Brief Book Reviews 3

Here’s my next batch of capsule book reviews.  Now that I’ve figured an easier way to lay things out, I hope to post book reviews more frequently. Next batch will have more indie ebooks, I promise! Here’s an index to my other book reviews.

DeadZone Stephen King

The Dead Zone by Stephen King. After viewing the sci fi TV series based on the novel, I decided to read the original source material. Many original elements from the TV show are here (albeit in smaller form). The book did a good job of bringing the plot to a personal level; the book called more attention to the struggle between John Smith and his parents. Because the book used fewer supernatural effects, it was actually more plausible and inward-looking. At the same time, the heavy emphasis on plot and dialogue made this story ready for TV. Aside from the protagonists, none of the characters seemed compelling or seemed to have complex struggles. This book was a train wreck, and even though I’m not a fan of Stephen King’s works in general, I feel sure he must have done better than this later on. (I thought Misery was brilliant though overdone and needlessly sadistic). The premise here was great — and so was the research about brain function, but I don’t think the plot or the characters rose above cliche. As a book, it didn’t work; however, some of the pop culture details from the 1970s were fun enough to make the book occasionally tolerable.

The Failure by James Greer. Great comic novel about an ill-fated attempt to rob a Korean check-cashing store and one brother’s attempt to make a bundle off some Internet scam. The plot is outrageous, and full of strange characters and comic diversions and narrator long-windedness. The “Korean check-cashing fiasco” is announced to be a failure from the start, but it was delightful to hear it in excruciating detail. The book consists of many short chapters with funky titles (“Marcus, Guy’s Brother, Contemplates what might have been, standing at the window of his office in Cambridge, the same day as the Korean Check-Cashing Fiasco”) and lots of hilarious asides (See the one in Chapter 47 about the “plight of the underappreciated writer.”). The book is about the vagaries of wealth and success and how the Internet-driven economy only makes everything more unpredictable. It’s just as hard to know whether the check-cashing scheme has any chance of success as the latest Internnet technology which no one quite understands. As zany as it seems to pair a California novel with Irish narrator Tadhg Hynes, the audio book published by Iambik Press works because Hynes easily can adopt a tone of derision, pettiness and cynicism. Hands down, the audiobook was one of the funniest things I’d heard — it ranks up with Rob McQuay’s narration of Bill Bryson’s “Walk in the Woods.” Highly Recommended. (Also: Here’s a revealing interview between Miette Elm and the author.)

Cooler, Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living by the Union of Concerned Scientists . This nonfiction reference guide provides good consumer information about how to reduce your carbon footprint. Out of the 300 page book, 30 pages are end notes, 20 pages are resources and author bios (!?), 50 pages are an introduction to climate change (unneeded by now, I think). That leaves about 120-150 pages of good stuff about home heating, food production transportation, electronics, and bringing green living to the workplace. I thought the food section had good and new information, and the home heating/utility contained useful information for home-owners. I would have liked to see more discussion about the value of organic products and more formulas for calculating footprint; for example, how do you estimate the carbon footprint of an ipad produced overseas? How do you estimate the carbon footprint of bus travel? How do you convert between different measuring units and scales? How does recycling lower your carbon footprint (if at all)? The book is the best on the market, but there really needs to be a better and more comprehensive guide on the subject. Related: I highly recommend No Impact Man (the book) by Colin Beavan and Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard.

