Mouldering on the Shelves

These are capsules of books I read in 2005. Comments? Mail me.

Mouldering on the Shelves:

Our Endangered Values America's Moral Crisis, Jimmy Carter

I think Jimmy Carter is a very intelligent, thoughtful, moral decent guy. He thinks harder, speaks more honestly, and works at living up to his ideals as well as any public figure I've seen. I think the world could use more men like him. But, boy I wish his prose style was more gripping.

Values is an excellent piece of thinking and clear writing, put on paper by a very deeply religious man willing to take on fundamentalist religious thinking on its own religious terms. There are a lot of secular writers who do this sort of as a game – I've been known to – but that's not what Carter's doing. This is a man arguing people's obligations to The Lord who believes that determining and following those obligations is why he's on the Earth. He's not mouthing words to fit some party agenda or make a rhetorical or policy point. These are bedrock ideas for him, as well as for those of us who operate from different premises about the universe.

Unfortunately, it is “eat your broccoli” dull. I know it's important. I know the thinking is brilliant. I recognize the compassion in the voice, but it is not a work that motivates you to take up arms. You wind up agreeing and sort of nodding resolutely and pledging to do better.

Compared to all the shrillness in the marketplace of ideas today, though, I think that may be a strength, not a weakness.

Strongly Recommended.

The Truth with Jokes, Al Franken

Al Franken is a pretty upset guy. In my mind he's got a lot to be upset about. And he has a research team to help him find out exactly what to be upset about.

If you've read Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, you pretty much know what's coming here, except that there are many fewer jokes here than there. That's good, in my eyes, because the sketches and jokes were the weakest part of Lies. Here's an eloquent impassioned guy arguing for what he believes in. I generally agree with him, though I recognize his partisanship. There is more than one issue in Truth that is a bipartisan problem, but by and large I agree with what he's saying.

I don't really know if he could change any minds, though.

Dreams of Iron and Steel, Deborah Cadbury

The enormous engineering projects take center stage in Cadbury's fairly far-ranging book. Though also filled with the characters who drove these feats, the portraits often don't spring to life with the same force that the achievements themselves do. It's not that the people are given less coverage or that Cadbury doesn't write well, but the achievements always seem bigger than the people to me.

The achievements are pretty interesting though. Taken form a variety of fields and countries, they show how mankind has spent some of the last hundred years or so building grand objects. From enormous ships to the Panama Canal to the London sewers, readers get a look at how these incredible feats were accomplished and how they helped the people around them. And readers also see how more often than not these triumphs devoured one or more of their designers and creators.


Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer's one of the people who's worldview I basically share. As a result, I basically agree with the book, which is a cross between debunking some fringe beliefs and trying to figure out why people believe them.

The worst thing about the book is that it reads like a textbook. In fact, it reads like a pretty good textbook, but it's pretty dry. Preaching to the choir in dry tones doesn't make for the most exciting reading experience.

There's also a strange digression in the chapter on Tipler's strange proving God by science plans involving explaining Tipler's decisions in terms of his being an older child. Occam's razor doesn't require it and it seems like he's actually slipped into weird belief mode himself for a chapter. Odd.

Overall, a good, but not great read. I'd recommend Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World for someone not already a skeptic.

Naked Pictures of Famous People, Jon Stewart

Competently executed schtick.

Negotiating the Constitution The earliest debates over original intent, Joseph M. Lynch

An interesting survey of the First few Congresses and the Constitutional issues raised in them. Lynch makes a compelling case that the intent of the founders and the scope of Federal power has been a matter of politics from the very beginning.

He claims that deliberate ambiguity was accepted into the Constitution from the beginning and that the fuzzy limits inherent in that ambiguity has been a matter of push and pull throughout history. Such a claim makes original intent a quantity that is not very powerful in its specifics - different factions have always claimed the interpretation best suited to their interests. The original intent, Lynch argues, was primarily to give the government enough power to be workable. That's a definition that's going to be flexible by its nature.

Interesting, but somewhat dry.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

Clarke's epic fantasy is as nice a piece of world-building as you'll ever see. You're a good three quarters of the way through the book, which seemed to start as a fairy tale set in England, before you realize that you're engulfed in a completely separate world. It's great magic trick and not the only one waiting here.

The premise is that a pair of Englishmen are having some success working magic in England and stand to usher in the return of wholesale magic. Along the way there will be deals with the Devil, bouts of madness, war, peace, the exploration of a new world and a lot of dancing. And not many dull moments.

