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 July 2009 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction

 

1959: The Year Everything Changed


by Fred Kaplan

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

From the very first pages it's difficult to argue with Kaplan's s thesis that 1959 was, indeed, the year that everything changed . . . at least in the United States. Lenny Bruce, comedian and political agitator, appeared for the first time on nationwide television, paving the way for everyone from George Carlin to Chris Rock. After a prolonged legal battle, Lady Chatterley's Lover was allowed on sale in the U.S., thus bringing what Kaplan calls “the end of obscenity.” Greater moral freedom was about to spread throughout the nation in another form:  In December of 1959 Searle Pharmaceuticals sought approval from the Food and Drug Administration to market the first birth-control pill. Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue, the monumental jazz album which Kaplan assesses with, “There has been nothing in jazz, and little in any other creative realm, like it,” introducing, as it did a whole new way of thinking about music. John Cassavetes’ The Shadows, the first true indy or “off-Hollywood” (like off-Broadway) movie, filmed without permits and without the backing of a studio, as released. Meanwhile, Texas Instruments engineer Jack Kilby overcame the “tyranny of numbers,” the idea that electronic devices were limited in their speed and complexity by how much wiring and components it took to build them. Kilby's insight, that we could make all the parts of a circuit from the same material, and all in one piece, gave us the silicon chip. This series of short essays paints a picture of the great shift from the world that was to the world we live in today.

 

 

 

         
 

All-Out For Victory: Magazine Advertising and the World War II Home Front


John Bush Jones

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

Jones' study of World War II-era American magazine advertisements shines a fascinating light on a seldom-remembered aspect of  that time. Some ads existed to simply continue to sell their products with a war-time twist (Camel cigarettes reminds readers that they can buy “Camel cartons specially wrapped and ready for mailing to men in the service.”), while others were vital to keeping a company in the public's mind even though they might not be able to buy its product due to re-tooling for war-time production. But Jones shows that the purpose of the majority of ads was to encourage active involvement in the war effort (not the least of which through war bonds). The techniques used to sell soap could get women into vital industries and encourage rationing and carpooling. A Dixie cup ad might be selling Dixie cups, but it also reminded readers that disease lead to absenteeism, which led to decreased war-goods production. Other ads helped the war effort by explaining why there were shortages and why it was important to avoid the black market. Ads encouraging women to join not only manufacturing plants, but eventually branches of the service, were not without the usual sexism of the time.  An ad for the Cadet Nurse Corps reassures young women that, though training is rigorous, “...don't think you're closing the door on romance. There will be time for dates...” Pullman, the train manufacturing company, actually encouraged people to stay home and not travel over the holidays so that there would be space for soldiers on leave or returning home. An advertisement is merely a tool for delivering information; the power of ads was turned to the greater good of victory. Packed with full-page reproductions of dozens of the ads discussed, this is both scholarly and entertaining.

 

 

 
         
 

The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter


by Jason Kersten

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

 

Kersten tells the true story of Art Williams, one of best counterfeiters of the past few decades. As a boy growing up in a poor and dysfunctional household, Williams figured out a way to open parking meters with a piece of wire he'd picked up off the street. The lure of easy money and his lack of traditional education later led him to apprentice with a small-time crook who taught him how to make fake currency-printing plates and mix the inks to produce just the right colors. Always trying to prefect his craft, Williams quickly adopted desk-top computers, scanners, and Photoshop. Then came the 1996 New Note, with its color-shifting inks and watermarks. Not to mention the Dri Mark pen, which can differentiate paper from the cloth of which real money is made. It only took Williams four months to “crack” the New Note. Trial and error, and careful observation, taught him that auto body paint could produce the same color-shift effect, and the feel and thickness of the special cloth paper could be produced by gluing two thinner sheets of paper together. But printing your own money is only the first step; passing it is the second. A real pro doesn't want counterfeit cash, he wants to convert it to real cash. To do that, you can either sell it to crime syndicates for, say, thirty cents on the dollar, and let them deal with it from there on, or you buy inexpensive things with large bills, and pocket the (real) change. Either method will eventually draw the attention of the Secret Service . . . In the manner of Catch Me If You Can, Making Money provides an entertaining and informative glimpse into this specialized aspect of crime.

