Mouldering on the Shelves

These are capsules of books I read in 2004. Comments? Mail me.

Mouldering on the Shelves:

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris

I enjoy David Sedaris most when he's talking about his family or other universal moments that most people can relate to. It's tough to plan a book of his essays that I'd enjoy more that Dress Your Family.

The stories are all beautifully written, funny and thought-provoking, which is what you sort of expect from Sedaris at this point. My favorites include “A Can of Worms” for its writerly organization and perfect punchline and “Repeat After Me” for its honesty. But there aren't really any bad ones here.


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave, Frederick Douglass

Douglass's Narrative is remarkable both historically and literarily. As a description of conditions for slaves in the South in the 1850's, it is valuable and interesting. But probably its lasting contributions are literary. Douglass writes about the events he's experienced with a powerful, clear, poetic voice. His prose style must have made this book particularly accessible and powerful to people of the time who were blind to slavery's evil. Today, the words still veritably ring from the pages without sounding stilted or forced.


The Time Machine, H. G. Wells
The Invisible Man, H. G. Wells

These are classic science fiction stories from an founder of the genre. I never read these as a kid, and I'm just as happy that I didn't until now. They work just fine as adventure stories, except for certain deus ex machina moments in The Time Machine, but looking at the subtext is considerably more fun.

Both of these are about how people and societies work and interrelate, and though some of the focus is informed by Wells's Victorian perspective, the lessons are not limited to those times. People don't change a lot at the level Wells is considering them

In any case, the stories are both well written, interesting and worth reading and thinking about.


Who Let The Dogs In? Incredible Political Animals I Have Known, Molly Ivins

This is a retrospective of Molly Ivins's political writing for the last few years. If you've never read her work, or are laboring under the impression that she's some kind of shill for the Democratic party, pick this up and enjoy.

That said, she's a progressive in the 1920's sense of the world. She thinks that governments should actually help people better themselves and not just help the wealthy. She's probably a little farther left than I am on this (one of her columns mentions voting for Nader in 2000 on purpose, but she's pragmatic enough to have warned swing state voters not to).

She's also a fine journalist and an excellent writer. Even if you disagree with her politics, her description of the goings on in Texas and in America are a joy to read.

If you're one of the folks who are so distraught over the 2004 election that you're talking about moving to Canada, you really should buy and read this book. Read the articles describing the continuing shenanigans in the National Laboratory for Bad Government - Texas according to Ivins. Hear the concern and caring in her voice. But also see that she does understand and respect those who disagree with her for good reasons. And most importantly see her sense of proportion and good humor. And she's been tilting at these windmills in Texas for 20 years.

In my opinion, if you want to go to Canada because of the 2004 election, you should have to write Molly Ivins a note explaining why you think that's OK for you to do. Now, she's a compassionate person, so I suspect she'll let you out, but I bet you won't be able to write the letter.

Read the book, anyway.


Collected Short Stories, Volume 1, W. Somerset Maugham

Maguham's an acknowledged master of the short story, so I was excited to read some of his work and get a feel for it. Unsurprisingly, he deserves the praise. Each story is well crafted and interesting, and in the few cases where the machinery of storytelling is visible, I couldn't help but be impressed by the clean lines of the workmanship.

He's not so plot-bound as O. Henry or as fantastic as Dahl but each story is well contained, has a point, and holds the reader's interest from start to finish. Very nice and lots of fun.


The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom

I read this much earlier in the year and haven't reviewed it until now, just because I forgot.

Five People is certainly going to be compared to Tuesdays with Morrie, and I don't think that the comparisons are going to be very favorable. That's not because Five People is bad, but that Morrie was so impressive.

Five People is a well-written, heartwarming fable, but not much more that a diverting one. It's an interesting character study and moves along, but it I didn't come away from it looking at the world and lives differently as I did after reading Morrie.

It's better written than many of the fables and inspirational stories out there - in fact quite a solid little book - so I feel bad damning it with faint praise. But faint praise is really all I have for it.

As I See It, J. Paul Getty

Autobiography is a very odd thing.

Getty's, As I See It, was written fairly late in his life and it's kind of hard to regard it as a personal hard sell. He's clearly writing for posterity and is honest about many things to the point that he feels is reasonable and possible, but I clearly felt that there were things left out. Some probably due to self-delusion, some due to politeness, and some due to self interest or self-preservation. But I get the impression that perhaps not so many things were left out as might have been, or even that a modern capitalist like Trump might leave out.

