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Posts Tagged ‘history’

A Review of Man on the Run

Posted by Scott Holstad on August 3, 2016

Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970sMan on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s by Tom Doyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Man on the Run is an interesting biography of Paul McCartney and his family during the 1970s, as well as his band, Wings (one of my favorite bands of that decade). It is a long, thorough look at the good, bad, and ugly and pulls no punches, even while it clearly sympathizes with McCartney.
The book begins with the messy breakup of the Beatles, centering around the very public feud between Paul and John, which was part of the impetus for Paul’s decision to legally file to dissolve the Beatles. However, the legal ramifications showed that there were financial problems for the group and led to even more, thus sending Paul into a spiral of depression that led to he and his wife, Linda, to move to a farm in Scotland, out of the spotlight. During this period, he also lost a great deal of his confidence he had had in his abilities as a musician, as well as his own identity. Thankfully, Linda helped him through this crisis. Without her devoted love, who knows what would have happened to Paul?

The McCartney family became hippies and lived the hippy lifestyle, but Paul missed being in a band and missed touring, something he had tried to talk the Beatles into doing again and which they had refused to do. So he decided to start his own band – Wings. I didn’t know this, but there were actually three incarnations of Wings, three different bands over the years, all with Paul and Linda in them. And they were all comprised largely of studio musicians, mostly unknown. In my opinion, it’s frankly amazing Wings achieved the success and prominence they did with such an unassuming group of musicians. They obviously did this only with Paul’s leadership and drive.

However, first Paul put out a couple of solo albums, although one was credited to both he and his wife. They were all largely critical failures. The first Wings group met, practiced, and put out Wild Life in 1971. I don’t actually recall how it initially did, but ultimately it reached number 11 in the UK and number 10 in the US. Indeed, Paul’s first “hit” was a political song called “Give Ireland Back to the Irish,” a song that was banned by the BBC. A 1972 non-hit was actually “Mary Had a Little Lamb, literally, which left both his band and the critics confused. Not Paul’s best decision. In 1973, Red Rose Speedway was released. It ultimately hit number 5 in the UK and number 1 in the US. In late 1973, the band got its first big break with Band on the Run, which immediately hit number 1 in both the UK and the US (the previous two albums achieved high chart status over time, not immediately). Band on the Run turned Wings into instant stars. 1973-4 hits include “Jet,” “Let Me Roll It, “ “My Love,” a major song that hit number one in the US, “Helen Wheels,” “Junior’s Farm,” “Band on the Run,” a huge hit that got to number three in the UK and number one in the US, and “Live and Let Die,” a theme song to a new James Bond movie and one that hit number two in the US.

And on it continued. After starting its career playing impromptu college student union tours for something like 50 pounds, Wings were now doing international stadium tours. And Paul could finally gloat over John, who had been taunting Paul publicly for years, basically calling him a giant failure while John, of course, was a musical genius. Not anymore. While John turned out the occasional hit, Paul McCartney and Wings were international stars selling out stadiums with superstar hit albums, something John couldn’t say. Paul could, temporarily, put his demons behind him.

However, there was a problem. Pot. He and Linda loved their pot. They smoked a lot of it. And they got it shipped to whatever country they were visiting on their tours. And in one country, Finland?, they were caught and it made international headlines. Of course, it was hugely embarrassing, but the couple actually embraced the moment and came out in favor of pot use and said they were in favor of legalizing it. Later in his career, Paul would be arrested in Japan for possession and it could have been a very serious situation. You should read the book to find out what happened.

Meanwhile, there were band personnel changes. Paul was a cheapskate and while he raked in millions, he paid his band members practically nothing at all. Finally, these session musicians would get fed up and state that they could make more doing session work back in New York or London, so they’d leave. Paul never really got the hint. It’s a shame. Still, he continued to put out good albums and tour with his new musicians.

In 1975, Venus and Mars was released and would ultimately hit number one in both the UK and US. 1975 hits included “Venus and Mars/Rock Show” and “Listen to What the Man Said, “ which would hit number one in the US. In 1976, Wings released two albums: Wings at the Speed of Sound and a live album, Wings over America. Both hit number two in America. They contained “Silly Love Songs,” which hit number two in the UK and number one in the US and “Let ‘Em In,” which hit number two in the UK and number three in the US. In 1977, “Mull of Kintyre” was released, instantly a huge hit in the UK, remaining at number one longer than any other song in British history until that time, I believe. However, in America, it didn’t fare so well, just getting to number 33.

It was at this time that Wings peaked. Already there was a third group of musicians and maybe it was chemistry, maybe Paul was burned out from the nonstop, frantic pace of the decade, I don’t know, but the following two albums weren’t nearly as good as the preceding albums by most accounts. In 1978, London Town was released. It didn’t do as well. Only Paul, Linda, and the lead guitarist were on the album cover because those were the only people in the band. It actually happens to be one of my favorite albums of all time, because I was a youngish kid when it came out and it was one of the first albums I had and my best friend and I listened to it over and over while building model planes. I love that album, but most critics do not. It’s not considered one of the better Wings albums, but it did hit number four in the UK and number two in the US. There were three singles released from this album, but the only one that really charted high was “With a Little Luck,” one of my all time favorite songs, which hit number five in the UK and number one in the US. Wings’ last gasp in the studio came in 1979 with Back to the Egg. It hit number eight in the UK and number three in the US. Its’ biggest single was “Getting Closer,” which made it to number 60 in the UK and number 20 in the US. And aside from some more solo work over the years, Paul was done and Wings were definitely done as a group. It was the end of an era. A highly successful era, a great decade of music, one of my favorite groups, as I said. And while the rest of the Beatles went on to do solo work and while John achieved some success, clearly Paul McCartney ended up the most successful Beatle of them all, post-Beatles. The best musician, the one who taught John and George how to play, ended up teaching Linda and helping his studio musicians put out a series of commercially successful albums and successful world tours, something the other Beatles rarely, if ever, achieved.

