Wednesday, August 30, 2017

So Much Promise…

South Pole Station: A Novel – Ashley Shelby – (Picador)

What would a Myers Briggs personality profile test look like for someone interested in spending time, or wintering over in the lexicon of the book, in Antarctica at the South Pole Station? It seems to revolve around where one’s affinity might lie; “would you rather be a florist or a truck driver?”

That is the jumping off point for the first novel from award-winning writer/journalist Ashley Shelby, South Pole Station. Shelby populates the point farthest south with a collection of quirky, misfits; a gather of square pegs who can’t seem to manage to fit into proverbial round holes of the so-called real world.

It is those quirks that make Shelby’s characters so compelling, but they almost reach the point where the characters outshine the storyline. What starts out as a great concept kind of gets a bit lost at the books mid-way point; you end up not quite being sure if this is a slice of odd humor, a global climate change/warming novel, a take on the Big Bang Theory, both the TV show and the theory itself, or could it be a love story?

I must admit that I kept slogging through the book to see if Shelby was able to pull all of these disparate storylines together to come to a grand conclusion. To be acutely honest, I admit to being left scratching my head. Shelby certainly displays some entertaining storytelling abilities, so I will be intrigued as to where she goes from here with her next slice of fiction.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Portrait of an Era

The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek – Howard Markel (Pantheon Books)

I love these kinds of books because they paint a portrait not just of the subject of the story, but also the era in which the subject came from. It is as much a story of the time as it is of the Kellogg brothers that make their unprecedented success even possible.

In The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek, physician, scholar and bestselling author Howard Markel, perfectly captures the era that plays the setting for John Harvey Kellogg, a nationally renowned physician, publisher, bestselling author and speaker and his brother Will, the founder of the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company and food production revolutionary to rise to a level of success that placed them in national prominence.

It is unlikely that two gentlemen could rise to that stature without the era in which they found success playing a major role; a sign of the times if you will. John Harvey attracted a celebrity following to his medically based spa/hotel dubbed the Battle Creek Sanitarium where he focused of curing the symptoms of indigestion and brought the religious fervor to the Seventh Day Adventist pursuit of sound body, mind and hygiene. His following included some of the biggest names in business; Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and self-help guru Dale Carnegie. He also played the role of advisor to Presidents; Taft, Harding and FDR.

Markel also turns an eye toward the incessant, competitive nature of the relationship between the two brothers. The one up man ship and the striving for advantage was a cornerstone that their less than familial relationship was built upon.  If you are a fan of things like the History Channel’s, The Men Who Built America, then The Kelloggs, will be right up your alley.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Hamilton Redux

Alexander Hamilton: the Graphic History of an American Founding Father – Jonathan Hennessey (Author) Justin Greenwood (Illustrator) (Ten Speed Press)
Alexander Hamilton may be the most wide ranging media star of the founding fathers. Hamilton has been the subject of countless history books, a pile of biographies and most recently and famously a successful Broadway musical and its accompanying soundtrack. So after all of this coverage, why would we have Hamilton be the subject of a graphic novel?

Alexander Hamilton: the Graphic History of an American Founding Father by the team of Jonathan Hennessey (Author) Justin Greenwood (Illustrator) runs down the details of the life of the founding father, Revolutionary War hero and our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.

For those history purists out there, Alexander Hamilton: the Graphic History of an American Founding Father, probably doesn’t go deep enough into his story to make this a worthwhile addition to their Hamilton bookshelf. But then again, I doubt that is the target audience they are trying to reach with this book; those fans of graphic novels will probably be able to scratch their Hamilton inch with this well done outing.

Richly drawn and clearly well researched this one hits the spot and you can take it home for less than a couple of Hamiltons. If you’re puzzled by that last line, you may want to get your hand on the book or check out the ten dollar bill.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Hunt for the Saladin

House of Spies: A Novel – Daniel Silva (Harper)

Elaborate. Set on a grand scale. Laced with insider detail. An intricately woven plot full of intrigue and bursts action. In short, House of Spies is everything you’ve come to expect from a Daniel Silva novel.
Set in the days following the largest (fictional) attack on the United States since 9/11, Silva’s collection of usual suspects, led by the mercurial Gabriel Alon are on the hunt for clues leading to the whereabouts of the elusive ISIS terror mastermind, the Saladin.

