Book Review – James C. Humes’ Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln

As a rule, I’m not much of a re-reader. My “to-read” list is so long that I’ll never finish it, so it’s hard for me to backtrack and give even the best books a second glance. But, there are exceptions….


Front Cover

When I was joined the faculty here in Mobile, I was looking for ways to improve my teaching. For all of the jokes up head-in-the-clouds professors who drone on and on, it’s hard to have a class of disengaged students. So, I cast about for some books on public speaking and came across James C. Humes’ Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln. 

The book was good and it helped make my classes better. Eventually, I let the book go to the thrift stores. But I never forgot it. So, in December, I bought a used copy online. Over the last week or so, I reread it. And I’m glad that I did.


After serving in the Pennsylvania legislature, Humes was a speechwriter for Presidents Nixon and Ford. Since then, he’s been a speaker and a communications professor, and often comments on the elements of effective communication. He’s written several books. (I also enjoyed Humes’ The Sir Winston Method, on what made Winston Churchill an effective communicator).

Speak Like Churchill is a good, quick read. Humes distills his advice into 21 quick lessons on speaking. Though his advice is versatile, it applies most to situations in which one makes a formal speech, as opposed to an informal talk.

My Opinion

In my opinion, Humes’ advice is on target. His 21 tips can improve anyone’s speaking. Also, his many examples quoting famous speakers (mostly politicians) help bring the material alive for the reader. If I had to be critical, I’d say that it’s nearly impossible to keep 21 principles in your mind at the same time. Readers will have to choose 2-3 elements and focus on those.


Back cover

Humes made his living in politics and he’s definitely a conservative. Reader who are especially liberal might not like all of the examples of effective, conservative speakers. At the same time, Humes admires the communication skills of FDR and JFK and often cites both as good examples to follow.

Now that I’ve read Speak Like Churchill twice, I can’t give it a poor review. I’d rate it 8 out of 10, with the caveat that you have to practice Humes’ tips to improve your speaking. I genuinely believe that this short, lively book can make anyone a better speaker.


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Sunday, 7 January 2018 – finishing James Garner’s The Garner Files (pages 170-250)

Last Sunday I finished James Garner’s The Garner Files. It’s one of those books that you’re glad that you read – but you can’t give it much of a recommendation. If you’re a Garner fan, it’s worth a look, but it’s no extraordinary, just a standardard actor autobiography. I give it 6 out of 10.

What’s Here Isn’t Bad


For all of that, I did appreciate some of the anecdotes. Garner shows some guts in discussing his 18-month separation from his wife, Lois, around 1980. One (largely unexplored) story involves the separated Garner going on the road with country singer Waylon Jennings for 2 weeks during the separation. Garner allows that he couldn’t keep up with Waylon. (Another surprising anecdote is that Garner once used cocaine with John Belushi in the early 1980s).

But what’s missing is depth. For the most part, Garner skims the surface, even if he does include most of his major career events. The end of the book contains quotes about Garner from many of his friends and family. One from Rockford Files colleague Joe Santos states –

“Garner says he’s easygoing, but he’s lying. He’s angry and desperate, just like I am. That’s why Rockford has always worked so well, because Jim is coming from a very passionate, driven place” (p. 234).

The book doesn’t really take the reader to that “passionate, driven place” and the reader feels that something is missing.

Another missing piece is Garner’s family. He discusses his wife, Lois, but his two daughters are largely missing. Perhaps he wanted to protect their privacy, but – again – the reader feels that something is missing.

Final Credits

Back in summer 2014, I was out at Orange Beach, Alabama. I ran into a Dollar General to get a couple of fill ins. While I was waiting to check out, I saw the tabloid headlines stating that Garner had died. I always loved Rockford and it made me so sad.

Garner fans will want to read The Garner Files. It has some nice anecdotes and you get a sense of the “real” Garner. But you’re also a bit disappointed, as you suspect that so many of the best, most-revealing stories are left untold.

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Reading pages 1-168 of James Garner’ The Garner Files

My kids spent Friday night @ my parents’ house. So, when we went over to get them, I convinced my wife to stop @ the library. (She didn’t need much convincing. She’s a book lover, too). We’d used our down time Friday to catch up on some TV and had seen 3 episodes of The Rockford Files. When I was a kid, we always watched Rockford on Friday nights. It’s still my favorite TV show ever.


So, I got a copy of The Garner Files, which is James Garner’s autobiography. It’s one of those celebrity books – entertaining, but thin. He doesn’t spend that much time on his career and his family is largely absent. One boring chapter is all about his golf game.

Still, the pages turn with ease. I’d give The Garner Files 6 out of 10 so far.