It's an oddly engaging book, and he conveys a sense of a real person who happened to live the extraordinary life that he did. I don't for a second believe that this is an impartial account, but it is interesting and engaging.

Worth Reading.

Tokyo Underworld The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan, Robert Whiting

Yep, more on Japan, courtesy of Rod Van Meter.

This makes an interesting companion volume to Embracing Defeat. Dower's looking at things as an historian and an academic while Whiting's proceeding by analogy from an interesting story. Both are sides of a similar coin, and both are worth reading.

As I say, Whiting's telling a great story, in particular the story of a fellow named Zappetti who arrived in Japan at WWII's end and set himself up in the black market and eventually introduced the Japanese to pizza in a big way through a set of restaurants and nightclubs. Throughout it all, he's always in the shadow world of the “legitimate businessman” who's also a foreigner in Japan. That he did so well makes for an enlightening story. You learn much from where Zappetti failed as well, though perhaps he did not.

Whiting writes well and he's got a fun story. And he doesn't think twice about leaving Zappetti for 10's of pages at a time to tell other interesting, loosely related stories as well. And most have a point, which is a feature. This is much more accessible than Dower's work.


Embracing Defeat, John W. Dower

Embracing Defeat is a very interesting book about a fairly unusual event - the post WWII occupation of Japan by the U.S. Looking at it objectively, the fact that the outcome was pretty reasonable for the world is remarkable. The US was unilateral in its actions, ignorant about the society it was trying to reshape, capricious in its edicts and not even consistent with its ideals. And yet, rather than an unmitigated disaster, we have modern Japan.

Dower's research seems strong and his presentation clear and balanced. Still the enormity and outcome of the thing make for a degree of puzzlement. It's tough to imagine that things worked as well as they did, or really to understand why they did, though I don't think this is Dower's fault.

There's much to think on and much to learn in here.


Homegrown Democrat, Garrison Keillor

I've seen a pretty vitriolic section of Homegrown Democrat posted on the web and as an op-ed in a couple places which I think is unfortunate. The piece makes it sound as though this is a completely partisan screed, and heaven knows the shelves are full of them for the 2004 election. Even if you've seen the excerpt and were put off by it, give the book a chance.

Keillor's very displeased by the current state of the country and makes no secret about it, but this is not a book describing what he's against. In fact, there are passages that are nearly as vitriolic as the widely circulated one that criticize the extreme left of the Democrats. It's a book describing the reasons he supports the Democratic Party and what core values have motivated that support. It lays out a belief that government should be a way for the people to support each other and help the group prosper when hardship strikes some, as it can. The idea of government as a manifestation of mutual concern and sacrifice is a refreshing one, and Keillor makes that viewpoint seem natural and reasonable. (Which of course it is, but sometimes one needs to have one's nose pointed out again.)

The philosophy outlined is closer to a populist point of view than most would credit the Democrats of pushing, but there's really no point in putting a name on it. It's a call for basic compassion and, believe it or not, tolerance. It may also be a wake up call for people who believe in those values to see how poorly the current administration is expressing them. Or not. It is a clearly articulated, moving call for a government that helps people express their commitment to and compassion for their neighbors without intruding excessively. Even if you don't believe that the current crop of Democrats is pushing that view, it's refreshing and enlightening to hear it.

Strongly recommended.

Big Russ & Me, Tim Russert

Tim Russert seems like a decent guy who thinks that old blue collar neighborhoods are great places to grow up. He also thinks his dad is a great guy who's helped shape his character for the better. Now, because I also think that my small town was a good place to grow up and that my dad is a man of great character who shaped mine for the better, I don't have much to argue with Mr. Russert about on the facts. He also writes competently, if not poetically, and the book was a fast, reasonable read. The only thing I really disagree with are the merits of the Buffalo Bills as a football team; my father raised me a Steeler fan.

All that said, I didn't find this a great book. There's nothing wrong with it, but there's nothing that makes it stand out as a brilliant memoir. There's nothing to make it stand out as an awful memoir, either. I suspect that if you have a fondness for memoirs about growing up with a good father in an Upstate NY town in the '60s, this will be a pleasant diversion for you. If you're not predisposed to that kind of thing, I don't think this will sell you on it.

