Friday, June 26, 2015

The Odds Have it

This is a long one. I managed to fly through a couple of books, but this post is unusual in that I spend most of it recommending other, better versions of the topics at hand. 

#42 – After Camelot – J. Randy Taraborrelli
Recommended by: MK
          It was a gray, dreary, and unremarkable Saturday afternoon in Hyannis Port.

I never really cared about Camelot. My parents were of the Kennedy generation and I never once heard them mention that family, good or bad. As such, I didn’t have much of an interest in them or their lives. I knew the basics, I mean, I am American, but I couldn’t have drawn a family tree or named more than a few of them off the top of my head. So an entire book about them post-JFK and RFK was not high on my reading list.

Unfortunately, after reading it, I don’t think it should be high on yours either. My first problem was the author wrote a book about the Kennedy family pre-1968 and seemed to think that if you read this one, you must have read that one. I didn’t. Which means the assassination of JFK and the murder of RFK are just breezed past. It was an terrible editorial misstep that informed the entire rest of the book because you cannot base an entire family history on how they overcome grief, how they based their lives on service, and how they always, always, always were in the shadow of those great men without actually talking about those great men and how they died! A chapter on each of them, with their terrible deaths included, would have gone a long way toward filling the emotional center of the book, which I found sorely missing.

My other problem with the book was the “Oh, woe is them!” feeling. Yes, many people in the family died of cancer. When your family is as big as the Kennedy clan, and when cancer is so prevalent, statistically, I think they were about average. Yes, many of them died in small plane crashes – which, by the way, they flew in constantly. Again, statistically, when you fly in a small airplane 10 times more often than average, your death in a plane crash will increase. It is still sad. It is still terrible. There was no Kennedy curse. There was only the law of averages. 

The central theme of the book seemed to be that everyone was always grieving, trying to just survive, bonding as a family, and trying to be of service. There was no dirt. It does not appear that anyone very close to the family actually sat down to be interviewed for this book, including any Kennedy. The author pulled all of his punches. He didn’t disclose anything that wasn’t already public knowledge. It was all very polite, which also, unfortunately, made it all rather boring.

If you really want to know what being in the Kennedy clan was like, I highly suggest you read Carole Radziwell’s memoir, What Remains. It is about the death of her beloved husband and while I normally avoid cancer books, like, well cancer, this is quite honestly one of the best books, let alone memoirs, I have ever read. It’s beautiful and fascinating and interesting and really gives you a sense of what losing a loved one is like. It also gives incredible insight into the Kennedy family because Carol and her husband were best friends with John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Caroline Bessette Kennedy. It is dishy, but not in an invasive way and it presents everyone in real lighting, not in the most flattering one.   

#44 Wifey – Judy Blume
Recommended by: BD
           Sandy sat up in bed and looked at the clock.

As a child, I read every Judy Blume book I could get my hands on – and my child has done the same. As a tween, she taught me all sorts of things. I learned about masturbation in Deenie, about sex in Forever, and about grief in Tiger Eyes. In fact, I loved the last book so much I wore tiger eye jewelry for years. I haven’t let my kid near those books yet, but when the time comes, I can only hope she learns that sort of stuff in a compassionate, understanding way – but probably not from Judy.

Look, some books age well. Others don’t. I’m sure Super Fudge is still relevant, but in this day and age, Wifey reads like a down market episode of Mad Men. A frustrated housewife in the early 70s has a few affairs during one summer when her kids are away at camp as she tries to figure out how she wound in a loveless marriage with a man who expects the same weekly meals, the same weekly sex, and values beauty before substance. Yawn. Maybe it was the stilted language, or maybe it the paper thin characterizations, but this book left me cold. Every man was made of straw. Every woman was a harpy.

Have you heard of the Bechdel test? Passing it requires two female characters sharing a scene (in a movie, but I think it is equally relevant in a book), talking about anything other than a man. The book failed that test. Miserably. Even worse, I don’t think anyone in the book every talked to anyone else openly and honestly. It was just so depressing. But worst of all, it was really dated. This book is not a classic. It is of a very specific time and place and that place is, unfortunately, the 70s. No one wants to go back to the 70s, least of all with the writer of Freckle Juice. There are literally dozens of books about this same exact type of life, written by much better authors. I'd start with Jennifer Weiner and work your way outward from there. 

