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Reviews Written by
Jeffrey Phillips "Innovation and Team Productivity Consultant" RSS Feed (Raleigh, NC)

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Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East
Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East
by Patrick Cockburn
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.53

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars War Diaries, not War analysis, August 5, 2016
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You have to hand it to Patrick Cockburn. He will go to where the story is, and has been, it seems, everywhere in the Middle East and North Africa. The man must have an unbelievable passion for covering war-torn places like Syria, Iraq, Libya and other similar countries. His latest book - The Age of Jihad - demonstrates his depth of experience, starting from the first pages recorded in early 2001 in Afghanistan and progressing through to terrorism in Syria and other locales as recently as 2015. And herein lies the problem with this book: it is basically a series of diary entries, recording his thoughts and experiences over a decade of covering these issues and countries. The diary entries are immediate and emotional, but don't provide a significant amount of analysis and fail to tie the threads together effectively. Some of the reporting tends to repeat itself and sometimes the same stories are told across several pages.

Cockburn is not a neutral observer. He believes that the Great Powers, including the US, France and the UK have created the problems in the Middle East and constantly blunder anew. In this he isn't necessarily wrong, but could find more time to analyze the problems that are local to the region. He makes blunt and unnecessary statements as if they are fact. He manages to castigate almost every leader in the Middle East, as well as the leaders of most of the countries involved, although strangely Russia never comes in for a close review although it has been exceptionally active in Syria and has significant terrorism challenges in its border regions.

Cockburn never really explains the root cause of terrorism or jihad, especially considering that many terrorists and jihadists come from middle class or educated families, as the recent incident in Bangladesh demonstrates. Strangely, Iran never comes under close scrutiny in this book either, although their well-known support for elements in Iraq and in Lebanon demonstrates that they too are a supporter of terrorism.

I was expecting a bit more balance, and certainly more analysis than I found in this book. While I was impressed by the commitment the author demonstrates and his long history covering the topic, I believe the book could have been much more effective looking at root causes and drawing together threads about the purpose and goals of jihad in the Middle East, and what the future may hold. The book cover claims that the book "will be the most in-depth analysis of the failure of the Middle East to date". I will certainly agree with the indepth portion of that statement. I'm not quite sure about the analysis portion.

Three Day Road
Three Day Road
by Joseph Boyden
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.86
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5.0 out of 5 stars You will not want it to end, July 22, 2016
This review is from: Three Day Road (Paperback)
I'm a bit upset after reading the Three Day Road. Upset because I can't figure out how a first time author could write such a good book. I thought it was probably hyperbole when I read other reviews that suggested that Three Day Road belonged in the same lists with books such as All Quiet on the Western Front, or Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. But those reviewers were right. What's more, Boyden manages to link so many transitions in this book and overturn or examine so many traditions, by using the lens of the Canadian First People, primarily Cree, and their participation in WW I. Using multiple narrators, Boyden gives us the recent past, when Cree still hunted and trapped in the wilds of what is now Ontario, and their growing relationship with the British Canadians, leading to the Cree settling into towns. But so few of them understand the wider world, and when two of them join the Canadian Army and find themselves on the Western Front, they see artillery throwing shells miles away, airplanes attacking, poisonous gas. What an incredible transition was occurring during the war, even for sophisticated urbanites.

The story unfolds based on the lives of two young Cree who enter the Canadian Army, and the experiences and narration of their Auntie, a Cree woman who has left civilization to live in the wild. The young Cree soldiers experience all the hardship of the Western Front, and some discrimination besides, only to become some of the best snipers in the Army. Yet their experience is destructive and they turn on their own heritage and beliefs. The arc of the story becomes a bit predictable but is executed exceptionally well.

There are times when I really hate reaching the end of a book, because I want the story to continue. Reading Three Day Road was one of those books.

Monticello: A Daughter and Her Father; A Novel
Monticello: A Daughter and Her Father; A Novel
by Sally Cabot Gunning
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.06

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Martha with the long face, June 29, 2016
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As a big fan of Jefferson, I thought it would be interesting to read a book written from perhaps his closest admirer and someone he relied on as the lad of Monticello once his wife died. Martha, or Patsy as she was often called, was Jefferson's oldest child and one of two that survived into adulthood. She stepped in at Monticello in many situations as Jefferson kept his promise not to remarry.

