle and immediate aftermath). The rest of the book gives some good background on Jackson’s early years, the other key figures in New Orleans during the battle, and some political background to make the context of the war understandable. This is a very quick read though, and a book I’d recommend for somebody that just wants the exciting parts of Jackson’s pre-presidential biography.

More than any other president (at least through Lincoln… I’m still working my way up from him), Jackson came from nothing and had exciting moments throughout his life. From the early encounter with the British (and loss of his entire family), to duels with future powerful politicians and battles with Native Americans, Jackson lived the type of life that created a frontier folk hero. Having read several biographies of presidents after Jackson, I enjoyed the refresher on how important moments occurred with guys like Henry Clay and Thomas Hart Benton, who obviously both went on to have massive political careers of their own.

The description of what occurred in the Battle of New Orleans was what you’d hope for in a book like this, providing drama that reminds me of the stuff I find in Bernard Cornwell’s Napoleonic War books. The stories of dying Generals and ships unable to escape cannon fire provided both memorable moments and emotional resonance usually lacking in biographical material. More than any other moment, I’ll remember the heartbreaking story of a man trying to warn the Americans about the arrival of the British and his loyal dog that followed him along the way. Because I prefer my biographies more complete and detailed than this, it definitely doesn’t crack my favorites, but I think this is a book many fans of history could really enjoy.

4-star

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“Ain’t Got Time to Bleed” by Andrew Shaffer, Illustrated by Steven Lefcourt Review

Ain't Got Time to Bleed

Ain’t Got Time To Bleed

Writer:  Andrew Shaffer

Illustrator:  Steven Lefcourt

Published:  2017

The premise of “Ain’t Got Time to Bleed” is 29 action movie characters are examined by medical professionals to determine what effect the various injuries they sustain throughout the movie would have on them, and if they would survive or not. The characters include several individuals who are in more than one movie (Luke Skywalker, James Bond, John McClane etc.), however the author just selected one film for those characters to review (The Emperor Strikes Back, Skyfall, Die Hard). Along with each page recapping the injuries sustained during the movie, there are also “additional observations” which often include psychological diagnoses, and a prognosis section for recovery time (or permanent or fatal injuries). Finally, there are pictures by Steven Lefcourt of each character with the injured areas highlighted.

This book delivered fairly well on what was promised. It’s definitely a book you can finish in one sitting, coming in at less than 70 pages with half of those being illustrations. The best portions were the less obvious injuries I’d never considered before. My favorite was Major Alan “Dutch” Schaefer from Predator (also the film the book takes its title from) whose additional observations section stated”Patient covered himself with mud to avoid detection… however, this could have caused his open wounds to become infected. Teanus, anthrax and necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria) are just a few of the main soil-related bacterial, fungal and viral infection possible.”

On the negative side, the idea can get a bit redundant, especially regarding the multiple fist fights (“Multiple fistfights. Superficial lacerations on face. Bruised knuckles possible.”), many of which are generalized. I think by stopping at one movie per character, the author missed a fun opportunity to see how some characters would survive over multiple films (Rambo, John McClane, James Bond, Bryan Mills, Ethan Hunt and others would lend themselves well for this). Still, for a 30 minute read this is good for several chuckles.

3-star

“Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness” by Peter Godfrey-Smith Review

Other MindsOther Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Author:  Peter Godfrey-Smith

Released:  2017

Octopuses have an ability to adapt to the special circumstances of captivity and their interaction with human keepers…In New Zealand, an octopus took a dislike to one member of the lab staff, for no obvious reason, and whenever that person passed by on the walkway behind the tank she received a jet of half a gallon of water in the back of her neck. Shelly Adamo, of Dalhousie University, had one cuttlefish who reliably squirted streams of water at all new visitors to the lab, and not at people who were often around. In 2010, an experiment confirmed that giant Pacific octopuses can indeed recognize individual humans, and can do this even when the humans are wearing identical uniforms.

If you’re like me, that previous paragraph is enough to dig in to read a whole book about the amazing creature that is the octopus. I love the idea of an intelligent creature living on our planet that most people know nothing about, and Peter Godfrey-Smith has written a very well researched book about cephalopods, primarily the octopus but also squids and cuttlefish. Although large portions of the book don’t deal with octopuses, Godfrey-Smith manages to explain why it is important to look at these organisms to learn not only about what they are capable of, but also what we can learn about the evolution of life on Earth and what intelligence and consciousness mean.

