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BOOK REVIEWS


The Pity of War
by Niall Ferguson
   Ferguson has a thesis (that British involvement in World War I was a mistake) but he doesn't really state it until the last sentence of the book, and the chapters leading up to it don't really support it. Instead, the whole book is an exercise in debunking myths about World War I.
   Using lots of arcane financial data that I don't have the expertise to judge, he "proves" that:
   1. Germany was not suffering particularly on the home front
   2. Germany was actually far better at killing the enemy than the Allies were
   3. Propaganda was not very effective at persuading men to fight, and
   4. German war atrocities were not all that atrocious
   It really seems almost like he's trying to prove that Germany couldn't have lost the war. And yet, they surrendered. He doesn't give any good explanation for that event. Overall, this book really failed to live up to the expectations generated by reviews and publicity.

The Greeks
by Isaac Asimov
   I still don't know why Asimov never received the Nobel Prize for Literature. If Winston Churchill got one, surely the Good Doctor deserved one, too. He's far and away the best writer of English in the twentieth century. Not necessarily in terms of plot or characterization, but in terms of putting words together into sentences.
   This book is a fine example. Although it's aimed at the eighth grade reading level or so, and I found it beneath me in that sense, it's still a tremendous feat.
   It's good to know some Greek history and philosophy to follow the references in a lot of literature and political thought. Pick up any history of ancient Greece, and you're faced with interminable blather about mythology, philosophy, etc. Isaac tackles all the same issues but writes so well that by the end of the book, the reader really understands Greek history and Greek thought, at least at the basic level. And unless you're studying philosophy, the basic level is what you really need to be a good citizen and alert reader of modern literature. Thanks for a service well-rendered.

A Brief History of the Episcopal Church
by David Holmes
   Probably not interesting unless you're an Episcopalian, but quite so if that is the case. Holmes does well here by avoiding the pitfalls of providing biographies of bishops or going year-by-year through General Conventions. Instead, he follows the main trends of thought through church history, highlighting areas of controversy, and spending extra space on the thornier theological and liturgical issues that require explaining. I came away from this book with a greater appreciation for the Episcopal Church and the fine line it has walked through the centuries between Catholic and Protestant and between establishment and democracy.
   By the way, I recommend the Episcopal Church to mixed Catholic-Protestant couples looking for a church home. The liturgy will feel very familiar to the Catholic, but the church avoids the two biggest stumbling blocks (as I see them) for Protestants: devotion to Mary and the papal authority.

The Authentic New Testament
translated by Hugh Schonfield
   Most Bible translations begin with the doctrinal assumptions of the translators: The New International Version is pentecostal, the New Revised Standard Version is evangelical, and even my choice, the New English Bible, has an apostolic slant.
   However, Dr. Schoenfield is Jewish and doesn't subscribe to any set of Christian attitudes. He approaches his translation as a linguist instead, and it's a refreshing look at very familiar material. He omits all "church" language, including words like church, bishop, and apostle. Instead, he translates the original Greek as assembly, supervisor, and envoy. He does continue to use Jesus Christ, however, when by his scheme it should be Jesus the Anointed One.
   I found getting through Paul's letters a lot easier in this version than in most Bibles, and the plain style was a helpful antidote to some of the more obscure usages created by Christian translators trying to finesse the language. This is a very helpful aide to Bible study, particularly if one reads this version and then a church-approved text in the same sitting.

Lost and Found
by Robert Paul Smith
   A tiny book (I finished it in half an hour) recollecting household items from the author's youth (roughly the 1920's) and furnishing clever anecdotes in the grumpily nostalgic tone familiar to readers of Russell Baker. Enjoyable and actually quite illuminating for those of us who don't appreciate today's electric marvels.

Jews, God and History
by Max I. Dimont
   Dimont tries to address the fundamental issue of, why did the Jews survive through the centuries while the Assyrians, Mayans, etc. vanished? He develops an answer through analysis of Jewish intellectual trends and cultural history. There is little emphasis on individual Jews and much more on the main trends of Jewish thought. Recommended for Gentiles with a bit of knowledge about Judaism. Not a good primer.

How Therapists Diagnose
by Bruce Hamstra
   I picked this up just for curiosity (I'm not in therapy) and found it moderately illuminating. I found the author's "I'm blowing the lid off the industry's secrets" tone irritating, but he did spill the beans about what behaviors and characteristics will get a patient classified into which category, and shared a bit of the politics behind health insurance coverage of mental illness. The text itself is rather skimpy, but the appendix which walks the reader through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is valuable.

Truman
by David McCullough
   If you appreciate the world we live in, in which Europe is free and your grandfather didn't die in the First Soviet War, say a prayer of thanksgiving that Harry Truman and not Henry Wallace got the vice-presidential nomination in 1944. McCullough won the Pulitzer for this biography, and it is an excellent overview of Truman's life and career. The early chapters establishing Truman's ancestry are sluggish, but the account of the Pendergast machine and its influence on Truman is excellent. Some of the foreign policy sections lack detail, and the coverage of the scandals at the end of the second term is skimpy. However, Truman's personality shines through, and the devotion to principle and bedrock firmness that guided this nation through some of its toughest times are well-established.