John sniped at Paul throughout most of their post-Beatles lives and Paul, on occasion, sniped back. Paul never really understood where John’s hostility came from, his utter hatred. Paul tried to make peace a number of times. There were a few times John seemed to accept the olive branch, only to blindside Paul later with public attacks that hurt Paul deeply. Fortunately, some time before John’s premature death, they buried the hatchet and reconnected, so that’s a very good thing and even though the author implies John was the major one to start things between the two, he treats all of the Beatles with reasonable respect and points out Paul’s faults when necessary.

The author stresses certain things that are important to Paul, such as family. He brought his family on the road with him, kids included. This sometimes made his band members uncomfortable, as it limited their abilities to lead the stereotypical 1970s rock and roll lifestyle (i.e., groupies), and it led to tension, but Paul was dedicated to his wife and kids and that’s generally a good thing. He was the only Beatle to have a 100% successful marriage/relationship. That’s impressive. He was also committed to financial honesty, at least in his dealings with the Beatles and in management’s dealings with the band. He figured out quite quickly that the manager the other three had hired had been screwing the band out of millions while paying the band crap, so he sued – and won – and was vindicated in doing so. The only difficulty with his financial honesty was in his dealings with his band because he stuck with his commitment to pay his band members their agreed upon wages, but when they struck it rich with their new number one hits and their world tours, he wouldn’t share the riches and it was truly rather greedy of him, unfortunately. A McCartney wart.

This hardback I read isn’t long, just over 250 pages. However, it’s packed with so much information and trivia, it takes longer to get through than your average 250 page book. Still, it’s informative and exciting and exactly what I’ve been looking for. I know a lot about the Beatles. I know a lot about John during the 1970s. What I didn’t know was what happened to Paul during the 1970s and the story of Wings and I didn’t know a book like this existed. So I’m elated to have discovered it and read it. I learned a ton of new information, some good, some bad, but all fascinating, and it answers a lot of questions I had about these people, that band, and that decade. For anyone who’s a fan of McCartney and Wings, this is a must read for you. Even if you’re just a Beatles fan or a 1970s music buff, this will be a good read for you. Four stars and definitely recommended.

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A Review of Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare

Posted by Scott Holstad on April 20, 2016

Pol Pot: Anatomy of a NightmarePol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Philip Short
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this book very engaging. While it is not a “true” biography of Pol Pot, in that this isn’t what the entire book is about, the book is instead a study on twentieth century Cambodia, its politics, culture, international manipulations, military struggles, and yet, to a certain degree, one Saloth Sar, aka Pol Pot.

I have read a number of biographies of Pol Pot now, as well as studies on 1970s Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge and just what happened between 1975 and early 1979, and I am currently reading a book on S-21, Pol Pot’s infamous “interrogation” center (ie, torture and extermination center) located at the former school, Tuol Sleng. It’s difficult reading. Suffice it to say, I have never read anything more unbelievable in my entire life! That these atrocities could be committed by multiple leaders for generations and that the entire culture of Cambodia would permit this to occur without complaint, to accept genocide as a way of life/death is incomprehensible to me. To try and understand how Pol Pot and his fellow former school teacher colleagues could be so utterly ruthless and so completely naïve, stupid, paranoid, and utterly inept is almost beyond belief. To think that after fighting a five year civil war against a US-backed ruthless Cambodian government, on the first day of their victory in 1975, the Khmer Rouge emptied all cities, towns, and villages within 24-48 hours, completely, totally, is surreal. To think they would ban money, markets, education, religion, personal names, families, even laughter, upon pain of “disappearing” one night and being shot is so insane, it almost makes one crazy trying to understand it at all. Imagine living in New York City or Los Angeles and being told after a largely welcome revolutionary victory that you have 24-48 hours to leave all you have, walk out of the city, and go to the countryside to begin working as agricultural workers (they weren’t even told this much), or you will be shot by ten year old children wearing black pajamas carrying AK-47s. Try to picture that. Try to picture NYC and LA totally empty in two days. Except for the dead bodies. Try to picture the anarchy on the roads and kids in black pajamas with big guns herding you along to God knows where with no food or drink, people falling down dead due to malnutrition, hunger, disease, etc. Not knowing where their family is, where their spouses or kids are. Seeing everyone wearing eyeglasses taken away and shot because all such people “must” be intellectuals, who are naturally anti-revolutionary, and therefore must pay the ultimate price. Picture that. Picture 14,00-20,000 people going through S-21 in three years with only seven to 12 surviving to tell their tale, only possibly a dozen alive out of all of those people. This is Cambodia for three plus years in the 1970s. And this was the government that the US government backed, solely because they were anti-Vietnamese. And after the Vietnamese invaded and threw Pol Pot out in 1979, and he escaped to Thailand, he stayed and rebuilt his army and fought in northwest Cambodia with US aid until the late 1990s when he died a natural death, even though the entire world knew of his fucking genocide! Our own government has Cambodian blood on its hands and it’s fucking disgusting!

Yes, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao killed more people than Pol Pot did. But Pol Pot killed a much higher percentage of his people than any of those men did, his own people, and most likely, more than any man in history ever has. He was responsible for the deaths of over one and a half million people, up to one fourth of Cambodia’s population! Think about that. One fourth of your country is wiped out by one man and his insane, secretive regime. In three years. And for what? No one knows. There’s no good reason. To create some sort of completely imaginary neo-Marxist society that bears no resemblance to Marxism at all. The Khmer Rouge were the most inept Marxists in world history, barely able to understand basic concepts like class consciousness, or even what the proletariat is. It was not these concepts that brought them to power, nor even served as the mechanism behind Tuol Sleng.

The fact is that the Khmer Rouge was a total nightmare, but one brought about by many entities. The stupefying US bombardment of Cambodia is probably the most probable reason for the Khmer Rouge’s vicious and fast rise to power. The US, France, Vietnam, the USSR, and China — all of these countries brought about the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and especially in the case of China and America, catered to the exiled Pol Pot throughout the eighties and the nineties, even after the full horror of his genocide was made obvious. The next time someone talks to you about Reagan, America’s hero, make sure they know that under his watch, we kept this group of mass murderers armed for years. Simply because we and the Khmer Rouge shared one longtime enemy: Vietnam. Unreal.