Clarke's writing captures the period remarkably well, writing as we imagine an early 19th century writer would cover these things, including the scholarly footnotes and period expressions. Another wonderful bit of magic is how well she captures the period without feeling stilted or stiff. Her words flow and draw the reader into the world so smoothly that you scarcely notice that there's anything special about them at all. Of course such effortless writing is certainly the result of much work, and it's clear she's polished the prose into the perfect shape to snare the wandering reader.

Strongly Recommended.

This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald

What a perfectly fascinating book. This clearly captures Fitzgerald's fantastic potential and ambition at the point he came to widespread notice. It's certainly a novel of fantastic promise. There's a fair amount of playing with form and insight into character. And the moments when the words align – and there are quite a few – are simply breathtaking.

Still, it's very clearly a first novel by a young man. The world view is sort of provincial. 1920's Princeton is not a milieu that speaks to everyone. And none of the characters really have the sharpness and staying power of Fitzgerald's more lasting creations. The novel's excesses here are all excesses of youth, and they're both its greatest strength and limitation.

What I found gripping about the novel is how well it captures a period of some people's life as they come to question the structures of society while still young and idealistic. Fitzgerald's stand-in here clearly walks a path from questioning nothing to being ready to opt out of society altogether, but stops with a clear impression that he's neither completed his journey, not sure where he's going. It's a frame of reference that's much easier to recognize than to describe; Fitzgerald captures it perfectly.

Interesting stuff.

We Are Lincoln Men, David Herbert Donald

This is not the most earth-shaking exploration of Lincoln I've ever read, nor did I really expect it to be. It was an interesting informative discussion of Lincoln's relationships, well told and interesting. It's the sort of book that will add a few tidbits to your Lincoln Lore, not the place to start.

Of course one of the more interesting sections is the discussion of Lincoln's relationship with Joshua Speed. There are some folks out there who believe that Lincoln and Speed were more than just friends, and this work doesn't shy away from such allegations - in fact Speed's not the only person mentioned in this light - but doesn't find a lot of support for them either. The topic is well covered, though, and should you have an interest, it's probably worth looking at.

Man Without A Country, Kurt Vonnegut

I'm a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut, as regular readers of these reviews will have already picked up. I liked Man Without A Country well enough, but unless you're a die hard fan, I wouldn't pick it up. An awful lot of the tone and content can be picked up on-line from I'm not sure there's enough for a middle of the road fan or someone trying to see if they like Vonnegut to latch on to here.

That's not to say that there's nothing here to enjoy or think about. I laughed out loud more than once. I generally think he's a wise man. But, to an extent, he's lost the ability to put a spoonful of sugar into his wisdom. There's no plot or much fiction to ease the ideas into your system.

As I say, I'm a fan, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I don't think it's his best work.

How Soccer Explains the World, Franklin Foer

Foer claims that he's developed a unique insight on globalization because of his love of soccer. It's an intriguing idea, and certainly I've had insights from simple pastimes like sports that assume grand significance when paired with the right overarching theme. But I learned more about soccer than about anything else from this book.

That's unfortunate I suppose, but I shouldn't cast things in too grim a light. Foer is informative and writes well. He's also picked an interesting set of elements of soccer on the worldwide stage to write about from the ultra violent hooligans of Serbia and Ireland to massive corruption in Brazil. And while he shows that soccer mirrors a wide range of human behavior, from the evil to the sublime, in and of itself, that explains nothing. Soccer's played by and watched people. It exhibits their foibles.

Still, one can learn a fair amount about soccer and about the places in the world it's played from the book, and it is an interesting read.

Complete Stories, Dorothy Parker

I've long been a fan of Dorothy Parker's one-liners and comic verse, and this is a long overdue look at her longer writing.

It's very easy to be deceived by her choice of topics into believing that her writing is lightweight. As a rule, though, she creates deep, real characters with a few words. It's easy to recall having seen the people she paints as behaving ridiculously; she also pulls the harder trick of making them so real that we realize that we are the people she's painted behaving ridiculously.

Technically, her writing has the sharp expression of a poet. Her best sentences embody Twain's comment on the difference between lightning and lightning bug. Parker picks the one with the charge. A delight.


The Big Con, David W. Maurer

This fine piece of work is a delight to simply describe. It's an in-depth exploration of the culture and operations of 1920's confidence men written by a linguist who used to pal around with some of the more notorious figures of the day. Now that sounds like the synopsis for someone's recent work of fiction, but instead is the provenance of this work. If it sounds familiar, it may be because this book formed the primary source for The Sting.