Oh, Waiter! One Order of Crow!
by Jeff Greenfieldt
   This is the CNN analyst's account of the media's part in the 2000 election debacle. He's quite informative and insightful when dissecting exactly what role the media played in the events, and how Al Gore managed to tie an election that should have been his in a walk. But he devotes large sections of the book to detailing a blow-by-blow account of the court battles following the election. Presumably anyone who picks up a Jeff Greenfield book knows that stuff anyway. I would have liked more of his analysis about the campaign.

Israel: A Modern History
by Martin Gilbert
   A good beginner's book, laying out just the facts of Israeli history. Gilbert is strong in the Zionist and early statehood periods, but completely neglects any mention of the Arab Israeli population, and fails to provide much analysis of the intifadeh and related events. If you've read Gilbert's volumes on World War I and World War II, you know the style at work here. Lots of anecdotes, skimpy on the big picture.

Harry Potter and the Avalanche of Merchandise
by J.K. Rowling
   Why are these books so popular? Because they're so good!
   Rowling brilliantly combines two genres with tons of appeal, the fantasy novel and the teenage sports memoir, and takes the best parts of each. Her fantasy world is terrific because she sets up the rules under which it operates, and follows them scrupulously. The details are so wonderful - and logical (you can see that magic is used exactly as muggles use technology) - that one never loses the suspension of disbelief. And Harry Potter and his friends are honestly written kids, with all the foibles - Harry's rebellion, Hermione's prudishness, Ron's resentfulness - that characterize real teenagers.
   Which is the best? My wife likes the first one for the way the reader gets to discover a whole new world; I like the third one for the drama of the plot.
   The piles of Harry Potters mugs, ankle warmers and car batteries are distressing only because they seem to cheapen what is a thrilling phenomenon for the readers: we are witnesses to a classic series being written.

The Coming
by Joe Haldeman
   This is a pretty skimpy sci-fi novel set around the middle of this century. Haldeman's plot involves all sorts of international intrigue and sets up one of the lamest endings I've ever read, but it's mostly an excuse to explore his vision of the next five decades. I love the thoughtful details of environmental conditions and technological changes that he works into the narrative, and his dialogue and characterization are quite good. Stop reading five pages before the end and you'll be quite satisfied.

Double Fold
by Nicholson Baker
   It's an absolute travesty the way our libraries have gutted their newspaper collections and replaced them with microfilm, and Baker's book is a terrific read that uncovers most of the sordid details. You'll be shocked, I assure you. All bibliophiles should read this and look into how their local libraries are managing the collections.

Across the Great Divide: The Band and America
by Barney Hoskyns
   The Band deserves a biography that explores the mystery that is their achievement in the first two albums. This book is not it. Hoskyns, noted bad British rock writer, gives all sorts of details about their beginnings and their tawdry end, but somehow the true essence of this group eludes him. I'm not surprised, though, as he lists "The Genetic Method" and "Acadian Driftwood" in his list of twenty favorite Band songs.

READER COMMENTS
  • From Tony Souza: I kinda disagree with you on this one. Sure, a better biography could have been written, but Hoskyns is a fan and he does a decent job of telling about their history. There's more written about Robertson than the others and you're right it doesn't really delve into what made the Band's songs so great, but it does give you a sense of who they are and what they went through and the author at least treats their story with respect. For die-hard fans it might be a disappointment, but for casual fans like me it gets a passing grade. Good but not great. I read Levon Helm's autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire first, and surprisingly, that was a bit of a disappointment.
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Uhbaabaaha." Steve says: "I agree about Levon's book - completely bitter and self-serving, although he's right about The Last Waltz movie being a star vehicle for Robbie. I can see your point about Hoskyns, too. If a person wanted to find out the basics (and more) of The Band's career, it's a great place to start. Compared to other rock biographies, though, it lacks a little depth. Thanks for writing!"

    The Fermata
    by Nicholson Baker
       I was so impressed with the way Double Fold was written that I decided to check out something else by Baker (he's a novelist by trade). As the reviewers that I later checked out declare, The Fermata is apparently not the place to start with his work. It's based on an intriguing notion - a man is able to stop time for everyone except himself, and he uses the opportunities to undress women - but quickly devolves into pornography. Some of the vivid details are fundamental to the character and plot but others, including two short stories plunked right into the middle of the narrative for no purpose I can discern - are pure prurient excess.
       Supreme Court-style hairsplitting aside, let me say that Baker is certainly a brilliant prose craftsman - he litters the text with terrible puns just like you can imagine the narrator using - and the accumulation of little details is an excellent way to convey character. I'm looking forward to reading other novels of his that aren't quite so graphic.

    READER COMMENTS

  • From Jason Justian: You know, I felt the same way about Fermata. I read it because I enjoyed The Mezzanine. Give that one a shot if you're still interested in Nicholson Baker. Just about everything else he's done is porn.

