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Atheism: A Very Short Introduction
Atheism: A Very Short Introduction
by Julian Baggini
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.02
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brief indeed, August 7, 2010
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"Atheism: A Very Short Introduction" by Julian Baggini is a small book, just under 4˝ by 7 inches, about 125 pages, counting even unnumbered ones. Although, since the type font is on the small side, there is more content than one might expect. Mr. Baggini is logical and clear. He is on no soapbox nor any book-thumping crusade. I loved reading the book, but must confess that for a fuller appreciation I'll have to get back to it.

Mr. Baggini's copyright is 2003, well before Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" (2006) and Christopher Hitchens' "god is not Great' (2007). Dawkins is more expansive, and Hitchens is more outspoken, although both are confrontational. Baggini's tone is more moderate, sympathetic, and even humorous. His table of contents and concise three-page index will help for quick and handy reference.

Mr. Baggini's discussion is brief but his wealth of background knowledge and critical thinking are evident. He tries to make any point simply, admittedly avoiding the fine points of the complex historical arguments. Many classic references and readings are suggested.

Neither the believer's belief in the existence of God, nor the atheist's in God's nonexistence, can be definitively proven with rational evidence. Ultimately personal convictions are what take hold, independent of pure rationality.

Mr. Baggini omits overall discussion of scripture, the so-called holy books, which are held to be divinely inspired and written by God himself and form the foundations of the major religions. He does discuss the atheist conviction that ethics and morality are not in the sole possession of religion. Darwin is absent from Baggini's index, and as for evolution his main reference is to read Richard Dawkins' "The Blind Watchmaker."

In a table of probabilities, Dawkins holds to the weakest of agnostic positions that the existence of God is a "very low probability, but short of zero" and that he "cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."

If Christianity relies upon the ultimate benevolence of God through faith in Jesus Christ, then this weakest agnostic position can also be that if there is existence after death, one can also simply rely upon this ultimate benevolence. Mr. Baggini apparently does not support any agnostic position.

"Atheism: A Very Short Introduction" by Julian Baggini is that indeed. I give him four stars. If you seek a more profound, broader, and substantial presentation, I would recommend Mr. Dawkins.

The Lake Shore Limited
The Lake Shore Limited
by Sue Miller
Edition: Hardcover
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding and beautiful, July 28, 2010
This review is from: The Lake Shore Limited (Hardcover)
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The Lake Shore Limited operates daily between Chicago and places east, like New York City and Boston. The Amtrak train travels along the south shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Erie.

"The Lake Shore Limited" is also the name of the novel by Sue Miller, and at the same time the name of a play early within the novel. The premiere of the play is being given in a small theater in Boston some six years after 9/11.

As an aside, some way to distinguish the printed play from the novel text would have been appreciated, such as printing the ongoing script of the play in boldface. The characters in the play, the dialog, actions, and audience reactions get mixed together with the novel, and the reader struggles.

Meanwhile, in the play within the novel, the train has suffered a terrorist explosion. Many are wounded, many are dead. The play's protagonist is Gabriel, whose wife Elizabeth was on the train. Elizabeth and Gabriel had long been drifting apart in their marriage. Did she or did she not survive the attack on the train? Gabriel's grown son berates him for seeming not to care either way, and for always having been remote from the family, as he now appears to be from Elizabeth and the crash. Everyone is awaiting word. Here ends the brief synopsis of the play (no spoilers).

Now to the novel. The protagonist is Billy, who has parallels in her own life to what she wrote in the play. Six years previously, Billy had been living with Gus in his apartment when the tragic news came that he was in one of the planes that hit the towers on 9/11. Everyone expected Billy to be devastated, but she was not. Yet she felt obliged to act contrary to her real feelings. She had, in fact, been planning to leave Gus.

The novel fills in all the details by looking back on Billy's life before and after 9/11, right up to the time of the play six years later. Gus's full and happy life is shown, including his loving relationship with his much older sister Leslie and her husband. The background and current influence is told, of Rafe, the actor who was Gabriel in the play. Sam, an architect friend of Leslie's and her husband, is brought in. These four main characters -- Leslie, Rafe, Billy, and Sam -- are each given a long chapter, followed by four short chapters each, ending the book.