My delight in its origins aside, it's a fantastically entertaining and informative book. Maurer has the perfect mix of delighted groupie telling stories and serious academic investigating a fascinating culture to bring the world of the con man alive. He talks the talk delightfully - as the intro mentions, the opportunity to write sentences like “...better to shoot the roper and watch the mark light a rag for the coast.” that make perfect sense in context in a basically academic work must be a delight. The result is a narrative that just crackles, even when describing the otherwise boring details of defrauding the unscrupulous or bribing the police.

As much fun as it is to simply bask in the language (a glossary is provided to help with the knottier phrases), Maurer also lays open the operations of the system, unflinchingly pointing out how much the confidence men's success depends on the complicity of the police and courts. It's often eye-opening reading.

Though he often tries to put statements to the contrary in the text, it's clear that Maurer is on the con men's side. These are his friends, and he's willing to let their questionable means of making a living slide because of it. Of course that tone is less an issue today than in 1940 when the work was published.

Overall a fast, educational, entertaining read.

A must.

Mornings On Horseback, David McCullough

McCullough's a pretty well-respected history author, and this is a worthy subject to take a swing at for him - Teddy Roosevelt's formative years. As he's quick to point out, this isn't really about only Roosevelt as much as about his entire close-knit family and their way of life at the close of the Victorian Era.

It's a remarkable time in our history and the protagonist is in a unique position in it. As the asthmatic, scrawny child of one of the richest and most humanitarian men in New York, Theodore is at a unique confluence of forces. Fortunately, his family are prolific writers and there is considerable evidence to sift through and bring alive. McCullough does this, going beyond historical sources, for example, to research asthma in detail and apply that understanding to the historical record.

The result of the research and the careful construction and writing is an accessible and incisive exploration of what made Roosevelt the man he became. It certainly makes one think about where such leaders come from and how many of the forces that created TR are still at work today.

Highly Recommended.

Gone Flyin', Robert D. Tilden

I picked this book up in the gift shop of the Wings of Eagles Discovery Center, formerly the National Warplane Museum, in my home town of Elmira, N.Y. I don't live anywhere near Elmira now, and haven't for years, so this is an impulse buy in the extreme. I mention that just to point out that I'm someone who can't stop himself from stopping into an airplane museum and looking for stuff. If you are, too, you'll probably enjoy this book.

It's a charming set of columns written by a pleasure flyer of the Finger Lakes area who became a freight dog later in life. Even on the cargo runs he looks out the eyes of someone who flys for love, not money. Each column is well written and, certainly for pilots, evocative.

The book may have been written just for me. I also fly when I can and for love of flying. My plane of choice is a little newer and more complex than Tilden's Commonwealth and I hit fewer grass strips, but basically we fly for the same reasons. Though I learned to fly a couple thousand miles away, I grew up where he flies and more than once had the experience of either being able to see what he saw form the plane because I'd seen the feature from the ground, or recognizing a universal small plane experience that I'd experienced out in California. His writing speaks clearly to pilots who fly anywhere or people who live in the Finger Lakes region.

Overall the book is expressive and beautiful to read. He really does a great job communication the fun of flying and the beauty of the area, without slipping into the overly stilted phrases lots of aviation writers (and reviewers of aviation books) use to try to describe why we fly. It's a great delight.

Highly recommended.

Collected Short Stories, Volume 2, W. Somerset Maugham

I don't have much to say about these that I haven't said before. Maugham remains a great short story writer and a joy to read, and the quality of his work remains pretty constant from Volume 1 to Volume 2. Considering how good the first volume was, that's an achievement in itself.


Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling

Another classic that has suffered by comparison to the press it's gotten. I enjoyed these children's tales of how various phenomena came to be, but I didn't hear them read aloud, and I'm a lot older than the target audience. My age doesn't always block me from enjoying children's books, but in this case, things really didn't come alive for me. I would like to hear them read by someone.

Lone Star Nation, H. W. Brands

This is a clear, intelligent discussion of the road to Texas's independence. Brands makes the various people and their backgrounds and roles in the process clear and believable. He also displays a clear understanding of the myth-making that is embedded in any history, and perhaps particularly in Texas history. Though he pokes some holes in popular myth, he's not really here to topple any icons. He presents a readable, supported narrative of the struggle for independence with a voice that is sympathetic to the victors, but not without an understanding that they were human.


