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     February 2008 Book Reviews:

    Non-Fiction
  

Arthur Conan Doyle:
A Life In Letters

Arthur Conan Doyle

by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley
Penguin Press, 2007       $37.95

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

 

Like many Victorians, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, wrote thousands of letters during his lifetime.  The majority of these were to his mother, starting when he was at boarding school in 1867 and continuing until to her death in 1920.  She saved nearly all of them.  Due to family squabbles and the fact that the letters were usually undated, they are only now being tapped as a source of biographical information.  A Life in Letters necessarily gives us only a fraction of that correspondence, but it is more than enough.  Explanatory footnotes and interstitial material keep Doyle’s life story moving along seamlessly, without the jarring sense of displacement some letters collections can have.  The book is full of rare illustrations, not only of the man and his family (including one of Doyle dressed as a Viking for an 1898 costume party), but by them as well (Doyle’s self-portrait of himself dancing a jig and holding his medical school diploma is labeled “Licensed to kill”).  The sketches and candor of the letters (never intended for publication) give the reader a sense of intimacy not found in standard biographies.  Those who know Doyle only as the creator of Holmes will now see him as an adventurer aboard a whaling ship in his youth and as a middle-aged physician serving in South Africa during the Second Boer War.  But fans of the Master Detective will not be disappointed either:  Doyle almost gives up on Holmes when a fan letter arrives from a prominent physician and the Lord Chief Justice of England.  And even then, Doyle wishes he were working on more serious fiction:  “[Holmes] takes my mind from better things.”
  Lincoln Legends:
Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President



Lincoln Legends

by Edward Steers, Jr.
The University of Kentucky
Press, 2007                       $24.95

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

  In 2009 the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth is bound to start even more people thinking, talking, and writing about our 16th president.  Edward Steers’s book will allow its readers to be well-armed against the misinformation that is bound to be repeated.  Steers tackles more than a dozen Lincoln myths by scouring the full breadth of scholarship and frequently returning to primary sources and documents, but he’s never stuffy or dull.  The Gettysburg Address was not hastily jotted down on the back of an envelope on the train ride to Pennsylvania, but carefully crafted, most likely over several months. The decedents of Dr. Samuel Mudd—the physician who treated the wounded John Wilkes Booth after the assassination—have tried for decades to clear their ancestor’s name, but Steers convincingly lays the case that Mudd was a full co-conspirator with Booth.  Steers likewise dismantles the “gay Lincoln” idea put forward by C.A. Tripp in The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln by exposing the sheer lack of evidence to support that book’s claims.  The saga of forged love letters between young Lincoln and his (possible) first love Ann Rutledge that fooled the Atlantic Monthly in the 1920s starts out by tricking Carl Sandburg and the Librarian of Congress and ends with séances and medium channeling the long-dead Abe and Ann.        
 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

The Three “Only” Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence and Imagination

The Three Only Things

by Robert Moss
New World Library          $21.95

Reviewed by Terry Persun

 

 

 

 

Robert Moss is the bestselling author of several suspense novels. He has, in recent years, turned his story-telling abilities to discussions of conscious dreaming, and has published six books on the subject. In his latest non-fiction title, Moss tackles what he calls “The Three ‘Only’ Things”: it’s only a dream; it’s only coincidence; and it’s only your imagination. Through a keen sense of the world and expert story-telling abilities, Moss has created an amazing book that will tear down the walls of our usual dismissal of these three elements in our lives.  

Moss breaks each of the “only” things into its own section of the book, where he proceeds to explain the importance of becoming more aware of what is happening both inside us and outside us. Using documented stories about well-known historical and present day figures as well as personal stories from his many years of teaching conscious dreaming throughout the world, Moss guides readers through these seemingly unimportant elements to a point where we can understand their full meaning and usefulness in our daily lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

The Ten-Cent Plague:  The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America

Ten-Cent Plague
by David Hajdu
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
2008                               $26.00