And where does Pol Pot figure in his own biography? As an average, unambitious student, not good enough to get into the best schools, yet an early French and then Indochinese Communist, good enough to rise in the ranks. Good enough to take control of the Cambodian party in 1960, although the party remained hidden and unknown. And no one knew who he was, except for the few at the top with him. He remained a secret, an enigma, even after the Khmer Rouge attained power, not coming out into the public eye until close to a year and a half later. He gave interviews to two western journalists during his lifetime, both American, both during his time in power. They didn’t learn much, but they learned to fear him and his regime. And yet, even though he was “Brother Number One,” by the time of his death in 1997, his body was thrown onto a rubbish heap with a pile of tires and burned. No one ever got their vengeance. No one. Once, late in his life, he was asked if he knew how many deaths he was responsible for. He said a hundred or so. He said it would have been fewer, but some “mistakes” had been made. He had no grasp on reality. I don’t think he ever did. I think he was completely mad his entire life. His wife went mad. Maybe his madness drove her over the edge. No one will ever know, but that’s my theory, for what it’s worth.

Today, Cambodia is still struggling to recover. It still has problems. It’s still an uneducated, agrarian society. It needs help. Who will help the Cambodians? It would be nice if some of the countries that used that country so willingly and brutally during the twentieth century stepped up to the plate. It would be good if Cambodia could survive and one day thrive. They say it is beautiful there, or at least once was. It would be nice to work to regain some of that.

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A Review of The Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 21, 2016

The Life and Times of Grigorii RasputinThe Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin by Alex De Jonge
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Grigorii Rasputin was a real enigma. Was he a true holy man? Was he a mere charlatan? Was he the “mad monk?” Was he a con man? Did he indeed have supernatural powers? Was he merely a sex fiend who used his position to take advantage of women throughout imperial Russia?

This biography attempts to answer these questions and more. Unfortunately, it bogs down somewhere in the middle and gets repetitive and somewhat dull, so it’s relatively hard to slog all the way through, honestly, but it’s an honest look at an infamous character from history who I always wanted to learn about, so that’s a good thing.

Rasputin was born a poor peasant in Siberia, where he always gravitated back to, and gravitated toward the spiritual, like so many of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Russians. Some were Orthodox. Many were sects that had split off and were frankly doing their own thing, some quite odd. Many seemed quite insane. Most had ardent disciples as that period of Russia had a great deal of people undergoing spiritual searches and there were many people going on pilgrimages throughout the country and there were many monasteries where people would stop for spiritual retreats. Rasputin, though married with children, engaged in this behavior, and went on years-long pilgrimages, traveling throughout the country, as well as to the Holy Land, and he came to be viewed as a holy man who prayed frequently and who had supernatural powers, including the power of healing and the power of prescience. The author does not make too many attempts to confirm or deny these powers, but does acknowledge that apparently there were many witnesses to confirm his abilities in these areas, so it’s difficult to deny them.

Rasputin made his way to the capital with the help of influential friends he made over time, people who became benefactors and disciples, most of whom were women. He had power over women which was to manifest itself through his entire life. He had powerful, hypnotic eyes with which he could force people – women – to do whatever he wanted them to do, typically engage in sexual acts with him. He was a sex maniac. He would have parties at his place, dinner parties, although he didn’t eat meat, or wine parties, and would take women back to his bedroom one at a time and have sex with them although everyone could hear him/them and everyone would talk about what a great man he was, about how spiritual he was, about what a great healer he was, about how wise he was, about how he should be sainted by the church (???), all the while, while he was persuading women both single and married to have sex of all types with him whether they wanted to or not, and if they did not, he would often simply rape them. Sometimes he would tell them they had to sin in order to be forgiven by God. He could excuse everything using God; he was mentally quick.

He somehow came to the attention of the tsar and tsarina through very complicated and complex ways and met them finally, he a simple peasant “holy man” who refused to change his ways for anyone, royal or not. He ate with his fingers, for God’s sake, and felt his beard eliminated the need for a napkin. He spoke with the Romanavs and they came away impressed. They had several children, the youngest one, a small boy, was quite ill with a disease that made his leg bleed to the point where it could kill him if not treated quickly and even then, it only stopped the bleeding, it didn’t cure it. The tsarina was beside herself.

She had heard of Rasputin’s alleged healing powers and asked him about it. Her son was suffering. Rasputin laid his hand on the boy, prayed, told her the boy would be fine, and he got better overnight. That did it. Rasputin was part of the inner circle. And that automatically pissed off the aristocrats of the city and country.

The royal family started having Rasputin over on a semi-regular basis, when he wasn’t traveling back to Siberia, and the chief of the secret police put a dossier together of his dalliances and presented it to Tsar Nicholas, only to be rebuffed. The tsar wasn’t thrilled with Rasputin’s behavior, but he wasn’t about to risk his wife’s wrath by doing anything with her favorite person and his son’s savior, so he buried the information and did nothing. This happened several times. Meanwhile, Rasputin both continued to gain disciples as his fame grew, especially as he came to be known as the peasant who had made it in court, and his original religious backers started to back away from him, horrified of his sins of the flesh, which he barely hid, if at all.

Something else happened a little later that cemented his position even more. The tsar and his family traveled to Germany while Rasputin was in Siberia. Their son became seriously ill and they attempted to travel back to Russia for medical aid, but couldn’t make it home. They were forced to stop prematurely and it appeared their son would die. He was given last rites and out of desperation, the tsarina called Rasputin in Siberia and pleaded with him to heal her son. He asked for a couple of hours and said he’d call her back. He prayed diligently, by all accounts, called her back and told her that her son would be healed and live and hung up. Her son recovered, lived, was healed, they returned home, and from that point on, Rasputin could never again do any wrong in her eyes, nor even in the eyes of the tsar, no matter how much “evidence” of wrong doing was laid in front of his eyes by jealous competitors, security personnel, and religious personalities.

