Mouldering on the Shelves

These are capsules of books I read in 2002. Comments? Mail me.

Mouldering on the Shelves:

Skipping Toward Gomorrah, Dan Savage

I like Dan Savage. If you already agree with that statement, this book will be fun for you, and you can skip the rest of the review. If you've never read Mr. Savage's sex advice column or his other books (one of which is just a collection of advice columns), here's the scoop. He's a funny, uninhibited, liberal gay man with a fair amount of common sense, a lot of opinions and he expresses himself remarkably well. If you are offended by the sort of person who enjoys picking on Bill Bennet, or the sort of person who will mention sex acts in a description of foreign policy, you should pass on this one.

This is Dan's answer to Bennett's Slouching Toward Gomorrah in much the way that Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot is Al Franken's answer to Rush Is Right. The idea is that Dan will go out and commit each of the 7 Deadly Sins, and write a chapter about it. Which is what he does, in the same way that what he does each month is write a syndicated sex column. That is to say, it provides a basic structure that he violates whenever he has something else to say. Dan writes well enough that this works, but I suspect that most writers shouldn't try it at home.

Skipping is a series of vignettes that will leave you chuckling and thinking for a while. Assuming you're still reading the review, buy it and enjoy.


Beyond The Checkride, Howard Fried

Hey, hey - pilot book!

This is a fine book, chock full of experiences and ideas from a long-time pilot, FAA examiner, and a lot more. It's a concentrated burst of hangar flying that's not to be missed. If you're so poor from your aircraft payments that you can't buy the book, at least read the weather flying case study in Barnes and Noble.

Too much good stuff written too well to cover it all. Treat yourself if you're a pilot. If you're not, it may be fairly opaque.


Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls, Mark Twain, edited by Kent Rassmussen

I love Twain, so I liked this. It's a collection of short pieces and excerpts from larger works that are all thoroughly enjoyable. It's tough to say if this short book would give you a taste to go on and read more, or not. What the heck, try it and see.

Hoot, Carl Hiaasen

Hoot is a kids' book by Carl Hiaasen. I like Hiaasen a lot, but honestly one thing that Hoot made me realize is that he's a natural as a kids' writer. In his work, who to root for is rarely unclear, and the good guys usually win. Hoot largely shares these virtues.

However, that's not to say that Hoot is watered down or completely shies away from difficulties. The protagonist has plenty of problems to go with his perhaps surprisingly good attitude. The characters he encounters and the world around them has real problems. There are broken homes, and other real problems that aren't all solved at the end.

I haven't mentioned it, but Hiaasen writes well, with a quirky sense of humor and the story is well paced. It's fun to read even for an adult. That's good, because in a perfect world, parents and kids would be reading this book and enjoying it together. Give it a try, especially if you have a young person to share it with.


Who Owns History?, Eric Foner

This collection of Foner's essays touches on a broad range of topics in modern history, from the fate of his advisor's ideas to changing views of history in a post-Cold War Russia, to the place of Black Americans in the country. In isolation, each essay is fairly interesting, and some are very thought-provoking. However, they're ultimately a collection of good but fairly disjoint essays. They all do touch on the place of history and historians in the modern world, but I was hoping for a more coherent work.

Global problems aside, the essays are all locally good. Foner writes well; is very accessible as a serious historian, even for amateurs like myself; and discusses areas of history on which Americans, like myself, are underinformed, such as Reconstruction. There's plenty to think about here.

As good as the essays are individually, this is probably best for history buffs.

James Madison, Garry Wills

Madison isn't remembered as one of our great presidents, and Wills invites us to consider the hows and whys of that. Madison's in a difficult spot as a president, he's an early one, and has been instrumental in defining the powers of the office he's wielding. He's also been critiquing holders of that office for years as Jefferson's, well partner or lackey, you pick. He's also enmeshed himself in the War of 1812 as the first president to test war powers. A consistent course is difficult to say the least.

It's fair to say that Madison was a better legislator than an executive. It's also probably fair to say that as a presidential test pilot, he makes a good engineer. All that said, it's interesting and edifying to see how he deals with the problems of the presidency, and that Wills does a good job bringing them out.

Still, fairly dull unless you're an aficionado of American history.

Them Adventures with Extremists, Jon Ronson

Them is one of those delightful books that's both fun to read and edifying as well. The premise is that Ronson spent some time with extremists from various areas of the physical and ideological world, finding the similarities (global conspiracies) and differences in their world views laying them out for us. However, somewhere along the way it becomes clear that the way is more tangled than it might have appeared going in, and that there aren't a lot of glib easy answers. Now, that's not to say that Ronson believes that the KKK folks he spends time with aren't racists, or that racism is a good idea. However, the extremists are people, and never dehumanized.

