Friday, October 22, 2010

There are Four, Dammit!

The Three Musketeers (Bantam Classics)The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Well that's over. It took a long time to get this book read for bookclub, partly because of an injury that makes reading a bit uncomfortable. But the book wasn't helping. Shallow melodrama isn't really my cup of tea. It's like the script for a really long cartoon. Everyone's either wicked or honorable, with no middle ground, and why they might be good or bad is not delved into. They seemingly fall in love at the drop of a hat, but express it in the most overwrought language. The wicked people are ultimately more interesting than the honorable, but it's hard to care about any of them.

And anyway, there are four musketeers! And the fourth is essentially the lead character! Whatever dude-mas.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Rogue Scribes

Misquoting JesusMisquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd prefer to give this book 3.5 stars or something. The writing is super pedantic and repetitive. I listened to the audiobook and it was fairly easy to space out and not lose the thread because of his writing style. While the book might be disturbing for those who take the Bible literally and believe all of it is the inerrant word of God, for the rest of us, it's interesting as a history of the actual text of the Bible. Ehrman describes what we know about how the books of the Bible were written, which ones were chosen to be part of the New Testament, and how they came down to us, since the original manuscripts are unavailable. He goes into great detail about how the Bible was transcribed before the invention of the printing press, how the text was translated and changed over the centuries, and what kinds of variations can be found among the various early manuscripts. As a scholar, his goal has always been to try to recreate the original writings -- to the degree that's possible.

The variations and changes made by the scribes who copied the early manuscripts of the New Testament are not insignificant, but mostly related to matters of doctrine, it seems. I don't think they would change most people's main conceptions about Jesus and how he lived. But the book offers a great broad perspective on how Christianity grew from a Jewish sect into a major religion. And it gives important historical context for the compilation of what must be the most influential book in history.

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Monday, August 9, 2010

Kinda Gross

Lord Grizzly (Buckskin Man)Lord Grizzly by Frederick Manfred

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book I've been meaning to read for decades. My niece reminded me about it recently, when she was raving about it. It was handed about and admired in my family, and it's a fictionalized account of a bit of South Dakota history. And Manfred came and spoke in a literature class I took in college, so I feel sort of connected to him.

He's a great storyteller. His writing is very vivid, at times too much so. The time he is writing about includes a lot of fairly disgusting things -- early 19th century, frontier hygiene; festering wounds; eating of freshly killed and uncooked animals; maggots and lice; bloody battles in which men are scalped; buckskin clothing crusted with sweat, old food, blood, etc. I like that the author doesn't pretty it up for us, but it makes for an uncomfortable read, sometimes.

The main character, Hugh Glass, is presented as an experienced and careful mountain man with extraordinary resourcefulness. But he's not emotionally complicated. I liked the way Manfred wrote him as a whole person, with regrets and strong affections and blind spots and rage. But he didn't make him into a deep thinker, by any means. The author hints at some of the larger issues at work in the story, like the white trappers viewing the Indians as amoral for doing the same things that the white men were doing. Interestingly, we also see Glass railing internally against the settled East where he came from, which he thinks of as ruled by harpy-like women who force men into nice clothing and stifling jobs. But Manfred doesn't dig too deeply into these issues, so his story feels authentic. We're left to ponder the right and wrong of the characters' actions ourselves, which is just fine.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Christian Country

The Wordy ShipmatesThe Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sarah Vowell doesn't disappoint. This book wasn't quite as enjoyable as Assassination Vacation, but I blame her subjects for that. The Puritans are even grimmer than three assassinated presidents. She focuses specifically on the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was founded several years after the settlement at Plymouth Rock and differed from them in some key ways. One of her main themes is the dissenters within the colony (dissent taking the form of theological differences of opinion).

I especially liked her portrayal of Roger Williams, a man banished from the colony for his loud-mouth opinions. Though even more purely Puritan than most of his neighbors, he ended up in hot water on religious grounds. He advocated for a separation of religion from government, fearing that civic involvement would just drag God through the mud and get him involved in lowly dealings. He was ultimately banished and went on to found the first settlement in Rhode Island (the first settlement to get a charter from the king that codified freedom of religion -- the oldest American Jewish temple is in R.I.). Vowell's portrayal of Williams is engaging because she captures how, though he would have been a pain in the ass to live with, his ideas were important. (He even said that the King of England didn't have the right to deed land to the colonies -- the colonists should have purchased it from the Indians. He paid the Indians in Rhode Island for his land there.) Vowell gets at the idea of how dissenters upset day-to-day routine, which would have been significant in a new settlement in the wilderness where people are just trying to survive the winter. But we have to make room for them in a free society. Vowell says about Williams that is hard to like him, but easy to love him. And she makes her case.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Failing to Fear the Reaper

Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement by Lauren Sandler

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I probably shouldn't read this type of topical nonfiction. It relies fairly heavily on the idea that some ominous cultural or political activity is getting bigger and bigger and is about to threaten our Very Way of Life. But while I am a naturally anxious person, I'm totally on to these yahoos that need to make me believe that swine flu/homophobes/feminists/Republicans/immigrants/China/Muslims/etc. are about to bring about some sort of dystopian future. I get that there are threats in the world, and people with whom I completely disagree. And people with bombs and guns and stuff. But fear is counterproductive. It's not a good basis for a worldview. It does, however, sell lots of books and magazines.

The author of this book is talented -- she writes engagingly about the young evangelicals. She looks at many different parts of the whole: "alternative" ministries reaching out to pierced and tattooed types (I like to think of them as Bedazzled) with slang-filled but still very conservative messages; the home-schooled ultra-conservative politicos at Patrick Henry College who are looking to take over Washington; the evangelicals in the military that believe God brought about the Iraq and Afghan wars so that they can bring Christianity to the Middle East; the goth church in Texas run by Jim and Tammy Faye Baker's son; the folks trying to get "intelligent design" into the public school curriculum; Stephen Baldwin and the Extreme Tour; and many more. And it's alarming stuff. She interviews many people along the way, and I found myself arguing in my head with many of them. How can you believe women are to be subservient? Why do you think other people must believe as you do? Why must this be a "Christian nation" -- there are people of all faiths here.

I think the author did a good job of showing how religion was of personal comfort to many of her subjects, while still decrying their political views. (She made no bones about being alarmed by the whole movement.) She notes that evangelism is clearly popular because so many young people are unclear about how to have meaning in their lives, feeling disconnected from their communities. But she wants her readers to be really freaked out and, basically, to create something similar on the left. She calls for the secular liberals to have their own versions of the Christian rock festivals, skate ministries, political colleges, and self-help books she describes here, only with life-affirming messages from the left wing. Oy.

I'd try something a bit more basic. How about public programs and educational institutions that support the health, safety, and growth of our citizens? How about some regulations that prevent Wall Street banks from putting our economy in the toilet? How about an economy that does not depend almost entirely on the consumption of consumer goods for its "health"? Fanaticism, fear, and intolerance are often born from insecurity, poverty, poor education, or economic instability. Maybe if our country did a better job of supporting its most vulnerable citizens and working toward fairness and justice, we'd all be a little less susceptible to the fear mongers.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Meth in the Midwest

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This author clearly did a lot of research for this book, including many, many in-person interviews and on-the-spot observation. And the information is good and many of the insights he draws from it are valid. His goal is to tell the story of meth's rise in rural America and around the country, using Oelwein, Iowa, as his main case study and microcosm of the whole picture. But except for when he's telling stories of specific individuals, his writing style and his inability to avoid the stereotyping of small, Midwestern towns and their residents make this a kind of infuriating read.

He also does some serious over-reaching in terms of trying to place the significance of his material. Sars over at Tomato Nation is dead on in that respect:

But the thing that effs it all up for me is the tangly, overwrought sentences he uses when he's trying for significance and the unnecessary "othering" of his subjects. For instance, he's forever telling us what the local call things, as though it's an exotic practice. "The police station or 'cop shop' as it's called." "The Hub City Bakery, or what is referred to the regulars as simply 'the Bakery.'" Yes, how strange that the only bakery in town would just be called "the bakery." Shut! Up!

But then he confuses me by genuinely getting to know several main players -- a young prosecutor, a town doctor, former and not-so-former addicts, the mayor -- and telling their stories in a compelling way that includes an obvious affection and a level of complexity that shows respect for them and their lives. And his analysis of public policy issues, the changing nature of the drug trade and its players, and the role of the rural economies and large corporations all seems well researched and sound.

I guess what I find so infuriating about this book is that it would have been relatively simple for a competent editor to correct it's flaws. A few cuts and a bit of rewriting, and it would have been really outstanding. Makes me so mad!

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

I Liked The Stuff About the Dogs

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book was very enjoyable and a real page-turner, but sort of unsatisfactory in the end -- partly because I kept making unfair comparisons to A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. That book is also set in the rural Midwest and based on one of Shakespeare's plays (King Lear). Wroblewski's book is based on Hamlet and I don't think it works as well.