All of this is interesting to a certain degree, but at the same time, there’s a certain degree of redundancy in the book leading up to this point. The author goes on and on about the women, the parties, the travels, the sects, Siberia, the Russian political system, etc. Frankly, it got a little boring. I made it to page 214 out of 341 pages before deciding I had gotten a good enough picture of Rasputin. After all, he never was given an actual title. He had by this time gotten nearly as much power as he would ever have. I know he would be assassinated and by whom. What would the final 125 pages have to say that would keep me riveted? I had had a hard enough time getting to page 214, reading five other books, some longer, while reading these 200+ pages, simply due to boredom. Maybe if another author had tackled the subject, it would have been more interesting, I don’t know. Or perhaps Rasputin isn’t, after all, all that interesting of a historical personage. I don’t know. I’m a little disappointed. I’m not sure what to think. He was interesting, certainly. But I feel like he was lucky, a pervert, a fraud, a possessor of potential minor supernatural powers that he made occasional use of, and in the end, someone who helped bring about the downfall of the empire through his excesses, which is really bizarre when you think about it. After how he started out, how could this happen?

This isn’t a bad book, nor is it necessarily poorly written. It just didn’t really connect with me and it’s not overly scintillating. Somewhat interesting subject matter. Another biography might be better, I don’t know. I’m not sure if I’d recommend this book over another biography of the same person. Three stars max. Simply for the extensive research. Otherwise, it’s a two star book.

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A Review of Mao: The People’s Emperor

Posted by Scott Holstad on April 27, 2015

Mao, the People's EmperorMao, the People’s Emperor by Dick Wilson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a hard book to rate. On one hand, it provides a lot of information and is somewhat detailed. On the other, it leaves out huge chunks of information which is simply unforgivable.

I wanted to read about Mao to learn more about him — I knew next to nothing — and I did. I learned of his modest upbringing, his hardships, his love of country, his love of the peasants, his introduction to Marx, his awakening to socialism and communism and the way to save his country — and every country. I learned of his split with the nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek, the backstabbing, dictatorial asshole American naturally supported to rule China and whom Mao eventually drove to Taiwan. I learned about Mao’s raising of a peasant army, about the Long March, about his battles against Japan during WWII, his continued battles with the nationalists after the war, and about his victorious march into Peking after defeating them. I read of his rise to power and of how power corrupts, in this case, his cronies. Mao apparently wanted the Chinese to continue to revolt to bring about true communism, but his cronies on the Politburo grew a little too comfortable. I read of the numerous attempts to get Mao thrown out of office, which surprised me, and of how he survived each, coming back stronger each time. I read of his Cultural Revolution, which was taking place when I was born and was something I barely remember. I read of when Nixon went to visit him, the first time an American president had done such a thing. And I read of his death in the mid-70s.

All of this was interesting, but so much was left out. For instance, you would think the Korean War would be pretty big, wouldn’t you? It was big for the US, the two Koreas, and China, but it only merits a few sentences in this huge book. WTH? What’s up with that? Surely the author could have written something about that! Also, during the Hundred Flowers phase of the ’50s, Mao was said to have said that “the imperialist claims that twenty million people had been killed as counter-revolutionaries were quite false. The true number was ‘not much greater than 700,000.'” Um, excuse me? Where the hell did that come from? At least 700,000 people died and perhaps as many as 20 million and the author never even hints that executions are taking place, that people are being murdered, that there are death squads, that anything AT ALL is happening???!!! Doesn’t Mr. Wilson owe it to his reader to let them know that this is happening? It’s shocking that he left this information out of the book. It’s insulting to the Chinese and to the reader. If I were a relative of one of the deceased, I’d be outraged. I just couldn’t believe it when I read that passage. And that’s not an isolated example! This occurs elsewhere. Mass massacres, with no advance warning. No sense of injustice. Mao’s just a rustic good old boy, a somewhat naive genius who barely understand Marxism, but is well loved by the peasants. What the hell??? And so on. And then there’s the Vietnam War. How much do you think that’s mentioned in this book? Not at all. I can’t believe it. Not at all. The author is an idiot, or he thinks his reader is, I’m not sure.

I would give the book one star, but I’m giving it two because a lot of research did go into it and the author did tackle a moderately complex character with a minimum attempt at explaining him. He tried, but only just. I expected so much more. If anyone can recommend a better Mao bio to me, I’d appreciate it. Definitely not recommended.

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A Review of The Innovators

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 9, 2015

The Innovators: How a Group of  Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital RevolutionThe Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was a fascinating and entertaining history of the progression of the computer and related things, such as the Internet. I learned a lot and I’m glad I did.

Isaacson starts out with Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace. That’s right — in the age of the Romantics some 150 years ago or so! She’s generally credited with starting the computer revolution, as she envisioned a computing device based upon Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Her writings on this “engine” show what appears to be the first algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine, and as a result, she’s often credited with being the world’s first computer programmer. Isn’t that fascinating?

The book tracks the progression of computing from the 19th century into the 20th and then into the 21st. Up comes Alan Turing, the ENIAC computer, which employed the first real programmers in history — all of them women! — the invention of the transistor and the microchip, Ethernet, and all of the wonderful inventions at Xerox PARC, where they invented the graphical user interface (GUI) for the computer screen, doing away with the command line prompt, the mouse, and networking, all of which was essentially stolen by Steve Jobs for the creation of the Mac. Of course, then Gates stole from him and Jobs was beside himself with the audacity. Ah, karma.

The book also introduces Gordon Moore, the originator of Moore’s Law, that states that technology will double in power and possibilities every 18 months. In addition, the author hits on Grace Hopper, Andy Groves, William Shockley, Gates, Jobs, Woz, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web, Linus Trovalds, the inventor of LINUX, and the people who started Google. It’s an inspiring lineup of inventors and — key word here — collaborators. The author believes strongly that collaboration was the key to computing development and he might be right. He provides plenty of examples of people toiling away by themselves, only to be forgotten by history for missing the boat on what would have been a great product.

The reviews of this book are pretty good. However, I read one stunning one recently that said this was the worst history he’s ever read and that the biographies are mediocre. He even criticizes the author’s treatment of Ada as being insufficient. I thought he did her justice. I’ve never even seen her mentioned anywhere else before. He spends a lot of time on her here. This reviewer was on acid and I let him know what I thought of his lousy review. If you’re remotely interested in how PCs came to be, how the Internet was created and evolved, etc., et al, this is definitely a book for you to read. Recommended.

