Saturday, February 28, 2015

Eddie Van Halen Rocks Smithsonian Talk

Legendary guitar God, Eddie Van Halen recently participated in a sold-out Smithsonian Talk presentation as part of the series entitled What it Mean to Be American. Eddie not only shared what it was like being the child of immigrant parents who moved to the United States, but also stories about his early musical influences and of course strapped on a guitar to talk about how he developed his unique style.

Almost in spite of bubble headed interviewer Denise Quan, it proves to be a really interesting chat and well worth the time invested in watching.

Check it out-

Friday, February 27, 2015

A Cold Reality

Black Ice: The Val James Story – Valmore James and John Gallagher (ECW Press)

Hockey is a worldwide sport, but it really is a small world. I was attracted to Black Ice – The Val James Story as a lifelong Buffalo Sabres fan and I was amazed at the number of familiar names and people that James crossed paths with not only as a native of Western New York, but also having spent over a decade working in Erie, Pennsylvania where James played with the Erie Blades of the EHL.

Black Ice tells a story that is astonishing on so many levels; starting with the amazing fact that James embarked on a professional career just six years after first strapping on a pair of skates and the incredible journey that career took him on, coupled with his sheer determination to overcome the racial animus and taunts that he was subjected to both on the ice and off.

James toughness, grit and willingness to never back down from a fight won him a legion of fans and the respect of his peers. James and co-author John Gallagher do an amazing job of weaving personal recollections with running commentary from team mates, opponents, coaches and front office personnel and truly retain the subjects voice throughout. They manage to transport the reader back into the big barns and shed arenas that James the hockey player grew up in. While the movie Slapshot was an exaggerated version of life in the EHL, James’ story and the cast of characters that populate it show that the movie was far off the mark.

While nearly everyone is familiar with Jackie Robinson’s tale of breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball; very few are likely familiar with the unlikely story of a Florida born son of migrant workers who journeyed north with his family and ended up the first U.S. born, African American in the NHL. The Val James story is one that is truly long overdue in its telling. While Canadian born Willie O’Ree is credited as the first black player in the NHL, I think James’ story all the more incredible. His legacy and the trail he blazed deserve that acknowledgement.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Masters of Thrill

Last Days of the Condor – James Grady (Tor/Forge)

Just because you think someone is out to get you, doesn’t mean you’re paranoid. As Condor lowers himself deeper and deeper into his own mind, he is convinced that he is a target. The highly trained CIA operative is now reduced to sorting through discarded books and materials deep in the bowels of the Library of Congress and in those sorting he sees a pattern emerge.

In Last Days of the Condor James Grady continues the story he started 40 years ago with Six Days of the Condor, which was pared down 72 hours for the Robert Redford film Three Days of the Condor. Condor has been deemed a danger to not only himself, but possibly the country he fought to protect and now struggles to keep a tenuous grasp on reality through the haze of a shelf full of psychotropic drugs. When limboed agent charged with keeping track of the Condor’s day to day activities is found dead and crucified, his hands nailed to the Condor’s fireplace mantle with kitchen knives, he becomes a moving target.

Utilizing all the skills his aging body will allow and mustering together resources and people along the way, Condor struggles with not only the forces arrayed against him, but also his own inner demons to stay one step ahead. This thriller features a unique author’s voice matched with a steady, high velocity pace that will keep the pages moving with blinding speed.

Twelve Days – A John Wells Novel – Alex Berenson (Putnam Books)

The usual suspects are all present and accounted for; John Wells the former CIA operative, now freelance, his former CIA bosses Ellis Shafer and Vinnie Duto (now, oddly a Senator from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.) The clock is ticking, with a seemingly much more realistic variation of the TV show 24, stretched out to 288 hours, hence the title Twelve Days, for the trio to cut through the false flag plot, and save the United States. Easy, right?

