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December 2011 Book Reviews:



Grant's Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant's Heroic Final Year

by Charles Bracelen Flood

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



In 1884 Ulysses S. Grant, the general who had won the Civil War and former U.S. President, lost his life savings when an investment bank in which we was a silent partner turned out to be a Ponzi scheme. The bank's total loss of almost $17 million was called “the most colossal swindle of the age.” In those days, there was no post-presidential pension. Things looked dire for Grant. Enter Samuel Clemens (whom Flood, in this otherwise fascinating and entertaining book's one misstep, insists on referring to as “Mark Twain”). Learning that Grant had started working on his memoirs in order to earn some money, Clemens talked him into allowing his own publishing house to release it. Soon the two most famous men in America were fast friends and Clemens was an almost daily visitor at “the General's” house. This book recounts Grant's efforts over the next year to finish his memoirs before he died of throat and mouth cancer. Grant's output was nothing short of herculean. Averaging 750—with occasional spikes as high as 10,000—words a day, Grant eventually produced 291,000 words in that one year. What makes it all the more remarkable is that he was in excruciating pain most of the time. Nightly sprays of cocaine water to his throat alleviated symptoms somewhat, but there were still times when drinking even a glass of water was like swallowing “molten lead.” Grant thought constantly of the future. Along with his desire to pass on his unique story to posterity, he also wrote a letter of recommendation for his black freeman valet, be used posthumously, and a letter to the future president of the United States asking that his then-baby grandson be appointed to West Point. (It would be acted upon 13 years later, and U.S. Grant III would eventually serve in both World Wars.) Grant's project coincided with the 20th anniversary of the South's surrender at Appomattox, and letters of gratitude from soldiers and their children flooded in, including some from former Confederates who remembered him as a “generous victor” who “conceded liberal and magnanimous terms of surrender.” Grant's Memoirs remain a classic to this day, and Flood's view into the circumstances surrounding their creation makes a perfect companion piece.



I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution

by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



For people who grew up watching the “golden age” of MTV, its first decade from 1981 to 1992, this 600-page oral history is biggest, most satisfying nostalgia wallow of the year. Readers will dive in and emerge days later with a huge grin and a list an arm long of videos that they must rush to YouTube to watch again. Marks and Tannenbaum interviewed 400 people, including business executives, technical crews, and artists (Weird Al! MC Hammer! Martha Quinn!), and the result is a detailed explosion of the world behind the scenes. And not just the clever marketing; it's all here:  strippers, booze, cocaine, and midgets. Oh, so many midgets... Whole chapters are devoted to exhaustively covering some of the controversies. It is not true that MTV didn't play any black artists prior to Michael Jackson, but it is true that the success of Jackson's brand of R&B put an end to MTV's album-oriented-rock format and opened the door for a multitude of new types of artists, including the nascent world of rap. When the video format mostly meant smoke machines and haircuts, Jackson showed “everyone what you're supposed to do with it.” We follow MTV's evolution from a tiny station that almost no cable company would carry to an international cultural force. From record companies initially refusing to give the station their videos, to them seeing that the right video could propel an unknown band to double-platinum superstardom. Eventually, the emphasis on the singles that backed videos created a culture of one-hit wonders that destroyed creativity and careers. Soon, as “the MTV attitude became pervasive, videos began to feel commonplace.” And ultimately the conflicts engendered in The Real World beat out even the plot of a Beastie Boys video. Note: The index includes personal and band names, but not the song/video titles. Gag me with a spoon!



Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy

Forward by Caroline Kennedy, Introduction and Annotations by Michael Beschloss

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



Just four months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1964, his widow sat down with historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. for a series of recorded interviews. Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis wrote no autobiography nor ever again spoke publicly about her life with JFK, leaving these interviews as posterity's sole record of her view of those remarkable times. The conversations, sealed for 50 years, plunge readers into their world, and, more importantly, give us an intimate view of JFK's mind and personality. They are a treasure trove of insights, anecdotes, and gossip. 