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A Review of Paul: The Mind of the Apostle

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 19, 2014

Paul: The Mind of the ApostlePaul: The Mind of the Apostle by A.N. Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I FINALLY finished this book! It took me forever because it’s fairly dry and the content doesn’t interest me as much as that in some other books. Still, this was a fairly interesting book to read. The author is apparently an agnostic or atheist and ensures one understands he believed Jesus was a Jew with no intention of starting a religion, and undoubtedly not the son of God or God himself. If you’re a Christian and you can get past that, you’re good to go. This book presents Paul as THE founder of Christianity and THE individual responsible for asserting Jesus was the Messiah, gone to glory in the clouds, and returning again some day — soon. The author asserts Paul thought Jesus was returning in a matter of months or years, thus the urgency in some of his letters.

When I read nonfiction books, I don’t underline passages — I turn over page corners so I can go back and catch important portions of the text. Normally I will have turned over 10-20 pages in a typical nonfiction book. In this book, I must have turned over 50 pages or more. I often quote from these passages, but I obviously can’t do that here — I don’t have the time or inclination.

Wilson asserts that Paul was a traveling tent maker and that’s how he supported himself, along with donations. He also calls into question whether Paul was a one time Pharisee or not. He alludes to Paul’s potential homosexuality, in his nonstop efforts to force sexual morality on people and in his almost loving letters to Timothy and other men who were his followers. Yes, sacrilege, I know. Still, interesting stuff. Wilson writes,

“Old-fashioned liberal Protestants detected in the Gospels the seeds of modern feminism — Talitha cumi, Damsel arise, became the motto of Victorian Christian feminists. The Jesus of the Gospels outraged Jewish opinion by speaking to the woman at the well of Samaria, and by offering forgiveness to the prostitute who, though she had sinned much, had also loved much. Impossible, says such wisdom, to imagine the misogynist puritanical Paul extending such forgiveness, nor being so much at ease with the opposite sex.”

We also get in-depth details on Paul’s travels here and their context, which I found really helpful. You also get a history lesson on Rome, at the time, and the state of the Jews. Wilson additionally delves into other religions and gleefully admits to Paul having stolen some traditions from paganism for Christianity.

Wilson is pretty hard on Luke and his book of Acts. He asserts much of it is contradictory to Paul’s own writings and probably made up. And his arguments, which I can’t paraphrase here, are good. (I didn’t know Luke was a Gentile.) Wilson also deals with Paul’s intent focus on evangelizing and converting Gentiles, something he argues Peter and James were opposed to. Of Luke, the author writes,

“By the time Luke writes up the story, perhaps twenty years or more later, it must be obvious that the Lord has not come and that all Paul’s immediate prophesies and predictions about the nature of the world and God’s purpose for it, have been not just slightly off beam, not open to interpretation, but plumb wrong. Christianity — not a word which Paul ever used — will have to sort out the contradictions of all that. It it Luke’s dull task to smooth over the cracks and hide the glaring discrepancies in his story, and to persuade ‘dear Theophilus’, some Roman magistrate or bigwig, that the Christians are safe, good citizens. As Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem shows, he was none of these things.”

Wilson deals with Paul’s end, which we don’t know, and for that he takes umbrage. He asserts that Paul could have been acquitted by Nero or some other Roman official, he could have been made a martyr, as many people believe, or — this is Wilson’s own belief — he could have been let go and traveled to Spain, starting churches, but dying in oblivion.

I’m going to end my review with Wilson’s final (and long) paragraph in the book, because I think it’s a good synthesis of what he is trying to accomplish in writing this book.

“It could be seen, then, that the essence of the Gospels, the thing which makes them so distinctive, and such powerful spiritual texts, namely the notion of a spiritual savior, at odds with his own kind and his own people, but whose death on the cross was a sacrifice for sin, is a wholly Pauline creation. The strange contrarieties which make the Jesus of the Gospels such a memorable figure — named his insistence on peace and kindness in all his more notably plausible of ‘authentic’ sayings, and his virulent abuse of Pharisees, his Mother, and the temple authorities on the other — could point less to a split personality in the actual historical Jesus, and more to the distinctive nature of Paul’s spiritual preoccupations a generation later. Even in this respect, therefore, Paul seems a more dominant figure in the New Testament tradition than Jesus himself. The Jesus of the Gospels, if not the creation of Paul, is in some sense the result of Paul. We can therefore say that if Paul had not existed it is very unlikely that we should have had any of the Gospels in their present form. The very word ‘gospel’, like the phrase ‘the New Testament’ itself, are ones which we first read in Paul’s writings. And though, as this book has shown, there were many individuals involved in the evolution of Christianity, the aspects which distinguish it from Judaism, and indeed make it incompatible with Judaism, are Paul’s unique contribution. It is for this reason that we can say that Paul, and not Jesus — was — if any one was — the ‘Founder of Christianity’.”

Interesting, thought provoking book. Recommended.

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A Review of Brennan’s War

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 6, 2013

Brennan's War: Vietnam 1965-1969: Brennan's War: Vietnam 1965-1969Brennan’s War: Vietnam 1965-1969: Brennan’s War: Vietnam 1965-1969 by Matthew Brennan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This wasn’t a bad book. In fact, it was fairly engrossing. It was fast paced and I read it in a day. The narrative is written so that it’s like a series of very short stories, mostly about the action Brennan encountered in Vietnam, where he served for four years. He signed back up for extended tours of duty twice because he couldn’t readjust to civilian society. Kind of sad.

He was with the 9th Armored Air Cav, in a unit called The Blues, which he paints as some kind of super-macho, better than Special Forces unit, which didn’t sit well with me. He was an artilleryman, an infantryman, and he wasn’t part of Special Forces. Still, he claimed to have taken part in over 419 battles of varying sizes, most recon or rescue missions.

Funny, but he seemed to think we were wiping the NVA/VC off the map until Tet, when he finally seemed to get a minor clue. His unit was near Hue during the fighting, but he didn’t actually engage them too much. Hue seems to be the turning point for him.