The book dwells to a great extent on the issues Martha had with slavery, and the struggles with her husband, Thomas Randolph, who the book presents as someone with depressive tendencies and alcoholism. She and many of her friends believed that slavery was wrong but could not see a way to manage their plantations without slaves. Meanwhile her husband was an inept, inattentive farmer who took on more debt, and was left with his father's debt upon his death.

Meanwhile Martha is constantly confronted by Sally Hemings, who was clearly favored by Jefferson and delivered a number of children who bore a distinct relationship to Jefferson. Her resentment and inability to admit what was going on created a lot of tension, but she recognized the sheer genius of her father and the absolute disaster of her own marriage, and somehow balanced all of this and her own twelve children.

The book moves slowly and in a non-continuous way. We see Jefferson and Monticello through Martha's eyes, and through her expectations. The book is full of melancholy and obligation. One wonders if Martha ever had a joyful day after her wedding. Richmond was busy and dirty, the tidewater plantation humid and foreboding. Only Monticello seemed to be acceptable to the Martha presented in the book.

The book moves slowly and doesn't introduce a lot of new ideas about Jefferson or Martha. I found it a bit depressing - Martha is a person who bears her obligations with aplomb, but with little happiness or joy.

The One Man: A Novel
The One Man: A Novel
by Andrew Gross
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.38
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What is the value of one life?, June 21, 2016
This review is from: The One Man: A Novel (Hardcover)
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The One Man tackles a difficult subject - the treatment of German, Polish and other Jews during the Second World War. Using this topic as a lens, it also deals with the development of nuclear weapons. A famous scientist is captured by the Nazis, but they don't know that his research could accelerate their work on the bomb. The Americans discover where he is and create a plan to get him out. This means a Polish immigrant must go back, get into Auschwitz and by some miracle get the physicist out and back to the States.

The book deals with the issues of the Holocaust, and plumbs some of the discussions that were happening about the camps and what the Allies should do to destroy the camps. The book is well-paced and develops the main characters fairly well. It shows the enormous burden placed on the main character, who has to go back to Germany and enter the camp. I found the book to be interesting, well-paced, the characters well-developed. The author even deals with the human side of the Germans who were forced to go along with the Nazis and their final solution plans.

A book that requires you to occasionally put aside disbelief but on the whole an excellent read.

Dyson Ball Animal Upright Vacuum - Corded
Dyson Ball Animal Upright Vacuum - Corded
Price: Click here to see our price
18 used & new from $361.58

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Got my teenaged son to vacuum his room - a once in a lifetime event, June 7, 2016
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As an engineer and innovation consultant I'm a gadget guy. For years I've heard others sing the praises of Dyson products but I felt those praises were probably overblown. What's so great about a vacuum cleaner? Well, when the chance came to own and review a Dyson I said, sure. And boy was I surprised. We have a nice German made vacuum cleaner, top of the line, that has been doing its thing for about 10 years. The Dyson came in and in one pass pulled up as much cat hair (don't ask - my wife's) and dirt as the Miele does in three or four passes. The carpet literally looked and felt better. I was impressed and my son, nascent engineer that he is, actually vacuumed his own room just to try it out. Can't get the boy to clean his room but bring a new gadget in and whamo.

The Dyson was easy to assemble, about three or four steps from the box to fully operational. The user's guide relies on pictures when I'd like a few more words, but I can get over that. My only quibble is that the extension wand is a little too short for me, so I have to stoop to use it standing up, but even it cleans like nothing we've had before.

I don't usually give "five stars" in my reviews of books or other products, but the Dyson Ball Animal deserves it, and now I finally understand what all the other vacuum geeks were raving about. The vacuum cleaner is relatively lightweight, compact but powerful and even has a longer cord than other vacuum cleaners I've owned. Very impressive.

Coast FL14 37 lm Dual Color LED Headlamp
Coast FL14 37 lm Dual Color LED Headlamp
Price: $16.30

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good headlamp for working in close spaces or for jogging, June 2, 2016
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The Coast FL14 Headlamp is everything you'd want or expect from a simple headlamp. The LED lights are very bright - don't look at them directly when you power up the headlamps. They offer two settings - bright and dim, as well as the option of red lights. They are visible for a good distance, which was important for me and my wife as we use these when we jog in the mornings. The headband works reasonably well - a little difficult to adjust but reasonably comfortable.