It helps that Ronson's both an excellent writer, and that he has a good eye for the people and ideas even in the midst of genuine craziness. He does a good job taking the reader through the craziness he's seeing without preaching, but bringing ideas as well as personalities into sharp focus. The result is a book that is rare and wonderful: a book about conspiracies and the people that are in them that leaves you with something to actually think about.

Highly Recommended.

The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay

You're unlikely to find anyone with much bad to say about The Federalist, and for good reason. As a collection of essays on how to make a republic work and specifically on the ways that the US Constitution was designed it's difficult to find better.

A modern reader has to be impressed by Madison's erudition as he scours history for precedents for and against republics, and perhaps even more so with Hamilton's pragmatic assessment of the workings of the branches and the need for a government that encourages industry. Much of the value in looking at these essays is not only in finding where they were blindsided by events, but also in where they clearly foresaw what many naively assume to be modern problems. Clinton's impeachment would probably not have surprised the Federalist authors as much as the Miranda case would have, for example.

It can be slow going plowing through 18th century verbiage, but the payoff is well worth it.

Weather Flying, Robert N. Buck

This one's really only for pilots, Buck's well respected reference on flying in weather. It's a technical book for pilots about flying which limits its audience, of course.

Now, I can't evaluate his advice meaningfully, not having flown a lot of weather here in Southern California, but I can say that his explanations are clear, candid, and make a lot of sense. I'm planning to follow his advice until I see good reasons not to.

Recommended to pilots.

The Planet That Wasn't, The Relativity Of Wrong, and The Stars In Their Courses, Issac Asimov

These are collections of Asimov's science and math columns from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. They're wonderful. Each essay covers an interesting topic in science or math clearly and entertainingly, teaching the reader and encouraging further thought. They really couldn't be better, unless the books were still in print.


I Thought My Father Was God And Other True Tales from NPR's National Story Project, edited by Paul Auster

This is a fascinating collection of short stories - really short as in less than three pages. Collected by Paul Auster for segments on NPR, they're wonderfully odd glimpses into life in America across the last 50-100 years.

Now, not all of them are wonderful. In fact, there are way too many "and then I found out that the person I dreamed about died right when I dreamed it" stories. But there are many genuinely moving and surprising tales here, and perhaps due to their small size, it's hard to put the book down once you read one. It's hard not to read the whole collection and not find several that speak to you.


In Our Humble Opinion, Tom Magliozzi and Ray Magliozzi

I love the Car Talk guys. This is a collection of them going off on various topics, most of them unrelated to cars. Their voices come through clearly, and their opinions are interesting, but I still like the show better. Their thoughts are interesting, but hold up a little less well in print than they do in jovial conversation on the radio.

Still fun, but the show's better.

A History of the Twentieth Century Volume 2: 1933-1951, Martin Gilbert

The twentieth century was a pretty harrowing time, which is brought home rather spectacularly by Gilbert in the second volume of his epic history. The period covered here (1933-1951) centers on the Second World War, but Gilbert does an excellent job going beyond the battles and tactics of the war to illuminate how the forces that shaped the war shaped much of the rest of the century.

My high school history education invariably seemed to grind to a halt before much of WWII was discussed, and this work does a good job showing how and why the war occurred, and how and why we're still paying for it 60 years later.

Highly Recommended.

My Uncle Oswald, Roald Dahl

I like Dahl's short fiction. This work is an attempt to do a novel length adventure around his lecherous, conniving Uncle Oswald. It's fairly enjoyable, but light stuff.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Richard Feynman

Feynman's a brilliant guy and fairly charming, so it's always attractive to read some of his work. This is a collection of short works. Like many such collections, this is a bit uneven. There are some fairly technical talks, a couple chapters from his books, and other stuff. Overall, it's interesting to read but not thrilling. Many of the same points are repeated, but many are worth repeating. One of the best things about the book is that although it's been edited, it hasn't been diluted, as a result we get to hear this brilliant man say some politically incorrect things that remind us how everyone's fallible.

For me the best piece was the seminal minority report on the 1986 Challenger disaster.

Dave Barry Does Japan, Dave Barry

I like Dave Barry, and if you do, too, you'll probably like this book. The premise couldn't be simpler: Dave Barry goes to Japan and writes funny things. So, I liked it. But I didn't love it.

The sad fact is that the book seems a little dated. In Dave's mind, the backdrop for a lot of this is economic competition with Japan, and although there still is some it's not at the forefront of everyone's mind. Blame globalization, I suppose. Also, sadly, Dave's a bit of a food wimp, and that makes him look a little provincial to me.