When he went back to the States for the second time, he was confronted with hippies and war protestors, which shocked him. Apparently, he wasn’t exposed to what America was going through while he was in the field. When he went back for his third tour, the men had changed to poorly trained, racist, dope smoking losers who he had no respect for, and by the time his tour was up, he’s anxious to get out. Of course, by this time, the NVA had real weapons and was using them to pound the American positions, something that finally got to his nerves.

He details accounts of bravery, but also of atrocities that should have been prosecuted. It’s a good book — it really is. The only reason I’m downgrading it from five stars to four is with the way he described his unit and their fighting prowess, America should have never lost the war. These platoons (platoons!!!) allegedly killed hundreds and thousands of NVA/VC all over the place and the killing never ends until the very end of the book. With soldiers like Brennan and his buddies, how could we have possibly lost this war??? Pretty hard to believe. Perhaps he enjoys taking license with the facts, I don’t know. It was just hard to swallow, knowing what I know. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting read and if you want a perspective from a grunt’s view in Vietnam, this isn’t a bad place to start. Cautiously recommended.

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A Review of Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam

Posted by Scott Holstad on October 16, 2013

Giap: The General Who Defeated America in VietnamGiap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam by James A. Warren

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

General Vo Nguyen Giap was the North Vietnamese mastermind who defeated the French and American superpowers over 30 years in what was previously an unthinkable possibility — that countries with so so much more military and economic power could lose to an underdeveloped third world country. And yet it happened. (Also, Giap had to battle the Japanese toward the end of World War Two.)

Giap came from humble beginnings — a history professor turned professional solider from the Quang Binh Province of Vietnam. He was self taught. Aside from Hi Chi Minh, Giap was probably North Vietnam’s most important figure. He learned communism from Ho and never strayed. He learned how to battle from the Chinese and adapted what he learned to the Vietnamese battlefield. When the Vietminh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu to end the French colonial war with what was then Indochina, he showed that he had mastered guerrilla tactics as well as conventional war strategies, and these carried over to the American war. He was also a master at logistics. It took months for the Vietminh to carry broken down parts of artillery pieces up into the mountains surrounding Dien Bien Phu, where they were then assembled and used with devastating success. Another strength Giap possessed was learning that the political counted as much as the military. He indoctrinated his soldiers, the Vietnamese peasants, and won a war of attrition against both France and America — both countries, he knew, that wouldn’t have the stomach for a protracted war. He was right. Now he took horrifying losses throughout both wars. When all was said and done, the NVA and Vietminh lost over a million soldiers (to America’s 56,000), but he knew that a country united in revolution against colonialism was destined for victory. He never lacked in confidence. The Tet offensive was, of course, the turning point in the Vietnam war with America. Looked at it militarily, the US won, giving the NVA and Viet Cong horrifying casualties, but strategically, North Vietnam won because America now wanted out and started the process of withdrawing troops and halting the bombing of North Vietnam in an effort to get to the negotiating table — a place where America had no leverage.

The author makes some good points in his final chapter in this excellent book.

“The power of the US military machine posted immense challenges to Giap as a commander. He knew that the conflict would result in horrific losses, but he also realized that those causalities were the inevitable cost of victory, and neither the reality of those casualties, as regrettable as they were, nor the destructive capacity of American forces, would prove to be decisive factors in the war’s outcome…. Giap was first and foremost a revolutionary war strategist, which is to say he conceived of war primarily as a social struggle by people committed to breaking down the status quo and replacing it with a new set of power relationships and institutions, not as a strictly military activity carried out by full-time soldiers and guerrillas…. the work of building a powerful political infrastructure that could challenge French and American efforts was far more important than achieving victory in a series of conventional military battles and campaigns…. He also believed that he could instill a sense of futility and exhaustion in the French and American armies by avoiding large-scale combat engagements in favor of harassing tactics, including ambushes, booby traps, and luring the enemy into patrolling forbidding mountainous terrain and steamy jungles where his own troops were more at home.”

“Giap never doubted that the power of his soldiers’ and citizen’s commitment to the Vietnamese revolutionary vision would compensate for the inferiority of their military forces. It was only necessary to instill the same level of belief and determination he himself possessed for the cause into the Revolution as a whole, and to direct that energy toward victory…. When all is said and done, Giap’s enduring importance lies in recognizing that he was a successful general largely because he could see with extraordinary clarity all the factors and forces that shaped the trajectory of the wars in which he fought, and how each element related to all the others.”

Giap than, who might still be alive at over 100 years old, was the instrumental commander that foresaw victory and instilled that vision in his troops and citizens. He was Ho’s second, and as such, wielded great power. He built his army up from a tiny platoon in 1945 to hundreds of thousands of hardened troops by war’s end. When the NVA rolled into Saigon in 1975, the revolution was complete and Vietnam was reunited. Communist, yes, but under no colonial authority for the first time in over a century. It was a mighty struggle, and even though I’m an American, I’ve studied this war for decades and have seen how American stupidity lost us the war — which we could have won with the right strategies and leadership, I believe. Giap’s commitment never wavered. He should be looked at as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. I can’t think of a single instance in which a tiny, impoverished, technically backwards country defeated two of the world’s superpowers within two to three decades of each other. His legacy will live on for a long time. This was an excellent book to read and I certainly recommend it to any military buff or historian, or to anyone interested in the Vietnam war. Great book!

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A Review of About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior

Posted by Scott Holstad on October 4, 2013

About Face: The Odyssey of an American WarriorAbout Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior by David H Hackworth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Col. David Hackworth was a true American hero, a real warrior. He enlisted for the Army at age 15, just in time for the close of World War II, where he was stationed in Italy. He learned a lot there before shipping over to Korea to work a couple of stints in that disaster. He earned battlefield commissions and gradually moved up the ranks, but was always an infantryman’s man. He led, he taught, he learned, he thought, he spoke up and pulled no punches (which sometimes got him into trouble) — he was a real work of art.