There are no blockbuster revelations. She does not speak of the assassination. (She spoke with William Manchester about that in interviews still sealed for another 50 years.) She makes no mention of any of her husband's affairs, but does note how his energy and charisma made him admired by women and men. She reveals that Ian Fleming wasn't JFK's favorite author. The President read voraciously, but it was almost excursively histories. Indeed, one of the things that stands out so prominently in her reminiscences is the amount of reading, and thinking about what they read, that Kennedy and those around him did. For all the Camelot glamor, his was an intellectual administration. Jackie viewed the President's ability to be “conciliatory” and to forgive opponents in order to move on towards a greater good as what made him so successful. He was so conciliatory that he couldn't bear to get rid of his own vice-president, Lyndon B. Johnson, despite the fact that frequently said, “Can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon was president.”  

Of former presidents, Kennedy most admired Jefferson. He considered Theodore Roosevelt “fatuous,” and thought FDR was a “poseur” who had made a lot of foreign policy mistakes. Eisenhower, whose golf cleats left holes all over the White House floors, he accused of keeping the U.S. “standing still.” Jackie viewed her role as trying to create “a climate of affection” where the President could relax after the day's work, and where he might have “diverting” company for dinner. She shows her own class prejudices on numerous occasions, and only a decade later gave up the idea, which she expresses here, that women were “just not suited” to politics. 

The book comes with the eight hours of conversations on CDs. Listening to them is a rewarding and intimate experience. Recorded at her home, you can occasionally hear the tinkling of ice cubes in her glass or her children playing in the next room. But the book is more than just a transcript. It's generously illustrated and annotated. That last is especially helpful. The conversation is filled with contemporary references that mean nothing to us today. Why was “everyone … so mad at General de Gaulle last year”? What is “that calendar” that JFK gave his friends as a souvenir of the Cuban Missile Crisis? How did the ominous-sounding “Skybolt” almost end a British administration?  This book is required reading for students of those times.



Life Itself: A Memoir

by Roger Ebert

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



Roger Ebert's life has not been particularly glamorous; he makes his living watching movies and then telling us what he thinks about them. It just so happens that he does that exceedingly well. Thus, this book, his autobiography, succeeds solely on the strength of his excellent writing. The events are almost secondary to how well he takes us into his mind and times. When he tells stories about John Wayne, Martin Scorsese, or Woody Allen, it's them talking—sometimes about a third person entirely. Any glamour present is rarely about Ebert. He did spend a college year abroad in South Africa and have a few adventures making Russ Meyer’s Beyond The Valley of the Dolls, but this book also devotes entire chapters to the 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk and the Chicago burger joint Steak 'n Shake. He views himself as “a newspaperman,” not a Hollywood insider. His heroes were the columnist Mike Royko and legendary interviewer Studs Terkel. He may have been to London and Venice for glamorous reasons—to interview a star, to attend a film festival—but he experienced them like nearly any tourist. The things he saw and did might be experienced by almost anyone. (Writing of a real London character: “He appears in a Dickens novel I haven't read yet.”) His relationship with fellow film critic Gene Siskel was brotherly in its competitions and disagreements. Ebert's youth was Rockwellesque, and the early chapters of his book evoke an era of wonder. He is especially sad that movies today are “more craven and cowardly, more skillfully manufactured to pander to the lowest tastes, instead of educating them.” The early days of his career, spent at the Chicago Sun-Times were a world right out of the The Front Page, complete with drinking, smoking, and guys who knew all the nicknames of Chicago's mobsters. Ebert is straightforward but not maudlin about his thyroid cancer and jaw tumor surgeries (which have left him unable to eat, drink, or speak) and detached about his alcoholism (which didn’t seem to affect him that badly). His last chapter reflects on eternity and God. Considering that his current television show is currently in abeyance, and not likely to return, this may be the last significant work from Ebert. If so, it’s one hell of a final act.



