The Boys in the Boat

by Daniel James Brown, 2013, Viking Penguin Group

This book is meticulously researched, well-written, and the author obviously has a great love for his subject.  It’s about the crew from the University of Washington that won the nine-man rowing Olympic medal in Berlin in 1936.  The story is interlaced with background information on the various members of the crew and, in particular, the life of Joe Ratz prior to his attendance at the University of Washington.  Some of the details are pretty grim, but, nonetheless, they add to the story of how they went about winning the gold medal.

Daniel James Brown also provides an accurate portrayal of what was occurring in Nazi Germany at the time and how Goebbles wanted to show the new Germany to the world through the Olympic events.  Very scary stuff.

This is a really good book, even if the reader doesn’t have a great deal of appreciation for what’s involved in the sport of rowing.  The author even gets caught up in the excitement of a race that took place almost eighty years ago.4 1/2 stars

Supreme Commander: MacArthur’s Triumph in Japan

by Seymour Morris, Jr., 2014, Harper

This book was somewhat of a disappointment.  I was very interested in how a successful occupation of another company was managed, particularly after the disaster that occurred in Iraq.  The book seemed to start out pretty well as it depicted MacArthur’s arrival in Japan and some of his first acts and policies.  I think the book bogged down when it abandoned a chronological timeline and addressed various occurrences by topic.  This made it somewhat hard to follow.  Also, it appears that the book had been heavily edited and most of the cuts were probably in the last half of the book where topics were treated almost in summary form.  Perhaps the book would have been very tedious without those cuts, but it seemed that a lot of information was left out of the final product.

I suspect that there are much better volumes available regarding this important period following WWII.2 1/2 stars

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War

by Stephen Kinzer, 2014, St. Martin’s Griffin

This book traces the lives and careers of John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen.  It is interesting in that the author contrasts the personalities of each of them and shows how they reacted to various events during their careers.

In the case of John Foster Dulles, the book illustrated to me how someone who is so certain about his beliefs that he doesn’t seem to be able to synthesize information that runs counter to those beliefs. This level of certitude can lead to significant errors in judgment and, in the case of John Foster Dulles, to complicity in the deaths of 57,000 young American men and many, many more Asians.  After painting the impact of this man, the author does indicate that the environment that John Foster Dulles lived and worked in may have had an impact on his decision making.  I, on the other hand, would tend to find him fully accountable for his actions.

Does this mean that individuals like John Foster Dulles are evil?  I don’t think so.  It’s just a sad commentary on the state of human affairs that someone with his psychological makeup can exert such an influence and create such disastrous results.

The personality of Allen Dulles, on the other hand, seems to be just about the complete opposite of John Foster as he was a much more social person.  Kinzer describes in detail how Allen’s personality and predispositions affected his decisions as head of the CIA.

The net result of reading this book was to make me angry that these individuals, through there mistaken assumptions, caused so many deaths and so much destruction.  Their intentions were mostly honorable so they can’t be classified as evil individuals, but it is a testament to the power of ideology and certitude that can produce so much havoc in our world. 4 stars

A Traveller’s History of Turkey

by Richard Stoneman, Fifth Edition, 2009, Interlink Books, Northampton, MA

We bought this book before we took our trip to Greece and Turkey last year, thinking that I would read the book prior to going to Turkey.  I never had the time to read it before, but I thought I would catch up and read it afterwards.

The book did provide what I was looking for, primarily a connection between the ancient sites we visited and present-day Turkey.  What I didn’t anticipate was the high level and number of civilizations that have come and gone in this region.  I was also overwhelmed by the amount and level of atrocities and violence that have occurred over time.  I came away from reading this wondering if Turkey can ever be considered “civilized” given its very checkered and criminal past.  The book was written in 2009 so the last five years of Turkish politics and events are not included, but it gave a sense of where the country might be headed.  It would appear to me that the political situation in Turkey remains a powder keg that can explode at any time either in the near or distant future.

The book itself isn’t very well written.  It was basically a chore to wade through it.  The author seemed to have a very good grasp of the history of the region, but he failed to provide interesting embellishments to his very dry narrative.  There were numerous references to historical names and places with very little context or reference points.  I am happy that I got through it, but it wasn’t an enjoyable read at all.

Finally, my spell check caught an error in the spelling of the book’s title, seeming to prefer “Traveler’s over “Traveller’s.”  2 stars

One Summer: America, 1927

by Bill Bryson, 2014, Anchor Paperbacks

This book is a collection of things that happened in 1927.  It starts with a murder trial in the early part of the year, then describes some of the incidents leading up to Lindberg’s flight over the Atlantic, and includes a great deal of information on Babe Ruth’s and Lou Gehrig’s home run quest.

While the book’s content was somewhat interesting, it wasn’t a page turner for me.  I found that I could easily put the book down and then pick it up again later without any urgency to read on.  The book lacked the edgy humor that Bryson applied to some of his former books (A Walk in the Woods, for example), but it may also be less objectionable to some readers than his other books.  It seems that, by toning his biting humor down somewhat, he has produced a book that is much more bland but less controversial.

As I read the book I was looking for some insight into American history and culture that would give me some clues as to how the present came to be.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find much.