The difficulty for those who (like me) haven’t read the set up book, Alex Berenson’s The Counterfeit Agent, you’ll have to wade through a pretty lengthy first section of the book to be brought up to speed on what’s going on and how we got here in the first place. It seems out of place to find Wells getting some sleep at a Washington, DC hotel before charging back out into to a high speed trot around the globe to muster new details in the race to save the country.

I am a fan of Berenson and the Wells character, but this one left me wondering if there wasn’t one truly great story hidden in the midst of, and unnecessarily stretched out over these two books.

Robert Ludlum’s The Geneva Strategy – A Covert One Novel – Jamie Freveletti (Grand Central Publishing)

Robert Ludlum was not only a master thriller writer, but also remained ahead of the cutting edge with the technology and materiel that his character used in the course of his novels. So it seems perfectly natural that the ongoing series that he spawned that have been continued by a group of carefully selected authors would strive to remain on the leading edge with the storylines they create.

Rapidly advancing drone technology paired with chemical weapons is a perfect fit for the latest entry in the Covert One series, The Geneva Strategy, penned by Jamie Freveletti. Once again Jon Smith has to wade through mysteries and pull together the pieces in a race to save the world.

In one night a seemingly disparate group of high profile folks suddenly disappear under mysterious circumstances. Smith leaving a high profile Georgetown gathering for a Chinese biotech guru, recently smuggled out of that country, is confronted by a group of thugs he logically confuses with agents from Beijing. Only later does he connect the dots that he may have been among the list of kidnapping targets.

Now Smith has to track down who is behind the abductions and recover one of the victims in particular; Nick Rendell, a high tech wiz who possesses the passwords to seize control of the U. S. Army drone fleet that could rain terror on targets all over the globe. A strikingly ambitious plot, delivered with Ludlum flare.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Perfect?...not so much

The Almost Nearly Perfect People –Behind The Myth of Scandinavian Utopia – Michael Booth (Picador)

Up front admission…In all honesty I haven’t really spent much time thinking about Scandinavian countries…alright if I am being really honest…I have not spent any waking moment thinking about Scandinavian countries. Okay…I might have spent a few idle moments thinking about…okay dreaming about the fabled Swedish Bikini Team from the long running beer commercials, but that is really it.

So when I set out to read The Almost Nearly Perfect People –Behind The Myth of Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth I did give some passing thought to the intriguing writing of the late Steig Larsson, Henning Mankel and Thom Rob Smith’s book The Farm, which is set in a remote corner of Sweden and Steve Van Zandt’s hilarious Netflix creation Lilyhammer and it got me to wondering what might be in the water in those parts.

I think Booth rightly points out that if you fall prey to the pandering of the Western media with its stories rife with claims of a utopian culture chock full of wonderful caring people who happily subject themselves to onerous taxes, flights of social engineering and international neutrality when it comes to foreign policy.

Booth ventures forth from his adopted home in Denmark to wend his way through all five of countries that make up Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Along the way he makes some eye opening discoveries about the so-called almost perfect people; maybe the folks who gave us Ikea aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Sales of anti-depressants and anti-psychotic medications are rampant among the Scaninavians; maybe that explains why they are supposedly so darn happy. Quick name the last truly great innovation to come out of Scandinavia? And no the Swedish bikini team doesn’t count! Perhaps the 70%(!) tax rate has had a stifling impact on the desire to innovate.

Booth does an entertaining job of weaving his story, sprinkling in just enough laugh out loud commentary to stand up next to the facts of the case he makes. It’s easy to see why some are comparing his work to that of journeyman travel chronologist Bill Bryson.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Ride on the Crazy Train

A Matter of Inches – How I Survived in the Crease and Beyond – Clint Malarchuk with Dan Robson (Triumph Books)

Goaltenders. By the very nature of their choice of professions, most people would readily apply the label CRAZY to them. Who in their right mind would willingly strap on some padding and then place themselves willingly between the goal and someone armed with a stick made out of some high tech material designed to allow the maximum velocity to be transferred to a roughly 6 ounce piece of frozen rubber, fired directly at them?