On a more-promising note, my mother is reading Jeff Guinn’s book on Jim Jones and The People’s Temple, which is titled The Road to Jonestown. She said that it’s one of those books that you just can’t put down. My wife has also read it & said the same thing. So, that’s one that I’m going to read soon.IMG_0652


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Monday, 1 January 2018 – pages 182-351 in Donald Westlake’s The Comedy is Finished

IMG_0645On a frigid New Year’s Day, I spent a lot of time finishing Donald Westlake’s The Comedy is Finished while watching the college games with the sound turned down. I enjoyed the book, but – as with so many suspense novels – the set up was better than the resolution. I give The Comedy is Finished 7 out of 10. 

Cast of Characters

Westlake’s novel concerns a group of five 1960s radicals who kidnap an over-the-hill comedian named Koo Davis. Westlake develops his characters well. The reader knows each of the five kidnappers & many of the law enforcement officers.


Back cover

Davis is s flawed man, who abandoned his family to chase show business glory. Still, the reader likes Davis’ self-deprecating humor, which brings to mind Bob Uecker (the former baseball player turned actor in the TV series Mr. Belvedere). 

As I noted in yesterday’s blog, Westlake does less well with Lynsey Rayne, Davis’ manager. Rayne often intimidates the police. For instance, she forces them to include her as they storm a house filled with armed terrorists. This is completely implausible.

Similarly, Mike Wiskiel is an FBI agent whose career is on the downswing after he got involved in the Watergate affair. He’s bumbling. Together, Rayne and Wiskiel form the “smart-woman, dumb-man” combination that is one of the most-shopworn canards in late-20th century literature.

Final Thoughts


Front flap

It took me too long to get to the end of The Comedy is Finished. I probably tried to read too much in one day (knowing that I had to get the book back to the library). Still, sometimes less actually is more. Westlake could have streamlined this one a bit and improved it.

In the end, there might be a too many characters. Westlake does much of his character development in the book’s second half. It’s an interesting strategy, but the pacing in the book is uneven, with a few dead spots.IMG_0648

The Comedy is Finished is worth reading. But I wouldn’t make a point of searching it out.

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Sunday, 31 December 2017 – pages 1-182 of Donald Westlake’s The Comedy is Finished

After an author dies, there’s often an attempt to “clean out the file cabinet” and publish everything that author ever wrote. Such appears to be the case with the work of Donald Westlake, as the decade since his death has some unpublished works appear for the first time.


In my experience as a reader, unpublished, “long-lost” works are risky reads – sometimes items aren’t published for a reason. But I couldn’t resist checking out Donald Westlake’s The Comedy is Finished when I saw a copy in the Orange Beach library the other day.

Plot & Characters

The Comedy is Finished concerns Koo Davis, a pill-addled 63-year-old comedian whose career is on the downswing. But Davis still attracts the attention of the five leftover radicals from the 1960s who decide to kidnap him due to his frequent participation in USO-sponsored tours that entertain American troops. Westlake draws on the Symbionese Liberation Army’s kidnapping of Patricia Hearst for much of his plot.

So far, this is an excellent novel. I give it 8.5 out of 10. The Comedy is Finished has a good plot that contains enough twists to keep the reader guessing. And the characters are well drawn. Westlake gives each of the five kidnappers a distinct personality and this adds to the interest in the story. Here is Davis describing his abductors –

There’s the leader, probably the one referred to as Peter; he likes to stay behind the scenes, put in an occasional dramatic or sardonic appearance, and then fade away again. The old eminence grise routine. Along with him there’s Vampira, the naked blonde chick with the scars; Koo doesn’t know her name, and would be perfectly happy never to see her again, with or without clothing. Another nut is Larry, the lecturer in Advanced Insanity; there’s a weird sort of sympathy inside Larry, but it’s probably useless to Koo, since Larry clearly is a True Believer, one of those intellectual clowns who can’t see the goods for the theories. A completely unsympathetic type is Mark, the tough guy with the chip on his shoulder; Koo knows that fellow is just waiting for an excuse to do something really drastic. Which leaves this girl here, Joyce, who looks tragic and unhealthy and who cries at Koo’s jokes. (P. 118).


To be sure, not all of the elements work. Koo’s manager is Lynsey Rayne. Forty years after Westlake wrote The Comedy is Finished, Lynsey strikes the reader as a stereotype – a male novelist’s attempt to create a powerful, sympathetic woman character. To me, Lynsey seems less real than do the other flawed characters. Another gripe is that – inevitably – some of the book’s politics are dated.

The Road Ahead

I’ve finished only about half of this one and I don’t know if Westlake can pull all of the threads together and bring it to a satisfying close. It’s going to be fun to find out.