A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain

Mark Twain travels in the Alps and writes funny stuff. That's really the whole of A Tramp Abroad. I did laugh, and I generally enjoyed the book, but there's no more depth that that to it. A nice diversion. I liked it better than Roughing It.

Jailbird, Kurt Vonnegut

There's probably no one who sees human beings as clearly and affectionately as Vonnegut. There is probably someone who is more clear on man's capacity for evil or the harm of indifference, but no one communicates how those shortcomings are inherently those of people like Vonnegut does.

Jailbird's another look back at an unusual life from the perspective of a schlub who was at the lynchpin of events and did about average. He won a few, he lost a few, and clearly wasn't a great human, but a basically decent one. Vonnegut draws us into his story and presents even the villains, such as they are, with some compassion.

It's a nice piece of work. Recommended if you're a Vonnegut fan.

Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell

There are a lot of people for whom Sarah Vowell's time spent visiting historic sites directly related to the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley would be beyond dull. Not me, though. I like looking at history, but the trip as seen through her eyes is considerably better than it would be alone.

This is Sarah Vowell writing, so one expects to hear the funny phrases and the poignant moments. She doesn't disappoint, but what makes this different from other books about travel that are really about something else - say a P. J. O'Rourke book - is her genuine passion for and vivid description of the people who make history.

Though the book describes her trip to various places associated with these events, what she brings alive are the people. Both the heavy hitters of the stories - Lincoln, Roosevelt - and the bit players - Robert Todd Lincoln, Samuel Mudd - are conjured and vivified through her thoughtful and expressive writing. Even Garfield becomes someone you can imagine talking with. These people, not their houses, are what the history she's discussing is all about.

Along the way she also classily gives credit to the dedicated and passionate folks who keep these landmarks and stories alive, as well as implicitly condemning those who make it difficult to see and hear them. She also makes clear that the same problems that McKinley and Lincoln were having are the ones we have today without beating you over the head with it. If everyone saw history as the same crush of real peoples' lives, I think more people would follow history.

Finally, more than either of her two essay collections, this is a book. Everything is well tied together and clear themes and narrative run through it. Just taken literarily, it's a clean, well realized piece of work. All the technical stuff is so well executed that you never notice it, letting the unique and fascinating content shine.

Highly Recommended.

Sock, Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette's Sock perhaps defines voice in fiction. There's no one but Jillette who could have written it, and his ideas and style completely shape what's barely a whodunnit. There are some parallels with Irvine Welsh's Filth, but falling down that path is to analyze the trees and miss the forest.

The proper adjective for this book is “brave.” Jillette's a decent writer, but he puts his ideas and passions into the work with an intensity that produces the book's power. His opinions and ideas are not going to be popular, and casual readers are almost certain to be put off, unless they're willing to stand up and go toe-to-toe with Jillette. Jane Austen, it ain't.

I've read a fair amount of Jillette's work, and I'm pretty sympathetic to many of his ideas. But I'd be delighted to go a few rounds with him on the ideas in Sock. An author who puts himself on the line that way and expects the reader to push back is a rare and brave thing indeed.

The price of bravery is that not everything works. There are a lot of pop culture references that feel contrived to me, which isn't helped by the rate they occur. Ending each paragraph with a song lyric quickly gets old - though there are several that immediately connect. If you find his writing style grating, it'll grate the whole way. But there are some fine observations and interesting ideas in here, put forth with the daring and commitment of a blind heliskier.

Recommended. You'll know pretty quickly if it's not for you.

McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, edited by Michael Chabon

This book is good clean fun. Spooky stories by a bunch of talented writers who all have a different take on what's spooky.

Now, I wouldn't look for soul changing works of art here, but there's great joy to be had in watching Daniel Handler play with a locked room mystery and to puzzle out Jason Roberts's eerie “7C.”

If, like me, you whiled away junior hall study hall time reading the short story versions of Twilight Zone episodes, this will be fun for you.

Peace Kills America's Fun New Imperialism, P. J. O'Rourke

This is not O'Rourke's most entertaining book.

There are funny moments, and even some moments of insight to be found here. O'Rourke's a funny guy, and he often sees what others don't, but there's a spark missing.

The formula is familiar: send O'Rourke into the spots where history is happening, and trust him to be amusing and incisive. And he does and is, but this feels like some kind of P. J. O'Rourke's Contractual Obligation Book. In his best writing, there's a sense of adventure and even wonder in his writing. In Peace Kills it feels like he's seen this all before, and wonders why we can't do better.