So, knowing the history of the event that forever changed Clint Malarchuk’s life on March 22, 1989 during a game in Buffalo, between the St. Louis Blues and Malarchuk’s, Buffalo Sabres when the Blues Ron Tuttle and Sabres defenseman Uwe Krupp became entangled and Tuttle’s skate carved a gash in Malarchuk’s neck. For the sake of full disclosure, I am a Buffalo native and have been a life-long Sabres fan and I thought I knew the whole story; I could not have been further away from the whole story that Malarchuck details in his book, A Matter of Inches – How I Survived in the Crease and Beyond.

I knew that the title A Matter of Inches, was quite literal; that Malarchuk came close to become a casualty of the game he grew up playing, but I didn’t realize that if he had been minding the goal at the other end of the rink, he would likely have died. The help and the access to those that saved his life that night was literally at his end of the rink, saving precious seconds when they mattered most.

Malarchuk provides not only a refresh of memories, of that event, but delves deeply into his early and ongoing struggles with depression, mental illness and alcoholism during the course of this raw, gut wrenching tale. Some may be put off by the manner that Malarchuk tells his story, but he truly pulls no punches and holds nothing back as he takes us into the locker room, into his life and into his mind. He displays a level of courage and honesty in the writing that is strikingly personal. Hockey fan or not, you will find this one utterly entertaining.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Jurassic Park with Wings

The Great Zoo of China – Matthew Reilly (Gallery Books)

China has spent nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars to build a primordial Disney World; a vast zoo, of epic proportions, designed to create a worldwide phenomenon to attract tourist dollars from all over the globe. While a mere zoo, even a huge zoo, may not be enough to set the world on fire, the special attractions at The Great Zoo of China will certainly raise the bar.

Author Matthew Reilly seems to be making the case that he is the heir apparent to the Michael Chrichton adventure thriller mantle, but he may veer just a shade too close to the Lost World/Jurrassic Park realm with the striking parallels in The Great Zoo of China, replacing the reanimated dinosaur clones dragons.

The best laid plans similarly run off the monorails when the mythical creatures prove beyond the control of those who would try to control them. While there is a comfortable, lived in feel to the storyline, Reilly does have a knack for writing entertaining yarns, which makes this one a quick, entertaining read.

The Singer and the Song

The B-Side – The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Re-Birth of the Great American Song – Ben Yagoda (Riverhead Books)

In my humble opinion, one of the things that separates truly great books on the topic of music is that they should generate robust debate on the topic at hand. Ben Yagoda’s first foray into the realm of writing about music, The B-Side – The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Re-Birth of the Great American Song, succeeds on that front by spawning a debate about the timeline for what has been widely labeled the Great American Songbook.

Yagoda lasers his focus on a couple of decades that started in 1925, thereby cutting out much of the 1950s, which some pop music purists might argue is a glaring miscalculation. Yagoda makes a broad case consisting of names like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Duke Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael among many others that is a stacked deck that is hard to argue with.

Yagoda also brings a journalistic thoroughness to an examination of other influences on the music industry in the period that includes the advancing technology, as simple as it may seem by today’s digital standard. He also looks at the influences of politics and worldview that shaped the content of the songs and the role they played in American life.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Magical Liberal Thinking

Guantanamo Diary – Mohamedou Ould Slahi with Larry Siems, editor (Little Brown and Company)

It really comes down to two things; the perspective you bring to the table and critical thinking, or a lack there of.

If you come to this book, Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi with editing help from Larry Siems, from the perspective that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are war criminals or that being forced to listen to heavy metal music at staggering volumes while having the air conditioning or heat cranked up equates to torture, then this book will confirm much of the simplistic, mind numbed liberal horse crap that you have been fed about Gitmo.

