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February 2011 Book Reviews:



Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age

by Susan Jacoby

reviewed by Neal Swain



Susan Jacoby's Never Say Die gives us a hard look at aging and old age in America, from the Founding Fathers to the modern era. In a series of essays, Jacoby covers statistics on Alzheimer's and other mental infirmities; wellbeing and the presentation of the wealthy as the face of America's elderly population; caretaking; our outlook on death; how Social Security doesn't accumulate for the unemployed, which has proven a negative that mostly impacts women who stopped working to raise children; poverty and the elderly; portrayals in media; and the question for longevity.

Colored by Jacoby's life experiences, including the loss of her partner, this work is perhaps more personal than her other most recent book, The Age of American Unreason, but its evaluation of modern American society is just as considered.
This is a formidable book.





Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies

by Michael Adams

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



Professional film critic Adams devotes a year to watching 365 bad movies in the hope of finding The Worst Movie Ever Made, and the results make for very entertaining reading. He's not talking about Drew Barrymore romantic comedies; he's talking Robot Monster, Manos:  The Hands of Fate, Rollergator, and the complete oeuvre of Bo Derek. Adams is Australian, which is why there are no references to Netflix in this book and he gets himself into debt having to buy copies of everything he wants to see. But this allows him to write knowledgeably about lesser-known Australian films alongside the mostly American fodder. Pandemonium, which postulates that the famous “Dingo Girl” was not eaten by dogs in the outback, but raised by them, is one such hidden gem. She gets involved with a descendant of Hitler’s who runs an abandoned movie studio and hopes to mate with her to create a new Master Race. What more could you ask for in cinema? We learn a few lessons along with Adams over the course of the year. Avoid anything John Travolta made in between Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction. And anything starring a former Playboy Playmate is likewise doomed, from Dorothy Stratten’s Galaxina, where she plays a sexy robot, to Anna Nicole's Smith To The Limit, where she plays a sexy ex-CIA operative, to Jenny McCarthy's Dirty Love, where any attempt at sexiness on her part is squashed by the constant flow of humiliations to which her character is subjected. There are brief conversations with several schlock filmmakers and critics. Mike Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 names Star Wars Episode I and II as the worst-ever movies, but the one I want to see is Joe Dante's nomination, 1970’s The Phynx. In order to rescue America's greatest entertainers (Butterfly McQueen from Gone with the Wind, Johnny Weismuller of Tarzan fame, etc, Colonel Sanders!), from Albania, the government forms a rock band, The Phynx, who can enter the Communist nation with impunity. Not only are they secret agents, but Richard Nixon declares a national holiday in their honor:  Phynxgiving.  Instant classic.





Tied In: The Business, History, and Craft of Media Tie-in Writing

edited by Lee Goldberg

reviewed by Scott Pearson



Media tie-in writing is based on other media such as movies, TV shows, and videogames. It encompasses novelizations, which adapt the source material into book form, and original stories inspired by the source material. Two well-known examples are the myriad books based on the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, although tie-ins cover any and all genres from westerns to romance to mystery. 

 Tied In is an in-the-trenches look at media tie-ins from some of the biggest names in the field, edited by Lee Goldberg, author of numerous Diagnosis Murder and Monk tie-in novels. Nineteen essays and interviews cover a wide variety of angles, from Tod Goldberg's hilarious “Does a Real Writer Write Tie-Ins?” to a roundtable discussion of “The Business and Craft of Writing Novelizations & Tie-Ins” featuring nineteen publishing veterans, including Kevin J. Anderson, Max Allan Collins, and Greg Cox. 

A couple contributions may be too “inside baseball” for the nonwriter, but overall the book will appeal to the reader of tie-in fiction as much as the professional tie-in writer (or someone trying to break in to the field). Even pieces that aren't how-tos are full of details which can provide advice for the writer and behind-the-scenes fun for the fan.  

Although the design and layout are a bit rough around the edges—errors of autoformatting are frequent—the entertaining and informative content make this a worthwhile read for tie-in writers and fans alike.





Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan

by Del Quentin Wilber

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan, his press secretary James Brady,  police officer Thomas Delahanty, and Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy as Reagan left the Washington Hilton Hotel. Wilber gives us an exquisitely-detailed chronicle of that day, the events leading up to it, and those immediately following, missing neither the gold bear cuff links that the president wore as a memento of his California governorship nor the No. 10 scalpel the doctors used to make their first, life-saving incision. Reagan , whose Secret Service codename was “Rawhide,” had been in office for just over two months, and despite his jokes about it, at 70, he was the oldest man to ever to lead the nation. The White House went to extraordinary lengths to portray him as vigorous, so it was all the more important that while he was being operated on the public, not to mention America's enemies, hear nothing but optimism. But behind the scenes, things were very different. The doctors initially couldn't find the bullet. If it had entered a vein, it could be pumped straight to the president's brain. Meanwhile, at the White House, deputy White House press secretary Larry Speakes was flustered by questions he didn't have the clearance to answer, confusing viewers. There was a power struggle over who would be in charge until Vice President George H.W. Bush returned from Texas, and Al Haig, the Secretary of State, famous declared  “I am in control here,” skipping over the next in succession, the Speaker of the House. Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberger ordered two hundred crews of nuclear bombers to their planes, just in case; the opposite of what Haig had announced to the press, that there was no increase in alert status. Drawing from such diverse sources as the president's medical records, FBI reports released under the Freedom of Information Act, and interviews with seemingly everyone who had anything to do with the event (over 125 people), Wilber's work makes for exciting reading, even though we all know how it turned out in the end.






Gideon's Sword

by Doug Preston and Lincoln Child

reviewed by Jon Land


So opens the first in a new series by Preston and Child and the perfect compliment to their string of bestsellers featuring the uber-cerebral Aloysius Pendergast.  In stark contrast Gideon’s Sword has a noirish, more plot-laden feel complete with a Batman-like set-up. 

Our dark hero Gideon’s life has been dominated by the pursuit of vengeance after witnessing his father gunned down in the wake of being accused of a crime he didn’t commit.  As we know from Batman, though, vengeance proves only to be the first step in the pursuit of justice in general and such is the case and then some with Gideon.  This first entry finds him hot on the trail of a spanking new super-weapon currently in the hands of a rogue Chinese scientist.  The Chinese, of course, are fast becoming the new Soviets of thriller lore, Preston and Child hardly missing a beat in taking advantage of the paradigm shift. 

Structurally, Gideon’s Sword combines the mysterious elements pioneered by Trevanian in his Jonathan Hemlock featured Sanction tales with the moral ambiguity of Donald Westlake’s (writing as Richard Stark) Parker novels.  A stunningly effective tale featuring the most exciting debut of a hero since Lee Child introduced us to Jack Reacher, Gideon’s Sword is honed to a razor-sharp edge that never wavers or misses.





The Passages of H.M.:  A Novel of Herman Melville

by Jay Parini

reviewed by A.B. Mead



Many readers of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick might wish they had a version with all of the adventure, but none of the cetology. In this biographical novel of Melville's adventures in “the watery part of the world,” we get just that. Alternating between Melville's time as a seaman in his younger days and his wife Lizzie's accounts of their economic and social hardships in later years, Parini gives us “the good parts version” of Melville's life and the events that inspired his writings. Turning a novelist's eye to life aboard the whaler Acushnet, and her tyrannical Captain Pease, we see the origins of Moby-Dick. When Melville and his shipmate Toby jump ship in the South Seas and spend time with the native Typee, Parini depicts the events with more detail than Melville himself dared in his book of the same name. The Typee are naked, tattooed, and cannibalistic. When not making love to a nymph-like girl, Herman is in direct danger of being eaten. Years later, a couple of adventure novels under his belt, Melville meets and befriends Nathaniel Hawthorne, who encourages him to turn the whaling story he's working on into something greater:  “Every real book is a form of Scripture. Write your own Bible.” Depressed by the subsequent failure of Moby-Dick and the books that followed, Melville travels again, this time as a passenger, through Greece to the Holy Land. There he experiences a form of peace that his globe-circling had failed to bring him. Though grounded in reality, this book, like Melville's own autobiographical writings, takes some liberties as it enters the characters' minds. But, as Melville tells Toby, “Everyone knows” that memoirs “are made up. Only novels tell the unadorned truth.”