 

 

 

 

 

 
         
 

The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine


by Benjamin Wallace

 

 

 

 

It is perhaps impossible to resist some affectation of the language of the sommelier in this review: An enticing nose draws the reader into the book, leading to a palate at once accessible but complex, a layered story with notes of damp cellars, eccentric collectors, and the long, earthy history of wine. Nuances of humor and the lifestyles of the rich and famous linger, beginning a long and satisfying finish, all with an undercurrent of a love of the grape. 

The story begins at auction; the titular bottle of wine, one of several claimed by its owner to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson in Paris, is expected to draw high bids. Author Benjamin Wallace then leaves the dramatic bidding hanging in the air and backtracks to Paris, 1788, where we learn about Jefferson’s growing appreciation for, and knowledge of, wine. This sets up the structure of the book, as Wallace smoothly juggles past and present, always developing the story of the title bottle, while filling in the backstories of all the memorable characters caught up in the exploding wine scene of the 1980s. Along the way the reader learns much about the history of wine making, collecting, and tasting, as well as the surprising fate of the Jefferson bottles. 

Never pedantic, always readable, The Billionaire’s Vinegar is a fascinating story, part mystery, part history. If you drink wine, you’ll love it. If you don’t, you may just start. A highly recommended addition to any wine cellar or bookcase.

 

 

 

 

 

 
         
 

And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture


by Bill Wasik

reviewed by Neal Swain

 

 
 

What shapes a successful story? Bill Wasik asks in the central thesis of And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture. Despite the question, this is not a book on how to write cunning prose or assemble a literary narrative. This book, an analysis of the Spencerian evolution of trends in the internet age, seeks an answer to why the nanostory (which in practice is not a story at all, but a sudden spike in attention paid to any of a range of often transitory phenomena) has become so dominant in our culture. 

Wasik introduces us to the rise and fall of nanostories with an experiment conjured by his own media-curious mind: the flash mobs that launched a brief national craze in 2003. He weaves their successes and failures, and the successes and failures of other social experiments, like Oppodepot and Stop Peter, Bjorn, and John, in chapters that range in topic from the overnight rise and fall of bands, the recognition of “great” books, viral advertising, and the focus on politicians’ choice of Dijon over policy… and glances along the way from Myspace superstars and santorum the noun to Mike Huckabee’s campaigning infatuation with Chuck Norris. For the sheer breadth of internet culture this book covers alone, And Then There’s This is an intriguing thematic read, and Wasik’s closing question –how are we going to learn to limit our access to this distracting barrage of memes?- is one that’s worth some reflection.

 

 
 
 Fiction

 

 
 

Mating Rituals of the North American WASP


Lauren Lipton

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

The conventions of romantic comedies have become so hidebound that we now have the term “rom-com,” as dismissive as “sit-com.” Cute meet, check. Don't like each other at first, check. Fight the attraction, check. Get together in the end, check. This leaves room for only two things that can elevate a novel over the usual dross:  style and observation. Luckily, WASP contains a generous helping of both.  Lipton's ability to get inside the minds of the characters, and, consequently, to make us care about them, is top-notch, as are her notes on the WASP/preppie world (old clothes, bad food because that's the way its always been done, toughing it out). Peggy Adams wakes up in Vegas to find herself married to Luke Sedgwick, of the Connecticut Sedgewicks, a man she met the night before at a bar. At first they sensibly plan to get the marriage annulled, but when it turns out that if they can stay together for a year, Luke's aunt will give them her house—a property which, when sold, would solve both of their financial problems—they decide to give it a shot. Since they are both already seeing other people, this requires juggling schedules and pretending to be happily married (of course they don't love each other, and, of course, they aren't sleeping together) when under Luke's aunt's roof every weekend. But as they fix up the crumbling estate, and attend the likes of the Yale-Harvard game and its tailgate party on crisp fall days, their feelings begin to change.