Mind you, he's still Dave Barry, so the book's fun, funny, and even enlightening, but those are the reasons I wasn't destroyed by the book.

The Shipping News, Annie Proulx

A tour de force from Annie Proulx. The book sort of sneaks up on you, especially if you've heard all the good reviews. I was reading it, thinking it was fun, and waiting for the fireworks, and halfway through I realized that I had become as entwined with the protagonist's new world as he had. Neither one of us had understood it fully (or might ever), but it had become real around me (and him).

Only a great writer could make it as effortless as that.

Highly recommended.

The Joy of Sumo A Fan's Notes, David Benjamin

If you've got even a passing interest in sumo, and you're even a mild sports fan, this is the book for you. Benjamin has a great grasp of what's going on in sumo and a good feel for what people like about watching sports. He's a big fan, thoughtful enough to understand why, and writes well enough to explain it to you without breaking the spell.

The book's hard to find, apparently (mine was loaned to me by the legendary Rod Van Meter). If you can find it, read it.


Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx

It's hard not to love Annie Proulx's writing. She's succinct, precise, insightful and compassionate. The idea underlying Accordion Crimes is a bit like like a writer's bet - follow an accordion through 100 years or so of owners, and tell an interesting story at each point. Not surprisingly, she's more than up to it.

The result is a great book. Even the parenthetical comments are short stories in themselves. The accordion crosses the country a couple times and never manages to find an unbelievable or boring owner. The resulting trip through America, music, and English is not to be missed.

Highly Recommended.

Basket Case, Carl Hiaasen

Hiaasen's rapidly becoming one of my favorite light authors. His work is fast paced, fun, and written beautifully. About the worst thing one can say about a Hiaasen story is that his good guys are a little too good, and that his bad guys are a little too, well, not bad, but thoroughly greedy and ignorant.

His writing is the other great joy. His beautiful sentence quotient is remarkably high. His journalistic background shows up here. His writing is clearly the product of getting people's attention quickly and holding it. Life as a reader is easy around him.

Reading one of his adventures is a nice reaffirmation that there are reasonable folks out there in the world and sometimes they come out on top. These days that's not the worst message to hear.

Highly recommended. (So's Sick Puppy).

Main Street, Sinclair Lewis

I picked this up on a whim, knowing it is well regarded in American Literature. A few pages in I was concerned that this was going to be a condemnation of small town America, but it's much more. Lewis does a fine job capturing the ills of small town America, but that's not much of a feat. What's particularly impressive is how well he captures the compensating upside in a way that's not hackneyed. After spending much of the book beating up Gopher Prairie, by the end of the book, we see why a rational human might actually choose to spend time there.


Breaking The Maya Code, Michael Coe

This is really much more a book about Mayanists than about the Mayans. Mayanists seem to be regular humans, which is unfortunate in such a small, challenging field. One with a less optimistic view than I have might believe that Mayan studies has achieved its successes in spite of its practitioners. Such a mindset may lead one to despair about the whole scientific endeavor. Those conclusions would almost certainly say more about the frame of mind of the reviewer than the book, though.

Coe's book is an interesting account of the process of scientific discovery and puzzle solving from an insider. Even if you don't know anything about the Maya, or really care to, the book is worthwhile as an exploration of how people do science.

Try to stay optimistic.


Will Eisner's Shop Talk, Will Eisner

This is a collection of interviews conducted by Will Eisner in the early 1980's with a who's who of American comics talent. This is certainly going to find a limited audience, but as a huge fan of Eisner and the medium, I really couldn't pass it up.

The interviews are a mixed bag, depending on the person being interviewed, and Eisner's mood and experience level with the interview at the time. Some are a little bland, and some, like Harvy Kurtzman's, are a wealth of knowledge and opinion. In general, they're very strong, and it's easy to see why. Eisner's one of the great comics talents and thinkers about the medium, and he's interviewing other professionals, most of whom have left an indelible mark on the form.

Recommend if you're even an amateur student of comics.

The Art of Arrow Cutting, Stephen Deadman

Deadman's put together a perfectly enjoyable little fantasy novel, set in a reality that's basically ours with a full twist. His characters are almost a little too easy to like, but for a light adventure, they're a lot of fun. Living in LA, I appreciated his local color. He's also obviously a comics reader, which shows (I caught at least one homage to Frank Miller's Classic The Dark Night Returns).

He takes a fun set up, and works it out logically and entertainingly. His cheerful protagonists are at first unsure what they've got, figure it out believably, and finally come to terms with it well. They may be awfully nice guys, but as thinkers they're tough to doubt.