    Probability 1
    by Amir D. Aczel
       After I expressed skepticism at Jessica's assertion that the immense number of planets in the universe dictate the existence of life elsewhere than Earth, she brought home this book for me, and now I'm convinced she's right. Dr. Aczel is a professor of mathematics, and he uses a carefully constructed statistical model to show that the probability of life on other planets, using the most constrictive model of evolution, is either 1 or a number infinitesimally lower (in probability, 1=absolute certainty of an event occurring). On the way there, he gives an absolutely fascinating tour through molecular biology, the history of probability equations, and even the panspermia hypothesis (Francis Crick's belief that Earth is too young a planet to have independently evolved DNA, and therefore it must have come from outside the solar system via meteorite or comet.) I'm a mathophobe, but Dr. Aczel's writing is clear and friendly to the layman, so that even I understood his proof. If you're interested in this subject, this is a far better book than anything by Carl Sagan.

    READER COMMENTS
  • From Amir Aczel (forwarded from Jessica): Hi! I just went to your husband's Web site. Very nice review!! Please thank him. And thank you for bringing home my books. I'm sending a copy to my editor. I know she'd be thrilled.

    Westviking
    by Farley Mowat
       Farley Mowat is a renaissance man - if that term can be applied to a man who mastered the arts of medieval Scandinavia. When he became in interested in the subject of Norse voyages to North America, he set out to become conversant in Old Icelandic, maritime conditions of Canada's eastern seaboard, Norse sailing techniques, and climatic changes over the last millennium. The book he presents is a masterful exploration of the stories told in the Norse sagas and how they correlate to the evidence found in the geography of the coastline. He convincingly pinpoints every Norse landing, and does it all in clear, gripping prose. I've honestly never read a better-written account of reconstructive history.
       (Reader advisory: the book is divided into a narrative and two sections of appendices, labeled "descriptive" and "interpretive"; Mowat suggests reading the descriptive appendices before the narrative, and his suggestion is very helpful - however, I got caught up and read all the appendices before the narrative, and I would definitely have been better off waiting to read the interpretive appendices after the narrative).

    READER COMMENTS

  • From John Knowlton (yes, Steve's brother): Farley Mowat rocks! I read all his books up to about 1990 and then I forgot about him. Thanks for the reminder! He has a broad range of knowledge about the environment, Canadian native Americans (native Canadians?) and dogs and hunting. He also became obsessed by wolves for a while and spent enough time hanging out with them that a pack befriended him. I recommend his entire corpus.
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Ah haaey." Steve says: "This was my first Mowat book, but I am looking forward to more. By the way, the Canadian term for Native Americans is First Nations. Thanks for writing!"

    The Fellowship of the Ring
    by J.R.R. Tolkien
       We liked the movie so much (saw it twice - which says a lot when you think of how much babysitters cost) that we decided to read the book out loud during our daily commute. I can see why it's so popular, with all the mythic touches and characters that are certainly better defined than they were in the movie (Sam in particular), but Tolkien sure likes to throw in some tongue-tying names, not to mention unpronouncable runes. Definitely a better read on the eyes than the mouth.

    Grant
    by William S. McFeely
       General Grant was one of the more fascinating figures of American history, and Abe would probably have been named Ulysses had Jessica not exercised her veto power. Like most Civil War buffs, I wasn't very familiar with Grant's post-war career, and McFeely's Pulitzer-winning biography covers it with enough detail to get a clear picture of the man's life. Unfortunately, because the book is presumably aimed at readers like me, McFeely skims over Grant's Civil War heroics and focuses on his post-war career. This is fine but gives the reader no concept of Grant's greatness nor any idea why he was idolized throughout his life. Some of the psychoanalysis is questionable (Grant sought a second term to boost his self-esteem?), as well, and McFeely seems to view Grant's presidency as a waste of time. This thoroughly covers Grant's personal life, but ignores his historical legacy.

    The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men to Rubber Soul
    by Walter Everett
    More proof that you can slap “Beatles” on anything and they’ll publish it. While Everett has done exhaustive research (he’s able to pinpoint the date of composition for a number of songs) and has given me a new appreciation of George’s guitar playing, most of the musical analysis is incomprehensible to anyone who’s not a conservatory student. Sample sentence: “In retrospect, the vocal C natural of the chorus and verse can be heard to have minor as well as pentatonic connotations, by virtue of the retransition from natural-III through the V, as the resulting I natural-natural III-V sharp structure is solidly grounded in the minor mode.”

    Chicago: Feelin' Stronger Every Day
    by Ben Joseph
       It's odd to read a biography of a subject on which the author has no opinion. Joseph, a first-time writer, seems unable to judge between the group's good and bad albums, and his only strong sentiment is admiration for their longevity.
       Worse, the book feels like one long press release, with lots of dates and places but no insight into the personalities involved. He does, however, get the dirt on what really happened to Terry Kath and Danny Seraphine, which is not available anywhere else.

    German for Everybody — and You!
    by Rudolf Böhringer
       I decided to teach myself German, so I picked this up at the library. Although it dates from the mid-60's, I found it helpful. It contains transcripts from a radio series aimed at GI's stationed overseas, and consists of transcripts of imaginary dialogues into which German phrases and grammar have been inserted. Although I don't think I'll ever remember the stinking genders of their Nouns, I can say with confidence, "Heiss Wurst mit Brotchen."

    Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works
    by Francine M. Deutsch
       Although this work started out as a scientific study of how parents do or don't share the workload of parenting, its flaws are so great (particularly regarding the sample - almost all white, middle-to-upper class, northeasterners) that it's not useful as a statistical measure. It is extremely useful, however, in pointing out true stories of how parents manage to avoid turning one parent into a primary caregiver and the other into a bystander. Although most of the techniques used strike me as common sense, it's also instructive to see how many couples create excuses and allow misgivings to prevent equality from occuring in their relationships with their children and each other. Highly recommended for all parents and prospective parents.

    The Oak-Openings; or, The Bee-Hunter
    by James Fenimore Cooper
       This tale of the early Michigan frontier might be mildly diverting, if the author didn't keep interrupting the narrative with his opinions on everything from constitutional law to the use of rocking chairs in European households. Coupled with colorless characterization (every woman is pure and noble, the main character has no flaws, every Indian is savage), it makes for one tedious read – so tedious that I gave up 100 pages in.

    Atlantic Monthly and American Prospect
       I just wanted to weigh in on a couple magazines that have been on my reading list lately. Atlantic is one of the pillars of journalism, having lasted since 1857, and it's the best general interest magazine in America. Covering government, the arts, travel, language, and science (especially social science in an intellectually honest way, unlike all the other "scare the readers with flawed statistics" publications) with challenging, suberbly-written articles, this magazine keeps my senses stimulated and my intellect curious.
       American Prospect has been described as a "paleo-liberal" current affairs rag, but it's basically from the Democratic perspective of 10 years ago, before the Democrats became Republicans and the Republicans became the willing lapdogs of fundamentalists both economic and religious. I enjoy the coverage, although each issue is pretty skimpy. What irks me, though, is that Prospect seems to have shared my address with every liberal cause out there, so almost every day I get mail solicitations for groups ranging from the worthy (Sierra Club) to the ridiculous (note to Paul Wellstone and Robert Reich: I don't live in your state, so why do you think I'd contribute to your campaign?)
       (Disclaimer: I don't pay for either title: American Prospect was a gift subscription, and my mother-in-law lets me read Atlantic Monthly when she's done. I'm grateful for both.)

    Napoleon
    by Paul Johnson
       This volume is part of the Penguin Lives series (not biographies of penguins, but biographies published by Penguin), which aims at condensing the crucial material on historical figures into a short book. Johnson does this admirably with Napoleon, focusing on the influence the conquerer had over the shape of Europe throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, and importantly, pointing out that Napoleon was as ruthless a dictator as the world had seen to that point. A very interesting thesis connects the Napoleonic propaganda machine to later efforts by the likes of Stalin and Mao to control the populace through the media. Highly recommended.

    The Origins of the Koran
    Edited by Ibn Warraq
       I don't know enough about the field to say whether that fact that most of the contributions range from 50 to 100 years old reflects a field that hasn't progressed, an unwillingness to pay royalties on works in copyright, or a deliberate distortion of the current state of research by the editor. Anyway, the works contained are illuminating about the traceable influences on Mohammed's thinking, and they demonstrate quite well that the Koran was likely cobbled together from Arabic folklore, oral versions of Bible stories, and Mohammed's personal prejudices. Why there are no Arabic scholars represented is another puzzle: is Warraq deliberately excluding them, or are they afraid to perform this kind of research in the face of Muslim opinion that states the Koran is divinely inspired? This book is probably unreliable but nonetheless interesting.

    The Name of the Rose
    by Umberto Eco
       This murder mystery set in a fourteenth-century monastery is a fascinating look at the medieval mind, with lengthy discourses on theology, politics and scholarship, and the mystery is plenty suspenseful. I do think, however, that if everyone in the middle ages was as long-winded as these characters, it's no wonder it took them a thousand years to get over the fall of Rome.

    The Living Alphabet
    by Warren Chappell
       A very brief history of writing and typography, this is nonetheless fascinating as it traces the evolution of the Roman alphabet, and offers a number of insights into the ways in which economic pressures to save parchment produced changes in the style of lettering.

    Breach of Faith
    by Theodore H. White
       Watergate seems an enduring mystery if only because sabatoging the McGovern campaign wasn't particularly necessary, seeing how he went on to lose 49 states. White does an excellent job of explaining the Nixon administration: how, despite the many successes it earned, it cultivated a culture of seige, and encouraged lawlessness within its ranks. An excellent overview of the whole sorry episode.

    The Myth of the Great War
    by John Mosier
       You may recall from my review of Ferguson's The Pity of War that I was left wondering how Germany lost World War I. Well, Mosier gives the solution: the American Expeditionary Force beat them. Mosier's work has been controversial, but he does a great job of explaining what the various armies actually did on the battlefield in terms of tactics and strategy in a clear voice for lay readers (as opposed to most histories which merely parrot the official line of the British Army), and what he reveals will leave you shaking your head in horror at the senseless slaughter perpetuated by British and French high command. The most enlightening book on the Great War I've ever read. The maps, however, are atrocious (one shows the front line in June 1914!)