Author Sue Miller's lengthy portrayals of these characters and their interrelations are complex and greatly rewarding. There are scores of memorable passages that one would love to quote, but are beyond the scope of this brief review. Sue Miller's writing is outstanding and beautiful. Definitely five stars.
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Cherry Hill:: A Brief History (Brief Histories)
Cherry Hill:: A Brief History (Brief Histories)
by Mike Mathis
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.50
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thank You, July 20, 2010
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Nico "easy reader" (Cherry Hill, NJ USA) is -- as one might presume -- a resident of that township just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Authors Mike Mathis and Lisa Mangiafico describe it in "Cherry Hill: A Brief History."

Having grown to some 70,000 people on its 24 square miles, the township is no longer rural. Springdale Farm is now the only one remaining.

Back in the days, Cherry Hill was called Delaware Township. When it became big enough to have its own post office, the name Delaware Township had already been taken, so a referendum was held in 1961, and the winning name chosen by the citizenry was Cherry Hill.

The name had already been familiar to residents. Built on the original Cherry Hill Farm was the Cherry Hill Inn, an important meeting place. And there were the Cherry Hill Apartments, Cherry Hill Lodge, Cherry Hill Estates, and the Cherry Hill Shopping Center (opened in 1961 and now known as the Cherry Hill Mall).

Here I would interpose some personal notes. As a change from all the bussing in elementary school, Nico "easy reader's" two kids were happy to be only a short walk away from Cherry Hill High School East. The other public high school is Cherry Hill HS West.

"Cherry Hill: A Brief History" was intriguing, so I ordered a copy. Not enough, so I had to order two more. After graduate school, our kids ended up, one across the continent and the other across the Atlantic. Our son and family live in the San Francisco Bay area. When he saw my copy of the book, he nodded his head and said "yep" he was interested. Our daughter has lived for over twenty years with her family in Italy. She'll be here soon for her annual summer visit, and I'm sure she too will be happy to have a copy. In a way the book is their history and our family's decades of history.

The book is only about 128 pages, but it covers all the important topics, from when the Lenni-Lenape Indians and the Quakers occupied the land, to the development of the neighborhoods, the early businesses (some famous, like the Latin Casino) and the present ones, the entertainment, the schools, the Garden State Race Track (now being replaced by a great mix of stores, restaurants, and town houses), the old library and the huge new one, and the civic organizations.

"Cherry Hill: A Brief History" has many good photographs and makes for happy reading. My plan is to keep my copy on the shelf for frequent referencing. Highly recommended for all you Cherry Hillers, past and present, and for your children's children.

To authors Mike Mathis and Lisa Mangiafico I say "Thank You" for all your great work.

Kindness Goes Unpunished: A Walt Longmire Mystery (Walt Longmire Mysteries)
Kindness Goes Unpunished: A Walt Longmire Mystery (Walt Longmire Mysteries)
by Craig Johnson
Edition: Hardcover
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intimacies & Intricacies, July 13, 2010
In "Kindness Goes Unpunished (A Walt Longmire Mystery)" by Craig Johnson, you may have no trouble ferreting out instances where kindness survives.

But what starkly stands out is the inverse: a bookload of unkindnesses cry out for punishment.

Walt Longmire's daughter Cady, a young lawyer in Philadelphia, is both hurt and helped. The hurt puts her in a coma that results in her being in the hospital for the entire book. The help is that someone had quickly called for the EMTs, thus saving her life. Who did the hurting and who the helping are mysteries.

Walt has been sheriff for twenty-three or so years in Absaroka County, Wyoming. He is entertained by the idea of having his young undersheriff Victoria stand for the next election and become their first female sheriff in history. Vic, as she's called, is a piece of work, as sharp with a firearm as she is with profanities that tumble along unceasingly throughout the story. (Reader be warned.) Nor do others leave her behind in that regard.

Walt must be at Cady's side in Philadelphia, so he, along with his friend and sidekick Henry Standing Bear, make the long drive. Accompanying them is Walt's dog, named Dog. Henry, an accomplished guy, who is outstandingly popular with the ladies, has arranged a showing of his artistic photographs at the Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts.