I first learned of Hackworth when I was reading Soldier of Fortune Magazine back in the 90s and early part of this century. His column would be the last thing in the magazine and it was usually very insightful. Sadly, he died a few years ago and they replaced him with Oliver North, a man I don’t like nearly as much.

Hackworth loved being on the battlefield. He hated the peacetime, with officer’s clubs and parties to attend and papers to shuffle. He wanted to be where the action was.

After Korea, he was sent to Germany for awhile, before shipping off to Vietnam, where he learned a whole lot about the civil war in that country, how the French had lost before we got there, what was behind the Vietnamese people’s thoughts and minds, and how woefully under-prepared our troops were for guerrilla combat. He constantly turned lousy outfits into proud, battle hardened outfits with minimal casualties and pretty good successes. He tried to teach what he learned and knew to others, but others wouldn’t listen. They were trained to fight a “conventional” war in battalion style against countries like Russia on European battlefields. They weren’t prepared for the jungle. One of the first things that Hack learned was

“there was simply no point in taking an objective you had no intention of holding, no point in using men when firepower could do the job. Tuy Hoa’s battlefield may have looked like the hedgerows of Normandy, but if … the taking of such objectives one by one wasn’t ultimately going to lead you anyplace, and if … you were going to abandon each objective after you’d taken it, only to take it again and again and again and again, as the French did before us and as we were doing now — well, it wasn’t worth the life of even a single soldier. I’d learned.”

Another part of his education came in the States:

“Ideally all the training for Vietnam should have taken place in Hawaii or Panama or the Philippines, where the Vietnam-bound soldiers could at the very least clear the difficult acclimatization hurdle. It would have worked well, too, to have each training center geared for a specific region in Vietnam, given that the diversity of battlefields … made the conflict more like four or five different wars. Fort Lewis, for example, for three out of four seasons greatly resembled the Highlands. But to train men there in the winter months was a cruel joke. Yet no Pentagonian would dare try to close the place, even for those few months. Why? Because Fort Lewis was like any other Army camp on Army real estate in the USA: it provided jobs and income for the civilian constituents of senators and congressmen who were invariably running for reelection. Fort Lewis was big business to northwest Washington. Politicians demanded it be used in exchange for their nod on continued military appropriations, and the pussyfooting new breed of statesmen-generals didn’t have the balls, the moral courage, to stand up and say that some things were more urgent, that it as insane to train jungle fighters in the snow. Instead, it was somehow more acceptable to allow badly prepared Willie Lump Lumps to die all over the battlefield, and just go on answering the letters from brokenhearted parents….”

Obviously, Hackworth was becoming disillusioned with Vietnam and the insanity of its being waged by politicians based on statistics based on lies. To ease the public conscience. All a pile of shit. For Hackworth, the

“Cambodian exercise was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me about the war in Vietnam and the direction America was heading. Militarily the operation was correct: a basic rule of counterinsurgency is to deny the insurgent a sanctuary …. But what was wrong with it, besides the fact that it came five years too late … was that the way it was done violated all the principles the United States of America, the country I loved and soldiered for, was built on. Cambodia was a NEUTRAL country. Our incursion, at this time in the war, with no prior notice to the fledgling Lon Nol government or even to our ambassador to Cambodia, was not, to my mind, any different from the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. In my estimation the exercise was an immoral, ill-thought-out venture, and one that would prove to be both an expensive tactical donnybrook and an irreparable strategic defeat.”

Wow! Strong words. I wonder what he thought about Bush’s invasion of sovereign Iraq? I need to look up some old Soldier of Fortune magazines and find out. This is true! This is right on. And this did it for him. America’s most decorated living soldier essentially gave up. He couldn’t take it any longer. He agreed to be interviewed for a tell all television program, and gave interviews to organizations like Newsweek, all with the agreement that nothing would be published until after his retirement in two months. So naturally, the Christian Science Monitor published an interview and everyone followed along behind, putting him on the run around the world. He was followed and monitored and threatened with court martial and the end of the book reads like a spy thriller, but ultimately, he was allowed to retire, dignity intact, and he moved to Australia, where he wrote this book in the late 80s.

In his epilogue, Hackworth takes a number of positions on a number of topics, speculating about America’s future involvement in places like Latin America, about the military’s continued poor training, about the absolute waste of billions of dollars on trash equipment, like the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and tanks and other assorted things. (He raged throughout the book about the inadequacies of the M-16 rifle.) He writes,

“Today’s soldiers … are being placed in great jeopardy by the weapons and equipment now being issued from on high. Given the scandals and the resulting publicity that have rocked the Pentagon in recent times, it is not difficult to see why: the US military’s procurement system is out of control. Still, the bottom line of the whole business is simply this: the United States buys too many weapons it doesn’t need, pays too much for what it gets, what it gets does not do the right job where in counts — on the battlefield — and men’s lives are being risked unnecessarily.”

He ends this 900 page beast of a book by writing, the “United States must shape up. It is a great country with a great heritage; it has set a good example in the past and it can do so in the future, if only it begins to choose its battles carefully and makes sure its causes are right. It is time to reduce the military machine that has broken the back of the nation’s economy, and begin to rebuild the industrial plant that made us great.” This book was very inspirational to read. It bogs down at places with repetitive stories, mostly about the Korean conflict, but is full of insight and passion. I strongly recommend it to history buffs and military fans, as well as the general reader. You stand to learn a lot.

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A Review of Ho Chi Minh: A Life

Posted by Scott Holstad on September 25, 2013

Ho Chi Minh: A LifeHo Chi Minh: A Life by William J. Duiker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve always been fascinated by Ho Chi Minh, one of history’s most mysterious yet prominent figures. I’ve read what little there is on him over the years, and then finally came across this book, William Duiker’s Ho Chi Minh: A Life. What a thoroughly researched and detailed book! Duiker does a truly admirable job of piecing together information from archives and sources from all over the world to give us the best possible picture of Ho, and he does it in a reasonably objective way.

