Archive for the 'book reviews' Category

The Dark Game: true spy stories by Paul Janeczko

My second older book (read in 2015) is “The Dark Game: true spy stories” by Paul Janeczko.  This non-fiction title written for a teenage audience is another recommendation from the Unshelved Book Club.  There was a lot of interesting information in it, especially the early sections on spying in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.  It is not terribly in-depth, but still well-written.  It uses a chronological arrangement with the two sections mentioned above, then WWI, WWII, the Cold War and a final section on moles in the CIA and FBI during the second half of the 20th century.  Janeczko does a nice job of blending profiles of individuals, organizational histories and technological advances so that it doesn’t become too dry.  It was written in 2010, so it does not include Edward Snowden or any of the NSA eavesdropping stories.  One negative is that is not very visually exciting with only 33 photos in 240 pages and all in black and white, probably for budget reasons.  But the images are interesting and add to the text.

Tomorrow we’ll start with the best books read this past year.


Toy time: a look back at the most-beloved Toys of decades past by Christopher Byrne

It’s December and time for my “Books of the Year” list.  Unlike last year, which was a phenomenal year for non-fiction, this year was a barren desert in that category, with only one book worth mentioning.  Therefore, I have decided to start with two older books which were quite good, but not good enough to make the list of top books in the year that I read them.

Toy time: a look back at the most-beloved Toys of decades past by Christopher Byrne (read in 2013).  Visitors to my home know that I have a small collection of toys and games that I managed to save from my childhood of the 1960s and 70s with some additional selections from my mom’s toys of the 1930s.  Therefore, it will come as no surprise that I enjoyed Christopher Byrne’s encyclopedia of almost 100 toys from the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s.  Each short chapter is divided into three or four sections describing the history and development of each toy, its cultural significance, “why kids loved it” and “where is it now.”  Although the update section was weak and frequently repetitive with tales of discontinued products of interest to collectors only, the history and development stories are fascinating and full of great toy trivia.  Byrne’s love of the subject comes through on every page and his inclusive writing style makes readers feel that they are sharing the experience of discovering these toys with him.  The artwork includes not only pictures of the toys themselves, but occasionally the packaging and advertising as well.

This is the third “toy history” title I’ve read.  In 2007, it was “The game makers: the story of Parker Brothers from Tiddledy Winks to Trivial Pursuit” by Philip E. Orbanes and in 2006 it was “The playmakers: amazing origins of timeless toys” by Tim Walsh.  Orbanes’s book was quite good and Walsh’s history of the 20th century U.S. toy industry with lots of trivia about classic toys and games made my Book Awards list that year.

2016 Book of the Year. But what if we’re wrong? by Chuck Klosterman

Book of the Year.  But what if we’re wrong? by Chuck Klosterman.  The central premise of Klosterman’s book about the past, present and future is to ask if the “ideas so ingrained in the collective consciousness that it seems foolhardy to even wonder if they’re potentially untrue” turn out to be totally wrong.  He begins with the topic of gravity.  Aristotle’s definition of gravity stood for centuries before being overturned by Copernicus and Newton, whose ideas lasted until Einstein, whose ideas are still being expanded upon.   Klosterman continues in a series of essays examining topics such as which one artist will be used in textbooks many centuries from now to represent this century’s books or rock and roll music or television the same way we use John Philip Sousa to define marching music (assuming we still have textbooks or even schools).  He also questions whether organized sports and democracy will continue to exist and examines things like Phantom Time and artificial intelligence.

Usually, Klosterman’s time horizon is centuries, but readers can easily ask the same questions of current trends: are political gridlock and climate change permanent or is there some transformative event that could happen to change everything again?  And what changes will happen just in our lifetimes?  When my grandparents were born, the tsars had ruled Russia for over 300 years, the IOC had never hosted an Olympic Games, and the concept of a black or female or Catholic or transgender U.S. President was not to be believed.

This book makes an interesting companion piece to 2013’s Best Non-fiction winner: The Half-life of Facts: why everything we know has an expiration date by Samuel Arbesman.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2016 Runner-up, Non-fiction. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Runner-up, Non-fiction.  Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  The author is a Nobel Prize winner for his research on judgement and decision making and its applications in economics, psychology and public policy.  If 400 pages on this topic seems too dry and academic for you, then you’ll be surprised by how readable is this book, which expands upon his two major articles and examines current, related research on several topics such as biases, intuition, memory and rational thinking.  Further, each chapter is a quite manageable ten to fifteen pages, so you can take tiny bites at a time.