These Things Hidden

by Heather Gudenkauf

reviewed by Jon Land


How I can be at peace for what I’ve done?  I don’t know, but I am.  

What Allison Glenn has done forms the heart of Heather Gudenkauf’s second novel, These Things Hidden.  Part literary fiction, part romantic suspense, and part family saga, it evokes Judith Guest, Alice Hoffman and Jodi Picoult at their level best while building an almost Dennis Lehane-like sense of foreboding and tension. 

It might be Allison who’s in jail when the book opens, but her younger sister Brynn is equally imprisoned in a high school world of gossip and innuendo.  The lives of both sisters face fresh complications when Allison is released and tries to resume her life, the secret that has bonded them tragically now certain to tear them apart in the same fashion.  Stylistically, the book shifts viewpoints between them by chapter, perfect for a tale about tortured souls enduring different levels and definitions of pain. 

At its heart, Lehane’s tragically brilliant Mystic River is a soap opera, Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place with unwed pregnancy replaced by child molestation.  Well, the same can be said for These Things Hidden, a similarly tragic and also brilliant treatise on the deconstruction of the modern nuclear family.  Gudenkauf paints a dark picture indeed but it’s one she shades in wondrous tones of both character and subtext.  To paraphrase Hemingway, it’s a hard tale but well worth the effort.




My Reading Log
  by Jeff Ayers, Associate Editor 




Ethan Cheeseman, along with his three smart, polite, and relatively odor-free children, have successfully gone back in time, but can they help their pirate friends reverse a curse?  In “Another Whole Nother Story” (Bloomsbury, $16.99), every well thought out plan doesn’t seem to go as planned.  The second book by the founder, president, and vice president of the National Center for Unsolicited Advice, Dr. Cuthbert Soup, continues the strange and quirky adventures of a unique family and their bizarre friends and enemies.  For the kids and the kid in all of us.




  Scott Hilburn fills the void that appeared when Gary Larson quit the Far Side.  Hilburn’s twisted view of the world has been collected in the hilarious treasury of his Argyle Sweater cartoons, “Tastes Like IChicken.”  (Andrews McMeel, $16.99)  Full color and full of commentary from Hilburn, the book ends up being a value not only for the laughs, but also the insight into the writing and creating process. 





  ’m a big fan of the family comic Stone Soup and the latest collection of strips; “We’ll Be Really Careful” (Four Panel Press, $14.95) continues the saga of a single mom trying to raise two kids in an ever-increasing hectic world.  If you are like me and disappointed that Lynn Johnston went back to the beginning of her strip, then this will definitely appeal to you.






I’m a huge fan of the fake news site, The Onion.  Now that I have taken the plunge with a Kindle, I was thrilled to discover two books highlighting some of the quirky and silly news. “The Onion Presents The Finest Reporting On Literature, Media, And Other Dying Art Forms” and “The Onion Presents Americas Finest Tech News” ($2.99 each) are worth the small investment.  Where else can you find such stories as "Even CEO Can't Figure Out How Radio Shack Still In Business," or "First-Time Novelist Constantly Asking Wife What It's Like To Be A Woman?”





“In Service To The Mouse: My Unexpected Journey to Becoming Disneyland's First President” (Chapman University Press, $26.95) by Jack Lindquist chronicles the life of the man who spent the majority of his life working for Walt Disney and his parks.  His anecdotes are insightful, funny, and most have never been heard until now.  If Disney is your bag, then definitely pick this up.





  See you next month.  

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