    Poland
    by James A. Michener
       Michener's technique of inserting fictional characters into thoroughly researched historical settings is a great hook into the vivid saga of the Polish people, who have again and again saved Western civilization (I'm not kidding - look up the Battles of Tannenberg, Vienna, and Zamosc). There's a little too much of the personalities of the fictional characters for my taste, but it is a novel after all.

    The Two Towers
    by J.R.R. Tolkien
       While the movie was a bit of a disappointment (forgoing the mystical elements of the book makes it just another swashbuckler), the novel keeps up with the first installment, although it does give a little break from the epic poetry. Again, not so easy to read aloud as to oneself, but well worth the effort.

    Whining: 3 Steps to Stopping It Before the Tears and Tantrums Start
    by Audrey Ricker and Carolyn Crowder
       Although it's aimed at parents of slightly older kids, the advice in this book seems practical, particularly the ideas of having kids do chores to feel like a contributor to the family, and refusing to give in to whining. We've been using the latter (and Abe does pitch in with the laundry, particularly riding around in the basket), and the level of whining is slowly diminishing.

    Paris 1919
    by Margaret MacMillan
       This is the ideal history book: it thoroughly addresses the overall picture, but fleshes in the story with exquisite characterization and colorful anecdotes. It covers the peace negotiations at the end of World War I, and the illumination of previously recondite (to me) issues in the settlement of frontiers in eastern Europe and the Middle East has given me a new appreciation for the complexities faced by modern diplomats.

    ...and the Horse He Rode In On: The People vs. Kenneth Starr
    by James Carville
       Don't ask me why I read a partisan screed about Whitewater five years after it's all over, but Carville makes a persuasive case that the entire investigation was fueled by Republican bitterness over losing the 1992 election. Reading this, I finally realized why the American public never got behind the impeachment of Clinton: they recognized that Clinton was trying to play the game by the rules established by his prosecutor (i.e., anything goes), and not undermining the Constitution. Carville is his usual blowhard self, but if you look beyond the style there's a wee bit of useful analysis.

    IBM and the Holocaust
    by Edwin Black
       As a case against IBM for complicity in the mass murder of millions of Jews, this is a stunning revelation. As a readable history, it's a little dry. Black does a good job of outlining the corporate culture that enabled IBM to continue to work with the German government in its program of genocide, but it is a business book, so he also presents lots of contract negotiations, reorganizations, mergers and acquisitions, and all that stuff that clogs the Wall Street Journal every day. I couldn't make it past 100 pages, but someone more interested in that type of material will doubtless find it a fascinating book.

    Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years
    by Carl Sandburg
       I read this on the recommendation of Ian Kabell, and he picked a winner. Sandburg condensed his original six volumes into one book, but his portrait of Lincoln as a personality, as a thinker, and most importantly as a politician feels true. Sandburg, being a poet, is excellent at capturing imagery of the natural world which Lincoln occupied, but he also brings out important items from Lincoln's correspondence to show the currents of his thoughts.

    President Grant Reconsidered
    by Frank J. Scaturro
       The standard histories tell us that Ulysses S. Grant was a great general but a lousy president. Thinking about it, though, it doesn't make a lot of sense. Would our country have really endured the chaos of the post-Civil War period under a do-nothing, corrupt administration?
       Scaturro, president of the Grant Monument Association (which led a long effort to restore Grant's Tomb in New York), makes a strong case that Grant's historical record has been misrepresented by historians who disagreed with his policies. The evidence is that Grant was a powerful, innovative executive (he pioneered the practices of impounding funds and international arbitration) who was the last president to stand up for African-American civil rights until Harry Truman. Along the way, he indicts a number of biographies (including McFeely's, the review of which I've reconsidered) for distortion of Grant's record based on blindly following predecessors back to Grant's own time, when his alienation of the Eastern elite led the academe to call him unflattering names. It's as though the record of Clinton's presidency was written based entirely on the National Review.
       If historians pick up Scaturro's thread, we should see a strong reversal of prevailing opinion about Grant, which will better reflect the reality of his administration.

    Six Days of War
    by Michael B. Oren
      Oren's comprehensive tome on the Six Days War of 1967 does an excellent job of covering the byzantine inter-Arab politics as well as the Arab-Israeli and Soviet-American diplomatic tracks that led to the war, and it also provides a new measure of insight into the baffling military decision-making on the part of Egypt that led to the sudden collapse of its forces. The author had unprecendented access to Arab archives and conducted dozens of interviews with high-ranking officers who previously had been unavailable to Israeli writers. The coverage is slightly slanted toward the Israeli point-of-view, but the war plans and strategic thinking of the Arab forces are well-represented.

    Moon over Willow Run
    by Dan E.L. Patch
       I picked this up thinking it would be neat to read a story set in my own neighborhood (which, in the 1940's, was home to the world's largest airplane factory). But Patch's story is about a missionary to China torn between two lovers, and only the last chapter is about Willow Run at all. It's the lamest sort of 1940's fiction, with stock characters and stilted dialogue; additionally, it's liberally sprinkled with Bible verses and unsubtle calls for the reader to find Jesus, which don't do much for the narrative.

