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 October 2008 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

 

Alphabet Juice:
The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Therof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory


by Roy Blount Jr.

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Part Eats, Shoots & Leaves, part The Devil's Dictionary, Blount has produced an alphabetically-arranged list of words and phrases from A (when standing for adultery:  "In my experience, the highest grade of adultery in the movies—I don't recommend it elsewhere—involves Diane Lane.") to Z (for zyzzyva, a class of weevils, from the sound they make). Packed full of anecdotes, puns, and limericks, not to mention some sonnets about sonnet structure (Meter rough? / Here's what you do: / Just trim off / a syl' or two), Blount celebrates not just words, but their sounds. While he hesitates to prescribe word uses—this book is, he insists, "over the counter"—Blount is not above proscribing a few. As an adverb very "doesn't add much and sometimes makes no sense"; as an adjective it's "inflationary." He tackles my favorite often-misused word, hopefully, and devotes two dazzling pages to the antecedents of Homer Simpson's "D'oh!" Anyone familiar with Blount from the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait  . . . Don't Tell Me! will hear his drawling tones in their head on every page, adding even more charm to the likes of his assertion that the singular of memorabilia must be memorabilium, thus:   

Up in the attic we have got
Many a memorabilium—
For instance, that's the spot
Where you'll find Uncle William.

 

 

 

 

         
 

State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America


by Dagoberto Gilb

reviewed by Paige Byerly

 

State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America takes on as its subject the fifty United States, as depicted by fifty quite disparate authors, and is therefore somewhat impossible to judge as a cohesive whole. Its editors take as their model the infamous 1930's “WPA American Guide Series” of the Federal Writer's Project, in which famous authors churned out a plethora of pamphlets and books dedicated to the 48 states, and as an homage the book falls a bit short. The space limitations (each author was permitted a maximum of 2,000 words) make it difficult to capture the full essence of a state; the authors are forced to limit their focuses, with mixed results. By necessity the stories tend towards the introspective side, focusing more on an author’s life and experiences in the state than comprehensive descriptions of the state itself. Rick Moody revisits the suburban Connecticut that made him famous with The Ice Storm in an autobiographical story that succeeds mainly by focusing on the always entertaining themes of sex and money. Dave Eggers weighs in with a hilarious pseudo-factual essay extolling the endless virtues of Illinois (“If one discounts, and one should, the inelegant towers of Dubai and Taipei that are by some voodoo measurement ‘taller’ than the Sears, ours remains the highest structure on the planet.”), while the cartoonist Joe Sacco uses the theme of change in Portland to illustrate the growth of his romantic life. Some of the best stories describe the life of the immigrant in America, like Dagoberto Gilb’s description of Mexican workers sent to Iowa to pollinate the corn fields, while the most poignant account is, surprisingly enough, Charles Bock’s description of the death of Las Vegas’ downtown strip. The stories in State by State range from dull to fantastic, but I must admit that my favorite part may have been the various tables at the end, from which you can learn such strange facts as which state has the highest rate of alcohol consumption (Wisconsin), the most roller coasters per capita (New Hampshire), and the highest rate of toothlessness (West Virginia). All in all, State by State may not be quite the “panoramic portrait of America” that it promises, but does succeed as a collection of original and often fascinatingly personal work from some of the country’s most esteemed contemporary authors.

 

 
         
 

Assisted Loving


by Bob Morris

reviewed by Judy Kenower

 

 

I bought this book expecting David Sedaris. Gay, 40-something son becomes involved in helping his newly widowed 80-something father score a date. Am I pimping for my father, he asks? I could almost hear Sedaris’s nasal delivery on that line. But this book is much, much more. Of course it’s funny. The situation itself is funny, his father Joe is funny, and Bob Morris’s on-again, off-again love life is funny. There is plenty of humor as Bob struggles with his own life, desperately tries to find what he feels are appropriate dates for his father, and is alternately horrified and embarrassed by his father’s appearance, his apartment, his completely inappropriate remarks. But underneath the arch commentary runs a deep love story – love for his father, love for his dead, long-suffering mother, and finally a love story for himself. This is a charming, lovely book, full of horror, hilarity, embarrassment, repulsion, tenderness and finally acceptance and overwhelming love. It is every family’s story – if they’ll admit it. The old line about not being able to choose your family is of course true, but Bob Morris shows the grace and power in learning to love the ones you’ve got.