#46 – High Fidelity - Nick Hornby
Recommended by: BD
      My desert island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:

This was a re-read and I liked it exactly the same amount the second as I did the first time. It’s a very cute, very British book. The guy is sort of a wanker, the whole vintage record shop (this was set during the time of vinyl and mix tapes) is all rather twee, and honestly, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about him or his girlfriend or their problems. Sure, it was generally amusing, but if you want to read a book about a wanker who finds a way to screw up his life through apathy, then read About a Boy by the same author.  Or if you want to read a book with endless musical references, mix tapes, and lost love, then I recommend Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffeld. Both books are superior to this one.  

#47 – Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban
Recommended by: BD

Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways.

This is the best of the Potter books in terms of smart, tight storytelling, clear characters, and a great plot. If you haven’t read Harry Potter yet, well, what on earth is wrong with you? And if you tell me you have only seen the movies, I will cease being your friend. These aren’t children’s books. They just happen to be books that children enjoy. Rowling is a master of setting up far-reaching events. A throwaway line about a vanishing cabinet in the second book becomes a major plot point in the sixth book. A casual mention of a sporting event in the third becomes a major set piece for the fourth. Characters make choices you can believe because they aren’t made in a vacuum. These books may be about magic, but in the end, Rowling always shows you how the rabbit got into the hat. My daughter is addicted to them. She has destroyed all of my first printings. She plays Harry Potter trivia games like it is her job and if she ever finds out about the Harry Potter theme parks, she will be out hawking lemonade at every major, minor, and rookie event at the local high school to earn the money to go. I actively encourage her addition. I mean hell, it’s better than Twilight, right? If you haven’t dived into the Harry Potter universe yet, I highly recommend that you get right on it. If you prefer audio books, the Jim Dale versions are superb.  Hogwarts is waiting! 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Unsolved Mysteries

Do you know how some people are just effortlessly cool? Always really into odd, esoteric stuff, can always seem to find the most random, yet perfect quotes and references, and is always ready with a suggestion of something you have never, ever once heard of and yet, immediately must read/watch/buy? He had an odd predilection in high school to practically inhale full bags of Stella D’Oro breakfast treats and a love of Bob Ross that could not be explained (and yet made cool somehow), the person who recommended this book is that guy. I haven’t seen him in oh, about twenty years, but when he e-mails me with a suggestion for something, I always, always pay attention. You should do so now.  

#41 – My Dark Places – James Ellroy
Recommended by: JS

                Some kids found her.

This book was so hard boiled you could have dyed it for Easter. There are few adjectives or adverbs. The language is brutally simplistic and the sentence structure is that of a Dick and Jane book, if you like your primary reading to be about murder. The paragraphs are short. The sentences are shorter. There was almost no dialogue. The language, like the subject matter, is intense and vulgar. This is a dark book about dark people who did dark things.

I sort of loved it.

I haven’t read Ellroy’s well-known fiction such as LA Confidential or The Black Dahlia so I never would have picked up his autobiography. However, I think it is safe to say that this isn’t your typical navel-gazing. When he was ten, his mother was murdered. By his teens, he was on his own entirely, and by his 20s, he was a homeless drug addict. He spent all his time concocting stories in his head. Eventually, he cleaned up his act and turned the stories into books. The stories were his salvation. The stories were his best self, his only way out. In his 40s, he focused on trying to solve his mother’s murder.

It’s a hell of a book. Did I mention it was dark? Every sentence is blunt and hits you in the gut. There is no flowery language to soften the blows. The topic is hard so the language is hard. Yet the insights into character, while brief, were excellent. The location is described with few words, but all of them are well placed. You know where you are, you know who you are with, and you know why they are acting in such a way – all with the fewest descriptive phrases possible. It’s quite an achievement. This book reads like fiction, so if you like your books pulpy, full of crime, seedy streets, and the scum of the earth, then this book has your name all over it. (That last sentence is even more bizarre if you read it in a Levar Burton-Reading Rainbow voice.)

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sneezing on Death's Door

Yes, I am bouncing around a bit in terms of numbering, but I'm hunting down the last handful of books and so I must read out of order until then. 