FishHunter Waterproof Armband
FishHunter Waterproof Armband
Price: $2.98

3.0 out of 5 stars Waterproof but perhaps not heatproof, May 16, 2016
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I was interested in the Fishhunter Waterproof because my wife and I often go kayaking and paddleboarding. While my kayak has a waterproof container built in, it's hassle to open up the container and find my phone or other gear. Thus, the waterproof packet seems great for my iPhone.
The Fisherhunter version is relatively simple, a strong plastic sleeve that comes with two elastic, velcro bands so you can wear it. The packet is closed by two small clamps that seem relatively sturdy, which place pressure on the opening of the sleeve.

The packet worked as advertised. I actually kept the packet in the floor of my kayak and it resisted external water. While the phone was in the packet I was able to log in and get email, so the phone is still relatively usable while in the packet. However, the packet seems to trap heat, and in the combination of the packet and direct sun my phone got so hot that it shut itself down. I'd never encountered this before.

The Fish Hunter Sleeve works as advertised but you may find it a bit bulky and may need a way to keep your phone cool while it is in the packet. Maybe keeping it out of direct sun will help.

The Far Empty
The Far Empty
by J. Todd Scott
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.36
85 used & new from $6.86

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, May 8, 2016
This review is from: The Far Empty (Hardcover)
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The Far Empty is not a book with richly developed characters. It isn't a book that surprises you in the final outcomes. Basically, the good guy wins and the nefarious bad guys lose. The plot isn't all that deep either. Most of the characters are one dimensional and relatively unhappy. But with all that said, The Far Empty isn't a bad book, and will make an even better movie, with Tommy Lee Jones revising his No Country for Old Men Sheriff role for the Sheriff role here.

I liked The Far Empty although I found it a bit predictable. The pace was slow at first, especially since the story is told from a number of different viewpoints. There aren't a lot of surprises, and for a small town in West Texas there sure are a lot of hidden pasts and dark secrets.

I've traveled through Big Bend, camped in the park and it is every bit as far and empty as the story implies. It's a beautiful and wild country, and most of the people who live there are quiet, stoic people who must love the open country. While I can't believe such a place could hold so many people with so many secrets, the book delivers in the end. In this case a thin plot with predictable characters and story line creates more than the sum of its parts, and I'm sure we'll see it in theaters or on DVD in the near future.

The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain
The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain
by Bill Bryson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.09
145 used & new from $8.23

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Traveling through England with a running commentary by your cranky, obscene uncle, April 15, 2016
I used to love Bill Bryson books. I read A Walk in the Woods and laughed so hard my wife thought something was wrong with me. In a Sunburned Country is a great book about travel in Australia and the seemingly hundreds of things that can kill you there. Bryson is a master of holding up typical everyday things, attitudes and activities and comparing them in one culture to another - often an American way of looking at things versus a British or Australian perspective. But as Thomas Wolfe wrote, you can't go home again, and in trying to update Notes from a Small Island Bill demonstrates what he has lost, and what he has gained. Unfortunately, what he lost along the way is any perspective, and his unique sense of humor. The Road to Little Dribbling tells some interesting stories, but everywhere he goes things are worse than they were before. He cannot go home again in any sense of the word, and his classic humor is entirely missing. Along the way he gained a crankiness that borders on obsession. He even admits that he documents inane, useless debates with shop clerks and others. In a telling scenario, he berates an H&M employee who tells him that H&M doesn't have grocery items. Bryson is convinced he's in a Marks and Spencer. Bryson's parting words to the shop clerk? "You're an idiot". Who is the idiot who can't tell the difference between H&M and M&S?

For some reason, I'm guessing its contractual, Bryson drops more F-bombs in this book than the average gansta rapper. Not that I'm necessarily against profanity, but in this case it's gratuitous and eventually offputting. It's like reading your cranky uncle's thought process as he travels through the world. Slightly denigrating, always offputting, a bit obscene, and not really funny although he wants it to be. Bryson's long time editor, mentioned several times in the book, should do us all a favor and admit he failed Bryson in this case. The book could be OK, not up to par with Bryson's other books, but too much of the cranky, pissed off at everything persona comes through. Denis Leary and other comics can pull this off, but Bryson simply can't.