On Conan Doyle, or, The Whole Art of Storytelling

by Michael Dirda

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale



The latest entry in Princeton University Press' “Writers on Writers” series of brief books is from Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Dirda. Here he covers one of his favorite topics:  the creator of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The book is, naturally, heavy on Holmes and what Dirda calls the “compulsive readability” of his adventurers. But Dirda's energy makes the case for readers to try Conan Doyle's other writings, from historical fiction like his tale of knighthood The White Company, to his ghost stories, to his autobiographical writings. Dirda has made a study of other writers' Holmes pastiches. Anyone picking up this volume has probably already read the collected “canon,” so this provides a guide to the best of what to read next. Dirda also devotes a good portion of the book to the work of the Holmes enthusiast (to put it mildly) organization The Baker Street Irregulars. Dirda's comments, including a lengthy except from a talk he once presented about a minor character in one of the Holmes stories, are an exercise in imagination and flexing the mind, something of which Conan Doyle himself would have approved. On Conan Doyle would make an excellent stocking-stuffer for both avid Holmesians and those who are only just discovering the Master through the Robert Downey, Jr. films. Through it we see that Conan Doyle and his creations inhabited a much wider world than is usually recognized, and that subsequent writers and readers have only enlarged it further. The book ends with lists of essential books and online resources, but, alas, neither footnotes nor an index—which is a real loss, considering how many other books and authors are referenced.





Dead Man's Grip

by Peter James

reviewed by Jon Land



On the morning of the accident, Carly had forgotten to set the alarm and overslept. 

That simple, understated opening belies one of the most intense and devastatingly effective thrillers of the year, as Peter James’s Dead Man’s Grip twists our emotions into knots even as it builds a bridge across the Atlantic to link the British James with his increasingly ardent American fan base. 

The aforementioned Carly Grace finds herself racked by guilt in the wake of a car accident in which she was involved that killed an American student attending an English university.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, she soon learns that the drivers of the other two vehicles have been tortured and murdered.  Enter our old friend, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace to try to get the bottom of the apparent plot aimed at securing vengeance at the same time he unravels the complex web behind it. 

Once again, James pens an intensely personal, harrowing thriller that marks the finest British crime writing this side of the wondrous Jane Tennison in the Prime Suspect series.  Nobody captures the dual, contrasting psyches of cat and mouse better than he, and Dead Man’s Grip is a tour de force triumph.



The Postmortal

by Drew Magary

reviewed by
Scott Pearson


In 2019 a cure for aging becomes widely available. Millions of people take the cure and although they can still die by normal means, they don’t get any older biologically. The Postmortal takes this premise and imagines its impact on humanity. Population skyrockets. Extremists rise up against those who have been cured. Governments enact increasingly draconian laws and procedures to deal with the situation. 

John Farrell is a lawyer who gets the cure early in 2019. The Postmortal is presented as his blog entries for sixty years following his cure, as he navigates the increasingly bleak landscape. The blog-entry concept allows Magary to present Farrell’s first person narration plus headlines, news stories, and other commentaries that Farrell has reposted or linked to on his blog. 

Magary does a good job of introducing the near-future of 2019, a time not too different from our own, and then slowly developing an overburdened world, where the gap between developing technologies and disappearing resources places civilization on the edge. The descent into apocalyptic anarchy follows a disturbingly believable progression. The only shortcoming of the novel is that space travel is never mentioned; in a world overpopulated with people who can live for millennia surely someone would think about colonization, even if only to dismiss it as beyond the budgets or resources of the planet. A minor quibble in an otherwise engaging, if depressing, book that exposes human foibles without being preachy, and which manages to be entertaining even as the darkness falls.