 

 

 
         
 

Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency


by W. Barksdale Maynard

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Woodrow Wilson was elected president twenty-two months after entering politics for the first time. How did he go from scholar to defeating two former presidents—Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft—for the highest office in the land? Maynard's detailed biography traces the educator's life from his undergraduate days at Princeton through his eventual teaching career and university presidency there, as well as his brief spell as governor of New Jersey. 

It was an era of reform, and Wilson made educational reform his life's work. He introduced the honor system to Princeton when it was still the College of New Jersey and decried the German-style, specialized system of education that was so prevalent in the 1800s. He favored the British model of broad reading and a general studies (liberal arts). He replaced huge lectures with the more intimate "preceptor" seminars. By fighting the Board of Trustees (Maynard posits that Wilson's uncompromising attitude may have been the result of a series of small strokes) over whether students should live and study together in a "democratic" fashion or if the cliquey world of eating clubs (a sort of proto-fraternity) should hold sway, his radical ideas brought him to national attention. Wilson had called for men to be educated so that they would "fight for what is right without stopping to count the cost and consequence." In the public's eye he rapidly became that himself. He moved easily from battling wealthy alumni to fighting political machines.

 

 
         
         
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

The First Quarry


by Max Allan Collins

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

The Hard Case Crime imprint is doing yeoman’s work keeping noir and hardboiled crime fiction alive. Along with reprinting classics by the likes of Earl Stanley Gardner and Donald Westlake, there is a steady stream of new material. Collins has been writing about the smart-ass (and tough-ass) hit man named Quarry for over 30 years. When Hard Case published The Last Quarry in 2006 (A book definitely worth your time in its own right), that was supposed to his final adventure. But Quarry is “back” in The First Quarry, the prequel that relates (naturally) his first hit. Because it’s a prequel, it makes an excellent entry point for newcomers, all the while maintaining the same dead-pan snideness (Quarry briefly considers killing an inconvenient visitor because, after all, the guy’s “already a dead man” —he drives a Corvair) that long-time fans will enjoy. 

Set in 1970, the book introduces us to our nameless narrator, who we will soon know only as Quarry. After returning from Vietnam to find his wife in bed with another man, and killing him, and then being exonerated by the law, Quarry is contacted by a mysterious man known only as The Broker, an agent who arranges murder for hire. Quarry’s first assignment is a philandering literature professor. Peppered with just enough sex and blood to keep it “pulpy,” Collins takes us through multiple twists and turns, including a mysterious manuscript that must be found and destroyed, several third parties with the professor in their sights, and a curvaceous redhead—masterfully painted by Ken Laager, thus demonstrating that this is one book you can certainly judge by its cover. 

 

         
 

The Last Theorem


by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

This is a sad review to write; Clarke passed away before the book saw print and his last effort is a disappointing amalgam of elements from earlier, better stories. The novel picks up a bit after the first seventy pages or so, which are heavy on exposition and light on developed scenes. There are two plots: the messings about of humans on Earth and a backdrop of grandiose aliens with their own agenda, building toward an inevitable intersection, obviously a Clarke conceit. The storytelling leans toward Pohl, however, who did most of the writing for the ailing Clarke. The narrative voice has the breezy informality of Pohl instead of Clarke’s more straightforward exposition, with comments intrusively directed at the reader with third-person omniscience. It’s difficult not to be aware of reading a book, instead of becoming immersed in the story, especially when an inside joke refers to Clarke himself within his own novel. When pentominoes, used prominently in Clarke’s Imperial Earth (a lesser work compared with Childhood’s End or Rendezvous with Rama), show up about three-quarters of the way through, the reader cannot help but sigh at the recycling. The piecework feel extends to the solving of Fermat’s last theorem, which gives the book its title. This subplot is almost entirely incidental to the overall story. There are enough glimmerings of what might have been to keep the reader involved to the final pages, but the end is abrupt and leaves many story threads unresolved. For completists only.