Vic back in Wyoming, not hearing promptly enough from the traveling trio, decides to bring herself to the city, where she had served on the police force and where she also has a large family. The goings-on in the family and in Cady's apartment where Walt is staying are quite entertaining and endearing. If you have a puritan rather than a prurient streak, I'd advise you to sit this book out; don't read it. No kidding.

Walt is able to help the local police with Cady's case and the larger criminalities involved. Author Craig Johnson's comments on investigative life are insightful and witty. The plotting is intricate.

A major character in the story is Philadelphia itself, with all its old streets, buildings, statuary, and most importantly the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Even those of us who live just across the Delaware River will be learning things we never knew. Surely the old section of Philadelphia does not have a Quarry Street and a Bread Street. Oh yes it does! And the three Indians in the large fountain at Logan Circle are named after three rivers? You might guess the Delaware and the Schuylkill (ask a native how to pronounce it!), but what's the third?

Vienna Secrets: A Max Liebermann Mystery
Vienna Secrets: A Max Liebermann Mystery
by Frank Tallis
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.31
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5.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent, fascinating, July 4, 2010
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Humbling it is to be in the company of Psychiatrist Max Liebermann, as presented to us by Frank Tallis in "Vienna Secrets." The erudition is simultaneously overwhelming and engrossing. Tallis is a master storyteller and scene setter. I don't believe there is a wasted word in the 400 or so pages. Tallis is outstandingly intelligent and writes from a great fund of knowledge. He never sounds professorial. He is clear and straightforward.

The central mystery is a series of brutal murders by forceful decapitation, the heads being ripped from the bodies. What kind of monster is capable of doing it? Who or how many would be strong enough?

Dr. Max Liebermann teams up with Detective Inspector Oskar Reinhardt. The setting is Sigmund Freud's Vienna. Freud himself appears in some scenes. Tallis's descriptions are excellent, never overdone.

If a book can be said to have a melodic approach, this one does. Dr. Liebermann knows his classical music and Inspector Reinhardt is a formally trained singer. I loved the whole milieu. Their conversations are a delight. They abound in psychological evaluations, including even of Freud's own theories. Quite fascinating.

A somber and obvious, but underplayed note throughout the book is the rising of antisemitism in the period surrounding the start of the 1900s. Some readers might be turned off by the many Jewish terms and explanations, but I found them enlightening. Dr. Liebermann himself, although Jewish, has the scientist's attitude towards nature and does not believe in metaphysics, nor does he practice any religion.

I'm sorry the book ended, but Tallis has written others and there should be more. For me, "Vienna Secrets" is just the beginning.

The Nearest Exit (Milo Weaver)
The Nearest Exit (Milo Weaver)
by Olen Steinhauer
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The inevitability of it all, June 27, 2010
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The inevitability of it all is what finally gets to you. I'm speaking of "The Nearest Exit" by Olen Steinhauer. If you've already lived the scriptural three score and ten, or if by strength, chance, and the assistance of modern medications and technology you have lived four score, you will definitely and precisely know the inevitability of which I speak.

The thoughts of existence will probably be in your mind almost daily. That's not a bad thing. If you have a rational view of the world, and have lost the need for a hereafter, you can face the inevitability without the common fear of eternal damnation created by some band of men called religious.

You will know that when you die, you simply are dead. You won't know you are dead. You will simply be dead. You might think this is not a happy thought. But it is. For it focuses one on the present, on the moment, on the life, the living, that is going on right now. It is all quite freeing.

But "The Nearest Exit" is not a happy book. I do not know a single person in it, who is happy. The book is about killing. Killing engendered and advanced by the CIA, or a supersecret department of the CIA, whose very existence, control, and funding are known by a very few.

Steinhauer's fictional department is secreted in a Manhattan skyscraper and is called the Department of Tourism. A small group of Travel Agents control a worldwide network of operatives who are called Tourists. They are killers, chosen and trained to carry out orders without question. Unlike members of an army or marine unit, they operate singly. When the senator behind the department orders that some foreign official or person is to be assassinated or murdered, a Tourist is assigned and he carries out the mission as single-mindedly and effectively as if he were on a battlefield.