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29 & 30 December 2017 – The Last Chicago Boss by Peter “Big Pete” James

The last book that I finished in 2017 was The Last Chicago Boss by Peter “Big Pete” James, who was once one of the top dogs in the Outlaws Motorcycle Club. We were over at the library the other day & my wife saw James’ book in the section reserved for new books. She knew that I’d read some books on the “outlaw” or “one percenter” motorcycle clubs and pulled it for me. IMG_0640

James’ book is what a high school English teacher of mine once called “literary junk food.” It’s fun, light reading that doesn’t require great concentration or much thinking at all. The pages turns with ease and you’ll be entertained. Still, the book doesn’t amount to much.

About Big Pete

James was born in Wisconsin and says that he graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater with a degree in political science. He describes himself as a natural leader. James states that his mother told him that he had to think of himself as the best if he expected anyone else to regard him that way.


Back cover

The origins of James’ outlaw lifestyle apparently go back to his uncle, an accountant with a degree from Marquette University. The uncle eventually fell off the straight-and-narrow path, started spending time betting at the track, and fell in with gangsters. When Pete was young, he spent time with the uncle, who introduced him to the street life.

Stories Left Untold

Frustratingly, Pete is vague on what he did after college. He states that he drifted around, seeking something. Large parts of his life story are untold and one wonders why he decided to become involved with a motorcycle gang.

Another aspect of The Last Chicago Boss that frustrates the reader is that Pete wants to have it both ways. The book works well when Pete treats the reader to a trip through the gutter. But Pete isn’t satisfied with that. He also wants to convince the reader that he made a positive contribution, as when he constantly references his plans to accept motorcyclists of various ethnic backgrounds into his confederation. Given Pete’s skills as a leader, he seems to have wasted his potential.


Front blurb

Surprisingly, Pete’s wife, Deborah, was a professional woman with two college degrees. Pete says that she encouraged him in his pursuits and even attended Outlaws’ functions as Pete’s “old lady.” Deborah’s motives are always unclear to the reader. Pete also briefly references a daughter with whom he was estranged.

Final Analysis


Get this tape off my head! The authors

James became interested in telling his story when he was given an unpromising medical prognosis when he was suffering from cancer. (The dust jacket refers to Pete in the past tense, but I couldn’t find anything about his death online). The Last Chicago Boss is a good story, but the reader leaves it thinking that many of the best stories remain untold.

I give The Last Chicago Boss 6 out of 10.

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27-28 December 2017 – finishing Paul Theroux’s Last Train to Zona Verde (pages 59-353)

Wednesday evening, we rode out to the beach and it took a lot out of me. I didn’t get a blog done yesterday. But Thursday I did finish Paul Theroux’s Last Train to Zona Verde, which is another in a long line of terrific travel books from Theroux. I give it 8.5 out of 10.IMG_0636

Reeling in the Years

During his journey, Theroux spends much time musing about his advancing age. “I was studying the features and shadows, trying to seize them somehow, thinking that I might not see them again because I probably would never return. I couldn’t recall ever having had this feeling before in my traveling life; even in the worst places I believed that I might be back to search for changes. There was a finality in my way of looking now” (p. 80).

But, if this was Theroux’s final international trip, he went down swinging. He slams Hollywood’s “egomaniacal fame hogger(s)” (p. 82) for making Africa a tool in their public relations campaigns. Even stronger is his condemnation of U2 singer Bono for praising the racist song “Shoot the Boer,” which encouraged South Africa’s black majority to kill its white farmers.

“Authentic” Culture in Namibia & Beyond


Back cover

More typical of Zona Verde is Theroux’s visit to Tsumkwe, Namibia. He is after a glimpse of the vanishing, traditional lifestyle in the African bush. He finds it, writing “…what I felt was bliss bordering on rapture” (p. 145). But the joke is on Theroux, who finds that there is nothing authentic about what he has seen – it’s just a performance for tourists.

The rest of Theroux’s trip is a similar mix of the past and the present. He visits a resort where white tourists ride elephants for $4000 per day and has a credit card stolen, resulting in $48,000 in bogus charges. At the same time, after breaking down in rural Angola, he learns that nearby three teens are undergoing an initiation into adulthood. Soon, Theroux has a chance to speak with the three young women. While I enjoyed learning about traditional African life, Theroux told me “a little more than I wanted to know.”

Angola & Despair

Theroux’s goal is to get to Angola, a country largely closed to western journalists and seldom visited at all. For Theroux, Angola represents the worst in Africa – a country awash in money (due to its oil and minerals) that benefits only its leaders. In this section, Theroux spends a lot of time discussing the malign influence of the Portuguese on Angola.


Inside front cover

The material on Angola is interesting, but it’s a downer. In the end, Theroux decided that he’d learned all that he could about west Africa & decided that Angola would be his final destination. It’s a surprising end; an acknowledgment that the world’s problems will endure.

Read It

If you’ve never read any of Theroux’s travel books, you’re in for a treat. Find a copy of Zona Verde – or any of this other books – and get ready for terrific armchair travel.


Paul Theroux

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