Review by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

  In the mid-1940s around one hundred million comic books were purchased in America every week.  There were romance comics, western comics, horror comics, crime comics . . . A decade later, this once-thriving industry had been condemned by the Catholic Church and the U.S. Senate, the majority of its publishers were out of business, and all that survived were the superheroes.  Named for their cover price during that time, Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague traces the rise and fall of the comics from their early days as giveaway reprints of newspaper strips to the creation of the industry’s own censorship arm, the Comics Code.  The book centers largely on publisher E.C. Comics and how it went from printing Picture Stories from the Bible to The Vault of Horror.  Although it is acknowledged that it was the extremism of some horror titles (cannibalism, dismemberment) that eventually tainted the entire industry, Hajdu effectively depicts comic books as the first battle in the Culture Wars.  Unsupported claims about juvenile delinquency, combined with a fear of communism, capped by Dr. Frederic Wertham’s (anecdotal, non-scientific) 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent led to Senate subcommittee investigations into comics, and a host of local laws prohibiting their sale.  The book has a handful of representative illustrations, but, like the best histories and biographies, Ten-Cent Plague makes you want to learn more: to seek out these largely forgotten comic books and other works by their artists. (Fortunately some of the titles mentioned, like the 1950 Western-noir It Rhymes With Lust—arguably the first graphic novel—have recently been reprinted by other publishers.)

 

 

 
 

Schulz and Peanuts

Shulz and Peanuts

by David Michaelis
HarperCollins, 2007       $34.95

Review by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

 

This biography of “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz is rich in detail and encyclopedic in scope.  Anyone interested in Schulz, or any aspect of the creation and success of “Peanuts,” will have all of their questions answered by this book. Author David Michaelis even attempts to answer the biggest question of all:  How much of the famously shy Schulz is in his strip? His premise is that because the comic strip was solely the work of one man over five decades, “Peanuts” can be read as an autobiography written (and drawn) in code. The book includes over 200 strips, many of which do apparently mirror the events of Schulz’s life.  

Yet Michaelis may have taken too literally Schulz’s comment that the best way to know him is to simply read “Peanuts.”  As Michaelis reports, young Schulz was the successful manager of a baseball team that won its championship.  So, how much of art really imitated life?  Schulz’s children have criticized the book as an unfair portrayal of their father. 

Still, the book is highly readable.  Its social history elements, particularly when covering the Depression and the world of cartooning and newspaper syndicates, are particularly engaging.  We also get to meet the real people who gave their names to the Peanuts characters, go behind the scenes at the creation of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and learn more than anyone would ever want to know about Schulz’s Redwood Empire Ice Arena in Santa Rosa, CA.  

 

 

 
 

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life

Born Standing Up

by Steve Martin
Scribner, 2007              $25.00

Review by Jen Baker

 

 

 

 

Reticent about his private life like many comedians, Martin focuses on his career in this fascinating memoir about a “wild and crazy guy.” Readers seeking a rags-to-riches story or a peek at a shameful drug-filled past won’t find it here. In fact, Martin admits to growing up in a (mostly) normal family in suburban Los Angeles, a fascination with magic and stage shows from an early age, and a long history of hard work. Luck played only a tiny role in this very funny man’s life. Working at Disneyland as a child sparked his creative fuse – he found his own venues after that. This stand-up comic is the real deal: he writes all his own material and developed his signature style through a lifelong process of trial and error – and sheer genius. His unmistakable wry, witty voice comes through clearly in his writing, even when he’s being serious, as readers know from Martin’s well-received novels Shop Girl and The Pleasure of My Company. For a droll, personal rendering of the book, listen to the audio version of the memoir, read by Steve Martin himself (Simon & Schuster Audio).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
    Fiction

 

 
  Making Money

Making Money
by Terry Pratchett
Harper Collins, 2007       $25.95

Review by Kevn in Lauderdale

 

 

 

