Monday, August 31, 2009

Samuel Johnson by Jeffrey Meyers *

Samuel Johnson: The Struggleby Jeffrey Meyers, published for 300th anniversary of Samuel Johnson's birth, itself struggles between research and relaxation. In the author's own critique of earlier Johnson biographies he observes:
James Clifford's first two volumes ... are heavily academic .. Walter Jackson Bate's biography is also academic ... John Wain's life is more readable, but he confessed "there is no research in the book."
Unfortunately for Jeffrey Meyers and his readers, significant source material has been uncovered since these earlier biographies, so maybe the author can be forgiven for filling with including so much primary source material. However, the narrative of Samuel Johnson's life is buries and the resulting volume is tedious, confusing and sleep inducing.

If you're interested in a biography of Samuel Johnson, I recommend The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell. Even though it was written over two centuries ago, it still out sells all the other Samuel Johnson biographies on Amazon!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke **

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke places the author in the small group of quirky writers of odd-comedy-cum-mysteries, full of word play, that defy classification such as: Jasper Fforde, Douglas Adams, and
Terry Pratchett. With this odd, vaguely-literary mystery, I am most reminded of Jasper Fforde. Here is a snippet from the Arsonist's Guide:
I knew from Mr. Frost that the birch was supposed to be the most New England of trees, and if that was so, then I couldn't help thinking that New England was a very bad idea.
Similarly, I found An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England also to be a bad idea. If you are a serious reader in search of a light diversion, I highly recommend any of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next or Nursery Crime novels before exploring An Arsonist's Guide.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz ***

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz is really two books in one; an inside look at the world of college admissions and the story of Portia Nathan, a story that revolves around her job in the Admission Office of Princeton University and the few (bad) decisions she'd made in her life. If your interest is college admissions, the author recommends: The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.

The story of Portia Nathan is a challenge as Portia suffers from depression and like Raskolnikov is more prone to introspection than action, though, also like Raskolnikov, has brief episodes of decisive action. Depressed protagonists (is that an oxymoron?) rarely make for compelling reading.
She had no particular talents, no extraordinary intelligence, no burning desire to excel in some academic field or profession, and that in absence of a life plan or goal, her intention was to wait until something happened to her.
A year of lying-awake torment in which imagined touching alternated with imagined conversation, invented smells and tastes, and great insights, reached with the catalyst of his undoubted brilliance. But nothing actually happened.
Portia had abruptly found herself without a destination and taken on the general demeanor of a pillar of salt.
Lead by this passive protagonist, the reader wanders though the Princeton admission cycle and Portia's life of missed opportunities to a surprisingly satisfactory resolution. I must warn readers that Portia's story, though full of poignancy and pathos, is insufficient to maintain interest and involvement throughout. The admission process delivers much of the conflict and plot motivation, so if you are not interested in this facet, skip this book and read War and Peace

Thursday, August 20, 2009

G is for Gumshoe by Sue Grafton ** 1/2

In G is for Gumshoe by Sue Grafton, private investigator Kinsey Millhone finds herself on a hired killer's short list and puzzling over the mystery of a crazy old lady's ravings of murders decades in the past. Eventually, after traveling across the Southern California deserts and through caches of old documents and microfilm at the Santa Teresa library, newspaper, and city hall, the persistent Kinsey Millhone unravels this mystery. The romantic interest is Robert Dietz, a soon-to-be-retired PI, brought in to protect Kinsey from the killer. Together, the two PIs defend themselves from a psychopathic killer who has his 5-year-old son accompany him on hits. They also take advantage of the communal quarters required by his bodyguard assignment.

On the positive side, G is for Gumshoe by Sue Grafton delivers two stories (murder mystery with the old lady, romance with a hired killer thrown in for free) for the price of one. On the other hand, neither of these stories benefits from the distraction of the other. If you're a Sue Grafton fan, you've already read this 1990 offering. If not, I'd recommend starting the series some place closer to the end of the alphabet when the series matured, such as: A Book for Today: T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou *****

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a memoir by Maya Angelou about growing up as a black in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. She lived alternately with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas and her separated parents in St. Louis and California.

While her story included the pervasive and institutional prejudice and violence towards blacks, she always rose above it all and succeeded. For instance, during the war she decided she wanted to work on the San Francisco cable cars. Undaunted by the facts that she was only 15 applying for a job that required applicants to be 18, and that the cable car company had never hired a black for the position she wanted, she went after the job anyway. Through polite persistence and clever fabrications, she got the job.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a wonderful mixture of the challenges of be Black and the benefits of being Maya Angelou. A story of tears and cheers.
When the spring classes began, I resumed my commitment to formal education. ... I was sure that I had learned and earned the magic formula that would make me a part of the gay life my contemporaries led. ... Not a bit. ... They were concerned and excited over the approaching football games, but I had in my immediate past raced a car down a dark and foreign Mexican mountain ... I remembered sleeping for a month in a wrecked automobile and conducting a streetcar in the uneven hours of the morning. Without willing it, I had gone from being ignorant or being ignorant to being aware of being aware.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a book that everyone should read and a book that everyone will enjoy.

LGBT Book Watch: Though I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (published in 1970) deals primarily with The Black Experience in America, it also includes (at the end) a sympathetic and humorous recounting of a young girl's thoughts about Lesbianism with references of a 1920's classic on the subject: The Well of Loneliness.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Invasion by Robin Cook ***

Invasion is a first-contact novel and a departure from Robin Cook's normally realistic science-based plots. What can I say about a novel that appears to be a novelization of a made-for-cable movie? At best, Invasion by Robin Cook, is a pop art object like Andy Warhol's soup cans or Marilyn Monroes.

