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Sunday , January 17, 2010

Following up on my last post, let me mention that I, Jeff Briscoe of Port Charlotte, Florida, actually went a whopping 20 wins vs. a mere 14 losses on my college bowl picks, against the spread, that is! It's rare that my college picks actually win enough to have potentially overcome the juice. I had to take a moment to boast.

Moving right along, though I update this site infrequently, I post content to social networking sites like Facebook more often. One of my favorite parts of Facebook is an application called 'I'm Reading'. It lets me keep track of the books I have read and includes features where I can rate and review them as well. At the end of the year, it's fun to look back at what I read and what I liked and disliked.

So with that in mind, I thought for posterity I would post my book reviews here at It's funny in that this was actually one of the first original things I did online. In 1999 I set up a website called 'Lumen: The Home of Enlightenment'. I suppose I thought I was pretty smart back then! Times sure have changed, but 11 years later this still might be a good idea. Let's start with 10 books from 2009.


The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power by Jeff Sharlet

I read this as someone who has an appreciation for the work of the Christian right in the past 30 years. I think it is a movement that is flawed, but also one that serves as a needed balance to the strong forces of secularism in our society. That said, this was an excellent read. I most enjoyed the first 100 or so pages where Sharlet takes the reader inside "The Family" and explains its worldview. I think he did a good job of laying it out for the reader to make their own judgment.

The book then documented the past 75 years of the Christian right movement. Here I think the author was a bit too conspiratorial and looked to make connections that weren't always there. In fairness, though I firmly believe religious-minded people should be involved in their government, it was eye-opening to see just how much influence people like Doug Coe have been able to exert on politics. And it is entirely fair to question if this has been positive for our country. The track record seems mixed at best. Rating: 3 of 5 stars

A History of Germany (Palgrave Essential Histories) by Peter Wende

I wanted to brush up on a simple history of Germany and this book was perfect for that. I was most interested in the period where the diverse lands loosely held together as the Holy Roman Empire eventually started to come together and form something of a national identity. The country of German fascinates me in that it went from a loose amalgamation of principalities with very few binding ties into the period in the 20th century where it arguably became the most nationalistic state ever seen. I wonder if the two extremes are somehow related? How does that compare or contrast to America's own experience? Anyway, Wende's book gives a good account of the major developments in Germany's history and is perfect for the casual reader. Rating: 2 of 5 stars

Playing For Pizza by John Grisham

This was a real page turner. Even with the kids and the constant noise in our house, I was able to read it over a weekend. I've read most of Grisham's work and, strangely enough, I seem to enjoy him more and more when he steps away from his legal thriller formula. "A Painted House" was simple and sweet with a very touching story. "An Innocent Man" was equally as moving, even though it did involve the legal world. "Playing For Pizza," however, was nothing like any prior Grisham work. There's no law. There's very little drama. It is the fictional story of a burned out pro football player who goes to Italy to play American football. Along the way we meet a lot of colorful characters and experience some good Italian food too. If only I could actually taste it through the pages!

By way of follow-up, there actually is an Italian Football (non-soccer) League. Grisham did his homework and seems to have described the teams and players well. Wonder if old Brett Favre would play for pizza too? Rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 by Simon Winchester

I picked up a new hardcover edition of this book for $1 at the Dollar store. Guess it didn't sell as much as the publisher expected. And I can see why. This book takes a look at a potentially interesting topic but it just didn't deliver the goods. The main problem I have with Winchester is that he can't decide if the book is to be about science or history. One can applaud him for being informed enough to write about both. But in this 400 page book I found that the treatment of science and the treatment of history simply didn't complement one another.

I did learn a lot from the book, however. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake was a devastating event. In many ways, the city beat the odds to survive and rebuild so effectively. I wish the book had gotten into that aspect more thoroughly. Finally, Winchester does do a adequate job of advancing the Gaia theory in layman's terms. He demonstrates, from Iceland to California, just how interconnected geological events on Earth truly are. Rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Man From St. Petersburg by Ken Follett

I was once an active reader of historical fiction by British authors like Ken Follett and Jack Higgins. Both world wars and the period of 1915-1945 make for such a good backdrop for these stories. Indeed Follett's "Eye of the Needle" and "Key to Rebecca" are two of my favorite works in that genre. Yet somehow I managed not to read his classic "Man From St. Petersburg" until now.