Ho Chi Minh was born on May 19th, 1890 with the given name, Nguyen Sinh Cung, to a Confucian scholar in the Nghe An province of Annam, part of French Indochina, a colonial territory. Duiker writes a great deal about the history of Vietnam, how it had been conquered and occupied for centuries (much of it by the Chinese) and how the 20th Century Indochinese resented their French occupiers for many legitimate, assorted reasons. As young Cung was about to enter adolescence, his father gave him a new name – something customarily done then – Nguyen Tat Thanh, meaning “he who will succeed.” Thanh learned Chinese and Confucian history. He also started being influenced by displaced nationalists who wanted to see an independent Vietnam. However, Thanh felt it important to first understand their oppressors, so he began studying French and the French culture at a Franco-Vietnamese preparatory school in Vinh. Thanh’s attitudes about the French were also no doubt influenced by his father, who despised the imperial government the French allowed to rule over the three sections of Indochina.

In 1907, Thanh enrolled in National Academy, the highest level Franco-Vietnamese school in Hue, the imperial capital. He learned French, Vietnamese, and Chinese, but he was considered somewhat of a country bumpkin by his peers. Still, Thanh’s patriotic instincts were stoked while at this school. Indeed, his first direct involvement in political action came during this period as a wave of unrest swept the countryside and there were many demonstrations. On May 9th, he was beaten and fired upon by French troops during a demonstration. Thanh was dismissed from school and left Annam for Cochin China (South Vietnam) where he taught school for a period before deciding to go to France to study, leaving on a liner where he worked for passage under the name, “Ba.”

In France, Thanh took up odd jobs and started attending labor union meetings and meetings of socialists and Marxists, who supported more freedoms for colonial territories. He started writing articles under pseudonyms and publishing them in numerous media. In 1918, Thanh drafted an eight point petition to the government demanding Annamite freedom. He signed his document, Nguyen Ai Quoc, or “Nguyen the Patriot,” a name he would carry forward with him for decades to come. Eventually, the French police and secret police started taking notice, and he went to New York and London to escape their notice for awhile, before returning to France. He became rather prolific there and the voice for the Vietnamese people, as well as others. In 1924, he left for Moscow, where Lenin had radicalized Russia, a newly Communist country with great goals of expanding communism to the third world, including Indochina.

One thing I’ve always been curious about regarding Ho is whether he was a patriot fighting for national independence or a communist fighting to spread communism. The author of this book addresses this issue at several points throughout the book. He writes, “There are valid reasons for the argument that Nguyen Ai Quoc was above all a patriot. In 1960 he himself conceded in [a] short article … that it was the desire for Vietnamese independence that had drawn him to Marxism in the first place.” Yet, “there is also persuasive evidence that the young Nguyen Ai Quoc viewed Marxism-Leninism as more than just a tool to drive out the French…. Quoc believed that the struggle against the forces of imperialism throughout Asia would culminate in a global revolution.” And there you go. He was both.

Whatever the case, Quoc stayed in Moscow a very long time, studying at the Stalin School and writing things like The Revolutionary Path, his first major effort to introduce Marxist-Leninist doctrine to his countrymen. He moved from Moscow to China next, where he established himself with a network of like-minded nationalist/communists who sought Vietnam’s independence. From there, he oversaw the battle for Vietnam’s independence on behalf of both Russia and China, playing both countries against each other brilliantly – something he’d do for the rest of his life.

Rumor had it he was married to a Chinese woman and had a daughter, but he had to leave them and flee to avoid arrest by the ever aggressive French, returning to Moscow. There he set up a system for patriotic countrymen to come study Marxist philosophies and to go home to spread their knowledge. In 1941, Quoc traveled back through China under the assumed name of Ho Chi Minh, the name that would stick with him for the rest of his life. (It meant “He Who Enlightens.”) During the World War Two years of Japanese occupation in Vietnam, Ho traveled back to Vietnam for the first time in decades, to head the Vietminh Front, along with future general, Vo Nguyen Giap and others. With China’s help, they carved out for themselves some territory in northern Vietnam and solicited help from both Russia and the US, of all countries.

After the war was over, Ho declared Vietnam an independent country, much to the delight of his countrymen who viewed him as a hero. The French had other plans, and with US backing, returned to re-colonize Indochina. Ho and the Vietminh went into hiding and started conducting guerrilla warfare, eventually demoralizing the French and gaining power, ultimately resulting in the military destruction of the French at Dien Bien Phu, and France’s essential surrender, resulting in a split Vietnam, where the northern part would be governed by Ho, and the southern by a corrupt president propped up by the US, one who would later be assassinated with America’s permission and knowledge.

One thing you have to understand is this – the Vietnamese wanted a free and independent unified Vietnam, even most of the southerners. Thus, the Viet Cong, who started making their appearance in 1961 with the north’s backing. Ho continued to seek a political solution, but Lyndon Johnson would have none of it and with the suspicious Gulf of Tonkin incident, he brought the US right into the war. Something that will forever be remembered as one of the most stupid things done by a US president. It was an unwinnable war. Ho said that the Vietnamese may lose 10 soldiers for every one American soldier, but that Vietnam would outlast America, and he was right.

Ho’s influence started to wane as he aged, on into the 1960s, but even as a figurehead, he still played a large role. Power had shifted to other Vietnamese leaders, such as Le Duan, but until Ho’s death on September 2nd, 1969, he was viewed as the legitimate leader of his people and a fighter for the oppressed the world over.

The book, aside from an epilogue, ends with Ho’s death and briefly describes the end of the war, so you won’t get much information about how the war ended or why, but this book goes a long way to demystifying a mythical man of immense power and stature, and for that, the author should be applauded. Perhaps I should end this review of this strongly recommended book by citing the final paragraph in the book, a book written by a man who worked at the US Embassy in Saigon back during the war:

“Ho Chi Minh, then, was … an ‘event-making man,’ a ‘child of crisis’ who combined in his own person two of the central forces in the history of modern Vietnam: the desire for national independence and the quest for social and economic justice. Because these forces transcended the borders of his own country, Ho was able to project his message to colonial peoples all over the world and speak to their demand for dignity and freedom from imperialist oppression. Whatever the final judgment on his legacy to this own people, he has taken his place in the pantheon of revolutionary heroes who have struggled mightily to give the pariahs of the world their true voice.”

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