Why octopuses though? The primary reason is that scientists believe that we can trace all life on Earth to early organisms hundreds of millions of years ago that branched off into numerous different paths that led to things like plants, animals, bacteria, etc. Of all the living organisms on Earth, advanced nervous systems can be found in three subsets, the first being animals, the second being arthropods, and the third being cephalopods. The cephalopods come from an entire different branch on that evolutionary tree, and are unique in their development of a nervous system on that branch. Considering that, the octopus could be compared to an alien life form, as we can look at an animal whose brain has evolved under an entirely different set of circumstances than the rest of the planet.

I learned a lot about philosophy and evolution while reading this book, and I think most readers would gain similar new knowledge. For instance, all I knew about Pre-Cambrian history prior to reading this was that supposedly the Graboids from Tremors were around then. However, Godfrey-Smith explained that situation that the life forms in this era (the Ediacara) floated around in a pre-predator environment. Quite simply, early life forms were not hunting each other but instead scavenged (Godfrey-Smith refers to this as “the Garden of Ediacara”). The result was an environment allowed mutations to thrive and a giant boom in variation of life forms to follow in the Cambrian era.

In addition to reviewing studies on octopuses and preexisting literature, Godfrey-Smith frequently visits a location called Octopolis, one of the only confirmed habitats for multiple octopuses over several years. Throughout the book, I got a ton of great anecdotes about these amazing creatures both from the author’s personal experience and scientific studies. Some of the interesting stuff I learned included that octopuses have distinct personalities that come out both in the wild and in lab settings. Also, the nervous system of the octopus is spread throughout the both the brain and the arms, meaning that even if you cut an arm off it can continue to function on its own afterward for a lengthy period of time. Godfrey-Smith describes this relationship as the brain being a musical conductor, but the arms are all jazz musicians; the brain sends a command, but the arms have great leeway and creative ability to make decisions and react accordingly.

The color changing aspect of octopuses is discussed extensively. If you haven’t watched video of their camouflage in effect underwater, stop reading this and hop on Youtube because they are natures greatest color changers. Scientists disagree as to if this is used at all for communication between animals; I came away with the impression that at a minimum they are used in expressing dominance or submission to other octopuses. What is amazing though is that octopuses are themselves colorblind, even though their eyes are very similar to human eyes in how they function.

Much of the difficulty in knowing more about octopuses, or limiting how much one can learn, is the short lifespan of the animal. For the most part, they all live for about two years or less, an extremely short time for such an intelligent animal. There are a few exceptions, such as the nautilus (which can live ten times as long but is nowhere near as smart) and the deep sea Octopus which not only lives longer but can spend over four years just nurturing its eggs! This was the longest egg brooding period ever observed for a creature on Earth.

As people become more aware of the intelligence of these creatures, additional studies are being performed. In 2011, it was learned that octopuses can recognize other individual octopuses. Another study seemed to indicate that octopuses can learn by watching others do something and not by doing it once themselves. Humans are able to have episodic memories of a particular event instead of how to do something. Studies show octopuses also have this high functioning capability.

There are some great photos in this book as well (both color and black and white) and some helpful diagrams related to a variety of subjects. When the book gets into more philosophical issues, or discussions about biological evolution, it can get a bit text booky at times, but never for more than about 10 or 15 pages. Godfrey-Smith wisely centers all of his big ideas and conclusions on the octopus. Highly recommended.

5-star

“Songbook” by Nick Hornby Review

songbook

Songbook

Author:  Nick Hornby

Released:  2003

My favorite book I read last year was Ten Years in The Tub, Nick Hornby’s collection of columns from The Believer detailing his book reading and purchasing each month. Being a huge music fan as well, I was eager to read Songbook(originally published as 31 Songs, then rereleased with a few bonus essays) Hornby’s collection of essays on various songs and albums. Apparently when this book was first released, a few versions of it came with CDs containing either 11 or even 18 of the 31 songs, so readers could hear these mostly obscure songs that Hornby has chosen to write about. However in the distant future of 2017, readers can now just log on Youtube and listen to every song or album discussed in this book while reading the corresponding chapters.

I’m a pretty big music junky, but apparently my knowledge of Hornby’s favorites was lacking as prior to reading this I only knew the following tracks:
· “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen
· “I’m Like a Bird” by Nelly Furtado”
· “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin
· “Samba Pa Ti” by Santana
· “Mama, You Been On My Mind” by Rod Stewart
· “Rain” by the Beatles
· “Smoke” by Ben Folds Five
· “Caravan” by Van Morrison
· “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Gregory Isaacs (I think we all know the original, but I was unfamiliar with this version)
· “Late for the Sky” by Jackson Browne

That’s only ten of thirty one tracks, so I’m going to assume that part of Hornby’s goal was to focus on music that isn’t already known by the masses. I faired much better on his discussion of albums, owning all of the ones he discussed in depth except for a Steve Earle album, and I’ve got a few others by that artist. On a related note I enjoyed the album chapters the most, although if you told me up front Nick Hornby would spend a few pages discussing Nick Cave, Aimee Mann or Blink-182 I could predict with absolute certainty that I would enjoy it.