At worse, I can assure fans that Robin Cook maintained his penchant and predilection for large words. This one popularized by Calvin and Hobbes:
Wow, your are transmogrifying into a world-class Casanova.
or these Latinate words from science and medicine:
Inside the locked valuables box the black discform object did the same, particularly one of the eights small domed excrescences arrayed around the object's rim.
I can also assure the many Robin Cook fan's that the writing includes the normal quota of cliches and cliched plot elements.

The disappointment is the science. In an admission of the silly science, Robin Cook omits his normal addendum where he explains the science, while instead he inserts silly errors - At 8:15 AM in Santa Fe, we read:
With the time difference maybe the CDC [in Atlanta] doesn't open for an hour or so.
- and crazy, conspiracy science with a mega-viruses encoded in a highly conserved segment of DNA:
It's in one of those non-coding segments, or so people thought.
Of course, the plot moves along briskly, as expected. As Robin Cook has written many, many novels, I'd suggest reading some of the others first, unless you really love first-contact science fiction.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Disclosure by Michael Crichton *****

Disclosure by Michael Crichton reminds me of the differences between ordinary authors, many who write best sellers, and great authors. Michael Crichton is one of the greats. Disclosure is a cautionary tale about sexual harassment and should be read by any who has a boss or is a boss. If you work in an organization that extends beyond your immediate family, this should be required reading.

Fortunately, the story is excellent and well told. It has enough plot twists to keep the most sophisticated reader involved, and the writing is crystal clear to keep the most basic reader following along. An extremely fast read.

This is a book for working adults, the topic is sexual harassment, and it includes one extended sex scene.

A perfect summer read that still seems current, even though it the story involved high-tech before the Internet. Disclosure was published the same year at Microsoft's CDROM encyclopedia Encarta.
In the future, information was going to be stored on [CDROM] disks, or made available in large databases that users would dial into over telephone lines.
Regular readers of this blog realize that the selections are eclectic and wide ranging. As with many complex appearances, the underlying mechanism is rather straight forward and simple. I take a few recommendations from friends, NPR and my recollection of those books I should have read as part of my formal education. I fill in the remainder with books grabbed from the the new releases section in my local library. When I travel, I stock up on 25c paperbacks from the same library. Today's selection is a travel selection.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Tom Swift and His Giant Robot by Victor Appleton II

Tom Swift and His Giant Robot by Victor Appleton II is from the second series of Tom Swift novel for young boys - certainly not young girls, as the female roles were restricted to sweet and cute. Some of the science is laughably quaint, as when a security officer needed to identify fingerprints.
We'll compare these with the file at the plant. Any unknown ones we'll check with the local police. If they can't help, we'll fly them to Washington at once for identification.
That's it; the best 1955 science fiction way to get fingerprints to Washington was to fly them!

However, before the Bell Labs patent application (1958) and the Nobel prize (1964) and long before any successful popularization and President Reagan's Star Wars aspirations, Tom Swift used a knockout weapon - a monochromatic infrared beamer; essentially a laser!

On another strange note, one the scientists working with Tom Swift was Stan Lee.

This book is a fine tale of crazy scientists, back robbers, and derring do by the brilliant young Tom Swift.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Quiet American by Graham Greene ***

Written in 1955, The Quiet American is a novel of American involvement in Vietnam at time when the war still belonged to the French. It is an indictment of much American policy in the years since World War II. I found it surprising to see the seeds of the invasions of Cuba, Grenada, and Iraq, foreign policies based on innocence and arrogance.
I never knew a man [country] who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene is a great novel by a great author of the World War II era. This was a time of high literary style when authors could freely assume that all readers were educated in French; the novel includes French dialogue without translation or apology. My years of high school French, from around the time Graham Greene wrote, were barely sufficient to get the gist of the scattered French.

A more serious summer read, but very well written and a story well told.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fire Study by Maria V Snyder ****

Fire Study by Maria V Snyder is the third in her Study series. I hesitate to say trilogy, as even though the conflicts raised in the series are resolved, other issues remain. Fire Study continues the trend towards more intrigue and less misogynistic violence and abuse. The book is a bit longer and slower than the previous volumes, but well worth reading it you enjoyed the first two.

Do not start reading here, even though the author expends ample pages recapping and reiterating the earlier action. Start at the beginning with: A Book for Today: Poison Study by Maria V Snyder *****

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzche [nr]

What can one say about a classic of philosophy? The translator writes:
The point of that title is not that the author considers himself beyond good and evil in the crudest sense, but it is in part that he is beyond saying such silly things as the Jews are good or the Jews are evil. ... Everywhere he introduces distinctions, etching first one type then another - both generally confounded under a single label. He asks us to shift perspectives.
It is a book to reread and live with.
For all this well-meaning advice, I still found Nietzsche to be a man of the 19th century, fundamentally anti-Semitic,
Germany has amply enough Jews.
The Jews, however, are beyond any doubt the strong, toughest, and purest race now living in Europe.
Woman wants to become self reliant ... this is one of the worst developments.
and elitist,
It is the powerful who understand how to honor; this is their art, their realm of invention.
Nietzsche self-published Beyond Good and Evil because he felt his publisher failed him. He hoped to sell 300 copies, but even after distributing 66 free, review copies, he only sold 114! I am not surprised given the anthology structure of the book with sections on free spirit, religion and morals, (A reader might be advised to stop reading after these) followed by tracts on virtues, fatherlands, and nobles (definitely more discussion of races and elites in these latter sections).

This is definitely not light summer reading.