    Ulysses S. Grant
    by Louis A. Coolidge
      Although it was published in 1917, this book remains one of the few Grant biographies to focus on his presidency. The coverage of his war record is slight (but provides a good overview of the grand strategy), but the coverage of his administration is well-balanced, with appropriate criticisms of Grant's failures at politicking and also analysis of his successes (particularly in dealing with the economy and foreign affairs.) The passages on Reconstruction seem to blame the freedmen for white resistance to universal suffrage, though, and are questionable.

    The Great Rock and Roll Joke Book
    by Dave Marsh and Kathi Kamen Goldmark

    Fortunate Son
    by Dave Marsh

    Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, Vol. 1
    by Dave Marsh
      My loving wife Jessica noticed that I wrote elsewhere on this site that Dave Marsh is my favorite rock and roll writer, so she got me three of his books as an anniversary gift. I based that assessment on The Heart of Rock and Soul, a book I read so much that its binding fell apart, and Glory Days, a brilliant biography of Bruce Springsteen in the 1980's that contains the best description of album-making I've ever read. These three are a mixed bag, but all worth the price.
      The Great Rock and Roll Joke Book is simply a collection of the kind of jokes you'll hear if you spend more than half an hour in a music store ("What did the bassist get on his IQ test? Drool.") What makes it odd is that it has both an acknowledgements page and a foreword by Roy Blount Jr., as though it's a real book. Good for cheap yuks.
      Fortunate Son collects articles from Marsh's career as a magazine journalist for the likes of Creem and Rolling Stone. While I'm not 100% in agreement with Marsh's judgment (Bob Seger is a "genuine rock genius"?), it's fascinating to get the view on a band from a contemporary point of view (he wrote about the MC5 and New York Dolls while they were still together, rather than assessing them posthumously). The thing that disturbed me was realizing just how many of my own critical ideas seem to have come directly from Marsh's. I'm just a cheap imitator. If you like this page, hurry to get some of Marsh's work.
      Born to Run is that odd creature, a rock and roll biography that focuses on the music of its subject. Very little of Springsteen's apparently dull personal life is included, but many of the details of his concerts (including transcriptions of a number of his onstage stories) and recording sessions are laid out. The E Street Band is treated rather skimpily, unfortunately. Marsh seeks to point out what made Springsteen stand out in the musical world of the seventies, but he does so by denigrating everyone else; it's one thing to say that many musicians made rather formulaic music to appeal to the masses, but it's another to include Elton John, one of rock music's true weirdos, in that group. Overall, an excellent primer on Springsteen's early career.

    READER COMMENTS

  • From CosmicBen: my copy of The Heart Of Rock And Soul also fell apart from overuse. It's currently in two pieces in a box in my room. Split right on the page about Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing' (no significance there, just a detail). Maybe it was just put together really cheaply? Still, it's the best rock book I've ever read.
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "B Book! B Book!." Steve says: "What can I say, it's a monumental work. Thanks for writing!"

    The Reconstruction Presidents
    by Brooks D. Simpson
      Reconstruction has always been a recondite area of history for me, tied up in Congressional politics and state legislative elections – hardly the most thrilling of topics. But Simpson does an excellent job of providing a summary of the events of the decade after the Civil War from a Washington-centric perspective. Undoubtedly he glosses over many important details about life on the ground in the South, but after reading this volume I feel much better informed on the topic. He pursues objectivity, even assessing Andrew Johnson's racist policies in light of Johnson's stated goals, and raises the important question about Ulysses S. Grant's presidency: who could have done it better, and how? A highly useful overview.

    A Storm in Flanders
    by Winston Groom
      Groom is best known as the author of Forrest Gump, but he's also an award-winning historian. This volume covers the battles of the First World War around Ypres. Although it concentrates almost exclusively on the British point of view (using the career of Adolph Hitler to represent the German soldiers), his research using primary sources excellently evokes the living and fighting conditions. More problematic is his defense of Haig's tactics and strategy, and his naked scorn for Lloyd George. It was interesting to read (the first time I ever have) the positive case for Haig's fighting style, but it was not convincing, particularly in light of Mosier's volume (see previous review.) Excellent maps.

    Around the World in 45 Years: Charlie Brown's Anniversary Celebration
    by Charles M. Schulz
      In this post-modern age of all irony all the time (how else to explain the existence of Fox "News"?), is there a place for Peanuts? I sure hope so. Schulz's strip is one of those touchstones of post-war American culture that explains the anxieties of a generation far more than any scholarly tome, and it never fails to provoke either thought or smiles. This collection of all the strips published in 1994 shows Schulz losing his touch a little (to be expected, I suppose), but it's particularly valuable for the essay in which Schulz explains his motivations for creating the characters, and his philosophy of never pandering to the lowest common denominator (what other cartoonist made a punchline out of Grey's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?) I hope Abe grows to cherish this humor as much as I do.