Yu Hua brothers

Brothers by Yu Hua. This remarkable picaresque and satirical novel about the rags-to-riches tale of two Chinese brothers against the backdrop of modernization has a lot going for it. An engaging style, two well-drawn out characteristics, and a lot of political and social subtexts. It brims with scatological humor and lots of episodes and hilarious dialogue. I listened to the audiobook and confess that parts were electrifying — either sad or humorous or both. Yu Hua’s satire is so caustic that one is almost shocked to find something so daring from China. (Its far-flung reach is reminiscient of Journey to the West). One critic described it as Rabelais Meets Horatio Alger, and I think that’s fair. The central character is Baldy Li, an aggressive, blunt boy whose effrontery translates into being a good businessman. His older brother Song Fanping is more modest and enlightened; at the same time he is crippled and even emasculated by his willingness to follow the traditional paths to success. The novel is more about Baldy Li’s outrageous behavior and how it helps him to succeed. I liked Book 1 (which describes how the two brothers were orphaned as a result of the Cultural Revolution and how they both fall in love with the same girl). As the book goes on and focuses more on Baldy Li’s business success, the plot becomes more ridiculous — whores and incurable diseases and opulent living. I read the book as Chinese society’s naive introduction to business success. The rags-to-riches fairy tale; is often unrealistic and maudlin. Many characters aren’t quite sure how you make money in a privatized system, and only Baldy Li’s shameless pursuit of wealth seems to be working. My favorite moment comes when Baldy Li seeks investors for his new business. Several people buy shares on the basis of Baldy Li’s bluster. But when it appears that Baldy Li may not be bringing a return on their investments, suddenly these ordinary Chinese realize that capitalism itself might be a scam. This novel was ostensibly written for laughs — and it’s probably unrealistic to hold it up to a standard of realism; at the same time, I suspect that the larger-than-life character of Baldy Li doesn’t seem plausible to most readers; more people probably identify with this older brother who would be in the grips of poverty were he not connected to Baldy Li. The book ultimately takes things to ridiculous heights — to the point where I no longer cared about the outcome. I don’t particularly like this novel as a whole, but it did reveal the variety of attitudes (both naive and sophisticated) that oridinary Chinese had towards privatization and dreams of prosperity. Baldy Li is really a horrible person, but the book never really hints that Baldy Li’s life may not be the paradise it seems. And Baldy Li’s foil (his older brother) is too impotent and bland to stand out as a credible alternative. Everyone loves a funny and boorish literary character, but I have to wonder if the author loves Baldy Li too much. The audio narrator, Louis Changchien, does an outstanding job at bringing the book to life. It’s just too bad that the novel becomes a ridiculous concoction.


Puddnhead Wilson by Mark Twain. This funny postbellum novel about a nitwit and a wealthy white man who learns unexpectedly that he was actually born black. I liked the early chapters , but as the plot became complex and the Negro dialect became thicker, it became harder to follow. The story proceeds haphazardly; it almost seemed thrown together. Twain’s style and humor is unmistakable, but I would have preferred a more focused novel.

1000 Recordings You Must Hear before you Die by Tom Moon. At first glance, this nonfiction book seems to be a typical reference guide of best albums. But the book contains lots of unusual recommendations, lots of connections between musicians in different genres. Reading this book is pure delight. Succinct, full of collector’s notes and recommended recordings and great layout for easy browsing. Every time I flip open the book, I learn some new thing both about the artist and the context in which the album was released. Even the indices are useful (they even have a “mood index” where you can find music in categories like “Music to inspire Reflection” and “Cardio Workout” and “Headphone Journey.”) Unlike Dimery’s book (which actually aims to be a boring reference guide), Moon’s book feels more personal and less inclined to list historically important albums. Unfortunately some albums listed here are not easy to find, and Moon — anticipating this — does a good job of describing what you’re missing. You can download a PDF listing all the recordings, and the website/blog for the book has lots of related commentary. Such a reference guide will by definition go out of date quickly, but it still will be a delight to peruse long after. Highly Recommended (though avoid the ebook edition — which isn’t as browsable or as well laid out).

1001 Albums You must hear before you die by Robert Dimery can easily be confused with Moon’s classic, but they are like night and day. Dimery’s book tries to be a chronological reference book, and even though the choice of albums are predictable and not particularly interesting, it is still useful to have this reference guide as a counterweight to Moon. This is the kind of book you’d want to give to your son or daughter to give them a conventional introduction to pop music from previous decades, but it won’t open your eyes to much. This sounds like I’m knocking this book, and in a way I am. But as long as you don’t expect cutting edge recommendations here and simply a timeline of famous albums, you’ll be fine. Still, read Moon’s book before this one.