Slahi, a Mauritanian by birth, has been in custody since November of 2001 and housed for much of that time at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Slahi penned this tale during a period in 2005 and 2006 and after some time and legal wrangling was allowed to release a redacted version of the story after some editing by Mr. Siems.

Magical Liberal Thinking

It doesn’t take long for what I can only call magical thinking to begin; in the preface of the book, Siems details some of the background to Slahi’s story.

Slahi readily admits that he was a member of al Qaeda in 1991 and 1992 when he traveled to Afghanistan and being trained in weapons and tactics then joining the fight against the invaders from Soviet Union. Magically you are supposed to believe that once that fight ceased with the Soviet defeat, that Slahi severed all ties and drop his allegiance to al Qaeda.

Then we must account for an ongoing, steady series of coincidences that occurred in Slahi’s life.

·         Slahi was arrested in Mauritania in 2001 on suspicion that he was involved in the foiled Millenium Plot to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve 1999. That plot was foiled by an alert border crossing agent at the Seattle/Tacoma, U.S./Canada crossing point who took Ahmed Ressam into custody when he attempted to smuggle explosives across the border. Magically Ressam had been a member of the same mosque that Slahi had led prayers during Ramadan. Canadian Security Intelligence Service agents had put Slahi under surveillance for several weeks, suspecting his participation in the plot, but had not been able to connect the dots to arrest him.

·         According to the 9-11 Commission Report Slahi was responsible for recruiting multiple jihadists into the al Qaeda fold. In the book Slahi again readily admits meeting with Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah while living in Germany, even allowing them to stay with him. Magically al-Shehhi and Jarrah were among the terrorists who flew hijacked planes into building on September 11, 2001, killing nearly 3000 people in the process.

·         Slahi also admits in the book to crossing paths with Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who intended to be a participant in the 9-11 attacks, but could not manage to get a U.S. Visa to enter the country. When bin al-Shibh was arrested and taken to Gitmo he admitted to knowing Slahi and told his interrogators that it was Slahi who directed him to an al Qaeda training camp. Bin al-Shibh later helped to supply cash and other items to the 9-11 terrorists as part of what would become known as the Hamburg (Germany) Cell that Slahi was believed to be a key contact in.

·         Peter Finn, writing in the Washington Post, hardly a outlet of conservative thought, described Slahi and fellow Gitmo detainee Tariq al-Sawah as “two of the most significant informants ever to be held at Guantanamo.” Finn went on to say that the pair had provided enough reliable information to “help officials chart connections among Islamic radicals across Europe.” So while Siems and other magical thinking liberals would have you believe that Slahi simply told interrogator “what they wanted to hear” this report clearly shows that hard intel that was garnered from Slahi.

·         Siems points to Marine Lt. Colonel Stuart Crouch a military prosecutor assigned to Slahi’s case, who declined to bring a prosecution against Slahi as evidence that there is no case to be made against him. To the contrary, Couch as stated in an Atlantic Magazine article, again far from a conservative outlet, that he chose not to prosecute Slahi on moral grounds, because he believed that Slahi had been tortured, but he still believed that Slahi was guilty of terrorist activities.

Where’s Obama

If Mohamadou Ould Slahi is innocent as seems and many other would lead you to believe it begs the question; why hasn’t President Obama, who seems hell bent to release as many terrorists as possible from Guantanamo and make good on his promise to close the facility, released Slahi back into the world? With reports of upwards of 60 to 70 percent of those who have been released from Gitmo taking up arms and returning to the Jihad, if Slahi is is so innocent, then wouldn’t he be a poster child for the program to release detainees?