Edgar Sawtelle (who is born mute) and his parents raise a special crossbreed of dog on a farm in Wisconsin and do intensive and specialized training with them. The details about the work and about Edgar's relationship with the dogs and one in particular (who stands in for Ophelia) is really compelling. We hear the story of two generations of Sawtelles before the Hamlet plot kicks in. And Edgar's family life is portrayed as sort of an idyll, with the only sour note struck by his uncle, Claude, who stays with the family after being released from prison.

The problem, to me, is that Hamlet feels awkwardly grafted onto the story. There is a rather abrupt change in tone when Edgar's father dies, as though what came before is unrelated. Everything gets dark and sinister -- the family's grief gets magnified and twisted. Things start getting a little too crazy. My dim memories of studying a bit of Shakespeare in school include some stuff about tragedy. Didn't tragedy have to do with a person's essential character? What make events a tragedy is that those involved can behave in no way other than the one their essential natures dictate. Maybe I'm thinking of the Greeks? Anyway, it felt like some of the Hamelt-ian plot and character was forced on this book. The essential natures of the characters seem to change. He could have written a more believable and devastating story by just leaving the Danes out of it.

I may have felt differently about this book, if I'd never read A Thousand Acres, which took King Lear and his three daughters and put them on a farm in Iowa. Smiley transposed the machinations of Lear into the internal politics and secrets of a family farm. Having experienced a family farm, I was blown away by how clearly she got the details. I felt like I knew her characters -- they were SO familiar. And the conflict was not at all stagey. She is scary good. So, you know, Wroblewski was handicapped with me. But he's obviously talented, so I think he should just go it alone.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sticking It to the Victorians

The Way of All Flesh (Giant Thrifts) The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book was amazing, and I had a hard time putting it down, even when I was being sort of rude. I took it with me when I visited friends in Florida and kept picking it up whenever I could. It's about a child's emergence from a childhood with abusive and controlling parents into a confused early adulthood and ultimately rational manhood. Apparently, the author meant the book as a condemnation of certain Victorian views, especially about religion. The main character's father is a deeply flawed clergyman who takes his bad moods out on his son.

I really enjoyed the progress the main character makes and the sort of emotional puzzles he has to solve, like figuring out that the path that's been set for him is one he hates, and how hard it is sometimes to discover the things you really like to do. Or how unpleasant or hateful people sometimes don't get their comeuppance. I dearly love books like this that are all about the observation of human behavior and relationships. And moralizing. I can tell I'm going to be re-reading this one several times.

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Friday, March 5, 2010

Crazy Family

The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Just got back from our book club on this book. It launched many discussion tangents about racism, which was cool. The story is compelling -- about a Jewish woman who left her extremely unpleasant family as a teenager. She moved to New York and eventually married a black man some time in the 1940s. The book alternates between chapters about the author's upbringing with stories from his mother's life. There are a lot of aspects and layers to the whole thing: immigration (she was born in Poland), Jews and African Americans living in the south, the author's identity confusion, his mother's complete silence about her own upbringing (until he pried it out of her for the book) and general stoicism and abrasiveness, her embracing of Christianity, her having 12 children, her two beloved husbands, the family's struggle and poverty and ultimate success. The book wasn't flawless by any means, but it was a fascinating story.

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Suspicious Therapeutics

Dibs in Search of Self Dibs in Search of Self by Virginia M. Axline

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book sat on the bookshelf at home when I was a kid and I read it a few times. Lord knows where it came from as nobody in my family was especially interested in psychology that I'm aware of. It's about a form of play therapy meant to assist emotionally troubled children. The kid she describes (and gives the very weird alias "Dibs") is the child of affluent but apparently clueless and emotionally distant parents. The therapy seems to have a fairly dramatic effect on him in a short period of time (the length of a school year). It's satisfying in a way that the therapy I'm aware of is not: Dibs experiences beneficial changes that last. I'm not sure I believe this is nonfiction. Anyway, I ran into a copy at the used bookstore and felt the need to re-experience it.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Snake Oil

The Management Myth: Management Consulting Past, Present & Largely Bogus The Management Myth: Management Consulting Past, Present & Largely Bogus by Matthew Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I really enjoyed this book. The author explores the history and claims of management consulting. He exposes many of the professions most well-loved stories and gurus, including Frederick Taylor, Peter Drucker, and Tom Peters. He criticizes the pseudo-science used to "prove" the worth of management theory and the lack of real research from business schools. The arguments are fairly dense, but persuasive, and alternate with his own experiences as a management consultant, which are dishy and fun to read.