Rock Snob’s Dictionary by David Kamp and Steven Daly . This slim mock-reference book sounds fairly easy to write, but I wanted to mention how well the authors manage through the format of a glossary to discuss many overlooked musical styles and persons. It explains a lot of cultural terms which even well-informed listeners might miss. Also, some of the glossary items are satirical. Example: “Plangent” is a “standby rock-crit adjective used to lend a magical aura to any nonaggressive guitar-based music (even though the word’s primary meaning is”loud and resounding. Perhaps this guide might merely amuse those knowledgeable about music, but I found it very informative as well. Highly recommended.

Christgau’s Consumer Guide: Albums of the ’90s . (also Christgau’s Record Guide: The ’80s and Rock Albums Of The 70s: A Critical Guide) By Robert Christgau. Christgau has been reviewing albums for a long time and has perfected a manner of writing of writing capsule reviews of most of the major musicians. Many of Christgau’s reviews seem peremptory or missing the point of the music; on the other hand, Christgau does seem to get British punk and rap/hip-hop and is generally good at identifying duds. Despite the fact that I disagree with a lot of Christgau’s reviews (he overlooks or belittles some gems), often his snap judgments can give you a sense of where to place individual albums. I’m happy to report 2 things. First, Christgau wrote a great introduction to his 90s edition which is worth reading for its own sake. Second, reviews from all of Christgau’s books (and even ones published later) are easily accessed from Christgau’s website. His essays are a lot more sympathetic and consumer-oriented. Finally, although Christgau covered the 90s pretty well (despite being generally unsympathetic to alternative music), I’ve noticed how many titles never get reviewed by Christgau. We have to be grateful that Christgau tried to review as much as he can, but the 2000s, the music world had become too large and complex even for Christau.

Hitler’s Last Secretary: A Firsthand Account of Life with Hitler . By Traudl Junge. This autobiographical account of Hitler’s final days became the basis for the magnificant German film “Der Untergang” (aka “Downfall.” ) This book gives even greater detail, starting with the lavish parties Eva Braun used to throw in various summer houses. Junge writes long after the fact, so she occasionally throws in postscripts about what happened to some of the major and minor actors. Generally though, she writes through the naive eyes and ears of her younger naive self, describing everyone’s foibles and predelictions in this typical awestruck way. This of course is a stylistic conceit, because Junge has spent the rest of her life trying to atone for her blindness, but it was important to convey without a guilty tone both logistics and the smaller events that intruded on German politics and war-planning. Probably most fascinating about the book is the afterward by Melissa Muller which describes her life post-Hitler. (For about 10 years she labored under the cloud of her past, and later, she became well known as a liberal-minded editor and publisher). She describes horrifying events (such as the various suicide pacts and the disappearance/death of her friends) with matter-of-factness. She even does not go into detail about her marriage (encouraged by Hitler) to a soldier who falls in battle. One book review mentions that Junge almost never witnessed Hitler’s emotional outbursts, and in fact towards his staff he was considerate and paternalistic. I saw the movie first, read the book, and then insisted on watching the movie again. I recognize that a secretary’s account of Hitler and the Nazi Party is likely to be blind to many ugly realities, but if anything it dramatized how for incurious people inside the reassuring bubble of Naziism, work and family life seemed perfectly normal … except perhaps for secondhand reports of casualties. Ultimately, the plight of Traudl Junge is more important than that of Hitler; it’s eye opening to read about how ordinary and basically good people become caught up in a totally evil system. Highly recommended. (PS, I read this book in 2 days!) Note: This is available as an ebook for $1.99. Great buy!







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