Give Me A Break, John Stossel

So, Stossel's apparently a consumer reporter who has found the free market. While I'm generally happy for him, he's embraced it a little more than I think is sane. Now, to be fair, he does point out some places that markets don't work - providing a national defense, for example - but basically he's a free market/libertarian kind of guy and this book is his explanation of how he got that way and perhaps why you should be too.

Now, I haven't seen any of his TV stuff, but it sounds like it's interesting rational stuff. Lots of his observations in Give Me A Break make sense. I disagree with some of his conclusions from them, but I certainly see his point of view.

I found the book interesting, even if it didn't change my life. It's almost the biography of a viewpoint, which can be a dicey bit of business. As I say, since I don't agree completely with the viewpoint, I'm not sure why one would chronicle its evolution, but it was an interesting enough description.

I suspect we could have an interesting talk about politics and economics, but I can't really recommend the book. Your mileage may vary.

The Hornet's Nest, Jimmy Carter

I've heard good things about Carter's Revolutionary War novel, and was excited to read it. Unfortunately, it's a mixed bag.

Carter's clearly done his homework. He presents the situation in the South at ground level during the Revolution very clearly and believably. Carter knows people well enough to understand how much role happenstance and personal relationships, including the desire for revenge and personal loyalty, as much or more than idealism determined which side an individual fought on. The situations his characters find themselves in are illuminating and worth thinking about. The problem is that none of his characters are very memorable or dynamic.

The result is a novel that feels like it's been written by your history teacher. It's all clearly well researched and captures the politics and personal opinions of the times, but you sort of expect review questions after each chapter (Not that there's anything wrong with that). Where The Alienist or City of Light bring an exciting plot or lively characters into the same sort of well-researched and imagined world, Hornet's Nest doesn't really do either, and so one is forced to admire the set construction as the tepid play progresses.

An interesting attempt, but ultimately flawed. It would be interesting to see what Carter's command of the period could do mated with a writer gifted with plot or characterization.

Logging Flight Time, William K. Kershner

If you have even a passing interest in the little things that make great hangar stories, spend a few dollars for Logging Flight Time. Kershner's seen and done an awful lot, from flying carrier-based WWII era fighters to teaching aerobatics in Cessna 150s. He's got a lot of stories and a charming pen with which to tell them.

This contains a bunch of articles published elsewhere, and if you're an AOPA Pilot completist, you may have many of them. Furthermore, it helps to know a little something about flying, as Kershner's writing for pilots or aviation enthusiasts, not the general public. But you don't have to know too much, and I suspect that the style and charm come across even if the reader's background is not extensive.


Sleeping with the Devil How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, Robert Baer

This was a little breathless for my tastes. I was hoping for a measured, reasoned discussion of US/Saudi relations and the implications for both sides. What little I know about the topic indicates that the US is doing a lot of favors for the Saudis to keep the oil flowing here, and that some of those favors extend to the point of recklessness, so I'm actually somewhere in the target demographic for this one.

However, I was hoping for more evidence and less hearsay. I understand that Baer's working significantly from his own experience in the CIA, and he can't always tell his readers how he discovered a given fact. I would prefer that he substantiated more and spent less time reminiscing about his dealings with gun runners and chats with Saudis in 4 star restaurants.

A lot of interesting ideas and hearsay, but nothing I could take to court. I guess I'm funny in wanting evidence.

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

Well, I hate it when the judgment of history is right on a topic I've been grimly opposing it on without sufficient information. Hawthorne's an excellent writer and The Scarlet Letter deserves the significant praise it's received.

If, like me, you've been put off by the dreadfully stiff Hawthorne short stories one has to endure in high school, do consider giving the old boy another shot. He writes a fine many layered allegory and manages to bring his characters to life as well. Skip the pretentious and uninteresting intro, though.


The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius, Michael Moorcock

As a huge Invisibles fan, it's pretty inexcusable that I've lived this long and never read any Jerry Cornelius stories. Now I have. Eh...

So, yes, the stories are very stylish and snarky. Yes, the subtext under the exaggerated comic narratives has real criticism in it. But it just didn't gel for me.

Perhaps it was the critical regard that the Cornelius stuff is held in that made me expect more, but I didn't think they were exceptionally funny or exceptionally insightful. They're the type of think you'll like if you like that type of thing, I guess. Apparently not for me, though.