Though I can't recommend the book, I'm curious what's next for O'Rourke as a writer and journalist. He seems to be at a point where his view of people and his job is changing, and he's a talented enough writer and thinker that I'm curious to see where it takes him. He may simply have misfired and just be back to the old P. J. next time around; or his next book may be something completely new. Either way, I'm interested.

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005, edited by Laura Furman

There seems to have been a change of editor since the last time I picked up an O. Henry collection. I don't know if it's her story choices or the decision to dedicate this round to Chekhov, but I found this collection relatively lifeless. Well, perhaps lifeless is the wrong word. These were all well crafted short stories. One can certainly admire how well everything fits together and what well engineered bits of fiction they are, but only one shows a clear voice and surprised me as a reader. They all build to a clear defining moment in some character's life that isn't predictable, per se, but always has the same feel. I had the impression of reading the work of a bunch of good writers given the same assignment.

The surprise was Sherman Alexie's “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” which wonderfully defies description. A story of a day plucked out of a timeless stream that follows a quest to buy back unlost treasure that's not for sale, “Redeem” does speak with a unique voice. What it says may be deep, comic, or just extant. Despite the jargon and verbal tomfoolery I'm using to describe it, it is utterly without pretension and consequently the most delightful of the stories.

I don't know that the collection is worth buying to have “Redeem,” but I'm very happy to have read it.

Paradise Lost California's Experience, America's Future, Peter Schrag

The estimable Rod Van Meter foisted this on me some time ago, and I've been putting off reading it as a blood-pressure-reducing strategy. But after throwing the Carlin book aside with great force, I was out of things to read.

Schrag's work discusses the sorry state of California's government and of the public services that are delivered by it and how they've been affected by Proposition 13's property tax restructuring and the resultant avalanche of propositions that have put writing the laws of California largely into the ham hands of special interests.

Hmmmm. This review doesn't seem to be going as objectively as I'd hoped.

While Schrag isn't objective about his position, neither is he as impassioned writing it as I was after reading it. Anyone arriving in California can only be stunned by the state of affairs vis-a-vis the ballot proposition system, but Schrag turns a scholar's eye toward the situation. He does an excellent job of connecting cause and effect and tracing the changes to California government of the last couple decades. While he's certainly got a proposition of his own to defend, his scholarship is sound enough to let those who don't agree with him sift their own facts.

If you're at all interested in California government, it's a good primer.


When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops, George Carlin

Well, he hasn't gotten any better.

I've enjoyed the man's work live, but his books drive me insane. Not for the reasons that would presumably please Mr. Carlin, either. His content is completely banal to me and his delivery is bitter, snide, and self-impressed.


A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

This was another one of Bryson's books that made me want to go run off and try one of the things he's poked at. Now, I don't really have the time or the inclination to walk from Georgia to Maine, but for more than a minute I seriously considered trying to find the time. Such is the magic of Mr. Bryson's writing.

To be fair, as a hiker's guide, this is not so good. You pick up a few useful tips – or tips I imagine would be helpful – but that's really not the point. And you don't learn what it's like to try this enormous hike for an average person, either. You get to hear what it's like for Bill Bryson, which is ideal.

Bryson brings his usual starry-eyed optimism to the outset of the project, tempered strongly by his methodical research. Only Bryson would select a set of reports on bear attacks as part of his groundwork. But his readers sort of expect this of him, and I suspect he's unable to prevent this himself.

Most importantly, however, he brings his eye for the telling detail and his skill at writing vividly. He brings both the forest and the endeavor alive in such telling detail that you can't help but be charmed and excited by it. It's a great delight.

Highly Recommended.

Men of Tomorrow, Gerard Jones

Gerard Jones history of the modern comics industry is a lot of fun for anyone who even likes comics, but for fans it's a particular delight.

Jones is himself a comic writer, though the jacket material leaves off his delightful The Trouble with Girls, which also addressed comics' roots in its own way. Relying on mostly oral histories he puts together a riveting history of the emergence of an art form intimately tied to adolescent fantasy and entwined with multimedia merchandising and the seedy side of life from its beginnings.

Men of Tomorrow isn't really about comics as art, though. It's primarily about the personalities involved in creating the multimillion dollar comics/media industry. If you want to know why the funnies are funny, you should talk to Scott McCloud. Jones will tell you how they came to pervade the cultural landscape and create modern licensing.


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