The Tourists are brilliant and effective. They do the clandestine work of our government. Their solitude brings on a high degree of paranoia -- suspecting everyone, trusting no one. They must have it to survive. Each has no more qualms about killing the declared enemy of the United States, than any good soldier would. That is their job.

Do you believe that Olen Steinhauer is wrong in his declaration that such operations do exist? He is convincing. His writing is excellent. He knows many many parts of the world. In great detail. He knows his subject. The book is realistic and engrossing. You may become attached to one character or another and hope or believe there is a way out, that there is a way to take "The Nearest Exit." Don't count on it. What saves the book for me is Steinhauer's obvious intelligence. Olen Steinhauer has set up this CIA department as a novelistic fiction, but does it really exist?

Ultimately, there is an exit we all have to make. I am glad I read the book, and I have to recommend it. Four stars.

U is for Undertow (Kinsey Millhone Mystery)
U is for Undertow (Kinsey Millhone Mystery)
by Sue Grafton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.68
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Upper and Lower, May 9, 2010
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If you haven't already, you may find yourself wanting to read every one of the twenty-one novels by Sue Grafton. They spread through the years from 1982, and through the alphabet from "A is for Alibi" and "B is for Burglar" to "T is for Trespass" and "U is for Undertow," the latest one. Four more will get her to "Z is for Zero," which she has already named. Reportedly, her plans are to finish by 2015. Will we and she be around for five more years? We old readers all hope.

Sue Grafton is a joy to read, a master of her craft. All the stories are different. All have one thing in common: the main character, Kinsey Millhone, a young private detective in Santa Teresa, California. Millhone rhymes with phone, so don't try to make it sound Italian.

Kinsey is less irascible than dogged and determined. She is persistent, and quick with a thought, a put-down, or fast action. She can point and shoot a firearm with accuracy. Try getting too close to her, and she'll set you right. Early, she served two years in the police department in Santa Teresa, California. But her independence won out and she left, though she still gets along and cooperates with them. Kinsey is intrepid, intelligent, resourceful, in-your-face, profane, and no-nonsense.

Kinsey's two marriages are history. She prefers shorter term intimacies. Her good friend and confidant Henry is her octogenarian landlord who lives in the house in front of her converted garage apartment. After an explosion razed the apartment, Henry rebuilt it, giving the feel of a sleekly appointed boat, complete with polished trim, porthole, galley, circular stairway to the bedroom loft, and skylight.

"Undertow" is a study in contrasts of upper class respectability versus some of that class's own adult children's opting out for hippie-style wandering, poor grooming, rudeness, arrogance, and disrespect for ordinary civilities, all the while knowing they can still stop back to hang around briefly for food and to finagle for finances. Sue Grafton unwaveringly grasps the conflicts and language. Her presentation of dialogue is uncanny. Be cautious, the text is unexpurgated.

The basic story is that a four-year-old girl named Mary Claire who is kidnapped for ransom in 1967 and never found. An upper-class small boy, age 6, witnessed two "pirates" in the woods, digging for "buried treasure," they told him. Now twenty-one years later, the boy is a young man who believes that the two guys were actually burying Mary Claire. He had gone to the local police, who had doubts and sent him to Kinsey Millhone. The young man would like to remember exactly where he had been at the time, and is willing to pay the price for her help.

The story becomes quite complex, hopping back and forth between 1988 and 1967. The reader might be tempted to use Kinsey's own usual method of using 3-by-5 cards to make notes to keep individuals and events straight. As an aside, and along the way, Kinsey learns much more about her orphaned childhood and the extended family she believed deserted her. Aficionados will love this latest tome (402 pages), and new readers will find that it has enough background information to bring them up to speed. They might be encouraged to trek back to Kinsey's apartment, follow her on her daily three-mile morning run, sit with her a half block away at Rosie's for a Hungarian dinner, and meet Henry's siblings, all over ninety years old. Sue Grafton is a highly pleasurable read. But a warning, don't be shocked.

The Bricklayer: A Novel
The Bricklayer: A Novel
by Noah Boyd
Edition: Hardcover
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful, intelligent, April 5, 2010
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Steve Vail, the chief character in Noah Boyd's "The Bricklayer," works with brick and other masonry, having fled his former position as an FBI agent. Actually, he was fired, for recalcitrance and insubordination, but he has no regrets. He hates any hierarchy that in his view puts any incompetent over him as boss. If the Peter Principle applies even in the FBI, Vail would never run out of discontent.