  At some 33 volumes, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, which infuses humor into a fantasy setting to produce not only laughs but effective social satire, shows no sign of stopping.  Those wary of jumping in at this late date need not fear.  This is only the second volume (following 2004’s Going Postal) to feature former—but not entirely reformed—con-man Moist von Lipwig. If you already know what’s going on with the City Watch or Unseen University, then the book will be all the richer for you.  But because Moist is relatively new in town, newcomers can learn along with him.  That town is the city-state of Ankh-Morpork, home to monsters, wizards, golems, and lots of folks on both sides of the law.  Moist has just successfully restarted the postal system there, and now Ankh-Morpork’s ruler, the Patrician, has handed him the job of running the mint.  When Moist realizes that stamps are being used as a medium for trade, he hits upon the idea to switch from gold coins to paper money.  The idea that “if it isn’t gold, it isn’t money” takes the town’s residents some time to get used to, but the tricks of Moist’s former trade are there to save the day.  Since our economy is likewise not backed by anything but promises to pay, it’s worth your while to read Pratchett’s amusing tale of how people learn get along without the gold standard, and why it actually works.
 

 

 

 
 

Pontoon

Pontoon
by Garrison Keillor
Viking, 2007                 $25.95

Review by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

  A Lake Wobegon novel is a known quantity.  There will be taciturn Lutherans.  There will be people breaking away from the constraints of Lutheranism and the legacy of their Scandinavian ancestry.  There will be poems that rhyme and people that drink, and there may even be a fart joke.  Parents will sacrifice for children who are, in turn, ungrateful.  If you don’t know what Lake Wobegon is all about when you start reading, you will by the time you’ve finished.  (Fans of A Prairie Home Companion may safely rush out immediately and buy Pontoon.  It’s Lake Wobegon; you’ll love it.). Starting with the death (in bed, reading a Dickens novel at the age of 82) of Evelyn Peterson, we follow the aftermath of her passing, with chapter points of view alternating between different Wobegonians. The plot centers on the gathering of family members for Evelyn’s memorial and the return of Debbie Detmer (who left years ago for the wilds of California) with her boyfriend for a “commitment ceremony”—not a wedding—on the lake aboard the eponymous pontoon boat.  But forget the central plot.  A Lake Wobegon story is all about the side trips and digressions.  Evelyn’s sister is shocked that Evelyn had a boyfriend named Raoul and left instructions that she be cremated and her ashes put into a bowling ball.  Debbie’s father is working on an epic poem about rural electrification.  Larry The Flying Elvis (parachute, speaker system in pants, “Burning Love”) once stumbled out of the woods toting a shotgun and into a motorcade for George Bush, Sr..  Can you laugh over the familiarity of people you’ve never met in a place you’ve never been?  That is Keillor’s art.

 

 

 

 
 

Wise Children

Wise Children
by Angela Carter
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Re-released, 2007           $14.00

Review by Peter Anderson

 

 

 

 

Fifteen years ago, my wife’s fledgling book group read Angela Carter’s Wise Children and broke up after only one meeting. The reason? Nobody in the group could agree on what the book was: Sex farce? Fictional memoir? Feminist survivor treatise? Scavenger hunt for Shakespeare references?

The book’s premise is simple enough: Dora and Nora Chance are twin dancers known as “The Lucky Chances.” Recalling her life on her 75th birthday, Dora relates the sisters’ public and private lives from London to vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood.

Carter’s narrative is rapid and dizzying. Through Nora we experience love, loss, murder, deceit, suicide, war, perfume, lingerie, and twins. Lots of twins. Her verisimilitude is staggering – through all the decades and romances and continents and love affairs and lies, not one syllable seems inauthentic. Perhaps most impressive of all, the giddy chaos running through the sisters’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream actually rivals that of the play itself. When we reach the end, and all is somehow resolved, we’re left with the philosophy that has allowed Dora to endure her past, and now allows her to face the future: “What a joy it is to dance and sing!”

All this adds up to what a novel should be, and what the book group may have overlooked – an experience. Wise Children offers front row seats to a world long gone but, in Carter's hands, very much alive. As Dora says, “You’ve stored it away, like jam, for winter.”

 

 

 

 
 

The Judas Strain

Judas Strain

by James Rollins
William Morrow, 2007     $25.95

Review by Terry Persun

 

 

 

 

Judas Strain, an engaging and fast-paced novel starring Sigma Force—James Rollins “scientists with guns” series—starts off quickly and never lets up. The novel follows two paths to the resolution of an aggressive pandemic referred to as The Judas Strain. One road is historical in nature, the other scientific.