I guess I would best sum up this book as “The whole is less than the sum of its parts.” 2.5 stars

The Colossus of Maroussi

by Henry Miller, originally published in 1941, Second Edition, 2010, introduction by Will Short, afterword by Ian S. MacNiven, a New Directions Paperback

This book was on a book list for our upcoming cruise to Greece and Turkey.  It is a beautifully written travelogue written about a visit that Henry Miller made to Greece in 1939.  Miller describes, in spiritual terms, his encounters with a number of characters and locations throughout his travels.

While Miller goes a bit overboard in his rapture with certain individuals as well as his dislike for anything having to do with America, his prose captures the essence of his experiences.  After traveling recently to New Zealand and having friends ask me what it was like, I could only respond that “You have to go there to see for yourself”.  This response is due to my lack of ability to describe what I felt when I was there.  Miller, on the other hand, has the ability to capture not only what he saw and did, but also the deeply felt emotions he experienced while traveling.

Miller’s style encompasses extremely long sentences that incorporate stream of thought as well as short, staccato sentences reminiscent of Hemingway.  Both seem to precisely fit when he uses them.  The thoughts expressed in the longer sentences are easy to follow and Miller seems to finally plunk down the period in exactly the right spot.

Despite at times getting annoyed by Miller’s tirades about America and its faults, I really liked his vivid descriptions of Greece and his excellent writing. Note: Skip the introduction by Will Short. It struck me as being pompous and basically a bunch of garbage.3.5 stars

I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford

by Richard Snow, 2013, Scribner, New York

I thought the subject matter of this book was absolutely fascinating.   How Henry Ford invented the Model T and then made it available to the masses is a great story, no matter how many times it is told.  He then built a company that mass-produced the automobile in incredible quantities.

The book goes on to illustrate Ford’s eccentricities that almost led to the demise of the company.  It is unfortunate that a man of such genius had such horrible character flaws and quirks. I almost shuddered to think how he would have gotten along in the current “modern age.”

The book held my attention but seemed a bit choppy at times.  I somehow didn’t get the transitions from one subject or individual to another in the book.  I did feel that the book was worthwhile to read, however.3 1/2 stars

The Swamp, The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise

by Michael Grunwald, 2006, Simon and Shuster Paperbacks, New York

Prior to reading this book, I really didn’t understand the reasons why the Everglades are such a critical component of the South Florida ecosystem.  The bottom line is that, without the Everglades, it is doubtful that this area would be able to support the levels of human population that currently live here.

My wife and I took our kids into the park back in 1981, but we had absolutely no idea that the Everglades were so threatened at that time.  The author provides a great deal of history of the development of South Florida.  He then goes on to provide a more recent history and how the politics and interests of the developers have impacted the Everglades and the environment.

There are some projects currently underway to, hopefully, help restore the Everglades.  Long stretches of bridges are being built to raise portions of the Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami in order to restore the flow of the Everglades to the ocean.  There are also battles going on the control the release of water from Lake Okeechobee to the Chattahoochee River.  This book provides perspective as to the importance of these events.  However, because the book ends in 2006 and it is now 2014, there is quite a gap between what was going on then and now.  I will need to find some more recent material to bring me up to date on what has transpired since the book was written.4 stars

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip

by Matthew Algeo, 2011, Chicago Review Press

This book was our February book club’s selection.  It was fun reading about Harry Truman and his wife, Bess, in their new roles as ex-president and ex-first lady when they took a road trip to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York in 1953.  This was probably the last time that an ex-president attempted to assume the role of a private, ordinary citizen after serving.  Ex-presidents since Harry have all attempted, in one way or another, to capitalize on their special status.

Harry Truman was also the last President to leave office without any kind of a pension.  He had to pay his own office expense and scrape by without any substantial source of income.  He was finally granted a small pension quite a few years after he left office.

The author tried to trace the trip that Harry and Bess took by traveling the same highways and attempting to eat at the same restaurants and to stay at the same hotels.  He goes into great detail describing the changes that have occurred in the various places since 1953.

The book might have been a much better book if the author had been able to derive any significant meaning from his observations, perhaps by tying them to some larger historical or social trends.  Instead, he writes an inordinate amount about the history of the individuals and buildings Harry and Bess encountered on their trip.  The result is that the book is full of trivial facts that seem to have no particular bearing on the story.  The book was about 225 pages but the number of pages that held pertinent information was closer to 125.  The extra 100 pages were a waste of time.  2 stars

Salt Sugar Fat, How the Food Giants Hooked Us

by Michael Moss, 2012, Random House, New York

Our men’s book club did this book and I was initially skeptical that I would get much out of it.  I was wrong.  The book provided me with a great deal of insight regarding the foods I eat and also gave me some incentive to avoid some of them.

I was amazed at how much the consumer can be manipulated by the ingredients of our modern-day processed foods as well as the marketing schemes used to promote them.  On the other hand, I was also somewhat heartened by the fact that consumer preferences for healthier foods are also forcing the food companies to change, albeit in extremely small steps.  One thing that I learned that was valuable to me was that the taste buds can be modified over time to prefer less salt (although the same can’t be said for sugar or fat).

While the author seems to wander a bit at times, he has done a great deal of research and investigation which shows up throughout the book.  His tone is very even and he avoids the kind of accusatory rhetoric that is emblematic of some other authors such as Michael Moore.4 stars