I enjoyed this book but wouldn't rank it amongst his best. The story concerns an attempt by a Russian anarchist to carry out a political assassination in England to prevent his country's involvement in the First World War. I particularly liked Follett's contrast of life in working class London to life in its high society set. However, along the way the reader has to accept a few too many big stretches of the imagination. And through the character of a young Winston Churchill, things came together a little too smoothly for my tastes. Nonetheless this was a fun read and adds to my interest in tsarist Russia. Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Deadly Secrets by M. William Phelps

I picked this $5 book up at Walmart for a little variety in my reading. I often read crime fiction but rarely look into the true crime genre. Sadly books like this usually prove to be the reason I don't. I enjoy watching real-life crime shows on tv like Cold Case Files, Forensic Files, and American Justice. But somehow it's never as good for me in print form.

This book told the story of a bizarre love triangle in upstate NY in the late 1990s that led to murder in a church parking lot. Seems like that would be the makings of an intriguing read. But the writing was too predictable for me. The author's story peaks around pg 100 with the actual murder and then it's all downhill in the 250 pgs to come. There was no real drama to hold my attention in the telling of the stories of the investigation and trial. Still I finished the book and it did serve as a nice change of pace for me. Rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Appeal by John Grisham

John Grisham sure has mastered a recyclable formula employed in his novels. He seemingly has written a dozen books that feature a similar plot (one where the evil and powerful take advantage of the innocent and weak), similar heroes (usually starring an underpaid, struggling young lawyer), similar villains (big business) and similar settings (the Gulf Coast and the state of Mississippi). The Appeal fits this formula to an tee. It's the fictionalized story of Krane Chemical Company damaging the small town of Bowmore and the frustrating attempts to get justice for those harmed.

Despite its reliance on all of Grisham's own cliches, The Appeal is an easy read and a fun one too. It may be my favorite Grisham legal novel since The Runaway Jury. I especially enjoyed the book's description of small-town, southern-style legal politics. In many ways, there's nothing like this peculiar world. I have a little experience with the topic myself and Grisham's tale is pretty accurate here. Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sweet 'Stache: 50 Badass Mustaches and the Faces Who Sport Them by Jon Chattman

After two books about WW2, it was time for some light reading. My old friend and pop culture muse Jon Chattman has co-authored the new book 'Sweet Stache, available at Amazon. It is the definitive guide to the power of mustaches in our pop culture.

Chattman and his collaborator Rich Tarantino have compiled a list of the 50 most influential mustaches from all walks of public life. What made this such a fun read was the diversity of both the types of mustaches represented and also the people sporting them. How else could Walt Disney be linked to Gandhi linked to Larry Bird linked to Yanni? Only through the mystique of the stache!

Each write-up has some interesting trivia about the person and their fuzz too. Additionally, through the use of bonus lists, almost every famous stache imaginable is included. Except one. The omission of Watergate burglar Gordon Liddy's virile mustache was disappointing. But Sam Elliot's bert landing a perfect 10 redeemed the book! This is a very fun read. Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pacific Campaign: The U.S.-Japanese Naval War 1941-1945 by Dan Van der Vat

I got the itch to read about the Pacific campaign in WW 2 after seeing the movie MacArthur starring Gregory Peck as the famous general of "I shall return" fame. Picked this one up from the local library and it seemed like an easy-enough beginner read on the subject. And it met that description well.

Van der Vat does a good job laying out the reasons for war. I thought the strongest part of the book were the chapters "A View From the East" and "A View From the West." I learned a lot about the war that I didn't know previously, such as how it could have been over before it started if America's aircraft carriers were at Pearl when the Japanese struck. The author similarly does a good job with his descriptions of the major military leaders including Yamamoto, Nimitz, King and Halsey. However, the book bogs down a little in the middle with his accounts of the battles. This book may not be thorough enough for comprehensive research but it makes for a good read for WW 2 buffs. Rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945 by Wladyslaw Szpilman

I picked up this memoir after seeing the Oscar-winning film of the same name. Its star Adrien Brody won best actor for his performance and the movie should have been named Best Picture of 2002. The film was so moving because of the way it takes us inside the Warsaw Ghetto during World War 2. We see the horrors inflicted especially on Jewish Poles and also on all of Poland by the Nazis. However, the book was just as powerful because it did just as much but with a minimalist approach. The same drama and fill-in-the-blank scenes are not found in the book. The mere details are more than enough!

Szpilman incredibly wrote this memoir immediately after the war ended. He was a musician, not a writer, and his story only runs about 200 pages in English. His narration is simple, without flowing language, and containing very little dialogue. But Szpilman tells an incredible tale of his survival. In fact, one may never find a better example in writing of the power of the will to live. Rating 5 of 5 stars