Sigma Force scientists have split up. One group follows a series of historical keys that eventually lead to the possible cure for the pandemic. A second set of scientists is engaged in the scientific cause and possible cure for The Judas Strain. Both historical and scientific paths run parallel throughout the novel until the ending. The advancement of both teams is hindered by the attempts of a secret society that wishes to control the disease in order to control the world.

Battling terrorists while attempting to resolve the historical and scientific keys to the disease and its cure poses extreme difficulties. High tension is maintained throughout the book by creating scenarios where finding the cure is both personal and universal—not hard, after all, given that everyone on the planet is in danger.

James Rollins writes clearly and efficiently. He weaves a truly interesting story with twists and turns to keep you guessing. The novel is both satisfying and engaging, a fun ride and a fun read.

 

 

 

 
 

Maximum Ride: Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports

Cover Image

James Patterson
Little, Brown and
Company                    $16.99

Review by Nicole Persun

 

 

 

 

Saving the World and other Extreme Sports is the third novel in James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series about six genetically altered children.  Max, Fang, Iggy, Nudge, Gasman, and Angel bear wings as well as other special powers, unlike some of the other genetic ‘creatures’ designed in The School, a front for the evil Intex Corporation.   

The novel begins with the six kids inside a van stolen in book two as our heroes broke out of the Intex Headquarters. The reader is immediately launched into the chaotic lives of these unusual children; the action is relentless and often funny.  James Patterson does a great job of changing points of view, going from that of a teenage girl with Avis (bird) DNA, to the evil scientists and the creatures sent out to capture the children.  The breakneck storyline is supported by humor, surprises, and, happily enough, a sense of real-life emotion. This book will keep you up all night until you’re sure the world is safe from Intex.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Capitol Reflections

Capitol Reflections

by Jonathan Javitt
Sterling & Ross, 2008      $24.95

Review by Jen Baker

 

 

 

 

Have big corporations infiltrated top levels of government, blocking FDA controls on potentially harmful corporate practices? Is there a cadre of ruthless killers serving the whims of an unknown omnipotent, raspy-voiced dictator who controls the U.S. government? Author Javitt, a well-known epidemiologist, physician and health advisor to three presidents, presents this frighteningly believable first novel of a health crisis, political corruption and cover-ups; the work brings Robin Cook and David Baldacci to mind. When successful lawyer Marci Newman dies suddenly after horrific and unexplainable seizures, her friend and FDA captain, Dr. Gwen Maulder, can’t shake suspicions of treachery. Using her professional and personal connections, Gwen risks her career and her life to expose a multi-layered web of power throughout the regulatory entities, the Senate and the ubiquitous Pequod’s coffee empire. This first novel suffers somewhat from the author’s didacticism on the subjects of health policy and politics, and from an overabundance of underdeveloped supporting characters. Nonetheless, readers will flip through the pages of this addictive, action-packed thriller, hoping the story is fiction.

 

 

 
 

Last Night at the Lobster

Last Night at the Lobster
by Stewart O'Nan
Viking                             $19.95

Review Judy Bryant

 

 

 

 

 

Last Night at the Lobster is a sit-down-read-it-right-through book.  This perfect little snow-globe of a novel follows Manny, the manager of a Red Lobster in Connecticut, as he maneuvers his restaurant through its last day before being closed down.  Threatened with a storm-smacked day and beleaguered with absent or surly workers, Manny’s hope for one last good showing seems to dwindle as the snow increases.  O’Nan has the ability to make you smell the oil in the fry-o-later, see the dusty faux nautical front of the dining room, and taste the shrimp popping into the wicker baskets.  His feel for the hostile camaraderie among that unique brand of American worker – restaurant help – is pitch perfect.  But he can also make you feel that familiar knot of anxiety as Manny battles through the day.  This is a story of loss – a lost job, a failed relationship – and uncertainty with the future.  But it is also about pride and endurance, and in the end, is a sweet love song to the heroic in the working man or woman.

 

 
         
         
         
         
         
         
         
         
         
         
         

 

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