Book Reviews
Nonfiction
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man John Perkins
8

The author of this book spent a career as an economist for a consulting firm which did economic studies for third world countries. The purpose of the studies were ostensibly to show how much of build up of infrastructure would be necessary to exploit the country's natural resources. The idea was that for the country and it's people to prosper they would borrow money, build up their infrastructure, start extracting their natural resources (both with the help of American firms), then use the windfall to service the debt and have enough left over for public programs that would bring the country into the 20th century (i.e., health, educational and other programs).

The only problem with this scenario is that things did not and were not expected to really play out that way. Instead, the "windfall" would be much less than expected (or pilfered) such that the country would not be able to repay their development loans and debt relief could then be used as a negotiating point by the US government. What the US would want in return could be anything from the right to build military bases in that county to cooperation with how their UN votes are cast.

Equations of Eternity David Darling
4
This book is somewhat of a history of human evolution to the present but it doesn't stop there. It continues on with speculation as to what we will or might accomplish in the future. The parts about past and present are thin and little disjointed but are at least somewhat interesting. However, the further the author heads towards the future though the more it seems like random speculation and rather fanciful speculation at that. A good thing about this book is that it's small and thin with large type. Spending any more time on one person's SPECULATION would be a waste.
The Bubble of American Supremacy George Soros
7
Another election year (2004) release - this insightful analysis points out many of the administration's folly's. However it goes well beyond in it's explanation of why they have not and will not produce the desired results. Instead these policies actually weaken the US's standing in the world. The book goes on to offer specific recommendations as to what to do instead and gives good supporting information as to why these actions will be successful.
Americans at War Stephen Ambrose
8
Each chapter is a stand alone slice of some bit of American history relating to war time periods of the US. From the introduction alone I was already more interested in history than I had been before. As written, with chapters concerning periods from the Civil War through the Viet Nam War, it was easy to pick up and put down without losing any sense of overall context. Not being a history buff I would have never known about Custer -- other than his last stand.
The Truth with Jokes Al Franken
9
As with Franken's other books this one also twists your mind in different directions. The information he conveys jives with what you've read in the news but he has added more detail and backs it up with sources and references and it isn't pretty. When you get a good look at what's going on out there it makes you sick to your stomach. The odd thing is that Franken delivers it with such pointed humor the book is easy and even fun to read and that keeps pulling you (or maybe just me) through the book surprising quickly.
The Price of Loyalty Ron Suskind
8

A book covering the tenure of the Bush administration's first treasury secretary Paul O'Neil. It's chock full of revelations like many that you've heard before. Among the most interesting is O'Neil's recounting of the very first cabinet meeting. This took place a full 9 months before the attack on September 11, 2001 yet at the meeting Condi Rice, when called upon, unfurls a map or Iraq and speaking as from a script mentions warning signs and the possible need of some intervention there.

O'Neil was opposed to the tax cuts that were pushed through (as was Greenspan) but the administration didn't really care about what he/they thought. After all he was just the head of the TREASURY for God's sake! At one point O'Neil suggests an economic summit with business leaders throughout the US. At first the admin didn't think much of the idea but soon it made sense to them. O'Neil recounts how instead of an information exchange and brainstorming sessions with business leaders that he expected the summit was stocked with stooges who could stand up and give testimonials about how good the tax cuts have been for business! The summit had been reprogrammed as a PR tool for tax cuts.

The Last American Man Elizabeth Gilbert
7

This book made me rethink what it is that I am doing with this particular web page. Am I reviewing what I thought of the book, the writing or the subject? I came across Gilbert's writing in a magazine article some years ago and it was the writing more than the subject that made me look for something else she had written. This book jumped out at me immediately. Her writing is crisp and to the point and it flows well. It is insightful, funny and fun to read -- the subject of this text is interesting and the writing delivers.

On the other hand, the subject being written about is a person that I grew to DISLIKE as the book progressed. To make matters more complicated -- I would think that the author might dislike the person being written about too but instead it is someone she has known for years and clearly admires very much. At several points I felt that the reader is lead to brink of the very point that is the issue with the character and then left there without the author pulling the trigger, so to speak. Without saying the next few words that are the obvious conclusion of the previous few sentences I was left wondering if the book was actually written FOR the subject. Is he supposed to read this book and suddenly "get it"?

In spite of the subject's talents, abilities and shear uniqueness (which are all substantial) he clearly has some major issues to resolve. Everything about the subject's character is the result of his relationship with his father. Call it protest, compensation for what the relationship lacked or just one up-man-ship but the character of the subject is clearly identical to that of his father.

Now, for a short summary of the actual book... the person who is subject of this book developed a unique skill set and relationship with the natural world around him at an early age. He spent his entire life pushing himself, those skills and that relationship further. From living in a teepee, capturing the food he lives on and making his own clothes he is everything the author feels is the epitome of "a man" or "a real man" in some fundamental way -- and the last of his kind. Thus the title.

In summary - book good, well written and interesting. The subject, interesting, talented and thought provoking but not very likable and to some degree a hypocrite. The message of his life and lifestyle, if there is one, is confused by some of the contradictions between what the person has made of his life and why he lives this way.