He wrote an article for the Atlantic several years ago that was the basis for the book. It's a great read:

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Monday, February 1, 2010


This is my new guee-tar. Isn't it pretty? Thanks to all the Christmas and birthday gift givers who contributed. Now if I can just manage to keep it from falling apart in my unevenly heated and dry house. It has a deLIGHTful sound.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Irritant Author

Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers and My Uncle Arthur, New York's Greatest Hoarders (An Urban Historical) Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers and My Uncle Arthur, New York's Greatest Hoarders by Franz Lidz

My rating: 1 of 5 stars
I'm not sure I can properly convey how irritating this book is. I picked it up because I've become mildly obsessed with a show on A&E called Hoarders, and I wanted to see what the famous Collyer Brothers had to offer. I'd heard about them -- Homer and Langley Collyer had crammed a Harlem brownstone full of tons of stuff in the early part of the last century and lived as recluses. But instead of giving me the Collyer brothers, this yahoo decided to make every second chapter about his Uncle Arthur, who was also a hoarder. And despite what it says above, there is no "and My Uncle Arthur" in the book's subtitle. I was promised "The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers, New York's Greatest Hoarders."

The list of this author's crimes is significant:
-He apparently didn't have enough material on the Collyers to even write a book. The book is short in the first place and half is about his own family. The Collyer material is minimal and cribbed from other writers. One Collyer chapter is really about the history of Harlem, which the Collyers were not really involved in, since they very rarely left their house. But at least his redundant writing style fills up extra space.
-His writing style is forced and strives too hard for atmosphere. Here he is on an evening in the Bronx with his uncle: "Nightfall flashed hot and jittery, full of frenetic longing that never seemed fulfilled." Ugh. His syntax and narrative twist around so that the chronology becomes unclear. He also repeats himself. Frequently.
-He doesn't confine the non-Collyer material to his Uncle Arthur, but writes extensively about his whole family—including passages of very bad poetry by his relatives—despite having written a whole other book devoted to his uncles. Apparently, he just Can't. Stop. Writing. about them. In fact, the photo on this book's cover is of his Uncle Arthur. IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT THE COLLYERS. God.

Around chapter 11, we finally get to some interesting stuff about the Collyer's and their piles of junk, but I'm not sure it was worth it.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Boris and Natasha BS

Child 44 Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book was apparently originally intended to be a screenplay, and you can kind of tell. It's a story of the repressive society in Stalinist Russia; the main character is a member of the state police force and we follow him through his transformation from good soldier to skeptic via an investigation into the murders of children. But the characters are all shallow -- motivation is sort of passingly accounted for, and we are told what the characters think and feel rather than given believable reasons for their actions. And his portrayal of the evils of Stalinism is a little heavy handed. I'm sure it was no cake walk, but I don't trust his account -- it was too black and white and his villains are like cartoon villains, with no nuance or complexity. And the ending was ridiculously abrupt and tidy, with the main character impossibly finding a happy ending. In other words, it's easy to see this as a Hollywood screenplay. The book, though, is tedious and annoying.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Tangled Affairs

A Severed Head A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I listened to this audiobook on the trip to S.D. for Christmas. It was very enjoyable -- a story about so-called sophisticated people trying to manage their love lives with multiple relationships and extra-marital affairs. The main character seems more concerned with "behaving well" in response to his wife's infidelity than getting angry. In fact, his mild reaction tends to belie his repeated avowals of love for her. That and the fact that he's been cheating on her for some time as well. Ultimately, the strength of his romantic relationships is contrasted with his fairly violent and more encompassing passion for an unlikely character. I really enjoy Murdoch's take on morality and human relationships.

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Monday, January 4, 2010


It seems like nobody in this freezing burg is happier to see me than the folks at Memorial Blood Centers. I'm on a regular donation schedule with them (give once, and they will hound your ass), especially now that I'm more than a year past that very suspect trip to Central America. Blood people are like the CIA when comes to your travel to malarial regions.

But it's not just that I'm a willing donor; I'm a friggin' universal donor! That's right. I'm type O- so I'm attractive to EVerybody. Even better: I'm negative for this one common type of flu virus, so they can use my blood for the preemies. Yeah, I'm all about saving babies. And my shut-in-like lifestyle means I can breeze through all those "risky behavior" questions -- no sex, no needles, no previous sojourns in dirty places like western Europe. My blood is like gold, y'all! And here I am trading it for juice and some Lorna Doones. Is there any way to make money on this deal?