 

 
         
 

Agent to the Stars


b
y John Scalzi

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Tom Stein is young Hollywood agent on the rise, and he’s just landed the most important client in the history of the world. But he can’t tell anyone because the client is an alien. “Joshua” is a representative of the Yherajk, a smelly, blob-like, alien species who know we humans have a tendency to shoot first at anything a little strange-looking. The Yherajk are going to need some good PR before they make their presence known. In the best tradition of comedy, Joshua moves in with Tom. He makes friends with the neighbor’s dog (both rely heavily on odors to communicate—yeah, there’s a lot of odor humor in the book), and he takes Tom to visit the other Yherajk waiting in orbit. Meanwhile Hollywood excesses and obsessions come in for some gentle ribbing in the form of Tom’s other client, starlet Michelle Beck, who desperately wants to play a Holocaust survivor, despite being a schiksa and twenty years too young. If some sections drag a bit as characters get into philosophical conversations that are just a bit too long and detailed for a light, science fiction comedy, the book more than makes up for it with a wonderfully satisfying ending. And, yes, it would make a pretty good movie.

 

 
         
 

The Glass of Time


by Michael Cox

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

It is 1876 and young Esperanza Gorst goes to work as a lady’s maid in the imposing British country estate of Evenwood. But she is not there by accident. Esperanza has been sent from France where she has been raised by her mysterious guardian Madame. What her Great Task at Evenwood is, or how she is to accomplish it, will only slowly be revealed, though she soon knows that the Baroness she serves—whom she must make trust her implicitly—is her enemy. Madame assures Esperanza that a great injury and injustice has been done to her, and the Baroness was part of “the most heinous crime imaginable.” Because this is a neo-Victorian novel, there are only one or two possible motivations, and readers will probably guess some of the secrets that will be revealed. Still, the twists and turns that Cox has devised take us through a vivid recreation of the nineteenth century as we follow Esperanza through gin bars, drawing rooms, mausoleums, and libraries. There are tales-within-tales as we read through privately-printed memoirs, letters, and epic poems. This volume is nearly, but not quite, as captivating as Cox’ previous neo-Victorian novel The Meaning of Night, of which this is a sequel of sorts (though you aren’t required to have read it; like our heroine, you’ll learn enough bit by bit). And, although Cox follows Dickens’ dictum to “make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait,” the nearly 600 pages fly past.

 
         
 Young Adult  
         
 

How To Ditch Your Fairy


by Justine Larbalestier

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

In this young adult novel set in a world only slightly different from ours (one in which people of the same country play both baseball and cricket!), almost everyone has a fairy. These tiny, invisible sprites specialize in, and help with, the little things. Fourteen-year-old Charlotte (“Charlie”) has a Parking Spot fairy:  any car she’s in will always find a great parking place when it reaches its destination. Since she can’t drive yet, she doesn’t really need this gift; she’d rather have an Always Find The Perfect Dress on Sale or Every Boy Will Like You fairy. So Charlie’s walking everywhere:   school, the mall . . . everywhere in the hope that by not giving her fairy a chance to use its magic, it will move on and a more useful one may appear. This is interfering with her studies; her sports; and her crush on the new boy in school, who doesn’t have a fairy (or does he?), and who himself has fallen under the spell of the girl with an Every Boy fairy. The light-hearted, first person, confessional tone of the book is more Bridget Jones than Harry Potter, but the success of any fantasy depends on how far the author can go in her bent reality while still remaining internally consistent. Larbalestier succeeds with charm and cleverness aplenty.

 

 

 
         
 

The Summoning


by Kelley Armstrong

reviewed by Hayden Bass 

 

Chloe sees dead people.  Though she doesn’t remember it, they plagued her early childhood, and now they’re back to interrupt her adolescence.  When she sees a particularly grisly and disturbing apparition at her high school and makes a panicky attempt to escape, she abruptly finds herself living in a group home for mentally ill teens. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, Chloe doggedly sets about following her doctor’s orders, attempting to prove that she doesn’t belong behind locked doors.  But she doesn’t know if she or any of the other teens in the group home are actually ill—though it’s clear that some of her housemates are mean-spirited at best.  When one of them leaves her bound and gagged in the facility’s dark, dank crawl space, Chloe makes a terrifying discovery, and finds that her powers go beyond an ability to see ghosts.

The first installment in Armstrong’s Darkest Powers series, The Summoning offers enough resolution to make it a satisfying read—one that many teens will likely finish in one sitting.  But even so, the ending will likely leave fans of suspense, dark fantasy, and paranormal fiction clamoring for the next installment.