For the Time Being Annie Dillard
6
Interesting. I would rate this higher but for some reason I would be glued to some sections but needing to force my way through others. The book contains a lot of the author's seeming "stream of consciousness" thinking tied to keen observation of the world around her. Where I get stuck is that I expected these streams to eventually run together in some cohesive way. If they did, I missed it due too putting the book down too many times. Still, I dog-eared an above average number of pages for future reference.
Longitude Dava Sobel
8
Enjoyable and well written account of the evolution of timepieces. Centered around 18th century efforts to accurately determine one's longitude away from the the site of land.
Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love Dava Sobel
6
Much more a biography of Galileo than anything else. Not as compelling as Longitude but a good biography that at times can bring out some anger at both how science was treated and worse, how women were treated. It seemed like the "daughter" angle was thrown in for marketing purposes, since it was somewhat of a tangent.
Make Gentle the Life of This World - The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy  
8
Edited by RFK's son, Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, this is a compilation of writings and quotes both by RFK and collected by RFK as jotted down in his daybooks and other notes.
The Tao of Pooh Benjamin Hoff
9
Well done summary of the Eastern Philosophy of Taoism.
The Te of Piglet Benjamin Hoff
5
Disappointing. Seemed more like an attempt to capitalize on his previous success while espousing his personal opinions which are not even consistent with Taoism.
The Professor and the Madman Simon Winchester
8
Engaging account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. A book like this has the potential to be as dry as the OED itself. But, Winchester has done a good job making this a compelling and intriguing story. Mel Gibson has apparently bought the movie rights.
Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World Mark Kurlansky
8
Another history that could have been painfully boring but was, in fact, a page-turner. Like with other historical biographies in this section, the author paints a wide cross-section of life during the time period discussed. This gives the reader (for me at least) the feeling that they have gotten something out of the time invested beyond just being entertained.
Nixon's Ten Commandments of Statecraft James C. Humes
7
This book is not by Nixon. The author worked with Nixon and some time after Nixon's death was given a note card found in Nixon's desk. It detailed 10 points that Nixon wanted to keep in mind. The author then fills the text with examples throughout history where these rules were followed and where they were broken.
A Beautiful Mind Sylvia Nasar
8
A relief after seeing the movie. The movie was practically devoid of content and instead sensationalized Nash's psychosis. This book does what a good historical biography is supposed to do. You are left with not only an understanding of Nash's life but more than a brief sketch of every significant person, place, institution and mathematical concept that intersected with Nash's life.
Blackhawk Down Mark Bowden
6
The author uses interviews of participants and transcripts of radio communications to put together what seems like a bullet-by-bullet reconstruction of an 18 hour battle. The political underpinnings and reactions to these events only appear in an appendix. It was interesting but grew tedious at some points. Maybe this is a case where the movie is better than the book.
The Year 1000 Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger
6
Written in 12 chapters where each chapter details a month of days in the life of people in the year 1000. Interesting but dry.
A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy Thomas C. Reeves
8
An interesting read. If this book is accurate it's sad that what we know about JFK is just the result of professional and well funded "spin".
Understanding the Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright Donald Hoffman
9

A big step beyond the typical books on Wright's works. I know a fair bit about architecture already and have been looking at pictures of Wright's creations since I was a kid. I have also visited a large number of his creations but beyond experiencing awe it has been hard to fully pinpoint the aspects that actually inspires the awe. This book filled in the blanks for me by actually codifying many of the patterns that occur in his work.

All Too Human George Stepanopolus
7

A memoir of the period starting with Clinton's first campaign and ending with the beginning of his second. Interesting inside look at the mechanics of politics. Turns out that politics is very, well... political.

Locked in the Cabinet Robert Reich
7

Covers much of the same period of time of All Too Human but from a different perspective and with a lot more humor. Reich is funny! Where the two books do overlap though is with the arrival of Dick Morris and (a) how policy took a change in direction away from what inspired these people to be part of the administration in the first place (b) how obnoxious Morris is.

I see the betrayal but, to be fair, you might still be able accomplish things after you have compromised your promises and ideals as compared to sticking to them and then being voted out of office. It seems though that in Clinton's case some felt this was debatable.

Masters of Disguise Antonio Mendez
7

The author explains his journey from his life as a plumber with some artistic talents to (through applying for a government job as an artist) working for the CIA as an "artist" forging documents and the like. Over the course of a 30 year career with the CIA the author worked his way up to head of the disguise program within the agency. He also actually participated in some missions in Moscow.

He says that he cannot be specific about one of their biggest breakthroughs in disguise but it sounds like it might not be too far from a Mission Impossible type of thing. A minor disappointment was that when I heard the author speak at a lecture (book promotion) he made more than one mention of "Moscow Rules". These were specific rules for intelligence operations performed in Moscow that were different or above and beyond traditional tradecraft. I stopped taking notes when I decided to buy the book but it turns out that the Moscow rules were discussed even less in the book than in the lecture. Interesting book none the less.

Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush Molly Ivins
8
The author's introduction to the updated addition states that her only mistaken prediction was the one of a short political life. Shrub is a take off on the name "Bush" of course, and among other things this book will clue you in a bit on how "the rich get richer".
Night
Elie Wezel
7
A short, matter-of-fact accounting of the author's experience in concentration camps. If you know about The Holocaust there is not much new information here but the delivery and perspective are interesting. If you don't know much about this bit of history this would be good place to start. It's lightweight nature makes it "easy" to read (this is a relative rather than a general statement).
Brunelleschi's Dome Ross King
8

A biography of both a person (Filippo Brunelleschi) and a piece of architecture (Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore). This major cathedral in Florence had been under construction for more than a century before it came time to start building it's dome. A dome of this size had never been completed and it involved a fair number of unsolved problems so the plans for it's construction were just put off until they were needed. When the time finally came the patrons of the cathedral announced a competition for ideas and models for the project. A local goldsmith/clock-maker won the competition and spent much of the next 25 years, or so, involved with the dome's construction.

Here is a person so creative that you might wonder if he was communicating with "the future" if not extraterrestrials. The size of the dome was such that they could not use any sort of support/centering structure in the middle and that was just the beginning of the challenges. Some of the machines he devised were used for lifting massive materials (marble blocks weighing several tons) to the top of the structure and for the precise positioning of them. So impressive were these contraptions that an apprentice (a young Leonardo DaVinci) to a local bronze worker made sketches of them in his own notebooks. This resulted in Leonardo being erroneously credited for some of these inventions.

Fermat's Last Theorem Amir D. Aczel
3
My (very personal) opinion is that this is a lousy book. There were a few interesting chapters about math and mathematicians but over all this book is probably mostly of interest to the mathematical inclined. Each chapter seemed rather disjoint from the others while trying to give you the impression that you were being lead along a path of excitement and discovery. Many chapters seemed to be irrelevant to the big picture... and those were the better chapters!
If you haven't got the time to do it right, when will you find the time to do it over? Jeffery Mayer
7
This book about getting organized actually came with a money back guarantee. I found several useful tips and ideas here - but for me this sort of a thing is a quest. Your results may vary.
Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them Al Franken
9
This is perhaps the most fun you will have reading nonfiction. The author (who most of you know) takes on many of the claims made by the right wing. With a staff of 14 students from Harvard many of the right-wing claims are researched to original sources and found to not only to be wrong but in many cases the opposite of what is being claimed. For example, for the claim that the media has a liberal bias Team-Franken selected a few issues and sifted through the collective media reporting on just those issues. They tallied the stories that had left and right leaning viewpoint and as you might guess reporting was slanted towards the right.
Fiction 
A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole
10
Hysterically funny, well written and a good story. If the author had written another book I would get it immediately.
Haikus For Jews David M. Bader
9
Very funny, but small volume
Love in the Time of Cholera Gabriel Garcia Marquez
10
Well written and enjoyable story. Marquez' writing is so lush that you can see, smell and taste the pictures he paints.
Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad
8
Incredibly, English is not Conrad's first language. His writing really sets off this classic theme. Many know this story as it was morphed into the Vietnam era film Apocalypse Now. Unfortunately, much of the story's weight was absent from the movie.
Jitterbug Perfume Tom Robbins
10
Enjoyable story, funny and well written. Robbins is among very few authors that just do something with language that makes reading fast, fluid, interesting and enjoyable. Like some of his other books he folds together art, history, various cultures, religion and humor with a fantastic story and it all works out really well.
Even Cowgirls get the Blues Tom Robbins
8
Again Robbins tells a tale that is interesting and funny (although he uses a lot of gratuitous sex) that folds some of the usual subjects together with a good story and really good writing.
Still Life with Woodpecker Tom Robbins
6
Not his best story by far.
The Poisonwood Bible Barbara Kingsolver
8
Well written and compelling story set against a backdrop of real historical events that took place during the Congo's struggle for Independence. An interesting literary approach is that each chapter is a first-person narrative that rotates among the characters.
Small Gods Terry Prachett
9
Very funny. So many subtle references that you have to keep on your toes. The more you know, the more ways this story will appeal to you. This author has written an impressive number of books. In this book there are many godlike beings whose size and powers are directly proportional to the number of people that believe that they are, in fact, a god. This story is from the perspective of a little turtle whose number is almost up.
My Dog Skip / My Cat Spit McGee Willie Morris
5
Two books by this author are both very quick reads. At some points while reading these it seems (and the author practically acknowledges this) that he is writing the books more out of the need to write "something" for income rather that writing a story he wants to tell. It shows.
Dead Souls Nikolai Gogol
8
Very Funny and pretty interesting too. Gogol has a gift for describing extreme and stereotypical personalities.
Oh, the Things I Know! Al Franken
8
Pretty funny "advice book". One of the funny things about it is that it actually contains some good advice. Oh, you will laugh!
   

MikeFried.com - a personal web site for Mike Fried
Copyright © 2002-10, Mike Fried. All rights reserved