I wish I could say I fell in love with several new songs by reading this book, but the songs I was unfamiliar with were all pleasant enough but not so amazing that I had to go out and purchase on my own. The one exception was “Frankie Teardrop” by Suicide, which was an exception because it wasn’t pleasant but instead a curiosity on unpleasantness stretching out for 10 minutes.

Right away I guess this book loses points compared to Ten Years in the Tub, as I discovered several books and authors I loved from reading that, whereas my musical horizons were not expanded by Songbook (in terms of knowledge, yes, but as of yet no new favorites). As for the writing itself, this is a very quick read with typically 5 to 7 not particularly dense pages about Hornby’s relationship to each song (how he discovered it, how often he listens to it, how it compares to other music he enjoys). My favorite music criticism tends to involve some use of the first person as music is very subjective. In order to trust somebody else’s opinion on music I need some assurances that they have good taste. When I was through with this I had a good understanding of Hornby’s musical tastes in relation to my own styles of enjoyment.

I suspect the most common criticism of Mr. Hornby’s music writing will be his preference for songs that conform to the pop style and format. The final chapter in the book is a review of the top ten albums of the previous year, and Hornby’s critiques of Destiny’s Child, Blink-182, Linkin Park, P. Diddy and others shows a definite preference for music that would be classified as “dad rock” or “oldies” by many people under the age of 30 or so today. I’ll go on record as saying that I didn’t care for a lot of those albums when they came out as well, but I can recognize that several of them resulted in tracks that are still radio favorites 15+ years later, while Hornby’s only song he really appreciated from the list was “Falling” by Alicia Keys.

The real joy in reading this book is in Hornby’s conversational style and charming anecdotes that reveal more about him than the music he is writing about. Hornby’s openness about the challenges of dealing with an autistic child, the changing perceptions of his work once he became famous and his habits upon purchasing box sets stand out in terms of enjoyable sections the reader will take away and retain. Much like Fever Pitch or Ten Years in the Tub, Hornby is upfront that the writing is autobiographical and I suspect readers familiar with his other writing will have a similar reaction (positive or negative) to his work in Songbook.

4-star

“Fever Pitch” by Nick Hornby Review

Fever Pitch

Fever Pitch

Author:  Nick Hornby

Published:  1992

I really expected I would love this book, though its fatal flaw was apparent from page one. Nick Hornby is one of my favorite authors, and even his bad books (How To Be Good) kept me entertained while reading. Here is an autobiographical account of his love for his favorite sports team over 20+ years and his observations of fandom, relationships and society’s love affair with sports. The same basic style was used in Ten Year in the Tub, and that was my favorite book I’ve read by Hornby. Also, I’m a huge sports fan, somebody who routinely watched every NBA and MLB game for my favorite teams for years, and traveled across the country to see them in different stadiums. So why did I not like this book?

In a word: soccer. I’ve never enjoyed soccer. Not playing it, not watching it, and (I can say confidently now) not reading about it. Hornby’s lifelong obsession of rooting for Arsenal in the English Premier League taught me plenty about the sport and team that I didn’t know before. Such as the seasons are too long, the same teams always win, and hooliganism/racism are as rampant of problems as the media has made them out to be. While Hornby waxes about how the sport of soccer has the perfect balance of scoring to make each moment exciting, he spends much more time explaining how so many people hate his favorite team for the frequent Nil-Nil or 1-0 outcomes.

As I trudged my way through this, I had no anchor to orient myself to the writing. Hornby would frequently talk about famous soccer players or announce who was playing by naming the stadium the game took place in and I had no idea which team he was rooting for or who was playing (unless it was the chapter title). Sure, I know Pele and can visualize Wembley, but that’s probably 4 paragraphs in a 200 page book; and because I didn’t know any of the other people/places/events that he was referencing, I didn’t come away feeling like I’d become newly educated on all things Arsenal but instead I have a mess of names and places that I couldn’t place beyond stating they are all affiliated with soccer.

There were plenty of universal statements about sport that I could of course relate to. The internal motivation for being a fan; the way fandom changes your personality and social planning; the events that make a game particularly memorable. I understand why some people would love this book, but unless you have a basic knowledge or appreciate for soccer I think there’s a good chance you’ll feel as lost as I did while reading it.