 

 

 
 

Zombie Blondes


by Brian James

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

Hannah and her father move from town to town, staying just ahead of a murky past that always threatens to catch up with them.  This continual uprooting means that Hannah has always been an outsider wherever she goes, and sure enough, when she arrives in Maplecrest, things are no different.  Hannah’s only friend at her new school is Lukas, a fellow outcast who insists that everyone in town is a zombie—everyone except for him, of course.  Hannah knows that this is ridiculous, and refuses to listen.  In fact, so desperate is she to fit in with the popular crowd for once in her life that when she is invited to join the cheerleading squad, around which the whole town seems to revolve, she leaps at the chance.  But will she ever be as beautiful and popular as the other girls on the squad?  And if so, at what price? 

Hannah is not the most fascinating character in all of teen literature, but Zombie Blondes is not a character study.  The metaphor of the popular crowd as a set of identical, essentially nameless zombies—and America’s cultural worship of youth and beauty as yet another form of zombie-ism—works well.  James slowly builds suspense and a creeping sense of dread as Hannah realizes that her single-minded goal of popularity is unlikely to lead her to a happy ending.  Zombie fans expecting lots of gore will be disappointed, but this is a solid pick for younger teens in search of a creepy read on an autumn night.

 

 
         
My Reading Log
  by Jeff Ayers, Associate Editor

 

 
 

Ingrid Newkirk, the President and Founder of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), latest book is called One Can Make a Difference.  (Adams Media, $16.95).  She has gathered fifty essays and stories by such stellar people as His Holiness The Dalai Lama, Paul McCartney, and Dr. Henry Heimlich.  The amazing talent she asked to contribute demonstrates that it is possible for one person to birth fundamental change.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

A thriller writer that should be a household name is Alan Jacobson and his latest book, The 7th Victim,  (Vanguard Press, $25.95) is his best yet.  Karen Vail works for the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI.  The killer she hunts grows bolder as Vail’s personal life begins to fall apart.  Jacobson shines because he can cunningly manipulate the reader and create memorable and believable characters. 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Lights, Camera, Trivia  (BearManor Media, $29.95) takes movie trivia to a whole new level.  Over 500 pages and covering fifty plus films, this book will challenge even the hardcore fan.  Do you remember the name of the computer in the film, Alien?  (It was Mother). Even with films I’ve seen several times, I was surprised by the difficulty of some of the questions.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

One of my reading passions is the comic strip and whenever I pick up a newspaper, that is first section I peruse.  One of my personal favorites is the demented and hilarious Pearls Before Swine.  The newest collection, Macho Macho Animals, (Andrews McMeel, $12.99) reprints the newspaper strips starring Pig, Rat, the stupid crocodiles, and even the creator of the comic, Stephan Pastis.  Here is a sample cartoon:

 

 

 

 
 

Jef Mallett’s character is Frazz, an elementary school janitor who is smarter than the teachers and not as smart as the students.  The third collection is called Frazz 3.1416. (Andrews Mcmeel, $12.99). 

 

 

 

Beetle Bailey has been around for fifty-eight years and Checker Publishing has released the first cartoons in Beetle Bailey: 1950-1952. (Checker, $24.95).  The creator, Mort Walker, discusses the origins of the strip and how it almost failed until he took a college student named Beetle and enrolled him in the army.  The entire run of strips from the first on September 4, 1950, to December 31, 1952, is included.  Here is a sample cartoon of his college life:

 

 

 

 

Fans angry with Lynn Johnston for starting over with For Better or For Worse can find solace in the wonderful strip, Stone Soup.  The latest compilation by Jan Eliot is called This Might Not Be Pretty.  (Four Panel Press, $14.95).  A single mom who lives with her two daughters and mother tries to make it in corporate America.  Funny and heartfelt.

 

 

 

 

Finally, the New Yorker runs a weekly cartoon caption contest and people from around the country try to come up with the funniest caption for the drawing.  The New Yorker Carton Caption Contest Book (Andrews McMeel, $24.99) highlights the cartoons and then the winning punch lines from September 12, 2005 through August 12, 2007.  Some of the winners are interviewed and discuss how winning has changed their lives.

 

 

 

Keep reading… 

Jeff

 

 
     
     
     
     
     
     
     

 

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