    READER COMMENTS

  • From CosmicBen: Schulz certainly did lose it towards the end. I read Peanuts every day for years in the 90's and it rarely even made sense. I've read one amateur comic critic on the net who wondered if Shulz just put random panels next to each other to make his strips.
    On the other hand, I have a dozen old Peanuts collections and they consistently make me smile. Not to mention the classic cartoon shows. Shulz was a legend, but he should have retired years ago. And for all of the hoopla after his retirement (and death), I'm not sure why they're still running Peanuts every day. It's anti-climactic. Or maybe I'm just soulless.

  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Dinah blow." Steve says: "From what I understand, they're only running re-runs of strips from about 1970 on, because Schulz didn't feel he developed a consistent drawing style until then. Oh, but the best jokes were earlier. Either way, I still enjoy almost all his work. Thanks for writing!"

    Naked Pictures of Famous People
    by Jon Stewart
      Stewart is an invaluable and hilarious corrective to what passes for journalism today in his role as anchor of The Daily Show, and this slight tome of his sketches is pretty funny, too. Particularly good were the piece on Martha Stewart Vagina and (careful: spoiler) the story of the high school reject who shows up at his reunion seeking revenge, only to find several others who have beat him to it. It's a ripoff, though: even with double-spacing and wide margins, it fails to clear 100 pages, yet retails as a regular length book.

    The Best of Will Rogers
    by Bryan M. Sterling
      Rogers has a reputation as a genuinely warm human being, and judging from the biographical material interspersed by the editor, he was. But his humor was so cynical – essentially accusing every politician of corruption, and encouraging voters to stay home – that it's hard to see what made him so popular. He never met a public figure he couldn't demean.

    A Traveller's History of Canada
    by Robert Bothwell
      Part of a series designed to give travelers a broad view of a country before visiting it, this volume tackles the large problems facing Canada's evolution evenhandedly but without much color; even Trudeau comes across as just another prime minister. Includes a useful guide to visiting historic sites in Canada.

    Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
    by J.K. Rowling
      Rowling has abandoned all pretense that her audience is children; the vocabulary is adult level, and all the Briticisms are retained. Her characters are getting more and more subtle (Umbridge is brilliantly written), but the plot lacks the classical arc that defined the previous Potter books. It's a bunch of very exciting things that happen all in row. We couldn't put it down, naturally, but it's a little less graceful than earlier books.

    The Boggart
    by Susan Cooper
      A reviewer recommended Susan Cooper for readers who want more in Rowling's style, so we picked this one up because Rowling seems to have stolen the title for one of her monsters. It's an engaging tale of Old Magic that finds itself in Toronto, with well-drawn preteen characters and a nice glimpse of Highland culture.

    Games to Play with Two Year Olds
    by Jackie Silberg
      Silberg's got hundreds of suggestions, about a dozen of which Abe really loves. Indispensible for parents who really don't want to play "London Bridge" for the 700th time.

    How the Irish Saved Civilization
    by Thomas Cahill
      Cahill importantly brings a little known fact of medieval history to light (the role of Irish monasteries in preserving classical texts and re-Christianizing the remnants of the Roman Empire), and he does it with a passion for the old stories, and a lyrical voice. A delightful read.

    A History of Ireland
    by Mike Cronin
      I'm proud of my English heritage, but they were bastards to the Irish. Cronin doesn't capture much of that; rather than illuminating anything about the life of the Irish, he details legislative and administrative affairs through the centuries, although he does provide a bit of color in brief biographies of some leading characters. Fairly dry, but a good overview of Parliamentary politics in Irish development.

    The Savage Nation: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Borders, Language and Culture
    by Michael Savage (I didn't actually read this, just flipped through it in the discount bin)
      I suppose I'm glad about the spate of liberal attack books — if we're going to have a politics whose main form of discourse is the screed, both sides ought to have ammunition — but I've noticed a difference among the two camps. While the liberals (with the exception of Michael Moore) seem to actually write their books, the conservative books read like they were dictated. For all I know this book and Hannity's and O'Reilly's might just be transcribed from their radio shows. The problem with simply spewing a book off the top of your head is that it's much easier to just invent facts as opposed to actually doing research.
    I can forgive all that, though, 'cause that's what these books are all about. But is it too much to ask that they proofread their own manuscripts? Then again, Savage's defense of the Nazi-complicit pope is so ill-informed that he probably thinks his name was "Pious XII".

    READER COMMENTS

  • From Jason Adams: I'm glad you didn't actually PAY FOR and READ The Savage Nation, as I think that much exposure to a fourth rate conservative blowhard (I think he rates somewhere below Rush, Hannity, and O 'Reilly) might do some permanent damage. One thing I love about your site is that you take the time to capture little impressions you get of something as you're going through life (e.g., a song you hear at the hardware store) where most of us let it go.

    American Slavery 1619-1877
    by Peter Kolchin
      Kolchin writes a clear-eyed summary of the economics and daily conditions of slavery, making useful comparisons to slavery in other cultures and pointing out where other historians have tended to miss the mark. An extremely helpful overview, with a good section on the impact of emancipation and Reconstruction, this book really opened my eyes about a lot of assumptions I had been making. I only regret I never read it earlier.