This is where Silva delvers proof of his masterful skills as a storyteller; those charged with tacking and hunting terrorists are not sitting around waiting for the terrorists to slip up and make a mistake, but rather they spend time looking for lose threads that they can follow that lead to a real clue.
In this case, the spies think that there may be more to the story of a flamboyant, French, jet-setting business tycoon when they stumble on his connection to dealers in drugs and arms. They pull on that thread and the fabric of his story unravels to reveal shady connection to a mysterious middle eastern type they soon deduce may be the man they are seeking.
This is storytelling that ranks among the best in the game and Silva deserves his place on any list of masters of the form. He lards on just enough twists to leave the shadow of doubt as the hunt ratchets up that extra thrilling notch.   

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Fresh Look at Classic Hemingway

A Fresh Look at Classic Hemingway

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Hemingway Library Edition – Ernest Hemingway – (Scribner)
There is something old-timey about Ernest Hemingway’s short story-telling style and it’s not just because the stories collected here were penned between 1916 and 1938.
There is a cinematic sense in that spare style, but it runs deeper than that. These aren’t traditionally visual stories; they read like old time radio dramas where you, the reader/listener is left to imagine the visual rather than having the setting, the locale and the visual space filled for you.

Hemingway builds a spare frame and allows you to fill in the blanks. I was left with an Orson Wells-y narration running through my head as I thumbed through these often familiar stories.
This collection features some nice additional bonus material including reproductions of the original typed manuscripts, illustrations of early draft versions of some of the stories and few first stabs at story ideas that would later evolve. It also features an introduction by Hemingway’s grandson, Sean and a foreword from Hemingway’s only surviving son, Patrick. This makes for both a great introduction to those new to Hemingway’s short stories and a nice addition to longtime fans of his work.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Proud Parent of a Geek

Arduino Inventor’s Guide: Learn Electronics by Making 10 Awesome Projects – Derek Runberg and Brian Huang (No Starch Press)

I vividly remember the day that I attended my son’s freshman orientation program at his high school. The school was focused on offering a broad spectrum of learning opportunities to all of its students that stretched well beyond the classroom. When the presenters that day spoke about the opportunity to participate in the FIRST Robotics program, my son’s attention perked up; this was a kid who had been drawing robots, building Lego robots, cardboard robots and been fixated on robots since kindergarten.

I commented that the program sounded cool and that he should sign up. His response kind of stopped me in my tracks, “what if I can’t do it?” The “it” in question was the electronics portion of the robot building process. Naturally my response as an encouraging parent was, give it a try, you’ll learn how; hands on experience was the way to go.

That is what makes the Arduino Inventor’s Guide, Derek Runberg and Brian Huang so interesting. Runberg and Huang don’t just tell you how to utilize an Arduino controller to build nifty projects, they actually walk you through the process from start to finish on ten fun and real world projects that you can easily get the building blocks relatively cheaply and without needing an MIT engineering degree to make happen.

Speaking of robots, they show you how to build a motorized robot that draws with a pen. There are projects ranging in skill level from stoplight LEDs, to desk fans and even a playable mini piano. This makes for not only a fun hobby, but also a great learning experience in the best possible, hands on way. The good news is you can screw up and still start over and build a successful project.

So that hands on experience I encouraged my son to give a whirl…paid off quite nicely as he went on to college and then into the work world landing a career it IT. Clearly he’s smarter than his old man and the only credit I can take for his success was infusing him with a “what the heck, give it a try” attitude. 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Perception vs. Reality

Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment – Angela J. Davis – (Pantheon Books)

Angela J. Davis is a law professor at American University who has written, edited and contributed to numerous books and articles focused on the legal system, prosecutorial power and racial disparities. Her latest effort, Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment, is a collection of essays in which she attempts to point out among many things the perception of undue focus on black men when it comes to policing, prosecution and imprisonment in the United States.
Professor Davis brings to the topics an inherent bias where she takes her pre-established beliefs and doesn’t attempt to prove those beliefs by backing them up with facts, but rather merely spells out what she believes to be the case. That loses her big points, because in some instances where actual disparities may exist, emphasis on MAY exist, she can’t overcome her own built in bias to make a proper case.

Much of what she writes about here comes off as simply checking the box to remain inside the pre-existing parameters of racial identity politics. Professor Davis is certainly welcome to have and state her own set of perceptions or feelings; the first amendment of the Constitution guarantees her that right, but she can’t have her own set of facts.
Often, the hard and fast facts simply don’t support some of the assertions Davis makes in the book. These aren’t mysterious or locked away numbers that counter her take on things; they an easy Google search away and come from places like the Washington Post and New York Times, so any bias complaints about sources go out the window.