Kahneman uses three distinct pairs in the course of the book.  First, there are the internal characters of System 1 and System 2.  The former is our brain’s gatekeeper; constantly monitoring our environment for threats, thinking fast and sometimes jumping to conclusions.  When complex problems arise, System 1 engages System 2, which thinks slower, identifies relationships and conducts deep searches of memory.  System 2 attempts to control the impulsive nature of System 1, but it is also lazy and frequently defers to System 1 if the latter can offer an available, coherent answer to a question, even if that answer is later proved to be wrong.  Next, Kahneman compares Econs, the rational beings living in the models of conventional economic theory, to their irrational brethren, the Humans, who are the heroes of behavioral economics.  Econs act consistently and predictably, but Humans are susceptible to priming and framing illusions and a number other factors and may need help to keep them from making illogical decisions.  Finally, he examines our experiencing self, who exists only in the moment of our actually experiencing events, and our remembering self, who exists from the moment the event ends on in to perpetuity, and dominates the former.  This dominate relationship, supported by duration neglect and the peak-end rule, can lead us to choose to experience longer periods of pain and shorter periods of pleasure as long as our memories of the events are better.

What Kahneman does best is make all this theory relatable with applications to events in everyday life, such as making investments, attending concerts or buying a bottle of wine or a can of soup.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2016 Best Parenting Book. Girls and Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Best Parenting Book.  Girls and Sex: navigating the complicated new landscape by Peggy Orenstein.  At least once a year I try to read a book about dating, relationships or human behavior to continue my self-development in an area where I get little practical experience.  This year, because so many of my friends now have kids in high school and college, I chose Orenstein’s volume, which focuses on girls between the ages of fifteen and twenty and examines a diverse set of topics: self-objectification, oral sex, virginity, the hookup culture, gender and sexual identity, campus assaults, and sex education.  Orenstein cites numerous studies on these topics, both historical and recent, and conducted seventy interviews with young women across the country to get their frank and, ironically, sobering perspectives.  Although her liberal, progressive bias is prevalent throughout, most of the book would be considered reporting rather than editorializing.  On some points, I found there was too much research presented and not enough in the way of solutions.  As a 50+, male non-parent, I am not sure if I would be comfortable having detailed discussions about these topics with my friends, but I am comfortable recommending that they read this book.  The landscape has certainly changed and they need to know how to make it better for their daughters and sons.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2016 Best Historical Mystery. The Hanged Man by Gary Inbinder

Best Historical Mystery. The Hanged Man by Gary Inbinder.  The second in this series set in fin-de-seicle Paris is another example of an author mixing together all the elements for an excellent historical mystery: an intelligent protagonist, interesting secondary characters, a worthy villain and an atmospheric setting.  Detective Achille Lefebvre gets the most difficult cases assigned to his police brigade including the recent body found hanging from a park bridge.  Using new techniques like fingerprinting and photography, he works with his colleagues, a former partner he no longer trusts, the Deuxieme Bureau for military intelligence and certain characters from the Parisian underworld to confront a devious adversary manipulating the anarchists, Marxists and other revolutionaries residing in the city at the time.  Running concurrently with the case are his troubles at home with his wife, live-in mother-in-law, and defiant toddler daughter and whether success will bring additional complications as he moves into the higher spheres of police power.  Reading the debut title in the series, The Devil in Montmartre, is not necessary to enjoy this one, but is recommended.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.


2016 Runner-up, Best Historical Mystery. A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

Runner-up, Best Historical Mystery.  A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas.  This Sherlock Holmes-inspired mystery is a perfect example of a frustrating book for a reviewer because almost any plot summary will be filled with spoilers for the reader.  However, one can say that Thomas presents several innovative twists while keeping all the major elements of Conan Doyle’s world: Holmes, Watson, Scotland Yard, and Baker Street.  There is more emphasis on Victorian morals than normal and missing are the Irregulars, but the mystery is sufficiently twisted and the use of deductive logic highly visible.  I am not certain that there is enough substance to keep a series going, but it’s a good debut story worthy of consideration by Holmes’ fans looking for something a bit different.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

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