#38 - The Great Influenza – John M. Barry
Recommended by: KD

I actually loaned this book out the minute I finished reading it. The dental hygienist who had just finished my daughter’s appointment was really interested, so I handed it right off, totally forgetting that I usually refer back to books when I review them. Ah well. Instead of a first sentence, I will give you part of the book blurb:

It killed more people in twenty-four months than AIDS killed in twenty-four years, more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. 

Another quote:
One cannot know with certainty, but if the upper estimate of the death toll is true as many as 8 to 10 percent of all young adults then living may have been killed by the virus.

Influenza, just influenza single-handedly lowered the life expectancy rate by a full decade. The mind boggles. It really does. In the span of a few weeks, it absolutely decimated Philadelphia. The city went from vibrant to a ghost town in the span of 24 hours. The streets were empty. School, church, any type of public meeting and all shopping districts were closed. People who were perfectly healthy at dawn were dead by dusk. Can you imagine the terror of waking up and wondering if you and everyone you loved would be dead by bedtime? And doing it over and over again, every single day, week after week? This book was horrifying.

Was it well written? Eh. It kept me interested in the human side of the battle, but I was far less interested in the specifics of the search for the cure, but I think others would find their interests switched. Apparently, some people are claiming the science isn’t perfectly explained or correct, but I think anyone who can pick that up isn’t the intended audience. This book is for the civilian, not the scientist. It is a really neat look at what caused the great influenza outbreak, who was trying to fight it, who was making it worse, and what the long-range side effects of it were. This is not the book for the germaphobe. It is not for the hypochondriac. It is a good book about a really terrifying time in our history that is almost completely ignored. (Oh, and also, it highlights how insane the pro-WW I effort became in terms of completely eradicating our civil liberties.) 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Four Score and Seven Years Ago

Housekeeping note – Stephen King’s The Stand is officially off the list. I had to do a bit of editing recently when I realized one sneaky bastard had gotten eight different books on the list. EIGHT! He and I negotiated down to three, with one to be read at a later date. The King book is gone for a different reason – page length. The person who recommended today’s three-pound barbell of historical non-fiction also recommended two other books of similar length. I’ve decided in the face of this, a restriction has to be put in place. I can’t spend 3,000 pages on one person, no matter how much fun it is to publicly make fun of his wife’s musical tastes. Onward!

#40 – Team of Rivals – Doris Kearns Goodwin
Recommended by: KD

On May 18, 1960, the day when the Republican Party would nominate its candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln was up early.

All of my knowledge of the Civil War comes from fiction and movies. To say that I was not in the least interested in reading the ultimate biography of Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet is to understate, in the extreme, my dread in having to read this hefty tome. The only book I have ever read about Lincoln had the phrase “vampire hunger” in its title. Civil war history is just not my jam.

Once again, I find myself mistaken.

This book was excellent and that had everything to do with the writing. I cannot imagine the work involved in spending an entire decade perusing every document under the sun to get a firmer understanding of Lincoln and all of the people who surrounded them. The bibliography is almost 200 single spaced pages! But what is stunning is how deftly all of these facts and figures, quotes, and letters are interwoven into one cohesive story. I knew nothing about the members of government during the Civil War. This book allowed me to follow, remember, and get to know a cast of thousands. This book requires a diligent reader. It takes hundreds of pages to even get to Lincoln’s nomination as president, let alone his first and second term. It is really a stunning achievement in stating fact in a way as to make it as enjoyable as fiction. You really get the sense of what Washington was like, what Lincoln was like, and how his brilliance as a statesman, his lack of ego, and his patient determination to do the great things that led to the 13th Amendment.

However, what I found most surprising was how little slavery had to do with the Civil War. Or, to be more specific, the human rights aspect of slavery was far less important than the politics. I was also surprised that political maneuvering was as much a part of campaigns in the 1800s as it is now. This book takes a while to plow through, which being 754 pages long, it should. If you are a fan of Lincoln, or the Civil War, or politics, I really do think you should take the time to enjoy this one. It will increase your knowledge immeasurably (as well as your arm muscles). As for myself, I think my interest in the topic is fully sated. However, this book is a master class in how to bring non-fiction to life and fully deserves every accolade and award is has won, including the Pulitzer.