    The Gateway Trip
    by Frederik Pohl
      This is a science fiction collection of stories about humans discovering artifacts left by early explorers from an alien race. I like the concept, but Pohl doesn't do nearly enough to tie his fragmented ideas into anything like a cohesive theme. The opening short story is a winner, but the remainder of the book consists of 2- to 10-page teasers. Ultimately frustrating.

    To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown: An Autobiography
    by Berry Gordy, Jr.
      Gordy, the founder and kingpin of the Motown music empire, pulls no punches. He vividly describes the Detroit of his childhood, his early failures and his burning ambition, as well as his reckless love life (eight children by five women). As fascinating as this all is, there's not a lot about the music, and the book is more useful as a portrait of a successful businessman than a look inside one of the most amazing music scenes ever.

    Barenaked Ladies: Public Stunts, Private Stories
    by Paul Myers
      I guess this is technically a biography in the sense that it's a non-fiction book about particular people. But it fails as a chronological account of the events in a career. Rather, it flits frustratingly between backstage vignettes, lenghty reminiscences by band members, and randomly chosen analyses of song lyrics. Two key chapters in the band's career – the runaway success of Gordon and the tense sessions with producer Ben Mink – are referred to only in passing. Since this is the authorized biography, I can only assume the band doesn't think people really care about their career.

    Smokey: Inside My Life
    by Smokey Robinson and David Ritz
      For a guy who's written 4000 songs, Smokey Robinson doesn't seem to remember much about them (although it's fun to learn that "Cruisin'" was inspired by the Rascals' "Groovin'"). Nor does he seem to have had any interesting interactions with the Miracles, who each get one sentence of mention. But his crack habit of the eighties and his wife's struggle with infertility get several chapters each. I know musicians are ego-centric, but shouldn't their success as musicians lead them to believe that people want to read about their music?

    The Five Books of Moses
    Translated with commentary by Everett Fox
      Fox, a scholar of Biblical Hebrew, attempts to present the Pentateuch in English, but preserving the rhythms and idioms of the original. It's a fresh look at the literary qualities of the books, and his commentary does a good job of pointing out those aspects of the text that are traditionally neglected by straight prose translations.

    Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
    by Joseph J. Ellis
      To what level has academic history stooped when a professor has to precede his book with an apologia for writing about prominent politicians? Anyway, Ellis does a good job of supporting his thesis that the early years of the Republic were fraught with danger of the disruption of governance, and his portraits of leaders such as Hamilton, Adams, Madison, and Washington at crucial points in the 1790's are compelling writing with vivid explanations of the fine points of constitutional debate for lay readers. Although he does little to hide his Federalist sympathies, Ellis brings the period to life and frames the intellectual content in stirring narrative.

    The Greatest Music Trivia Book Ever
    by Paul Sullivan
      Not so much "trivia" as "random facts about music that Paul Sullivan thinks are interesting." It is fun to read through short essays on playing the Jew's harp or twelve-tone music, but some of the facts are dodgy, such as a list of "Bands Named After Places in America" including "Rich Springfield" or "The Wedding Mix Tape" including Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" (great if you plan to break up during the reception.)

    One-Night Stands with American History: Odd, Amusing, and Little-Known Incidents
    by Richard Shenkman and Kurt Reiger
      Fun little stories about famous Americans, mostly illustrating their sense of humor, occasionally their pathological narcissism or cruelty. Good bathroom reading. The section on recent history includes some invective against Bill Clinton (they mock his pledge to run the most ethical administration in history, but aside from himself, he did!) that makes you question the validity of the rest of the book.

    Keys to Parenting the Gifted Child
    by Sylvia B. Rimm
      Of course Abe is gifted! How could he not be? Seriously, I just picked this up in case he turns out to be, but it's aimed at parents of school-aged children, and offers lots of concrete tips to nurture creativity and help cope with being bored at school. Seems useful.

    Loving Each One Best: A Caring and Practical Approach to Raising Siblings
    by Nancy Samalin and Catherine Whitney
      With number two on the way, it seems important to figure out how to keep the sibling rivalry down to a dull roar. The authors offer practical tips and a bit of perspective to ease the fears of parents. Refreshingly honest about the limits of a parent's ability to control things, too.

    A History of the Crusades: The First Crusade and the Foundation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Vol. 1
    by Steven Runciman
      Runciman is thoroughly grounded in medieval languages: the sources he cites are all original manuscripts of the period, in Byzantine Greek, Latin and German. This is an authoritative text on the subject, providing good background on the politics of Asia Minor in the century before the Crusades, and providing as much characterization as can be gleaned from the sparse chronicles. More maps would be useful.

    Glimpses
    by Lewis Shiner
      A beautiful but haphazard novel about a man who can draw music out of the ether of untapped possibilities (for example, a tape of the whole Smile album). Shiner's way of describing how music gets made and what motivates musicians compensates for the lazy self-loathing of the narrator.

    Say Goodbye: The Laurie Moss Story
    by Lewis Shiner
      I actually enjoyed a work of fiction enough to read another by the same author! Shiner's fictional account of a struggling musician who never hits the big time is even better than Glimpses, with its knowing details of the work of making music, and solidly portrayed characters. Like Laurie Moss, Shiner had to give up his art and take a day job, and the world of books is poorer for it.

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