Or could it be that all of these “coincidences” and the magical thinking they spawn are nothing more than a bunch of bullshit and this guy is a terrorist pure and simple. Was he on the receiving end of harsh treatment at the hands of his interrogators? Without a doubt. Did it amount to torture? All I ask is that you compare the treatment he received to that of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl or those taken prisoner by ISIS. Also know that Slahi is reported to be spending his time at Gitmo in a special compound, separated from other detainees for his own protection; tending his personal garden, writing and painting.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Mob Perception vs. Gotti Reality

Gotti’s Rules: the Story of John Alite, Junior Gotti and the Demise of the American Mafia – George Anastasia (Dey St. Books)

I always believed there was one of those ages old perceptions vs. reality question when it came to the late Mafia Don, John Gotti and his reign as the head of the Gambino crime family. Long time crime reporter and bestselling author George Anastasia offer’s up some family insider insights that seem to point out the so-called “Dapper Don” wasn’t so much a “made man’ as much as he was a media made man.   
In Gotti’s Rules: the Story of John Alite, Junior Gotti and the Demise of the American Mafia, Anastasia utilizes stacks of FBI files and insights from John Alite, sometimes described as an infamous Mafia hit man and at other times as a mob turncoat; to lay out his case that the senior Gotti was not all that the media portrayed and his son “Junior” Gotti was nothing but a small time punk and wanna be gangster.

Anastasia offers a series of Gotti’s Rules, throughout the book which sound very hard and fast until you realize that the applied to everyone but the Don himself. At times they read like they could form a criminal business leadership book; sort of like How to Break Legs and Unduly Influence People. My favorite has to be the so-called unwritten mob rule about not selling drugs, while Gotti and those around him including his own brother Frank benefitted mightily from the sales of street drugs.

Alite certainly is no angel, but he does spill the beans on his own troubling life choices and the circumstances that place him in the crosshairs of multiple criminal investigations that led him to a life behind bars or on the lam. Some of Alite’s tales stretch credulity and I get the sense that in reality he much more of a light weight then he would lead you to believe.

I do find Anastasia/Alite’s portrayal of Junior as that “tough guy” type who picks a fight then bails and let’s somebody else battle it out highly believable. If he wasn’t his father’s son, he certainly would have never made it on to the organizational chart.

While it may not rank as Anastasia’s best work, I found it to be a highly entertaining, quick read.

Monday, February 2, 2015

100 Days in the Life of a Sniper

The Reaper – Autobiography of One of the Deadliest Special Ops Snipers – Nicholas Irving with Gary Brozek - Narrator – Jeff Gurner (St. Martin’s Press - Macmillan Audiobooks)

As originally envisioned, it was supposed to be, relatively speaking, a quite 100 day deployment to Afghanistan, for the sniper team leader of the 3rd Ranger Battalion. The very personal story that Nicholas Irving details in The Reaper – Autobiography of One of the Deadliest Special Ops Snipers, turns out to be anything but quiet.

Irving and the 3rd were sent to what had been a quiet corner of the War on Terror, but their turn in the theater seems to coincide with a heating up in the action; at the start of the story, their boots barely on the ground and they were dropped into an assignment that would earn Irving his first two confirmed kills.

While many of the books in this genre center on a particular battle or the process of becoming a sniper/SEAL/Ranger, Irving places his focus on telling his war stories. The conversational style really lends itself to the audiobook form which makes it all the more compelling. Irving delivers a very real insiders point of view; chock full of realistic emotions, the bravado of war; even to the point of the ridiculous with rumors of hundreds of kills to his credit.

The reality was still a record breaking 33 confirmed kills. His motivation wasn’t what some bloodthirsty psychosis that some anti-war liberals might have you believe, but the very personal desire to protect “my guys” by taking out the bad guys who wanted to do them harm. The very real role of the over watch snipers is a protective one; every bad guy taken out, saves lives.

Irving’s story about finding himself squarely in the crosshairs of a prolific enemy sniper dubbed the Chechen, makes for thrilling listening and really puts things into a different perspective. Irving certainly comes off a normal guy, not the larger than life image often projected in stories about these spec ops warriors, which makes these stories even more realistic.