Exception to the Rulers, Amy Goodman and David Goodman

Amy and David Goodman are the producers and reporters for Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now!, and this is advertised as a collection of work on the second Bush Administration. While I appreciate the job they do as professional gadflies, and agree with their general assessment of our democracy, the book wasn't very satisfying to me.

They spend a little too much time putting themselves center stage. While I respect the difficulties of being a reporter in their position, if those experiences are to be the topic, I'd prefer a book titled Why Advocacy Journalism Is Difficult and Necessary. I was hoping for a more clearly articulated criticism of the administration.

Now, my expectations aside, the book is fairly diverting and does make several cogent observations about the state of mainstream reporting today and what a reporter's role in society at large should be. There are plenty of humorous and harrowing anecdotes about how the Goodmans carry out their ideas of those roles. As a discussion of those roles, it's very interesting. Just mistitled.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss

Yes, it's another style book. Well, it's really a combination tortured scream against the decay of proper punctuation, a manual for how to punctuate correctly, and a history of the practice. It's also good fun.

Truss is witty, eloquent, and outraged, which is always a nice combination. She's got a fine grasp of the function and form of punctuation and isn't afraid to speak her mind. Her inability to resist advocating if not starting a militant wing of the mild-mannered Apostrophe Preservation Society speaks for itself.

Sadly, she's British. This means that almost every double quote placement looked wrong to me, and therefore I had a very visceral understanding of her description of the silent screams caused by her readers' reactions to mispunctuated sentences. (Of course the fact that the British placement is more sensible shouldn't enter into this at all...)

Unfortunate accidents of birth aside, Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a source of great joy if you have any interest in expressing yourself in the written word.


A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

Bryson brings his wit, erudition, and skill at bringing topics to life to bear on the history of science, and we're all the richer for it. Now, this is not a deep probing of science at the geek level that I usually like; Bryson's not Asimov.

One of Bryson's skills is to bring the humans behind the science to life in a few sentences, and more importantly to bring their contributions as clearly into focus. The result is a great overview of a broad range of scientific progress, from general relativity to evolution.

Bryson's pessimism still comes through. The same fellow who details the myriad threats to life from Australian flora and fauna has a field day with the variety of ways that the universe may have missed being created or that life on the planet can be obliterated. He's right, of course, but brings it alive with comic overstatement that one somehow believes isn't exactly put on. It's fun.

This is a great overview of the world of science. Enjoy it.


Broken Music, Sting

While I'm a great fan of the Police, I confess that Sting's memoir left me pretty unimpressed. While I'm certain that his life was difficult, exciting, fun, and trying for him to live, his writing about it is uninspired. It's sort of uncomfortable to dismiss the book that way, because the life behind it is, like everyone's, a unique one. But for me, it never came alive.

There are no horrific gaffes in the writing, except maybe the repeated protestations that the author is not pretentious. But there's no elegance or sparkle to it either. Perhaps your mileage will vary.

Hornet Flight, Ken Follett

A potboiler, but an excellent potboiler. Follett's telling an espionage/adventure story set in WWII involving, among other things, small airplanes. The characters are all fairly stock figures, but despite never being unsure how things will turn out, the reader comes to root for the good guys and hiss the bad ones. Mix in remarkably accurate aviation descriptions and there's not much to dislike.

Hornet Flight won't change your life forever, but it is a fun read.


That Old Ace In The Hole, Annie Proulx

In The Shipping News Proulx vividly described the inhabitants of Newfoundland, an isolated community bound together by tradition and hardship through the eyes of a newcomer in need or redemption. Swapping “the Texas panhandle” for “Newfoundland” in that summary summarizes That Old Ace In The Hole pretty well.

That's one of those statements that's factually accurate, but gives the wrong overall impression. Ace isn't very plot driven, so an uninspired plot doesn't really hurt anything. The magic here is the mix of Proulx's immersive research and sparkling writing style. She's able to capture the place of a place remarkably, and creates a vivid world that is easy for the reader to dive into. Often writers who do this kind of thing wind up creating a place that's saccharine rather than the proper mix of sour and sweet that occurs in reality. In Ace, Proulx brings the reader to a place that rings true, and that rings differently that Newfoundland.