Note: For those that have seen the Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore movie version of Fever Pitch, I’m not sure how the film could even get away claiming to be affiliated with the book. Those reading this expecting there to be a story about falling in love with a woman while still staying loyal to your team will be very disappointed. There are three romantic relationships alluded to in this book, and each is a nameless figure that goes to a few games with Hornby and either stays in a relationship with him or doesn’t (that aspect not even being related to the soccer games). This is a book about one man’s love of a team, not a relationship drama or love story. I didn’t think the movie was great, but it was so different from the book that I would not recommend basing your decision to read the book or watch the movie based on any information about the other media.

2-star

“Foul Ball: Plus Part II” by Jim Bouton Review

foul-ball

Foul Ball: Plus Part II

Author: Jim Bouton

Release date: 2005

**This review has been updated following the reading of Part Two**

Three books in and I am still a big fan of Jim Bouton’s writing. The retired baseball player’s style foreshadowed the invention of the blog and once again kept me entertained in this page turner about his attempt to get a lease on a local minor league ballpark. The resulting struggle against the local government comes off as a one sided rant by a jilted lover with enough details mixed in that you end up wondering how this is a story you haven’t heard more about.

The highest praise I can give is that upon finishing part one of the book I checked Wikipedia for an update and began trying to track down the updated version of the book for the rest of the story. After tracking it down, I’m glad that I did although Bouton accurately subtitled the Post Script to the book accurately when he wrote “In which what happens next could have been easily predicted by the reader.”

Bouton sold this reader on the rationality of his proposal for the stadium in the first book, but he also threw numerous people in the town of Pittsfield under the bus for their shady dealings with himself and partner Chip Elitzer. One can only imagine how polarizing a figure he must have been in the town following the publication of Part I. As a result, it’s clear from the start that the publication of the book has served as a Catch 22 for our heroic investors. Certainly the publication aided in getting the incumbent politicians replaced with those that would invite Bouton and Elitzer back, but it also simultaneously made both individuals Public Enemy #1 and 1a in the process.

Along with Bouton’s first three baseball biographies, this Bouton series of books beats out about everything I’ve read in the baseball non-fiction genre except the excellent “Veeck As In Wreck.” Highly recommended for fans of 30 for 30.

5-star

“How To Be a Man (And Other Illusions)” By Duff McKagan Review

how to be a man

How to Be a Man (And Other Illusions)

Author: Duff McKagan

Release Date: 2015

I originally read Duff’s first book, “It’s So Easy and Other Lies” shortly after reading Slash’s autobiography. Between the two, I preferred Duff’s book for several reasons: it was obviously written more by the musician than a ghost writer; the book had more humor in it; and the story extended to the Velvet Revolver era. I’m happy to pick up another book by McKagan based on that one, although where “It’s So Easy…” was a great biography for any music fan “How to Be a Man (And Other Illusions)” is definitely more in the vein of for hardcore fans only.

The style of this book is about half life lessons and half biography of events since “It’s So Easy…” was published. That includes some very cool events, including a book tour, a new band (the excellent Walking Papers that I’d recommend any rock fans check out), and even some reconciliation with Axl Rose. The events stop short of the Guns ‘n Roses reunion however, which is unfortunate because the story of Axl and Slash patching things up would probably be the most fascinating story in any Guns ‘n Roses biography.

Interspersed in those biographical chapters are life lessons from Duff. There are also several short chapters on subjects like dating and parenting, some more successful than others. My main criticism of the advice portions of this book is that McKagan seem to be writing as a character. Much of the advice begins “Make sure your chick….” or something in similar vernacular. While McKagan certainly has a rock and roll attitude to much of his writing, he also comes across much more intelligent in most of his writing that he does when boiling things down to life lessons.

I loved the section on 100+ records every dude should own which gave me some solid education on punk rock. The section on books to read was less successful as it was much more limited in its variety. The van tour by Walking Papers was probably the backbone of the book and served as an interesting anchor to keep coming back to, however the shadow of the Guns ‘n Roses reunion hangs over the book as the mega event that the reader knows the outcome of but knows will take place after the book is over.

With all of the excitement of Guns ‘n Roses successful reunion as well as the popularity of McKagan’s daughter’s band The Pink Slips, one can only suspect that McKagan will have plenty of material for another installment in his biography series. If Chris Jericho and Theodore Roosevelt can justify three volume biography sets, then the bass player from GnR, Loaded, Velvet Revolver, Walking Papers and more will have me back at the book store for round three as well.

3-star