Those Across the River

by Christopher Buehlman

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale


It's 1935, and Frank Nichols and his wife Eudora have just moved to the tiny, rural community of Whitbrow, Georgia. Frank has inherited a ramshackle old plantation, with instructions from his late aunt, the previous owner, to sell it immediately:  “there is bad blood here, and it is against you for no fault of your own.” Almost immediately the couple bump up against the hamlet's mysteries. Why does this poor community turn loose pigs—pigs they can ill afford to lose—into the woods across the river every month? Is it just because “it's always been done,” or is there any truth to the legends that it's to appease the Devil or some “devil dog”? When the town decides to stop sacrificing the pigs, people start dying, and something seems to be coming into Whitbrow in search of the pigs. Then, when 20 of Whitbrow's dead are dug up and their corpses propped up in the school house with the message SEND THE PIGS scrawled on the blackboard, the townsmen form a posse and finally go across the river. The novel is spooky and atmospheric—all the more so because the rest of it is so firmly grounded in reality. The Depression is almost a character in itself here, Frank is a semi-shell-shocked WWI vet, and the atrocities of his Civil War-era ancestor live on into the 20th century. Buehlman has created a Southern Gothic ghost story that's quite unputdownable.





Soft Target

by Stephen Hunter

reviewed by Jon Land



Stephen Hunter didn’t invent the high-action thriller.  But, as Hunter once again demonstrates in Soft Target, he might as well have.  This lightning-paced tale that serves as a kind of demarcation point for Hunter’s multi-generational thriller saga most resembles his pre-Swagger tale THE DAY BEFORE MIDNIGHT in its sparseness and simplicity. 

Infamous Black Friday, with its trampling hordes of pre-dawn shoppers now armed with pepper spray, is bad enough already without adding terrorists to the mix.  But that’s exactly what Hunter does, offering up a hefty dose of them with their soft target of the title nothing less than Minneapolis’ Mall of America, the largest such structure in the country.  Good thing for the victims that Marine sniper Ray Cruz, son of the iconic Bob Lee Swagger, is among those taken hostage.  Bad thing for the dozen gunmen who had the misfortune of catching Cruz in anything but the holiday spirit. Having no gun is only one of the challenges Cruz must face to prove himself the equal of his celebrated father and equally celebrated grandfather, the great Earl Swagger. 

Soft Target is Die Hard with a brain and a plan, before Bruce Willis got old and bald.  While so many thriller authors have followed the Clancy model by fashioning needlessly bloated books, Hunter instead trims the fat and gives us a lean, action-packed tale that begs to be read in a single sitting.  Personally, I’d recommend savoring it a bit since, just like Christmas, Hunter books only come around once a year.


My Reading Log
  by Jeff Ayers, Associate Editor




It has been forever since I’ve done a reading log.  My reading has been primarily reviews for other venues so my reading outside those places has been somewhat limited.  This month, I do have a few books to recommend:

Two books on the craft of writing have emerged for the author on your holiday list.  Now Write! Mysteries (Tarcher Penguin, $14.95) gathers a phenomenal array of quality teachers and writers in the genre.  A collection of short essays covering everything from voice to point of view, story structure, and revisions, the book will appeal to both the pro and the beginner.  The sections are short enough to be read in less than five minutes, and there is an exercise at the end for practice. 






One of the best writing teachers in the country is Christina Katz. An expert in building an author’s platform, she has taken her unparalleled advice and spread it out over a calendar year (if you can pace yourself to read one a day) in The Writer’s Workout: 366 Tips, Tasks, & Techniques From Your Writing Career Coach. (Writer’s Digest, $19.99). She helps focus the author on the quality and voice of their work. This is a mandatory addition to any writer’s bookshelf.





  The Amazon.com company defied the odds and Jeff Bezos did everything his way against the normal ways of doing business.  In One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com (Portfolio/Penguin, $25.95), Richard Brandt delivers a concise and compelling look at the beginning of the company and how it became the dominant company everyone knows.





  The latest collection of humorous Big Nate cartoons by Lincoln Peirce looks vastly different due to the source material being almost fourteen years old. (The previous collections have highlighted recent cartoons). It is great to look back at such a fun comic strip and character in Big Nate. Like fine wine, it ages well. Big Nate and Friends. (Andrews McMeel, $9.99).





  I had the pleasure of selecting for Library Journal the best thrillers of 2011. Here is the link. Great reads all.  

Have a Happy New Year!


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