Walking Point: From the Ashes of the Vietnam War
Walking Point: From the Ashes of the Vietnam War
by Perry A. Ulander
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.12
68 used & new from $5.95

11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An angry, disaffected view of the Vietnam war, April 11, 2016
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Probably the first hint of a problem with Walking Point is the title. The title suggests that the author actually "walked point" or led his platoon or company during reconnaissance or other excursions in the bush. This is important, because the individual who "walks point" especially in Vietnam was putting their life on the line for their comrades. The person who walked point had to find a trail and watch out for enemy ambushes and booby traps. Walking point was and is a brave act. It's only in the acknowledgement page, down near the bottom, that the reader discovers the admission that the author never walked point, but the author claims " ..think I might have learned how". The title is misleading from the start, and the book only gets worse from there.

Perry Ulander was an unwilling draftee into a war that can only be defined as confusing, poorly executed and not fully supported by the American population. We are still dealing with the after-effects of the Vietnam War forty years after it ended. Many young men were drafted against their will to fight. Many conducted themselves bravely and served honorably. Some, it seems Ulander among them, shirked responsibility and sought to get high as frequently as possible. I could not count the number of times Ulander claims get get high, while on guard duty, in the field, and at rear base camps. If Ulander were high on marijuana and opium as often as he claims, he was almost perpetually high, and an accurate, honest observer of the war might not want to claim to have been high so often.

But thankfully Ulander does not claim to be an honest reporter of the war. Ulander has a specific point of view about the war, about the people around him, about his superior officers. He divides the world into draftees and lifers, grunts and REMFs. Officers of any rank hold special disdain for him. He talks frequently about seeking to frag his own officers, and nods approvingly when another member of his platoon dynamites an MP bunker because the MPs were, well, doing their job. He believes that every officer in Vietnam was out for self-promotion only, with no regard for the safety or welfare of the men and women under his care. While I've read a number of books about Vietnam and understand that there were good officers and bad officers (as there are in every war) I find it impossible to believe that every officer had it in for his platoon or company the way Ulander describes.

Ulander isn't even an honest observer of the few battles that he reports to have participated in or witnessed. On one page in the book he describes a short firefight with the NVA and claims that he was certain his platoon was going to be wiped out. On the very next page, describing the same fight he notes that the NVA have left and his platoon has won the day. Of course he goes on to note that the Americans have taken a specific number of casualties and the NVA "probably only one or two" with no evidence, no specific enemy body count. He deprecates even the times his own company or platoon won an engagement!

Perhaps my favorite quote of the book is on page 96, where Ulander is describing the end of a firefight and his own thinking about the strategy and tactics deployed. Ulander says "I was beginning to doubt how effective my efforts might be in countering our CO's ineptitude. Yet I had no choice but to dig deeper and strive more diligently". This from a private who has no communication with the CO, no impact on strategy and who was regularly doing everything he could to avoid military discipline and was constantly high.

At the end, Ulander finds a job as a base reporter and photographer, which he manages to avoid by "ghosting" - hiding from his superior officers and failing to put film in his camera. He is finally released when his obligation is complete, and lands in O'Hare airport, which is clearly unsettling to him. He says "Feelings of anxiety, anger and thinly masked sadness permeated the atmosphere. I knew these emotions were coming from the people around me, as my mind was yet still." His emotional antennae managed to describe how everyone else was screwed up, but not Ulander. He goes into a bar where three men are talking. They buy him a drink to thank him for his service, which he describes as an ambush "My jungle instincts went on overload, telling me to get out of the kill zone. These were extremely dangerous men". Who were buying drinks for soldiers returning from Vietnam in an O'Hare bar.

If you want to read good books about Vietnam, read Tim O'Brien's The Things they carried. Or Read They Marched into Sunlight or The Bright Shining Lie if you want to read about the poor military planning and execution. Or read We were Soldiers Once if you prefer an officer's perspective, someone who truly cared about his men, which will come as a shock to Ulander. Those are all non-fiction. You can also read Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes who does a great job describing a battle.

If you want to read a book by someone who didn't want to be there, fought military discipline at every step, was constantly seeking out drugs to escape and actively denigrated his superior officers, then this book is for you. It wasn't for me.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 26, 2016 12:41 PM PDT

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