The Black Box, Edited by Malcom MacPherson

This is a collection of cockpit voice recorder transcripts from major air crashes. That has sort of a morbid feel to it, I suppose, but there's a certain attraction to hearing people's last few minutes.

Overall the choices are OK, but left me a little bored. Only the last one really impressed me, and that one's worth the book.

Unsolved Mysteries of Science, John Malone

Malone does a good job taking some of the areas in which there's significant scientific disagreement, and making the arguments understandable. The book is basically a tour guide to scientific hotspots, complete with a reviewed bibliography for each topic.

Malone writes engagingly and accurately, and never pretends to have the last word. It's a nice tour of the current state of science. And the title's fun to say with a little reverb.

Strongly Recommended.

Thunder In The Mountains The West Virginia Mine War 1920-21, Lon Savage

Interesting story of a major uprising in West Virginia in the 20's that's largely unknown outside the area. It's unsurprising that it's unknown, as I suspect that the coal operators don't want to be remembered for their shady dealings, and the unions don't want to be remembered for nearly rebelling against the US government.

That overstates the case a bit, but only a bit.

Savage does an adequate job bringing things to life here, but it's pretty clear who's side he's on. Though I largely think he's picked the right one, I also think there's some whitewashing involved, too. His miners are little worse than angels with dirty halos, and the operators faceless forces of evil. He does do a good job humanizing some of the sheriffs and townspeople who resist the march. Largely, though, things are a bit too neat.

Still, this is a valuable effort to preserve a bit of history that would otherwise disappear.


Black Seas of Infinity The Best of H. P. Lovecraft, H. P. Lovecraft, edited by Andrew Wheeler

So, here's the deal. I didn't finish this, but that's not because I didn't like it. Lovecraft's a master of horror, writing very much in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe. But like Poe, he's so good at the horror, there's only so much I can take at a sitting.

This stuff is super creepy, and written a sophistication and precision. But it's just too rich for me to eat a lot of.

Recommended, in small doses.

Flight of Passage, Rinker Buck

This is Rinker Buck's memoir of the week that he and his older brother spent flying a radio-free Piper Cub across the country in 1966, when he was 15 and his brother 17. Now, without question, I'm going to love this book. The only real question is whether someone less in love with the excitement of general aviation will.

Happily, I think that the answer is yes. Rinker has written an honest memoir that's as much about growing into your place in your family as it is about flying. Probably more, but I like the flying parts. When he's telling the story, his voice is a perfect 15, but as lessons come out, the older wiser Rinker weighs in compellingly.

As I say, he's honest and writes well.


Fraud, David Rakoff

Rakoff is a brilliant writer. In terms of writing technique, he is certainly one of the finest writers I've ever read. Unfortunately, as I read these personal essays, it seemed that the personal part was missing. Somehow, I just couldn't connect with him.

Fortunately, Rakoff recognizes this attribute of his writing, and actually, surprisingly, uses this very aspect of his personality to forge a meaningful connection. It's quite a feat, and apparently carried out at a real personal cost.

The book is solid for both technically brilliant writing and then for the final beautiful connection.


The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return Of The King, J. R. R. Tolkien

These books are such classics that normal ratings really don't apply. I hadn't read these since junior high, and the recent movie rekindled my interest. They're really much better than I remember them, and I thought they were awfully good at the time.

Tolkien's a master of characters who grow on you and become real, but who walk through the larger than life world of myth. The Lord of the Rings is an epic drama with all the internal consistency and magic of a fairy tale, and through it walk these real people, half shrouded by genre conventions, but there nonetheless. Both the workmanship and the art are fantastic.

Of course, it's not perfect. The women don't get much of a role, and Tom Bombadil still grates on me. But the power of Tolkien's words, and the scope of his themes both of the worlds and the heart, still captivate.

A must.

Double Star, Robert Heinlein

I don't remember why I was supposed to read this. But I'm not sad that I did. It's a Heinlein book, so you probably know everything you need to know about the style and quirks. I like to read Heinlein for the interesting ideas he churns out like clockwork.

The interesting ideas in Double Star all revolve around identity. The basic plot is that an actor is convinced to replace a kidnapped diplomat at a key moment in Earth/Mars relations. A few hour job keeps being extended with a predictable plot.

But the plot's rarely the thing in Heinlein stories. The questions of identity, what constitutes it and what purposes it serves are primary here. And, of course, what happens when it's subverted.

Of course, a discussion of those issues is really outside the scope of a review.

Recommended if you enjoy reading Heinlein.

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