 

 

 

 

         
 

The Shimmer


by David Morrell

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

There’s a reason why The X-Files was so popular and the Fox series Fringe broke out in a big way.  People are fascinated by the unknown.  Inexplicable events that form real life mysteries. 

David Morrell enters that very territory in his chilling, pulse-pounding The Shimmer.  Based on actual occurrences in Marfa, Texas, Morrell moves the action revolving around some unusual, and powerful, lights that appear and disappear in the sky out of nowhere to a town called Rostov. 

The book’s hero, cop Dan Page, has come to Rostov on the trail of his estranged wife Tori who up and left him with no explanation at all.  Turns out she’s suffering from cancer and is drawn to the lights for what might be their miraculous healing powers a la Lourdes.  But, as we learned on The X-Files, blessings often come with a curse. 

In this case that curse comes in the form of a reactivated government experiment originally developed during World War II, as a backup to the atom bomb, in a secret base hidden deep below Rostov.  Even as that leads to a slam-bang finale, it doesn’t explain the sudden scourge of violence that’s springing up around the lights, as if something big and bad is about to happen and only Page can stop it. 

The Shimmer shines in every way as a thriller, a terrific read that would keep even Scully and Muldur wondering what’s going to happen next.  And it also solidifies Morrell’s status as the best thriller writer of this or any generation.

 


 
         
 

Love You Hate You Miss You


by Elizabeth Scott

 

 

 

One night after a party, best friends Amy and Julia get into a car wreck, killing Julia instantly.  Now, after a stint in rehab, Amy writes Julia a series of letters about her grief and guilt.  As she rehashes the events that led up to the accident, Amy slowly begins to realize that it might not have been entirely her fault, and she may even be able to find a way to live her life again. 

Scott (Perfect You; Something, Maybe) excels at capturing the voices of sardonic teen girls.  Even in the midst of her despair, Amy has a wry sense of humor and an acute eye for the social order of high school—although she completely misses the fact that Patrick, her secret crush, is also interested in her.  In a twist on the typical story of parental neglect, Amy’s family troubles stem from the fact that her parents have always been so in love that they have never paid much attention to their daughter.  Now that the crisis has arrived, they are well-meaning but at a loss as to how to help. Teen girls will find much here to relate to, though references to sex, drinking, and drug use make this title most appropriate for older high school students.

 

 


 
         
 

The Sweet Life of Stella Madison


by Lara M. Zeises

 

Max is a great boyfriend.  He brings roses, he opens car doors, and he’s not afraid to say the l-word.  Unfortunately, Stella doesn’t “do ‘mushy’ very well”—and she can’t help but be attracted to Jeremy, the young chef who is interning at her father’s restaurant.  Meanwhile, thanks to having famous foodie parents, Stella has been offered a summer internship as a food writer.  But since she considers Big Macs a major food group, she struggles with the job.   

This is acceptable, if not outstanding, frothy summer chick lit.  Although Stella is not as well-rounded a character as those produced by the best contemporary teen chick lit authors, younger teens interested in both culinary and romantic adventures will be entertained by her tribulations.

 

 


 

 

 
         
 

Huge


by James W. Fuerst

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

Eugene—“call me 'Huge,' not 'Genie'”—Smalls is the hardboiled narrator of this funny, delightfully quirky novel. When someone vandalizes his grandmother's nursing home, Huge sets out to find the culprit. What else would a twelve-year-old boy do? Fuerst's style is priceless, and he hits all the noir notes perfectly. Huge describes giving his grandmother a  peck on the cheek like any tough guy would his dame (“I didn't mind giving her what she wanted, and I didn't give a damn who saw.”), and he smart-alecs his way out of tricky situations (“I'd already checked my calendar earlier this morning, and playing the fall guy wasn't on it.”). There's even a junior high (though ultimately R-rated) femme fatale and a silent partner who's silent for a reason:  he's a toy frog. Huge works his way through the underbelly of suburban New Jersey, facing down adversaries who are barely old enough to shave while trying to avoid his older sister and mom. Although the characters are young, the language and some of the actions are decidedly adult (and is anyone younger than a college student going to grasp the elements being parodied?).

 

 

 

 

 
         
     

 

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