There's a feel of Main Street, but with more appreciation for the physicality of the surroundings and more beauty and economy of language.

Now, I've only been through the Texas panhandle, so Proulx may well have swindled me. But her panhandle and the small town of my youth share enough attributes that I sort of doubt it. And if I have been swindled, I've been fooled in a way that left me enriched and happy.

Highly Recommended.

Air Vagabonds, Anthony J. Vallone

Vallone's telling the story about a bunch of pilots who ferried small planes across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the mid-70's to mid-90's. They're still doing it today, I'd guess. For those of you who have never been up in a single engine Piper, this is very gutsy business. You have to add fuel tanks and fuel delivery systems. And if you lose your engine over the Pacific, you don't have a lot of choices. Not to mention the ice over the Atlantic in winter. Brave guys.

In addition there are all the human and political problems with flying small planes into, say, Angola unannounced. The problems can range from having to bribe some people to a prison term.

Vallone's story is engaging and honest. Of course, he's mostly writing about friends, so no one comes out too badly. And you can't fly the Atlantic for all those years and not have some great stories. He tells them well, they're fun to read, and they're a little sad as the ride comes to an end.


Following the Equator, Vol 1, Mark Twain

Here is Mark Twain, late in life, circling the globe and telling whatever stories that reminds him of in the course of providing a travelogue. I don't know if he's so free to speak his mind because of his age, or if he just always spoke his mind, but it's both refreshing to hear him decrying European exploitation at the turn of the 19th century and depressing to note that it's still widespread.

That's not to say that this is a long political screed. He's certainly critical of Western civilization, but he's critical of lots of things, including his own shuffleboard play. There are plenty of descriptions of Australia, Hawaii, shipboard life, friends from the States and anything else that strikes his fancy to write about as only Twain can.

I like Mark Twain, and if you do too, you'll probably enjoy this book. I prefer Life On The Mississippi, but not by much.


Flying the Weather Map, Richard Collins

Every time I sit down to read a weather book, I think it will finally be the one that will make me confident in reading those pesky charts and be able to predict flight conditions with unprecedented clarity. If there is such a book (and I doubt it), Flying the Weather Map isn't it.

That's not to say that there's not a lot to be learned from Map, just that my expectations are kind of high.

Collins's book is clear and interesting, and more importantly honest. It's the story of a year of flights in his Cessna 177 that encountered weather. Sometimes it's very clear from the maps what he was getting into and that's what he got. Often it's less so. Frequently he's clear that there's significant hindsight involved in his explanation, and significant uncertainty in his forecasts.

I learned a fair bit about the weather from it, and importantly that it's hard to be exact.

Recommended for pilots.

The Proficient Pilot, Vol. 1, Barry Schiff
The Proficient Pilot, Vol. 2, Barry Schiff
The Proficient Pilot, Vol. 3, Flying Wisdom, Barry Schiff

These are aviation books. If you're not a pilot or aviation enthusiast, these are probably pretty dull. If you are, these are quite a lot of fun to read and offer opportunities to explore aviation as well.

Schiff's a long time aviation writer and airline captain who writes a regular column for the AOPA's magazines. These are largely column length essays about various aspects of aviation from the very technical ideas like determining when you should try to return to the runway on engine failure to the more picturesque like interesting instrument approaches the world over.

Schiff's writing is clear and draws the reader into the topics. His insight is that of an experienced aviator who isn't afraid to take the airplane out and test his ideas with a real device. The latter is particularly great fun, because it encourages the reader to do the same. I've done some of his experiments and never been disappointed with what I've learned.

Strongly recommended to pilots.

The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker

This is the second Pinker book I've read, and I'm impressed with him as a scientist, a writer, and a thinker. His topic here is the idea of human beings having an innate nature - one shaped by natural selection - and the reaction of modern thinkers in other fields to this possibility.

Certainly the idea of human nature as genetic and innate is out of vogue, and Pinker describes that situation well. Beyond that he makes clear, supportable statements about the evidence for human nature and what that means for the thinking in those fields. The result is a well thought-out exploration of the topic.

These are certainly deep waters. Even quantifying what a human nature might be and what it means to talk about nature, nurture and reasoning is fraught with peril. Generally Pinker approaches it with a careful eye, but even he makes occasional statements that I think are broad.

Highly recommended.

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