As a presumably self-employed bricklayer, Steve Vail has only to answer to the demands of the job, and he is good at it. In urban living, you can't get much more elemental than building what everyone needs for shelter and privacy.

In the novel, the FBI is in a particular jam and knows how effective Steve Vail has been in difficult cases. He is unfailingly instinctive and intelligent in his approach and relentless in follow-through, while scrupulously avoiding the limelight. All that, coupled with being physically fitter than most of us, brings him immediately to mind for this urgent and disturbing new case.

A small criminal group is killing people, including FBI agents, and threatening even more murders, unless the FBI hands over several million dollars, in packs of hundred-dollar bills. Against this combined murder, extortion, and public image problem for the FBI, Steve Vail seems the likeliest candidate.

"The Bricklayer" is an exciting thriller, written extremely well. The edge-of-your-seat encounters that Steve Vail faces want me to label him Superman. Well, if not that, at least the Lone Ranger. I was amused, incredulous, and ultimately pleased.

As the reader might expect, Steve Vail is attractive to the ladies, and there are a couple of contenders in the story. Noah Boyd has created an appealing character, who could last for at least a couple more novels. But the insights, plotting, and intelligence of author Boyd shine through, and he should not fear to branch out.

New World Monkeys: A Novel
New World Monkeys: A Novel
by Nancy Mauro
Edition: Hardcover
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Overburdened, March 12, 2010
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Over many weeks I have tried repeatedly to get back into reading "New World Monkeys" by Nancy Mauro, but without success.

Her density of metaphors and similes totally turns me off. I do not find them clever. I find them inexperienced and inept. There are so many of them, in such rapid succession, that I cannot bear it. The only author I can think of with an equivalent penchant is Shirley Hazzard in "The Transit of Venus." Ms. Mauro is much younger, but the predilection is there.

Ms. Mauro's wording is consistently unnatural, strange, and awkward. Her style is strained and forced. The metaphoric excesses start with the title of the book, going down to the titles of every one of the chapters, continuing unendingly in virtually every paragraph and sentence.

Perhaps reading further would change my mind, but I'm not taking the chance. I have stopped trying. The book is just not for me.

Red Hot Lies (An Izzy McNeil Novel)
Red Hot Lies (An Izzy McNeil Novel)
by Laura Caldwell
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars A grand confection, March 11, 2010
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"Red Hot Lies: An Izzy McNeil Novel" by Laura Caldwell is a grand confection of a contemporary thriller. I rate it right up there with the pleasure of a chocolate crème brűlée, with or without the red hot flambée. And if, my friend, you abhor chocolate, I pity pity pity you.

Izzy herself is a hot customer, or should I say sexy lady, for her boyfriend Sam -- actually her fiancé -- addresses her as "Red Hot," though no one else would be so importunate.

Izzy, or Iz, is Isabel, the brainy lady who leads all the action in this intriguing tale. She is a young Chicago attorney specializing in entertainment contracts and real estate, whose major client is Forester Pickett, the wealthy leading light and CEO of Pickett Enterprises.

Forester, as a father figure, had taken a shine to her as a new attorney, singled her out, and given her the major part of their legal business. To make a long story short, Forester dies under suspicious circumstances, Izzy's boyfriend Sam disappears at the same time with thirty million dollars worth of company shares, and the new company commanders essentially force Izzy out.

The Big Question for the police and the feds is: Where is Sam? Did he murder Forester? Izzy always feels somebody is following her, trying to find Sam, but she is as in the dark as anyone else regarding his whereabouts. Can she keep her focus while everything is falling apart? You will marvel at her salty language and insights as she traipses through Chicago and even the beaches and reaches of the Republic of Panama.

The pocket-size book (439 pages) covers the twelve days of these goings-on. I couldn't put it down, and look forward to reading the succeeding two books in the Izzy McNeil trio: "Red Blooded Murder" and "Red, White & Dead."

One final comment: Does Red Hot lie? Indeed, indeed, she does. Loved it.

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